Sober Reality

(November 29, 2020) I just celebrated my first Thanksgiving without alcohol. My parents, three siblings and our 13 children gathered at my brother’s home in the country, where we could socially distance and be outside (in the frigid drizzle around a smoking bonfire—not as cozy as it sounds. Thanks COVID). We told lots of jokes, ate too much food and no one fell off the roof. It was a good day.

I cooked in advance and brought fixins’ for mocktails—kombucha, ginger beer and alcohol-free IPAs. Alcohol has been a consistent presence in my family’s culture. I wanted to participate in the ceremonial “pouring of the drinks” without feeling left out.

To my pleasant surprise, I felt relieved to not be drinking. Large family events are chaotic. Even when everything goes as planned and everyone is on their best behavior, it’s a marathon. In the past, I’d have started about noon with a cocktail, moved to wine by late afternoon and volunteered to find the whiskey once the dishes were cleared. I’d have titrated my intake like a professional–hydrating to stay above the buzz and pulling the fun from the dysfunctional. All while serving, chatting and putting out fires (both real and metaphorical). The benefit of staying sober during the holidays was not having to think about alcohol. 

Drinking is a Sport

I used to think that drinking was an art form, and that I was highly skilled. Maintaining an optimum blood alcohol level takes a lot of effort. If you get drunk too fast, the carefully scheduled itinerary falls apart. You’re late, the food isn’t ready and sneaking a nap on the coat pile before dinner is frowned upon. If you don’t drink enough, you’re edgy and judgy—other people expect too much and offer too little. Only a skilled practitioner can find and maintain that boozy sweet spot.

I considered myself a professional. If drinking is a sport, I played to win. But in hindsight, I didn’t actually win anything. Sure, occasionally there was a moment when the buzz felt perfect. But otherwise, it was just a performance. I wasn’t present—for the good or the bad. The day wasn’t better because I was drinking.

Newly sober people wonder if staying sober during the holidays will be difficult. Now that I’ve done it, I wonder how I managed all that while intoxicated. THAT was difficult–exhausting! I was delighted to not need the assistance of alcohol to get through the day. It was one less thing to worry about.

Skilled Sobriety

Holiday gatherings are intense. Emotional hygiene requires us to pay attention to our nervous system. Peopling is hard. This year, when I started to feel overwhelmed, I treated the sensation the same as the need to use the bathroom. I found space on an unoccupied porch, surveyed the landscape outside and even did some snooping. (No dead bodies or fake passports were found.) No one minded my absence. In fact, everyone disappeared here and there for a bit—including the dogs. Evidently, that’s normal.

 

Alcohol isn’t a cure for tension — it’s jacks up cortisol which stresses our nervous system. Alcohol adds to the overload. I needed to catch my breath, quiet my mind and give myself space. Staying present was a strange and pleasant experience, albeit mildly taxing (meaning that it required some attention and effort). In comparison, it was far better than the alternative. I had more fun than I’ve had in a long time.

An opportunity to share this lesson with my 16-year-old daughter presented itself. She was having fun with her cousins. They were playing Minecraft, shooting hoops, one-upping each other’s stories and Lord-only-knows what else. I hadn’t seen her all day when she pulled me aside. The tears in her eyes startled me. “Mom, do you have anything I can take for anxiety? I’m feeling really overwhelmed.”

A year ago, I’d have rushed to my bag of supplements, pills and placebos. I might have even given her a swig of my wine. I still believed in external remedies for internal discomfort (and also that wine was a Jesus-approved panacea made specifically for family gatherings). I wanted to show my daughter how to truly soothe herself. She has her learner’s permit, so I suggested we go for a drive and listen to music. We snuck out and hit the country roads. It worked like a charm. Within 15 minutes, we rejoined the party, both of us feeling refreshed. The bonus for me is an awesome memory of the two of us belting out Lady Gaga at the top of our lungs. We nailed it.

Sobriety is a Gift You Give Yourself

 I am grateful to have a family that I enjoy being around. For those who are not as lucky, however, the same approach to self-care applies. It’s about setting boundaries and respecting your limits. For some, that might mean making the tough decision to avoid a booze-filled gathering all together. For others, it may require a smaller time slot, a sober buddy or change in venue. There is no need to negotiate agreement from other people. You do you. Let other grownups take care of themselves.

Sobriety is a gift, not a punishment. Drinking through the holidays is exhausting–brutalizing to both mental and physical health. Alcohol is an addictive substance that requires a lot of effort to control. This year, I didn’t have to try so hard. The benefit of staying sober during the holidays was that I had nothing to hide and no need to second guess what I was thinking, feeling or saying. I enjoyed just being—with the people I love the most—clear-headed, grateful and more energetic than I’ve felt in a long time. I’m thankfully sober . . .

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Do you wish you drank less but find it difficult to stop once you start? Are the legal experts in your head constantly debating the problem—and what you should do? That's alcohol use disorder.
 
You’re not alone. Many of us have been duped into using alcohol as a consolation prize for neglecting our needs--and then criticized for becoming dependent on it. I was able to quit drinking after 30 years without AA, rehab or willpower. My energy, vitality and joy have returned. I help high-functioning drinkers experience sobriety as a superpower, not a disease.