Yesterday found me standing in my husband’s shed with rage coursing through me. I needed to inflate the truck’s leaky tire so I could drive out to the jetty and get in a surf before the swell doubled in size again, but the air compressor was nowhere to be found in the truck or in the house, so I steeled myself and stepped into the outbuilding that functions as storage, weight room and woodshop – except it doesn’t have enough room to serve all three purposes, so what it truly is, is a dysfunctional space overwhelmed by piles and nearly impossible to navigate. As a believer that one should not have more things than room in which to properly store them, I try to avoid entering the shed to preserve my mental health (and marriage). But my search took me there, hence the fury that immediately consumed me upon stepping inside. What kind of people live like this?
But this is not about the compromises we make to maintain relationships with those we love. This is about how, in the midst of my search/raging, I noticed the box of booze I’d carried out to the shed six months ago. A couple cans of hard kombucha, half a bottle of mezcal, both sweet vermouth (for Manhattans) and dry (for martinis), a biting ginger liqueur a friend had left behind at the only summer party we’d had, a Friday night birthday gathering during that brief moment between vaccines and the Delta variant when having (vaccinated) friends over inside and unmasked felt fine – fine enough that we celebrated until nearly 4 a.m. At some point I ordered more whisky from BevMo, pushed aside furniture so we’d have room to dance and, in my case, do cartwheels.
It was a blast. But my husband and I were due at a long-anticipated brunch the next day, the same day at this point, and I spent that beautiful outdoor brunch, hosted by one of my best friends, very far from my own best, drinking beer to stave off the consequences of the night before and struggling to make conversation with these people I’d been aching to see for months. I spent the next day, a Sunday, in bed reading about the pleasures of sobriety in a memoir by Catherine Gray, one of several such books I’d ordered during a previous morning of regret.
The next day, I boxed up booze, lugged it out to the shed and began what has turned into a six-month pause from drinking.
This is not my first break from alcohol, but it’s the longest by far. I’ve done 30 days twice, one for real and once imperfectly. After a particularly rotten scene at a 2016 Halloween party, I stopped all the way through the November election, through my birthday, through Xmas, through New Year’s, then jettisoned all the progress during a work trip to Sacramento, unwilling to ride out a political schmoozefest sober.
Anyone who has partied with me knows that I’m very fun to drink with – until I’m not. I could list a dozen or more examples, but those who’ve been there already know and despite my penchant for pouring my heart out, not all my worst moments need to be shared. (Read Blackout by Sarah Hepola or Quitter by Erica Barnett or Lit by Mary Karr and you will find echoes of me in them all.) The point is, I’ve not been blind to the benefits quitting drinking would bring – I just couldn’t break the habit of incorporating alcohol into everything I did. Until I could.
Why has this time stuck? Grey’s The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober helped, was the right book at the right time. Most drinking memoirs follow a pattern of rollicking drunken tales, self-effacing and sharply told, followed by “and then I went to AA,” at which point the story’s shine often fades, but Unexpected Joy is the first one I read that focused on exactly what the title promised, that sobriety would bring more happiness into one’s life rather than merely – ”merely”! – purge the pain-guilt-regret cycle excessive drinking brings. I’ve also been bearing witness to the way alcohol has wrecked the lives of people I love dearly. In my desperate wish for them to stop drinking, I thought that if I could take the action I ache for them to take, it might mean something, might make me better prepared to support them if (when, please, when) they finally choose to walk down a different street.
I have not gone to AA or done any special counseling. I did eat a lot of donuts and binge-watch a bunch of shows. I talked almost every day to a friend who’s been my booze-conversation partner for many months. We compare experiences, intentions, failures and successes. When I hit the six-month mark, she sent me a charm with the date engraved.
I shared my accumulation of days as felt appropriate and necessary with my inner circle (I’m always stunned by how I’ve piled all my various challenges on them over the years and yet they remain ever there to lend willing ears and gentle advice.) I stayed sober through situations – whiskey-fueled BBQs, weekends away, a wedding, writers’ group – that normally would have found me with a drink or six in hand. Each time taught me that I could stay sober and still have fun, more fun even because I didn’t end up puking in the bathroom or passing out on a couch or unable to remember if I had fun or not. At some point, I ate less donuts.
Certain situations still cause my body to go taut with longing – like being in a rage in the shed with a box of booze in front of me – and I’m not yet prepared to say I’ve quit forever, only that I’m committed to moving the finish line farther away. Thirty days was something and then 100 and then six months and now, why not a year? I hate very much having to think about what it is I really want when I think I want a drink, but I very much like waking up with memory intact and only reasonable regrets (Why so many donuts, Jennifer?).
Arriving at six months sober took more than a decade. I’m both pleased with myself and also don’t want to think too hard about it, talk too much about it, a silly thing to write as I prepare to publish this on a public blog, but hey, people are complicated. Most of my strength comes from wanting to be the best person for those I love – I’m sad it took this long to get here.
Not today, box of booze, not today.
P.S. If you’re about to commit to Dryuary, good on ya! I also encourage anyone considering quitting to take a longer break, at least 100 days, because the first few weeks are by far the hardest and experiencing the happy effects of sobriety requires more than a month. As Gray writes, doing only 30 days is “like doing the rough bit (the start of a run, say) without waiting for the spoils (the delicious endorphin rush a mile in).” That said, if you’re a person who’s been in a long-term dysfunctional relationship with booze, any time you opt to skip it is a triumph. Here’s to brighter days.