“Ask a Former Drunk” is a five-part advice series running on Tuesdays. Read last week’s installment here.
I am worried (paranoid?) that becoming a non-drinker will become The Thing that defines me. That sobriety will be all I am, or all people associate with me. I don’t want to be a person who talks about their sobriety all the time, like the worst kind of vegan or Crossfitter.
There’s also the small issue that my husband still drinks and truly, genuinely doesn’t think I have a problem, but that I just need to be better about moderating, that I just keep drinking without eating first or not pacing myself or not having waters in between etc etc etc. So I feel like if I told him I am quitting he’d try to convince me I am overreacting. Which maybe I am? But how can I be, when I just said I think I need to quit? If you think you need to quit, what does it matter what other people think, right? But again, I don’t want it to be a Thing with him. Fuck The Thing.
You’ve certainly come to the right person for this. The woman who literally wrote a book about no longer drinking, who talks incessantly about sobriety, who recently bought a T-shirt that reads “Teetotaler”—SURE, let me help you figure out how this won’t define you. Haha, I love this gig.
But wait. Long before I became this person—a person so completely at home with her “former drunk” status that she suggested it for a column name—I was you. At the very least, I was a person terrified that “not drinking” would define me. I didn’t want to be one of those horrible sober people, spouting 12-step cliches and handing out their “sober wisdom” like gluten-free pancake recipes. I’m not sure where I got the idea that sobriety must look like this. Maybe from television, or that movie with Meg Ryan? But being the Sober Girl was hugely threatening to me—probably because I had been the Girl Who Drinks for a long, long time.
Being the Girl Who Drinks was fantastic. I had grown up on the sidelines, a shy and unfashionable child who loved books and music and movies and lived too much in her own head, imagining a life forever beyond her fingertips. Booze was like entry to the world’s coolest dance party—and thanks to alcohol, I might actually dance. Men liked women who drank. Women liked to drink with other women. How did life get so easy?
Because I loved this party so much, I disliked anything that threatened to bring it to an end. In college, I was the one blocking my friend at the door as she attempted a discreet exit. I would hold her hand, lather her up with praise and guilt, like she simply HAD to stay, because we couldn’t POSSIBLY keep this party going without her. Your letter mentions vegans and Crossfitters, but I’ve never met anyone with half the evangelical zeal of a drunk at 1 a.m. Come awwwn, one more drink. Come awwwn, you don’t have to wake up THAT early. This strong-arming was partly selfish, because I didn’t want anyone else’s rational decision to call into relief my own questionable ones, and partly a well-meaning effort to spread joy and happiness. Alcohol was a 100-proof bottle of belonging. I wanted everyone to take a shot.
In my 20s, whenever I mused out loud about whether or not I had a problem, my friends usually batted it away. By then, convincing other people they did not have a drinking problem was protocol. Someone would say, “I think I need to quit,” and the answer was simple call-and-response: No way, you’re fine. It was like telling your friend she didn’t look fat in that dress. I doubt anyone would have been so casual if I’d said, “I wonder if I use too much heroin.” I cannot imagine my friends—who grew up to be lawyers, and journalists, and lawyers, and lawyers—saying things like, “But what if you just did heroin on the weekends?” Or, “You really just need better product.” But heroin is darkness and filthy mattresses in squalid hotel rooms, and alcohol is celebration and party streamers descending from the ceiling (or so the movies say). Heroin is estrangement, and alcohol is inclusion. Nobody wants you to 86 yourself from that glittering party, even when you might be thinking it’s time to go. There is something mafia-like about drinkers. Every time you try to leave—they pull you back in.
Figuring out if you have a drinking problem is tricky enough on your own, but it’s particularly thorny in the context of a relationship, which brings me to the situation with your husband. I don’t know exactly why YOU think you have a problem, and your husband does not, so I’ll have to guess. Maybe you’re the kind of worried (paranoid?) person who diagnoses herself with lupus from two sentences on the internet, and your husband is accustomed to puncturing these anxieties. Maybe your husband drinks as much or more as you, and is therefore disinclined to label your consumption “a problem.” Maybe your husband is simply obeying the drinker’s protocol, which says that everybody drinks too much sometimes and you’re fine. You’re fine! But this tension you describe—in which one person identifies a drinking problem, and another waves it away—is so common, and complicated, that it deserves special attention. When we clink glasses with the people we love, the role between protector and conspirator becomes blurry.
In my late 20s, I lived with a guy who enjoyed elaborate dinner parties, late nights at the bar, and Tom Waits. We spent evenings perched at the window of his apartment chain-smoking while we drank bottles—yes, bottles—of wine. I never felt better about our connection than when we were drinking. Sober, I was plagued with an anxiety that something was off, a pretty dress that never quite fit. Drinking helped me bat away all those anxieties. I would sink into my chair with two glasses of wine trickling through my bloodstream, and think, “Why was I so worried? We’re fine.” A friend’s husband told her once that she never loved him more than when she had two glasses of wine in her, and boy do I understand. I have never loved anything—not that boyfriend, not myself, and not the doomed and godforsaken world—like I did when I had two glasses of wine in me.
I never stopped at two drinks, though. That was the problem.
He and I drank a lot. Everyone we knew drank a lot, but we definitely gave them all a run. And drinking became a Thing between us, to use your terminology. I spilled my beer. I tripped down stairs. I was no longer simply the Girl Who Drinks. I was becoming the Girl Who Falls Off Her Barstool and the Girl Who Yells in the Middle of the Street and the Girl Who Twists Her Knee Falling in a Club, and what does a loving partner do in this situation? Is the loving thing to ignore this problem, and follow drinker’s protocol, or to pay attention? He did both. He knew I beat myself up over my failings. He knew how dangerously self-punishing I could be. Still, one afternoon, after a weekend get-away with friends where I had gotten so wasted I walked into a sliding glass door, among other hijinks, my boyfriend told me in a low voice that I had embarrassed him. I wasn’t sure who I hated more in that moment: Him or me.
My boyfriend was a problem solver. I was more of a “dwell endlessly on your own mistakes” stripe of person, but he liked an action plan. A few days later, we sat across from each other on his impractical Victorian velvet couch and talked about how to avoid these unfortunate situations. What if I drank a glass of water between each cocktail? What if I always made sure to eat beforehand? He never used the words “drinking problem.” He said things like, “I just wish you could drink like normal people,” and because that’s exactly what I wanted, our purposes felt aligned.
I tried. Mary, you need to know how much I tried. I would go to the bar swearing I’d only have a drink, two drinks tops, but then I’d finish my second drink, and NO WAY was I tapping out now. Alcohol was an ignition switch in my blood stream. Alcohol made me feel whole and perfect and right. And after drinking two glasses I can assure you that I wanted nothing more in the world than two more.
One of the red flags for alcoholism is something called “the phenomenon of craving”—it means drinking alcohol induces the craving for more alcohol, which is part of why people like me find it so hopeless to moderate. Once I got going, I found it very hard, if not impossible, to hold myself to reasonable limits. I would scour the cabinets after the keg floated. I would beg the clerk closing the store to pleeeease let us in we’ll be quick. And I would certain and for damn sure ignore the irritated gaze of my boyfriend as I ordered a third glass, or a seventh.
I suspected I needed to quit. But I didn’t want to be one of those horrible sober people, like I told you. And if I gave up alcohol, what would my boyfriend and I DO together? It’s not like HE was going to quit drinking. I couldn’t stand the idea of him at the bar, knocking back whiskey after whiskey while I sat at home watching “Project Runway.” I couldn’t stand the idea of going to a nice dinner and watching him savor a glass of Shiraz while I sucked down my 37th Diet Coke. We had sober nights together, but they were BORING. All the old anxieties about fundamental incompatibility flared up, and I remember making a calculation that was something along these lines: If I quit drinking, we’re going to break up, so I’ll just keep drinking, and maybe I can make this work.
Then he broke up with me. So much for that plan.
I’ve heard so many stories about couples that drink together. Sometimes the alcohol is what keeps them bonded, and sometimes the alcohol is what tears them apart. (Often both.) It’s hard to see exactly how the alcohol is functioning until you remove it, and examine the relationship on its own terms. I wonder if this is what your husband fears — that removing alcohol will disrupt a dynamic that feels cozy to him. These are not low stakes. I’ve seen sobriety end marriages, although I’ve also seen sobriety save marriages. It sounds like quitting drinking will make YOU happier, but it will make HIM less happy. That’s tough. Although I would gently suggest that neither you nor your husband really have any idea what removing alcohol from your life will do. You are operating on assumptions and Hollywood stereotypes and fear, like most humans when confronted with change. I swear half my conversations with drinkers are like, “I have to change!” and the other half are like, “I don’t want to change!” And sometimes the same person is saying both.
You said your husband doesn’t think you have a drinking problem. I wonder if your husband knows how subtle and insidious a drinking problem can be. It’s not all Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. (That guy REALLY needed to drink more water.) You don’t even have to be the Girl Who Falls Down the Stairs. You can be the Girl Who Is Slowly and Irrevocably Losing Herself. And here’s the thing: Wherever your drinking falls on the spectrum doesn’t actually matter if you want something different.
A very wise friend says that we all spend way too much time wondering if we match some ever-shifting and highly subjective diagnostic, and instead of asking “Do I have a drinking problem?” or “Am I an alcoholic?,” the question we should be asking is: Would my life be better without alcohol? If the answer is yes, DO IT. If the answer is maybe, TRY IT. We make it such a Thing, but it doesn’t have to be that way. You realize this is not a final sale, yes? You can experiment. You can discover what happens.
I’m not married, but if I am lucky enough to find that kind of deeply committed partnership, I hope my marriage becomes a foundation of growth, not stasis. I want someone who can support me to be the best person I can be, even if that evolution makes him slightly uncomfortable. In my experience, everything worth doing has made me, and someone I love, slightly uncomfortable. Yes, your marriage might get more challenging if you quit drinking. But what if it also got better?
For a long time, I couldn’t imagine romance without alcohol at the center of the table. Some of my favorite romantic memories involve a cocktail on some patio, the two of us holding hands as the sun sinks beneath the horizon. That exquisite moment of connection. What I have found is that my favorite romantic memories now involve sitting with a man inside some other exquisite moment of connection, and everything is just like it’s always been in romantic moments but there is no alcohol, and I don’t even miss it. Can you believe that? The moment of connection is so exquisite I don’t NEED anything else. I’m not saying drinking with your partner isn’t amazing. I’m saying being with your partner should be amazing, regardless.
The decision of what to drink, and how, is yours to make. I think you know that. And I know it’s popular for me to say you shouldn’t care what anyone thinks about that decision, not even your husband, but I don’t find that advice very realistic. At least I’ve never made it work in my life. The only time I really, truly “gave zero fucks” about what anyone thought was when I was wasted, and that didn’t work out so great for me. No, I care enormously. I’m built that way. The trick is to care, and to take in other perspectives, but not to let those opinions and ideas override what you know, in your gut, to be the right answer.
I think you and your husband should sit down and talk about this. My suggestion to him, if he’s reading this, is that he not respond by dismantling your perceived drinking problem, but that he listen to what’s got you feeling beat up by the sauce. It’s a human tendency to deflect another person’s pain.That didn’t hurt you. It’s no big deal. Why are you so upset? I think people do this for selfish reasons, like they don’t want to deal with it, and I think they do this for loving reasons, like they don’t want you to feel bad. But when we bat away someone else’s real anxieties, we lose the chance to learn. What feels like a drinking problem to you may not feel like a drinking problem to him. It’s OK to have different tolerances. You are different people. A drinking problem is not a fixed point on the horizon.
I wonder if your husband, too, is worried that you are going to be one of those horrible sober people. Oh, the horrible sober people, haunting the landscape with their cans of La Croix and their sharp and pointy 12 steps! Who has given the sober people this terrible reputation? (For that matter, how did Crossfitters and vegans get such a bad rap? I’ve known several, and none has ever tried to convert me, or been anything but enthusiastic about something that works for them.)
But I was scared of being sober, too. I went to a few meetings, and the first sober women I met kinda freaked me out, and I now realize this is like going to a new country, getting off a plane, and declaring the entire population to be like the two women you meet at baggage claim. Eventually, I met sober women I clicked with immediately. They were funny, and sensitive, and overthinking. (They were the Girls Who Drank.) A sober life is as diverse and varied as a drinking life. There is no ONE WAY to do it. I know a few sober people who spread their wisdom around like gluten-free pancake recipes—and I’m pretty sure I am one of them, whoops—but I know so many who never say a word about drinking. You could hang out with them for ages and never know this one thing used to define them.
You say you’re worried that non-drinking will be all people associate with you, but that fear, for me, was far more potent when I was drinking. By the end, drinking had overtaken my identity. I wrote about drinking, and I made jokes about my drinking, and I was pretty much the embodiment of the woman whose Facebook profile photo is a martini glass hoisted into the frame, obscuring her face. I see this now as a way to evade the harder questions of adulthood: Who was I without alcohol? What did I want? Other questions were easier to answer: What did my friends want, or what did some guy want, or what made other people laugh and feel at home? But the question of who I was behind that martini glass, and what I was searching for in the world—those were the questions that mattered.
In the years after I quit drinking, I began to answer them. Sobriety reminded me of parts of my personality I’d forgotten about in all those years of overriding my own instincts and fears with the drink. I remembered how shy I could be. I remembered how I loved to read in quiet places. In time, I also remembered how much I loved people, and conversation, and connection. I’m an introvert AND an extrovert, sometimes in the SAME DAY. I am so much more than the Girl Who Drinks. I’m a talker. I’m a listener. I’m a crier. I’m a wisecracker. How foolish to think any of us would be defined entirely by one part of our identity, whether it’s how we drink, or how we vote, or who we love. A human life is so much richer than that.
Sobriety does not have to be a suffocating identity. But it can be the release from one.
Sarah Hepola is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget,” now out in paperback. Follow her on Twitter (@sarahhepola) and Instagram (@thesarahhepolaexperience).
Illustration by Angelica Alzona