Before I quit drinking, my go-to order was a dirty vodka martini with extra olives. I loved the way the cold, salty mix tasted as it warmed my body and quieted my mind. What I didn’t love was what happened next: one drink would turn into more drinks, and the next day I would wake up with a splitting headache, head-to-toe nausea, and an unwavering emotional hangover.
So a year and a half ago, I said goodbye to alcohol. At first, it was unsettling. I had to relearn how to do ordinary things like dance at weddings, celebrate birthdays and go on first dates without liquid courage. But without the hangovers, I finally got to do the thing that every self-help book has called for since the beginning of time: take actual care of myself. I put dating on the backburner, started meditating, and went on my dream trip to Morocco to explore what was left of the Moroccan-Jewish community my great-grandparents, grandparents, and father had been born into. Standing in the Casablanca synagogue where my grandparents were married, I felt connected to something much bigger than myself. I knew that when I was drinking, this type of spiritual experience would never have been possible.
My weekends—formerly a montage of cancelled plans, naps on my couch, and greasy food deliveries—also started getting fuller. I found myself waking up before 9AM on Saturdays, headache-free and ready to take on the day. I spent quality time with old friends, started building out the adult wardrobe I’d been meaning to cultivate for years, and exercised regularly, barely giving myself time to breathe or pee in between plans and projects. I felt like I was making up for lost time, filling in the space I had wasted when I was drinking.
On my one-year sober anniversary, I decided I had finally gotten the hang of this thing called “a present life.” I started a new job and threw myself into challenging projects. I felt productive, focused and in control. And then, something utterly unexpected and exciting happened: I met someone.
“There’s just one thing,” our mutual friend explained when she first broached the subject of a set-up. “He technically lives in LA. But he’s in New York for a couple of weeks every month for work!” I mulled it over for a second before shrugging. “I’m honestly so busy… A part-time boyfriend is probably all I can handle with my schedule, anyway!” I said, half-joking, as I rushed off to my next set of Sunday plans.
But the joke was on me. He was kind, warm, handsome, and the most open communicator I had ever met, curious to learn more about my sobriety, spiritual life, and dreams. We fell in love faster than I was comfortable admitting at first, and it turned out he was the last person I wanted living in a different timezone. When we were together, I didn’t even want him in a different room. My jam-packed schedule started to show some cracks, making space for things like spontaneous weekend getaways and late-night phone conversations.
I may have gotten used to my sober life as a single professional, but falling in love without alcohol as my wingwoman posed a number of new challenges. On our third date, I glanced longingly at the couple sitting a few tables away, sharing a bottle of wine. I didn’t actually want wine: I knew that, for me, drinking wine meant anxiety and a throbbing headache the next morning. Instead, I wanted the socially constructed ideal that every romantic comedy had drilled into me: a bottle of red wine over candlelight, fingers brushing as we clinked glasses. But as soon as I realized that our fingers still brushed and our glasses still clinked (mine just filled with seltzer), I became that much more comfortable with the exhausting exhilaration of falling in love in total present sobriety.
Then one night over dinner a couple of months later, my now-boyfriend made a joke. “You don’t want these olives, right?” He gestured to his empty martini glass, two vodka-soaked olives sitting untouched at the bottom. He was genuinely kidding, already signaling for the waiter to clear our table and bring over the check, and I liked that he felt he could joke about my sobriety; that he didn’t think it was weird, and was actually comfortable enough to not tiptoe around it. The whole exchange lasted a few seconds: him joking, me chuckling and shaking my head no, the waiter whisking the glass off the table.
And yet, the next day, I couldn’t stop thinking about the olives. About what that same moment would have looked like had I leaned over and grabbed them, popping both in my mouth at once. The interaction gave me no desire to drink, but I still judged myself the next day for fixating on them. Since giving up alcohol, I had been making mini amends to the universe to avoid being tempted to fall back into old behaviors. If I was productive in every spare second, I reasoned, it would not only make up for all those weekends spent on my couch being a completely useless member of society, but also protect me from ever being tempted to consume alcohol again. Whether it was delusion, magical thinking, or rooted in reality, my drive to ensure every moment was productive had made me feel safe.
Now, I had to face the facts: the life I had carefully constructed over the last year and a half had been obliterated. But it was also changed for the better: in being thrust out of my calendar’s protective cocoon, I had fallen into a loving pair of arms. My old, hyper-programmed life may have been thrown on its head, but in its place was a fuller one, with space for even better things. Things like love, deeper self-knowledge, and enough time to pee in between plans. And while giving up my regimented day-to-day had filled me with a lot of initial fear, I realized that my calendar wasn’t what was holding my life together. Because when I loosened the seams of my tightly woven life and made space for another human, my life didn’t fall apart: it just got bigger.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.