Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Ask a Former Drunk: How Do You Start Sobriety?

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This is the final installment of “Ask a Former Drunk.” Read the previous installment here and the entire archive here.

I have just one question. The first day, the first minute, the first time, how did you not? How did you say no to that first drink you usually had? On that first day, on that minute, that first time?

I don’t understand how to start.



I don’t understand how to start anything. The way I am built, I would stand on a diving board for 10 years, wondering how to get myself in the water. I’m an over-thinker who wants to defuse any risk before I take it. But as anyone who has stood on a diving board for longer than two minutes knows, the water starts to make a persuasive case for itself. How do you get in the water? You get in the water. It’s really that simple.

Of course, quitting drinking is not simple. It might be the hardest thing I’ve ever done—which simultaneously tells you something about the ease of my life, and my full-throated love for booze. By the time I reached my early 30s, alcohol was threaded through nearly every part of my existence. I drank red wine at night while I was working on stories, and I drank beer and vodka on the weekends, to celebrate not working. I drank with people, to make it more fun, and I drank by myself, to make it less lonely. But my body was getting tired. I wanted the booze to chase away the sadness but I ended up with shame and guilt instead. There were sexual humiliations, and social humiliations, and private humiliations. Drinking on top of that was like spotting a fire in your house, and throwing oily dishrags on the pile.

So I had to quit drinking. But like you, J., I had no idea how to start. Drinking wasn’t merely a habit for me. It was an identity. Central to my need for the drink was the suspicion that without it, I was not enough. Who would want to hang out with me if I didn’t drink? Who would want to date me? So I kept postponing the day when I would be forced to make that rearrangement. Sometimes, when I was wasted, I left notes to myself to remind a more rational, sober me why I needed to quit. One night, I tore a piece of paper out of a lined notebook and wrote with a fat black Sharpie, “IT DOESN’T WORK ANYMORE,” and I taped it crookedly on the blank wall behind the desk where I placed my computer. Over the next days, I wondered: WHAT doesn’t work anymore? Drinking away the sadness? Swearing you’re going to cut down? Making excuses for your own life? The answer was yes, all of it.

But any time I thought seriously about giving up alcohol, it’s like my entire future began to quake and tremble. How was I going to get through Christmas without booze? How was I going to get through New Year’s? I was obsessed with the notion that I needed to drink at my wedding, despite the fact that a) I had no boyfriend at the time, and b) I seriously doubt I’ll have a traditional wedding. So every time I tried to quit, I usually ended up taking it back a few days later. Because after New Year’s comes Valentine’s Day, and after Valentine’s Day comes summer, and after summer is another Christmas, and there is NO WAY I can stay sober for all those holidays. Fuck it, I would think. This is impossible.

One of the brilliant concepts of AA is the notion of “one day at a time.” Probably like me, you hate cliches. Using them, living by them, becoming them. So the words “one day at a time” might make you cringe, because they sound like something framed in an old person’s bathroom, the words written in unsophisticated cursive and laid over a portrait of a tangerine sunset. Part of being young is being in thrall to cleverness, so anything with the whiff of a Hallmark card tends to make us recoil. Never mind that so much beauty and joy in the world rises and falls on the backs of cliches. I love you. Help me. I’m sorry. Never mind what a tired cliche it is, to be another young person drinking their promise away, trying to mold themselves into the heroes who either died or got sober long ago. Look, I get it: Cliches suck. But understand this: Sometimes cliches work.

Not too long ago, I heard Marc Maron on Fresh Air, and he was talking about the concept of “one day at a time”:

As trite as it may seem, it’s a very powerful idea if you tend to be filled with panic or dread or you’re projecting a future that is horrible and you don’t know how you’re gonna stay sober in a week or two weeks or a year or whatever. To pound it into your head that all you have is today. This whole “one day at a time” business is a very sound and practical way to look at life because it keeps you in the present.

Panic. Dread. I don’t know about you, J., but those were two of my trustiest companions, which is part of why I always needed Patron and Stella Artois at my side. My mind was a catastrophe generator: But what about this, or that, or the other thing? “One day at a time” shut down the machine. All I had to do was stay sober for a day. That’s it. You can stay sober for a day, right? A day is 24 hours. You can do ANYTHING for 24 hours—as evidenced by the long-standing tradition of going home for Thanksgiving.

So I quit for a day, and then I quit the next day, and then I quit for another day, and eventually I had a whole string of days piled up together. Six years can pass this way. I know.

Right, right, I make it sound so easy, and you and I both know it’s not. Besides, maybe you’re not even worried about the future yet. Maybe you are stuck here, in the present, in the tiny infinitesimal now. Your letter asks: “The first day, the first minute, the first time, how did you not?” I asked that question, too. More specifically I asked questions like: How do you get home from work without slipping into the liquor store? How do you go to dinner with a friend and tell the waiter, “No, I’m not having anything to drink”? How do you show up to a raging party and ONLY DRINK SELTZER? How do you stay sober in a bar, a cool retro cocktail lounge, a crowded dance party, or hell—in an empty house?

I had to practice quitting for a while. Some people call this “relapse,” but we might also call it “preparation.” I would say to a friend, “I’m going to quit drinking,” and they would say, “Good for you.” And I would enjoy three gorgeous, hangover-free days of passing the liquor store in triumph. So I knew it wasn’t impossible. The fourth day, though, the pressure would build up again. I don’t know why I could only last for 72 hours, but I swear it’s like some timer went off inside my addicted brain, and whatever calm and resolve I’d managed to build up in three days would be replaced by a gaping hole that could only be filled with a bottle of Grenache. Sometimes I would quit one morning, and start that afternoon. Sometimes I would quit right before I entered a bar, and start right after I got inside.

This routine went on for a while. Here is where my diving board metaphor breaks down, because you can’t jump off a diving board, hit the cold water with your toes, and reverse-thrust back onto the board again—but that would be a very accurate GIF illustration of about two years of my life. Quit drinking, take it back. Quit drinking, change mind. Quit drinking, experience powerful epiphany, then find yourself back up there on the board again, skeptical and pacing. Did I HAVE to jump off the board? Couldn’t I live here for a while, in this anxious, self-devouring place between choice and action? I have so much admiration for people who can quit one day and be done with it. I was not one of them.

I had to try everything else. Juice cleanses, yoga, more leafy greens. I had to read every theory on addiction—is it a disease, a response to loneliness?—and then I had to get very, very confused, which was of course another excuse to start drinking again. I guess I’m so used to solving problems with my mind that I didn’t realize all I was doing was making MORE problems. I read addiction memoirs, and listened to interviews, and I was startled to discover how many smart, talented writers had given up booze. David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr, David Carr, David Sedaris, Stephen King. And each time I heard one of them talk about quitting, it would give me a tiny bit more courage. The seed of an idea: If they could do it, I could do it.

Recently, I was reading The Argonauts, a book about gender and love that I highly recommend, and the author Maggie Nelson (sober) makes this observation about aspiring writers who seek her advice: “People seem hungry, above all else, for permission, and a guarantee against bad consequences. The first, I try to give; the second is beyond my power.”

That’s exactly true for people with drinking problems, too. We want permission, and we want guaranteed success. So let me give you permission to quit, J. Maybe you don’t need it, but I did—because I was scared I would fail, or that I wouldn’t do it right. Like I said before, it all seemed so impossible. But I realize now that it only seemed impossible because I hadn’t done it yet. This is true of anything scary, and worth doing: Writing a book, having a child, falling in love. You will not know how to do it until you’ve done it — which is the most screamingly obvious thing in the world to everyone except the person standing, in panic and dread, on the diving board.

I, too, wanted a guarantee against bad consequences—and it kept me stuck up there even longer. The way I figured it: If I was going to do a difficult thing like give up drinking, which would require extended periods of craving and the confrontation of my soul’s deepest fears—at least give me an assurance of some kind, right? Put Oscar Isaac on the other side to be my boyfriend or something. I didn’t want to do this challenging thing, and then find out my life was going to be WORSE. I didn’t want to do this challenging thing, and discover it was a MISTAKE. We all want a money-back guarantee, but if that were possible, such actions would not be called “risks.” They could be called “purchases.” Risks are terrifying because they might not pay off. Risks are worth taking because they actually might.

I watched other people quit drinking. You should do this, too. I saw them struggle through the first foggy months and settle into something that looked more like their truer selves. I found these people in AA, but you can also find them in online communities like Hello Sunday Morning and Hip Sobriety, and even groups on Reddit, I’m told. You can find people like that in the comments to these columns.

Have you read the comments on these columns yet? You must. They have floored me, and each week I think they can’t get better, and each week they do. People sharing honestly and openly about their struggles with alcohol—why they quit, why they won’t quit, why they want to quit. I’m such a cynic about the Internet. I would have told you a comments section with this kind of depth and genuine humanity was impossible, which, clearly, means I don’t understand that word. It just hadn’t occurred to me the most important part of this column would be the part I didn’t write: All these people, talking to each other, listening to one another, allowing themselves—even under the anonymous guise of the Internet—to be seen. Discovering that they are not alone.

Back when I was still drinking, and I didn’t know how to stop, I would ask sober people how they did it. They told me their tricks, and I nodded, and for the briefest moment I would think perhaps I’d been saved, but then I would start drinking again a day, a week later. Looking back I can see I was not looking for advice, per se, so much as I was looking for hope. You did it, right? You don’t regret it, right? I wanted the reminder that it COULD be done, even though it had not yet been done by me.

So what I can tell you, J., is that I was standing out there on the teetering edge of the diving board for a very long time. I did not trust the water to be warm. I did not trust gravity to do the hard work. I was shivering. I was inert. I was in so much pain.

You ask me: “The first day, the first minute, the first time, how did you not?” You just don’t.

You ask: “On that first day, on that minute, that first time?” You just don’t, my friend.

You smash all the bottles. You stay out of the bar. You check into a rehab. You stay with a sweet, safe couple who will watch The Poseidon Adventure and eat pizza on the couch with you. You line your walls with pints of Haagen-Dazs, and you cuddle up with a big orange cat who keeps all your secrets.

The point is: You stop THINKING about it. As long as you stand there, wondering how on earth it can be done and what about my birthday and I wonder what Tequiza tastes like do you think it’s really good—you will stay stuck. You will put it off till tomorrow, and then tomorrow you will put it off again. This is one-day-at-a-time in the opposite direction, and it is the way of rusted dreams and a desert in your mouth. You can lose six years this way. I know.

So the better solution is to jump. You jump because whatever the water is going to feel like, it’s got to be better than this. You jump because the body gets tired and slack. You jump because maybe, and who knows, and why not. You jump because not jumping will get so mind-numbingly boring that even YOU will get tired of hearing yourself talk about it.

I cannot give you any more wisdom that this: One day, I jumped.

You can, too.

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