Day 778: You Do Not Have to be Good

Do you know the poem? It’s by Mary Oliver, who is one of those rare contemporary poets popular with both the literati and more casual readers. If you’re not sure, click the link above and read it, and then come back. I’ll be here.

<makes sandwich, puts clothes in dryer, lets dogs out and in and out again for no apparent reason>

Oh hey, you’re back! Nice to see you again. So, it’s a beautiful poem, right? But for the newly sober, I sometimes imagine a version that’s…edited. Edited to one line:

You do not have to be good.

I’ve been thinking about this as I read the blogs of very newly sober people. Some of you are so ambitious! You’re getting sober and quitting smoking, or getting sober and quitting sugar, or getting sober and running for office and becoming professional decathletes. And–you’re very impressive, by the way–and it worries me. I get worried because I know the getting-sober part takes enough energy on its own, without piling another task on top of it.

Maybe for some of you it’s about structure–having a set of guardrails in place in a vulnerable time, the way some of us go to AA meetings per week or start running or take up a new hobby to get us through the vulnerable hour. But maybe it’s that you think you have to be good. And that getting sober isn’t enough goodness on its own, especially if your drinking years turned you into kind of a jackass at times, or all the time. Even, or maybe especially, if the person you were the biggest jackass to was yourself. Maybe you think you need to become good fast now to make up for lost time. So, I have two thoughts about that:

  1. You cannot make up for lost time. I know, I know. But you can’t.
  2. You do not have to be good. Not right now.

I tried to be good, too. The last few years I drank, it was all I tried to do. To be the best wife, the best employee, the best yogi with the cleanest diet (uh, the food part, anyway). The prettiest and the nicest and the smartest and the most helpful and the one who made it all look the easiest. All that striving for goodness kept me using wine as my escape valve long after I’d realized that without the wine I wouldn’t need an escape valve. And God, who could blame me? Who wouldn’t need a nightly glass of wine or four under the weight of all that oppressive goodness? I kind of want to hit myself with a hammer just reading about it now.

Then I finally quit, because I thought there was an off chance that if I did, I might regain my soul, which I really, really missed. I had the same plans you did–I was going to be the skinniest person in the world, alarmingly skinny, and at the same time the fittest. I was going to read Remembrance of Things Past without skipping a hundred pages here and there like last time. I was even going to do needlework, which is hilarious. But I was going to, because I had an idea that those were all things good people did, and all I wanted to be was good.

All my plans went really smoothly at first, actually. Until let’s say around day 3-ish. Around day 3-ish it became excruciatingly clear that goodness–as I’d defined it–had to take a hike. I started taking naps and eating ice cream (so much ice cream) and wandering aimlessly in bookstores and turning down invitations. I dragged my husband to a petting farm and the state fair, where I insisted on looking at all the prize vegetables simply because I thought they were pretty. Around day sixty I bought myself a very, very expensive handbag at Barney’s because I saw it, loved it, and wanted it. (And technically could afford it, though that’s not the same as it being a sensible thing to do.)

The drinking me would call that the nadir of my un-goodness. I call it the high point. Every time I see that bag now I smile at the memory of impulsively telling the salesman it was my sixty-day gift to myself and finding out he had five years.

I’m not saying you should all go pet goats and buy new purses (though honestly, they’re both generally good ideas). I’m saying, think about cutting yourselves some slack. Have a cupcake if you want it. Buy two cupcakes and eat only the frosting parts of both of them, which is a thing I have heard some other people do. Go to a movie in the middle of the day. Sleep late. Binge-watch something. Smoke a bunch of cigarettes, if it’s going to make not drinking a little easier.

Goof off. Fuck around. 

This is not about being lazy for the rest of your life, or gaining fifty pounds or getting fired or resigning yourself to lung cancer. This is about giving yourself some space to just be sober for a bit, until you’ve got some momentum. You’ll know when you’re ready to tackle the next thing–and you’ll be ready in a way that you probably couldn’t even recognize right now, so early on. It’s hard for me to describe what that readiness feels like, except to say that it’s wonderful and solid and when you get there, you may have a sense that you felt like this long ago. Before. Oh, and when the time comes, you get to decide what it means to be good. Personally, I ended up dropping ‘crafting expert’ from the list, but replaced it with ‘ability to have honest conversation w/a human being.’ So it all balances out.

But until then: You do not have to be good. You just have to be sober. And the rest will come in time. I promise it will. And I’ve never been wrong about anything.

39 thoughts on “Day 778: You Do Not Have to be Good

  1. I think you are talking to ME! Smoky lady, here! First of all, I love that poem! I think I used all my !!!!’s
    But if I keep smoking, I’m going to diiiiiiiie and then I’ll just be sober for my my chemo. Grim thought. But you’re right, one vice at a time.
    Your post reminded me of a stupid reason why I resisted quitting drinking: I felt so guilty about my drinking behavior that I thought I didn’t deserve to be sober, like “should’ve thought of that before”. Do you know what I mean? So dumb.
    Anyway, takeaway here is buy a pricey handbag to put my cigs in. (kidding!!!)
    Did you make me a sandwich too????
    BTW I have a (ahem) poem/prose I wrote years ago that’s similar in feel if you are interested, when I was newly divorced and coping:

  2. Mary Oliver! Mary Oliver. “Let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. ..” all the words of the world can rest knowing that at least one perfect sentence exists. So lovely. And of course, on goodness: when you don’t know who or what else you are, or what that indeterminate entity might be worth, perfection is an acceptable substitute. Plus numbness= sustainable indeterminance. A fortress of shiny subterfuge and other people’s assessments. Thank you for writing this. I’ll be thinking about it all night.

  3. This is an awesome post, and I am going to re blog it. Hopefully that’s ok.

    I so agree. I tried so hard to be soooo good and I just couldn’t quit drinking. I could be the other good things. I could follow lots of rule and do hard work outs and on and on.

    But what I really needed to do was stop and let myself just be. I had spun myself so far out of control I couldn’t even see it.

    So I quit drinking and ate sugar for the first time in years. I drank pop! I took time off work to hide from the world.

    And I started to heal.

    Being good is sometimes another way to beat ourselves up. I needed to stop that. And it has made all the difference.


  4. Reblogged this on ainsobriety and commented:
    In the years before I quit drinking I tried to create the perfect
    Life. I ate according to rules. I exercised. I volunteered. And I drank and drank and drank even though I wanted to quit.

    One of the biggest changes this time was that in the first few months of sobriety I let go of my rules of life. I ate sugar again. I found gentle yoga. I took time off work to cry when I was just too freaked out to face people. I gave in to self care and stopped trying to be so good it hurt.

    So, please, read this. And forget the diets, quitting smoking, sugar and or pop cleanses. At least for the first 5 years. Lol


  5. This is just what I needed, yes, I’ve given up smoking as well but I only ever did them both together so it hasn’t been that tricky … yet! and just this morning I was thinking, “I’ve put on weight, I need to go on a diet” ummm… nope. You’re right, not too much at once. I think for me, there’s a sense of wanting to tackle everything be in control, because for such a long time, I wasn’t. Baby steps, baby steps, thankyou for the timely reminder x

  6. ‘You’ll know when you’re ready to tackle the next thing–and you’ll be ready in a way that you probably couldn’t even recognize right now, so early on.’

    I’m pretty sure that I posted about needing to start getting a handle on my weight now – when I was all of, maybe, 60 days? because at that stage I thought I was, I don’t know – a sober METHUSELAH 😉 and yeah, I wasn’t ready at that point, think it started coming off on its own at about 9 months….

    there are definitely things we can work on that support our sobriety. but anything that smacks of denial, restriction, I concur can be risky for us, sapping our energies from the main event. at the top of my safe list would be more sleep. I would have won Olympic medals for my sleeping in the first weeks of sobriety! and it’s the first thing I turn to still when I am feeling wobbly, good sleep hygiene as it is unattractively called. consistent bedtimes. no devices, clean pyjamas, hot water bottle, chamomile tea, good or trashy book.

    more of anything that supports us: more (gentle) exercise, more nutrients, more hugs, more handbags! your story of that salesman at Barney’s absolutely made my day. I bet he still remembers you, too – but you have the handbag!

    1. Oh, the weight thing is the worst, isn’t it? I had gained some weight in my last couple of drinking years and I couldn’t believe it didn’t just fall right off when I quit. It’s still a bit mysterious to me, honestly–all those wine calories cut, and I know I was replacing some of them in the form of ice cream, but not all. (Can you tell that two years later, I am still bugged by this?)

      It finally started dropping off for me around 6-9 months in too. Partly I think it was my body adjusting, but it was also that I was finally able to step back from the emotional brink and make a sensible, no-drama plan for changing my diet a bit and not making a weigh-in a judgment on my entire character. It was probably the first time in my 45 years that I was able to approach a weight or body issue in an analytical, dispassionate (mostly) way. That was a huge step forward for me, to be able to look at something scary in the light and put it in perspective. But yeah, in the interim I spent plenty of time shaking my fist at the Sobriety God who was not giving me the effortless skinniness I thought I deserved. 😉

  7. This is the very best advice…. I read something similar very early on and I believe it was one of the things that kept me sober! Almost a year at this writing and I’m now just taking baby steps toward getting back on track with healthy eating and exercise. And it’s – absolutely OK. And you’re absolutely right about knowing when it’s time to start making those changes. I’ve never been as kind to myself as I have since I quit drinking. Such an incredible journey….

    Thank you for this post – you’ve helped so many people!

  8. Mary Oliver is great. And like others, I needed to hear this. I’ve been indulging in things that other people wouldn’t even call indulging, but to me it is and it comes with a degree of guilt, but at least it’s a degree and not a tidal wave. I take a lot of naps, and I tell my inner critic to shut up and remind him he needs sleep, too. I’m enjoying dessert again. I’m drinking more coffee than I should, but there’s no alcohol in it, and the ritual of drinking it helps keep the urges at bay. I’m adding exercise back into my life, but it’s reasonable (walking for twenty minutes a day in the morning). Take it easy, as the folks in AA say. Indeed.

  9. Love this poem and love this reflection on it. It’s so true! I’ve often tried to be “the best” version of myself, always, and it’s taken a lot – through sobriety, through trial and error – to realize that I’m actually pretty okay just being myself, and that I don’t have to try to move mountains every day. Wonderful post 🙂

  10. That’s me. You described me in the post. I am so so hard on myself when i am drinking. I wonder if it is a form of overcompensating for not complying with “good” vision if me. Thank you for writing it. It makes sense to me now.

    1. You’re so welcome! It took me a long time (like, at least a year of sobriety) to see it about myself and then it seemed duh-level obvious. But getting there was hard.

  11. This is an amazing post. I adore the message because it’s so true. All you have to do is to stay sober. Eat what you want if it helps you stay sober. Sleep away the hours so you can count one more day. Run…or don’t. Walk…or don’t. Whatever it takes.



  12. LOVE. THIS. Thank you, thank you. With a year gone by since I quit, I’ve been feeling like I should be more than just, well, sober. But that’s enough. And being sober-me with all of my adorable flaws (ahem) is enough. Ahhhhhh

  13. Yes yes yes to all of this. Begrudgingly to the smoking though (lost my mom to lung cancer, wouldn’t wish that on anyone), but as a lovely lady said above, one thing at a time.
    God bless ice cream and jelly beans. They helped me get sober as much as anything.
    And Mary Oliver? She helps me stay sober. “The Journey” and “Wild Geese” are two of my favorite poems.
    Thanks for this, I’ll be mentioning it in my next post. x, Christy

  14. Wow! did I ever need to read this today. I am on day 10 and have been trying to quit drinking, stay within my calories per day and get ready for a half marathon. I was just thing about how I can’t wait to have a drink in 3 months(that’s all I promised myself I would do for now) but after reading this I realize I am making this so hard on myself by taking way too many things on at a time. I am so happy to have found you today, it’s like someone is watching over me 🙂

  15. This was really great! And so, so true. I couldn’t love Mary Oliver more. And the not being good philosophy was exactly what has worked for me too. Someone who read this wrote to me on and referenced it, so I’m glad I stumped upon. Keep writing! XO – Laura

  16. Oh my gosh. I love this. I am newly sober and am so guilty of all of this. My original sobriety plan was to stop drinking and also…cut back on smoking, eat clean, go to church, drink a gallon of water daily, read a new book every month, etc…the list goes on. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one! I’ve somewhat stuck to most of my goals but I’ve been trying not to be too hard on myself because being sober is the only goal that really matters right now. Thank you for this reminder!!

    1. Oh my lord, I’m exhausted just reading your list! Yep, go easy on yourself for a good long while. Those all sound like fantastic goals and you can start ticking them off one by one when you’re ready (though you also might find that your goals change when you get more sober time). Just being sober makes you a superhero for now. 🙂

  17. A friend and I walked and talked today about helping each other stay sober. I read this post just before we left and it helped me stay sober today and it helped my friend too. We, like so many here, are so damn hard on ourselves and such over achievers. This reminded me, one thing at a time … Sober. First. The rest will come. Or it will keep. Thanks for such a timely post.

    The purse story…😊

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