Everyone has a unique and complex relationship with their vices, coping mechanisms and relaxation methods. In the case of alcohol, that nuance is often missed in favor of labels. In an effort to unpack the shades of gray, I asked one man, who is around one year sober, about his experience leading up to and following his decision to stop drinking. Below, his anonymous, as-told-to story.
I was very new-age Christian in high school, very Mandy Moore in Saved. But some of my friends were party kids so, even though I didn’t drink myself, I was definitely around it a lot. When I turned 18, that changed.
My freshman year of college, I had a hard time mentally. I didn’t know anyone and felt really lonely. I started drinking regularly to escape that. I would pre-game with a case of beer; my tolerance was so high. Over the course of college, my social life improved and I made many friends I’m still close with today, but I was drinking a lot and often. Looking back, my habits were likely problematic, but unfortunately, that was normalized in my college setting.
One night in college, I ended up at the hospital for alcohol poisoning. That was scary. After that, I took a month off. I took another break from drinking post-college too, after I’d been living in New York for a year and going pretty hard. At the time, I said I wanted to “level-set,” but I think I also wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. There’s a huge perception that, as long as you can stop drinking, you’re fine — but of course it’s much more layered than that. In hindsight, I was probably in denial: “I don’t have a problem, watch me.”
Other than those times, I partied pretty consistently throughout my twenties. I’m 29 now.
Last summer, I started developing bits that were easier to identify as unhealthy. I was living by myself for the first time and, without the sort of behavior moderation that automatically comes with roommates, I was free to do things I wouldn’t have done before.
I’d stay out pretty late with my friends — until 4 or 5 a.m. — and wake up in the mornings still drunk. Since I was alone and my judgement was impaired, I’d keep drinking. That, for me, was one of my major problems: continuing to drink the next day. It would turn into a bender and then a shame-spiral, but it was easy to keep doing it. It was just Sunday and I could kind of waste a whole day without many consequences. That loss of control was scary, because I never planned on doing that. I never thought on Thursday, “Oh I’m going to wake up on Sunday and keep drinking all day by myself in my apartment,” but that’s often what would happen.
When I was out, that need to keep drinking and assuming I needed to be drunker also wasn’t good. The normalization of that kind of behavior, at least around New York, made those patterns easier for me to brush off. Everyone was drinking a lot and saying they wanted a drink and using alcohol to feel better. It was easy to convince myself I didn’t have a problem.
Before last summer, I always had a project to focus on: Getting a job I liked, finding fulfillment, living on my own. There were always these milestones I was working toward. Then all of a sudden, I had a job I really enjoyed, a great network of friends, an active social life, a place of my own. I thought I should have felt happy, but instead I felt aimless, like I didn’t know how to measure my existence without check marks. I was dealing with feelings of emptiness. I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life. I was self-medicating.
There was one particularly bad weekend. It got some of my friends involved. At that point, I couldn’t avoid confronting my habits anymore. It was a major wake-up call. After that, it took about a week for me to recover and accept that I wanted to make a bigger change.
My parents both have very murky relationships with alcohol. They are social people who like to go out, and when they get drunk there can be a lot of drama. I remember them going to alcohol counseling when I was in elementary school and then going through a three-year phase where they only allowed themselves two drinks each. It was this strict rule, and it involved a lot of score-keeping and tension. It was a weird dynamic to observe as a kid. When I got older they went through a phase of not drinking at all, but that ended.
I don’t label them as anything. They are functional human beings and they make the choices they want to make. I try not to judge, but I do think their drinking impacted me. When I first read about children of alcoholics and the patterns of behavior they often exhibit, it was like a light turned on: I prioritize other people’s needs and responses over my own experiences, I have a high need for control, I often swapped roles with my own parents as a kid, that kind of thing.
Watching my parents go through all those phases with alcohol — watching them try to find ways to control their drinking without stopping — left a sour taste in my mouth. When I hit that low last year, I knew that I needed it to be all or nothing. I wasn’t interested in mimicking their monitored approach. I didn’t make a promise that I’d never drink again, but I knew I wanted to stop drinking for the foreseeable future. I wanted the choice to feel permanent enough that starting again would require a discussion with the people in my life.
When I made the decision, my closest friends and parents were all very involved. Asking for support was a very humbling experience. Letting them in on the whole situation, being very open and leaning on them for help, really strengthened those relationships in a surprising way. It made me feel like this was a really positive change from the jump. It never felt like a punishment or a sentence.
I’m hesitant to say that stopping drinking “hasn’t been challenging,” because the transition wasn’t easy, but it never felt insurmountable. I’ve never questioned the decision, battled impulses or struggled to stick with it. I’ve been lucky to feel supported.
It’s interesting, I was cleaning out my fridge the other night and noticed there were two beers in there. They’ve been there since last summer and it hasn’t even crossed my mind to drink them. Whenever I’ve noticed them and gone to throw them out, I’ve thought, “Well, it’s nice to have in case somebody stops over.” It’s surprising to me that stopping the physical act, the temptation, has been such a non-issue.
I was nervous about my social life and how people in my life would feel, but that’s also been easier than expected. My social life is still very active. I probably go out a little less than I used to, but I’m still out until 3 a.m. in Hell’s Kitchen sometimes — and it’s more fun now, because I remember everything! Maybe this sounds silly but, I’ve been surprised and heartened to realize that I’m still fun, and still have fun, when I’m not drinking.
On a very general level, I feel more stable, happier, more comfortable in my own skin and much better about my decisions than I have in a long time. The stability part has been big. Before, I was trapped in this cycle of getting really drunk over the weekend, shame-spiraling Sunday through Tuesday, then slogging through Wednesday and Thursday to get to the weekend to start it all over again. Getting out of that has been really beneficial for me.
I’ve found a confidence in myself that I’ve never had before. I’m more willing to step up and into the more challenging parts of my life. I’ve had a lot of uncomfortable conversations with my parents and with friends that I’d have never had before. Even this interview — being vulnerable while sober — it’s tough but in a good way. It feels big in terms of personal growth. I think I subconsciously believed I was incapable of letting my guard down without alcohol. Knowing that I can, that I’m more capable than I thought, makes the future feel bright.
A new way of socializing
“Grabbing a drink” is synonymous with “getting together” in our culture, and those waters can still be hard to navigate, but it never ends up mattering as much as it does in my head. I usually drink a seltzer and it doesn’t come up. People don’t care.
I get a lot less pressure to drink than I expected. I don’t get a lot of, “Why not?!” or “Come on!” That might be because I’m a little bit past that age. I think there’s a lot more peer pressure to drink in your early and mid-twenties. That said, a lot of people do feel very entitled to know why I’m choosing to not drink. Maybe it’s because of the normalized culture around drinking — because isn’t that kind of personal? — but it’s been good practice to let go and trust myself to respond according to the context. As a control-freak, that kind of trust in myself has been big.
Dating has been more fun that I thought it would be. After I came out as gay in my early twenties, I relied on alcohol a lot in romantic or sexual encounters. Going through many of these experiences sober for the first time has been really exciting. I do make a concerted effort to be super transparent from the start that I don’t drink, which can feel weird because it’s not how I define myself, but just from an expectation standpoint, I think people want to know. And it’s been totally fine. I’ll either meet someone at a bar and not drink or we’ll opt to do something different, which has been fun, too. I went on a date recently where we went to spin and got juices after, and another where we just walked the High Line and got popsicles.
I’ve definitely had some people be less-than-enthusiastic about that fact that I don’t drink, which is also fine. If someone has a big problem with it, neither of us want to suffer through that dynamic, so I understand.
I’m trying to not be so black and white about things in my life, or feel the need to label something as forever. For now, this feels really right and good. If that changes, I’ll tackle that when I get there. There’s something freeing about taking life one day at a time.
People have asked me if I would label myself as an alcoholic, but I don’t think labels in this situation feel useful. I have a complicated relationship with alcohol and I choose not to drink. I think culturally, we’re more comfortable with labels, with two stark modes of either being an alcoholic or being a person who drinks. It creates a false binary. For one, it makes people nervous to monitor their drinking or make tweaks in their habits because they worry that makes them an alcoholic. For two — and this was true in my case — I used the fact that I didn’t exhibit all the behaviors of a cliché “alcoholic” as evidence that I was just the latter: a person who drank. But there’s a lot of gray area. It’s a relationship with a substance. It’s complex and has a lot of dimensions and aspects and it’s up to people to individually explore.
The other day my therapist asked me if I considered sobriety part of my identity or just a daily decision I make, and I think it’s between the two. “Gay man,” for instance, feels like a much bigger part of my identity than “sober person.” But not drinking is definitely important to me. It’s something I really value. I hold the decision with some esteem and regard, because it changed my life.
If you’re suffering from an addiction of any kind, here is a list of hotlines that can help right now.