[First, a quick announcement that I have an essay called “Yes, And” forthcoming from Amazon Original Stories on July 30th, and you can pre-order it here for just $1.99! This is a long, meaty piece about marriage, monogamy, and secrets. It took me three years to write and I really hope you enjoy reading it. (AOS publications are only available in the Kindle universe, but that doesn’t mean you need to own a Kindle–you can also just download the free Kindle app to your computer or phone.)]
My early soberversaries felt like all-out celebrations. Now I also recognize them as the anniversaries of terrible fear and very little hope. I can’t even say I was operating on blind faith that day, my Day One, because I didn’t expect my life to get better. Just…different. I walked into a blind tunnel because I’d exhausted all my other options. And I’d lived my whole life with a level of privilege that made the idea of running out of options seem pretty unlikely. Actually, I’m not sure I thought I could run out. And I guess I could have kept on like I was. But I’d somehow touched a last-ditch place in myself where the belief that I could change was stashed away, and it intersected with the momentary realization that to quit drinking, I would actually have to quit drinking.
I can only describe it as a moment of pure grace. It was awful. And it’s awful how easily it could have passed me by. But it didn’t and so today I’ve been sober for six years. Words like happiness and fulfillment don’t come naturally to me, the woman whose book epigraph comes from a song called “Unsatisfied.” But I’m here, really here. I’m being a person in the world. Scrapping and yelling and mixing it up.
What I couldn’t know six years ago today is how many hundreds of emails and messages I’d one day get from people on their Day Ones. Sometimes when I read one, my own fear comes rushing back to keep company with the writer’s. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m grateful every fucking time for the reminder that I never, ever want to be on Day One again. And after the fear comes a little swirl of excitement for the freedom and space and scrapping that’s coming that person’s way if only they can wait out the early hard parts. I imagine them a year later, saying two words: worth it.
Sometimes the Day One people apologize for writing. I’m sure you don’t need one more email like this. You don’t even know me, but…
Listen, missy/skipper: Yes I do. I do know you. We are the same. And we can only do this by telling each other about it. We can’t save each other but we can help each other and your letters help me. Thank you for them.
I wanted to celebrate this day with a Q&A, so a few weeks ago I put out a call on social media for questions, and then I added on a few others that frequently pop up. I had a ton of fun answering these and I hope you’ll get some value out of them, too.
Q. When did the feeling of constantly wanting a drink go away for good?
When I first quit, my job in publishing required a lot of boozy socializing with writers, and I trudged through about a month of cocktail parties and dinners feeling like I’d relegated myself to the children’s table forever. I tried to think of it as athletic training to make the wild discomfort and…fury, really…more bearable. That passed, but it took about six more months for me to stop being hyper-aware that I was doing X, Y, or Z sober for the first time. I didn’t necessarily WANT a drink all those times–often it was pride I felt, not craving, and pride was a novel and thrilling sensation. But I was absolutely WATCHING myself have experiences for those six months instead of just having them. Which was useful, honestly. That’s how you develop strategies and if-then plans and self-knowledge.
As for the last time I wanted a drink? Three days ago. There’s a scene in the first episode of Fleabag S2 set at a fraught-to-hostile family dinner where everyone at the table is guzzling wine in a failed attempt to cope. A character who has been lying about being in recovery suddenly says “Fuck it!” and pours himself a glass in front of God and everyone. It’s as dark and ugly a moment as they come in comedy. So naturally, it made me want a drink. It wasn’t even drunkenness I was craving so much as that initial moment of abandon. Fuck it! I’m going to obliterate whatever is bothering me, or at least my awareness of it. I have other forms of wild abandon in my life, but I don’t have access to that form anymore and I suddenly wanted it.
“You know I hate the t-word,” I said to John. “But that triggered me, dammit.”
“It is very on-brand that this show about unhappy, self-destructive alcoholics would be the thing to trigger you,” John said. Uh, fair.
So, I wanted a drink for about twenty seconds three days ago. But it stands out for being so rare–it happens maybe 2-3 times a year, max, and a brief review of the ways alcohol is basically poison for my happiness and my life takes care of it.
Q. Did you do AA? If not, why not? [And variants, like ‘What is it like to stay sober outside of AA?’ and ‘What kinds of non-AA programs are available IRL, vs online?”]
I’ve dabbled in AA and made personal use of some of the program elements, but I didn’t “do” AA in anything like the usual sense. This wasn’t a conscious decision at the outset so much as the result of my usual approach to major change–live with the potential in my head for ages and ages, suddenly do it at a moment that surprises even me, and then adapt to the results a bit before I tell anyone else. Around month eighteen, I did attend a few meetings, and went to one as recently as April.
Sometimes I find meetings comforting, sometimes inspiring, sometimes depressing. It all depends on the mix and the mood of the room. At the April meeting, several decades-long sober people in a row talked in grim tones about how they know their disease is stalking them at every minute–‘doing pushups outside’–and I left feeling awful, almost doomed. I don’t want to live that way. I once wrote an essay about attending the office Christmas party sober and a man with 27 years of sobriety said “I take my sobriety seriously, so I don’t go to those parties.” I don’t want to live that way either. Well, I would *love* to avoid office parties, actually, but I don’t want to live in a state of paranoia and fear. Addiction took me OUT of life and now I want to be in it. So when I land in a meeting that grim, or one where people are berating themselves harshly for moral defects, it can spook me for weeks because my personal sobriety program rests on the belief that sober life is AMAZING and that I am fundamentally a powerful and worthy person with, yeah, some stuff to work on.
All that said–I’ll probably continue to hit a meeting now and then. I might work the steps someday. My only unshakeable view re AA is that it is NOT the only way to achieve sustained sobriety. It is ONE way. There are also other step-based programs like Secular Sobriety or the Buddhist-based Refuge Recovery. There’s vipassana meditation. There’s therapy, and medication-assisted therapy. I think most people need SOME kind of programmatic approach with a healthy dose of introspection, community, and help building new habits. But in the absence of double-blind studies showing AA to be more effective than other methods, I say choose what works for you (which may well be AA!).
[Also, US-centric tangent, but doesn’t it seem a bit… unconstitutional for American judges to sentence people to AA, given its religious foundations? And I say this as someone who isn’t personally bothered by the higher-power thing. But I live in Seattle, where it’s treated very lightly and generally. I’ve known lots of people who live in small towns where AA meetings come with a heavy dose of Christian proselytizing–and again, I’m not blaming the program itself for this, it’s all in the mix of people–and I don’t see how making someone choose between AA and jail is remotely in line with our constitutional freedom of and from religion. So judges, fucking stop it. Sentence people to treatment, sure, but let them pick from a range of options.]
Q. How long did it take for your creativity to kick back in after you got sober? Did it come back naturally and did you expect it to come back?
I absolutely did NOT expect it to come back. Ever. When I got sober I had not written outside of work for twelve years. I’d convinced myself that the thing I’d spent most of my childhood, adolescence, and twenties on had been nothing more than a gambit for approval. Even when I took a job in publishing and felt actual physical twinges hearing authors talk about their work, I ignored them. “Your job is to help real writers write, not try to be one,” I told myself. “You tried that, remember? It didn’t work out.”
I started this blog a month into sobriety as a way to make sense of my own experience and be part of the sober community and hopefully make some sober friends. I told myself it absolutely was NOT a return to capital-W writing. But my posts got longer and more carefully constructed. I caught myself getting picky about how the clauses balanced in a sentence, or how something sounded read out loud. All of which made me very nervous.
One day about six months in I found myself with an idea for a short story, and this time instead of resisting I sat down and wrote the first page. And it’s hard to explain, but as I tinkered with the minutiae of sentences and thought about what to leave out and looked at the white space on the page, something settled into place in not just my brain but my BODY, too. I never got past the first page of that story, but I’ve been writing consistently ever since and steadily getting better at it. At first I didn’t care if anyone else ever read my work. Then I thought it would be nice to have an audience. Now I have large and serious ambitions, the kind we think of as male. But it all comes back to sitting around forever, tweaking what I’m trying to say until my body says I got it right. And I absolutely would not have the stamina, clarity, or ambition be doing that AT ALL if I were still drinking.
Q. What did your addiction destroy forever?
Time. So much fucking time. I struggle to an irrational degree with the sense that I’m living on borrowed time–that I’ll somehow be STRUCK DOWN now that I’m finally getting started. [It happens, after all.] Sometimes my whole existence feels precarious. And for the most part, the lost time wasn’t even spent on fun tipsy shenanigans, but on worrying and justifying and breaking literally thousands of promises to myself. If I’d just fucking quit when I first realized I needed to, I could have saved myself so much fear and self-hatred and gained that much more time. But I had to see how long I could get away with it, I guess. I had to wear myself down to a stub before I gave in. However many books I’ve written by the end of my life, I imagine an asterix next to that number for the two or three extra I could have written in my decade of heavy drinking.
Q. How do you feel about the new sobriety trend?
I know there’s been some backlash to this recent rather goofy New York Times article, including from some brilliant people I adore. And I certainly agree with the pushback on the notion that you can call yourself “sober” when you’re actually just a light drinker. That’s the kind of language slippage that can be dangerous for people who really do need to quit completely. But otherwise…I guess I don’t see the harm? It’s a trend that leads to better health, mental clarity, clearer communication, better driving. It’s not like when people were eating TIDE PODS. Yes, it’s been commercialized and people are making money off of it. Same with yoga. Same with punk. Nothing is pure, least of all me.
Also, I’ve talked to so many readers and friends who feel like freaks because they’re trying to get sober as college students, or while dating online, or playing in rock bands. If the sobriety trend can make their lives a little easier by popularizing the idea that it’s possible to be cool or sophisticated or edgy without alcohol, that’s great. Because you absolutely do not need booze to be sexy AF and the more the world knows that, the better off even normal drinkers will be. So, yeah. I don’t need for sobriety to be fashionable, but I’m not upset that it is.
Q. Now that you are sober, would you rather fight one elephant-sized duck or ten duck-sized elephants?
A. I don’t want to fight ANYTHING the size of an elephant, and how could I fight ten little baby anythings the size of a duck? Here is what I will do: I will dress the duck-sized elephants up in charming outfits, give them little beds to sleep in, and as a fight we will challenge each other to Candyland. Though I’m probably gonna let them win just to make them happy.
Q. Do you have a different way of approaching the world than before?
I am profoundly more confident and brave than I was as a drinker. I mean, on a moment-to-moment basis I’ll worry like anyone else about whether the thing I’m writing is awful or my legs look fat or I said something thoughtlessly hurtful. But it passes because fundamentally, I’m standing on solid ground now and my actual self is no longer made of vapor. And that’s because the key to long-term sobriety is YOUR LIFE CAN’T BE A NIGHTMARE. It can have problems–and oh, it will–but it can’t be something you are chronically desperate to escape. So getting sober required me to do some wacky things like have boundaries, and respect my own energy levels vs pushing myself into exhaustion, and get over the desperate need to please all the people all the time. And as a prize I get to have a gravity I didn’t before.
Also, I can talk to anyone now! It’s an ongoing thrill, which is funny because I’m still very much an introvert who often doesn’t particularly WANT to talk to anyone. But I can, in a direct and authentic way. Part of it is from ending up in a position where I give interviews and do public readings and panels and the like. But I was sober for years before any of that happened and sobriety alone cut my social anxiety in half. I have found that any two sober strangers meeting for the first time will tend to get RIGHT INTO the heart of things–about their sobriety or anything else on their minds–and I’ve carried that through to my interactions with civilians. Possibly to their bewilderment.
Q. Is there a point where the changes level out and you think ‘yep, this is me?’ (From someone with two years)
A. Sort of? There’s definitely a point where you stop being hyperaware in that “Oh look, I’m sober on Christmas!” way. That happened probably around year three for me. And I’ve definitely settled into a new understanding of important parts of myself as they relate to family, marriage, work, sex, etc. I’m clear in ways that I wasn’t before. But at the same time, I’m still peeling back layers.
Also, my actual life has changed dramatically since I self-published “Enjoli” and it blew up. The last few years have felt like stepping from stone to stone across a huge pond. And based solely on what I already know is likely to happen in the next few years, I suspect I haven’t even reached the middle of the pond. (So please feel free to paddle out with snacks and gossip.) So the specific weirdness of my life is an X factor in my own change process. But even without that, I suspect the self-discovery goes on as long as we want it to. And to some extent, we can decide when the time is right to really dive in, vs take notes for a later time.
Q. Do you think it’s possible for a gray area drinker to moderate?
I think it’s POSSIBLE, yes. But–and this is based solely on my own observations–it’s most likely when someone has abused alcohol for a limited time, maybe in reaction to a specific life crisis. Because you’re just undoing a bad habit at that point, not a whole way of life. And maybe the habit hasn’t changed your brain yet. Again, not an expert, but I’d encourage folks to read about the neurology of addiction–Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind is a great starting point. Because at some point, a switch flips for a lot of us, and after that you’re just fighting your own brain, and I don’t like your odds.Â
Generally, I’d say that if you’ve tried multiple strategies for moderating and failed, or you’re succeeding but more obsessed with thoughts of drinking than ever, you should just quit. Seriously, just pull the band-aid off and quit. You have much more fun things to do with your time than make yourself miserable trying to control your use of a substance you’re fucking addicted to. I can tell you with absolute sincerity that sobriety is 1.4 GAZILLION times easier for me than moderating ever was.
Also, I’m thinking about how popular the term ‘gray area drinker’ has become. I think it’s very useful in establishing alcohol abuse as a spectrum, vs the old binary of “face-down in a gutter” vs “everything is just fine!!!!!” That said: if you think of yourself as being in the gray area of a spectrum that *kills a fuckload of people*, do you really want to stay anywhere near the gray? I personally don’t even want to see you in the Dove Gray or Highland Mist part of that spectrum. I think you should come hang out with us down in Bancroft White or Cloud White or Ether.* Seriously. Don’t linger in what you have already identified as a perilous zone because addiction is generally a progressive disease and the odds of you being the special-flower exception are not great.
*all real paint colors because I am a professional and professionals do their research.
Q. Do you consider yourself an alcoholic?
Yeah, pretty much, whatever that word even means. I was very uncomfortable with it at first, because it was not exactly my girlhood dream to grow up to be an alcoholic and because I resist labels in general. I started using it because it’s such useful, unambiguous shorthand. (People might continue to push booze on you if you just say you don’t drink, but bring out the a-word and they tend to back off.) Occasionally a reader will get mad because they don’t think I was enough of an alcoholic to even quit drinking, let alone write about it, which is…well, that’s FRAUGHT, isn’t it? Like “Dear reader, thank you for your feedback and I apologize for not drinking myself into total liver failure.”
Basically, I think alcoholism is in the eye of the beholder. I know women who drank two glasses of wine at day at their WORST who now consider themselves recovering alcoholics. I know people who drank waaaaay more than that who don’t want any label. You get to decide what if anything to call yourself. The BIG thing for me is that you shouldn’t have to identify as an alcoholic, gray area drinker, problem drinker, etc. to decide you don’t want to drink anymore. You’re allowed to just up and quit, temporarily or permanently, for any reason you like, and you don’t owe anyone an explanation.
Q. I need a new band–help me out!
As a person with six years of sobriety, I CAN HELP with this!!! Here, more or less off the top of my head, are six bands/acts (one for each year!) I think should be much better known, along with a Spotify sampler of entry tracks for each. Enjoy!
- 1) The multi-racial Atlanta trio Algiers, who I would describe as…let’s see…apocalyptic industrial gospel-punk? Lyrically they can be a bit didactic for my taste–we are talking about a band with song titles like “Irony. Utility. Pretext.”–but the overall impact is still pretty astounding. DO NOT MISS THEM LIVE, and bring someone you really really like with you because the show is sexy AF.
- 2) Fellow Seattleites Hey Marseilles. If the Decemberists could just relax and stop trying to impress everyone with their smarts and homework and stuff, they’d sound like Hey Marseilles. They make my heart hurt in a good way and I love how Seattle-specific their songs are and how well they use horns and strings. If you are trying to trick someone into falling in love with you, you could do worse than to put a HM song on a mixtape for them.
3) Joan as Police Woman. This is the stage name of Joan Wasser, who writes and performs in the part of the Venn diagram where Amy Winehouse and Cat Power and maybe Lana Del Rey overlap. I don’t really know how else to describe her except, you know, “very good.” Bonus: to the best of my knowledge, she’s a sober chick.Â
4) Jules Shear. Jules is known mostly as the original host of MTV Unplugged and has written a bunch of songs made famous by other people, like “All Through the Night” and “If She Knew What She Wants.” His own singing voice is often described most kindly as an “acquired taste” and less kindly as “a yowl.” I find it warm and human and almost indescribably lovely. Many years ago I met a cute guy under an entire combo platter’s worth of inconvenient circumstances and it came up in an early conversation that he was a Shear fan and I thought “well that’s just fucking great, now we’re probably going to actually fall in love” and we did and it brought no end of joy and misery. But that’s how it is with other people who love Jules Shear, yowl and all. You just know they get you.Â
5) Look Park. Also speaking of voices…the first time I heard Fountains of Wayne, Chris Collingwood’s instantly made me think ‘oh, here’s a friend.’ A few albums in, FoW started to feel gimmicky and I drifted away, but I never lost my love for their early stuff, and I was delighted to learn last month that Collingwood is now fronting the lovely orchestral pop group Look Park. And even more delighted to hear that he’s now clean, sober, and stable after a very hard crash.Â
6) Wheat. I’ve loved this band hard for a long, long time. Their late 90s albums Medeiros and Hope & Adams are flat-out masterpieces in the Pavement-meets-Mercury-Rev vein. (If that’s actually a vein.) Just astonishingly beautiful. Then, things went a bit sideways. Their major-label debut alienated old fans and didn’t draw many new ones–though it’s actually not a bad set of songs, just wildly overproduced–and they got dropped and as if in reaction, the album after *that* was so oblique and opaque that even a super fan like me couldn’t find an entry point. But those first two records are so perfect, so timeless, that demanding more of the same would feel not just greedy, but vulgar.