Day 1,651: Start Stopping

It’s New Years Eve afternoon. I’m at a coffee shop working on a commissioned essay about small matters like marriage and sex and desire and monogamy and how I’m a natural at three out of four. The writing is going…not great, okay? Plus I just ate a pretty disappointing croissant and the little boy behind me is singing the alphabet song over and over, with a dramatic, jazz-hands finish at “W, X, Y, and Z.” It was cute for a while. Sunset is at 4:27 today, which is an improvement over yesterday–but still, I mean, come on. We’re humans, not moles. We deserve better.

My social media feeds today are full of posts about how 2017 was the worst year in memory because of Donald Trump and I confess I don’t quite know what to make of that. Don’t get me wrong–I find the prospect of Donald Trump dying in prison almost pornographically thrilling. His stupidity, his reflexive cruelty, his little white fish-mouth all appall me. Forget mere politics–his presidency offends me on an aesthetic level in how it elevates a way of being in the world that negates wonder and mystery and transcendence. (And once you’re on my aesthetic bad side, you’re pretty much fucked.) Still, seeing him blamed for so much emotional damage awakens my unattractive urge to lecture: don’t give him that much power! Take the long view! Make a monument of your pain! (Because for one thing, he’ll still be president tomorrow. The year may be ending, but he carries over.)

But then I think, what do I know? I’m white, straight, and financially stable. I live in a big blue city.  As a woman, I’m, well, at least less vulnerable than a lot of other women. Sure, if I were otherwise in the demographic crosshairs, it’s entirely possible I too would be saying Donald Trump ruined my year. But he didn’t. It was a good year. It nearly fucking crushed me. I got mostly smarter, a little dumber. I trusted the wrong person and saw that betrayal, like most awful things, is survivable. My field of vision got wide and I shrank from it and then crawled back out and stood up. The bedrock under me turned out to be more solid than I knew, and thank god, because everything that wasn’t bedrock turned to confetti I’ll be picking out of my hair for years. But confetti has its own grace and sparkle.

And I’ll tell you one thing. All of it–the bad croissant; the missing sun; the gorgeous, hammering year–it’s all better than my best New Year’s Eve near the end of my drinking. By this time on those days my mind would be on two things:

  1. Wondering how drunk I’d get, and how bad I’d feel on New Year’s Day. Because once I had that first drink, how many more would follow depended on a mysterious alignment of circumstances, timing, and the secret harmonies of the universe or something, and very little to do with me.
  2. Intending to be a “healthy drinker” the next year, which to me meant having no more than two glasses of wine a day, every day. Intending because I didn’t have any real plan. And to be because I didn’t want to have to do anything. I just wanted to magically be different. 

I mean, who wouldn’t, right? But it was never going to work. Partly because I was never going to be a moderate drinker; moderation took a ridiculous level of effort and focus that killed all the fun. But mostly because I was coming at my so-called intention from a place of massive and (retrospectively) hilarious inertia. In the rest of my life I was a panicked striver, climber, analyzer. But in addiction I wanted nothing less than a revival-tent experience that would make dealing with my problem not just doable, but effortless. I wanted my soul to change before anything else did.

I said my mind was on two things most New Year’s Eves. Eventually there was a third: that nothing was ever going to change, that I would be setting empty intentions for the rest of my life because I was powerless to do anything but hope.

If you’re having the same New Year’s Eve thoughts I used to, my Happy New Year message to you is: it isn’t going to work. You’re not going to intend yourself into moderation or sobriety. And you’re probably not going to trick yourself there via other avenues like dieting or race training, either. If you do manage to back your way in like that, great! But if you’re in really deep, like I was, I suspect your brain is already coming up with workarounds and in six months you’ll be thinking Wow, I trained for a marathon and still didn’t quit drinking! That’s so weird. What should I try next? Yoga? Going back to school? Having another baby? 

The way to stop is to stop. There will be a bottle or glass filled with liquid you want to swallow more than you want to do anything else in the world and you won’t swallow it or even touch it. And it will feel so wrong to not touch it. But that’s how you start stopping. You do something that feels wrong, and you have faith that it’s actually right, that you can’t trust your own brain just yet. Or you don’t have faith and you keep it up anyway, because it doesn’t take faith to change.

That’s not all that’s required to heal from whatever got you here, of course. There are a lot of paths to what they call recovery, most of them involving a lot of uncovering of who you are under that shellac of booze and fear. But most of those paths also start the same way: with you stopping.  You rip the fucking band-aid off and you leave it off.

Recently I was talking to a friend who beat a long-ago cocaine habit. “I thought about it 24-7 for days after I quit,” he said. “And then not 24-7, but still lots of times per day. And then, three weeks in, I went a whole day without cocaine crossing my mind. Realizing that was an unbelievable feeling.” His face lit up when he talked about it, decades after the fact. I could feel mine light up too. “I loved that feeling!” I said, and we both laughed at the memory of it, the head rush of that first taste of freedom from the thing we’d thought we couldn’t live without.

You can get that head rush too. I promise. You can be laughing about it years from now. But first you have to start. You have to pull the band-aid off.


34 thoughts on “Day 1,651: Start Stopping

    1. Moderation was truly the worst of both worlds for me. I failed most of the time, and when I succeeded, it still sucked because I didn’t get to drink nearly as much as I wanted! I know some problem drinkers are able to successfully moderate, but mere “problem drinker” would have been an aspirational status for me. 🙂 Quitting entirely was ultimately WAY easier than playing all kinds of moderation mind games with myself. Rip it off!

      1. Very valuable insights Kristi. Made me pre-order “Nothing Good Can Come From This.” I was a heavy drinker two times in my life – decades apart – and ripped the scab off both times. I tried one weekend to simply not drink. The reaction of friends & strangers, begging you to participate in their freefall, and bartenders & waiters, who are sober, is an awakening. And then you find yourself watching popular cable shows and wondering : “why do these heroes & heroines drink every. single. time. things don’t go their way”? Even when things do go their way, they drink every. single. time. to celebrate. Waking up to all this may not lead directly to the “revival tent experience” but it certainly is a first step.

  1. Bing Bing Kristi. You made me laugh again and that is how 2018 is starting. I already have my agenda blocked out with all the usual big days identified and my first weekend get-a-way only a few days off. Who knew a simple no would finally open the big door. I just got through an airport check-in and I am grinning. Happy New Year.

  2. Wow, I woke up to this. Happy new year. As if I had been torturing myself all day yesterday with a plan to quit Diet Pepsi first then coffee, then that other thing I can’t name. All in 4 month increments so that by 2019 I’ll be free from my vices (but secretly knowing my vices are a weird cocoon and hanging out in there is less scary than changing). So I don’t know. But thank you. Your writing helps me. I’m not alone in my mental gymnastics.

  3. Seems to me that you’re also talking about work. The little boy singing the alphabet is something to overcome but also to get through and the work does that. The repetition of the fingers hitting the keys, watching the words appear as if by a kind of magic across and then down the screen is a way to move yourself forward. Did you know that last paragraphs of this when you began? My guess is no. You let the process teach you where it was going. I’ve been fortunate enough not to have any kind of substance addiction, but this post seems much more about how to move forward than it is about how to move away from anything. I’m grateful for having read it and impressed as usual by your skills in writing it.

    Happy New Year to you and yours.

    1. Good question—no, as is so often true, I had only a vague idea where I was going when I sat down to write. (Or sometimes I think I know where I’m going, but I’m wrong.) And you’re right—it’s all about moving forward, and moving forward always takes *some* kind of effort. I love that you found that in my post!

  4. Omg yes. Tried all the “tricks” to quit and did everything but quit. Then one day I was all TRICKS ARE FOR KIDS, I need to just stop it. Happy New Year! Looking forward to your book!

  5. Awesome essay! Many years sober (amen amen!) but always good to fill up on some wisdom with a big side of wit. Happy Sober New Year!

  6. I found this blog about a year ago and just want to express my appreciation for Kristi and the all the other commenters with blogs here that I’ve clicked on and read. I’m a guy so I’m in the minority here, but the words resonate with me.

    As someone closer to 60 than 50, I’ve really embraced sobriety as I have gotten older. Top reasons and why I have noticed the worsening effects with increasing age (maybe just for me, I won’t speak for everyone “55+”)

    1) Tired of being tired from bad sleep. Bad sleep from wine really ruins a whole day now – there is no “snapback” like younger days – physical dreariness sticks around a lot longer. The difference in energy level between drinking/not drinking is an order of magnitude for me just based on sleep.

    2) Weight. You think it’s hard to take off weight 30s/40s? Ha! Add 10 or 15 years to that and see just how fun empty calories are to erase…

    3) Dehydration. You’ll prefer a 1/2 day walk w/o water in the New Mexico desert to the next 10 hours. Bad for the body and I find especially the joints.

    4) Attitude and happiness. I found it harder to get out of down funks. We all have them, but the alcohol depressant effects last longer and cast a darker and wider shadow if your in the dumps for whatever reason.

    5) Joints. Tendons, ligaments, connective tissue: so juicy, flexible, and repairable. Until you get older and they are not.
    And arthritis starts creeping in. It’s written that red wine is anti-inflammatory. Maybe true for a single 4 oz pour but not 3 glasses of a “home size pour”. Ditto for any fellow humans with some gastro issues. NOT worth it.

    6) Rarely discussed: budget/spending issues.
    So 1 bottle of decent wine per night @ $10 x 365 = $3,650 per year.
    * Let’s be real, sometimes we get the better bottle, have friends over, or celebrate some good news with a touch more.
    * Add in 1/2 that again = another $1,825
    * Let’s be even more real and add in the dining out or after work stops with friends. Smaller pours and more expensive.
    * Better add 1/2 again. Another time with the $1,825.
    Grand total for 1 year of wine = $7,300. I know, case discounts, bags, boxes, you don’t eat out – your numbers will of course vary, but if you honestly track it for a bit the results may be eye opening.

    Thanks all for allowing my 2 cents.

    1. Even at 47 I nodded along with all of this! Especially the sleep part—I genuinely thought I woke up tired for years on end, when really I just had a daily low-level hangover. :-0

    2. Yes to all of this! I’m closer to 50 than 40 and not drinking because, you know, alcoholism. But, these positive side effects are the same for me and I’m thankful for them every day! Here’s to sobriety:))

    3. Hitting the ‘Like Button’ JB. I’m in my early 50’s and realised it was time to do something about my every day drinking and my lack of will power to just have one glass – thanks 🙂

  7. I think you are just the funniest ever, I love the way you write! I found your blog 1 year and 3 weeks ago. After waking up from what felt like the worst hangover (I had my fair share of “the worst” hangovers) in my life after having gone out to celebrate the end of my first semester at my first adult job (I have been an “adult” for about 19 years). I just felt horrible, emotionally, spiritually, physically, psychologically, and decided that the band aid just needed to be ripped off after about 6-7 years of trying to moderate. I immersed myself in this and another blog, held on for dear life and lived life one day at a time. As I look back it was the hardest fucking thing I have done in my life: harder than graduate school, pre-doctoral internship, a postdoc and public speaking! But I did it, one year 3 weeks later (I had three slips during the first 3 weeks but kept counting) I’m still sober and loving finally putting down the wine bottle. Though this has been fucking hard (did I say that already?) I wouldn’t change it for the world. The best part is what you and your friend experienced, not having to think about booze, save for a fleeting thought here and there is one of the best feelings in the world. Your words along with other bloggers have helped me and lifted me up on this journey.

  8. I ripped off the Band-Aid off nearly three years ago (on January 5). It was ugly, and it continued to be ugly for a long time…but not as ugly as my life before I stopped drinking. Thanks for writing and sharing this.

  9. “You do something that feels wrong, and you have faith that it’s actually right, that you can’t trust your own brain just yet.” When I began in Al-Anon, I began to do the opposite of what I wanted to do. What I had been doing never really worked. And I always followed the “suggestion”s I received from my Sponsor. New ways felt very awkward, uncomfortable and wrong but life, after a while, began to open up and bloom.

  10. It’s funny….I always hear these stories about how people tried to moderate and couldn’t and I always think the same thing….”It never even occurred to me to try to moderate!” Mostly my weird plan was always that I would keep drinking but stop doing all the crap drinking made me do, and hangovers made me fail to do. Occasionally I thought about quitting. But it never really occurred to me to try to drink less than my fill. Sober 14 years….and writing about it on occasion throughout. Keep up the good work.

  11. 1) WTW: right back at you! Read your latest post and I am impressed with how you walloped the Wine Witch at your social functions. I’ll catch up with you over at your site.

    2) Need to be even more real with my former #6 (money aspect)
    -Wine dinners at your favorite restaurant and tastings at your favorite wine store: always a good deal on the the wines at the end of the evening…I’ll take 4 of those and 3 of the others…you know, the really good stuff. Add in another $1,825.

    Whoa, pissing away ten grand a year (pun intended).

    3) Kristi, your closing sentence on any post is always so powerfully to the point. Applause and thanks for those.

  12. One need not look far for inspiration. The changes between a drunk new year and a sober one are immense.

    I like the simplicity off your message. To stop is to stop. If we can keep it this simple, we’ll have a better chance. I’ve found that true for myself and seen it work for others.

  13. Love your writing so much. I abruptly stopped drinking 2 years and 2 months ago after about a year of “intending” to stop. My ” bottom”? Well, there were many : yet another hangover, getting sloppy at a gala and embarrassing my husband…, but oddly a big one was the night I watched Downton abbey and the lady and lord were celebrating in the servant quarters that their butler had been cleared of a murder. They popped bottles of champagne and I became really upset when one of them put their glass down half empty and walked out of the room. Who does that ? It was a moment of clarity that I have a problem.! Happy to be sober and so grateful for your gift of describing this issue so well.

    1. Ha! Coincidentally, just today I was telling a non-addict friend that I used to get weirdly annoyed when people would leave wine in their glasses. I even used your phrase: “Who *does* that?” Love that Downton Abbey flipped the light switch in your head. 😊

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