On Labor Day 2019, I woke up to a face I didn’t recognize.
My family and I were visiting my childhood home in Chicago for the holiday and, as parents of school-age children do, my husband and I had two date nights in a row. Both involved hanging with friends, delicious cuisine, and heavy drinking. It was a good time and my face that morning was proof.
Bloated, ashen, and worn. I’d looked as if I’d been beaten, as if 2019 had gotten the best of me – a year that was supposed to be one of the highlights of my life.
I had turned forty that year. To celebrate, I’d invested hundreds of dollars into a boudoir photoshoot so, to paraphrase the words of my fictional hero Samantha Jones, I could remember how hot I was when I was ninety and my tits were in my shoes. After two decades in the private sector selling everything from air filtration systems to million-dollar standardized testing contracts, I had switched careers midlife to pursue my dream job as a librarian. I was in the midst of reshaping my body and mind that year, exercising at least thrice a week and navigating through my second year of a full-fledged spiritual quest.
I was also drinking a minimum of three glasses of wine every night with an occasional beer or two in the morning. Any morning.
Shockingly, there was not a hard bottom that followed my double life as a full-time working mom/part-time wino mom. Only by the grace of God and my ancestors does my driving record have a lifelong absence of any DUIs. None of my imbibing habits ever involved a visit to a medical professional. No blackout moments or emotional breakdowns accompanied my journey.
So what did it? What made me put down the drink?
To keep it a buck, I just got tired of being tired and looking tired. I was done using alcohol to numb myself, my fears, my hopes, my creativity, and my emotions. On that bleary morning in Chicago, I made the decision to stop drinking cold turkey. Upon coming to that revelation that I wasn’t sure would make it past an hour, I got in my mother’s shower, washed up, and packed up for our trek back home to Iowa. As I made the three-hour drive home, I obsessed over the half-drunk bottle of Pinot Grigio and cans of Truly spiked seltzer chilling in my refrigerator. Could I really do this with booze still in the house?
Cut to the present and I am graciously and unbelievably celebrating 365 days of sobriety. A lot happened in between that car ride home and today , but I’m not here to tell you how I accomplished this feat. To be honest, I don’t know how I did it, especially during a pandemic. There were times during these past six months specifically when I didn’t think I’d make it to this day clean.
I don’t know how the fuck I got here, but I can tell you what I learned.
I learned to feel my feelings. One thing about spiritual quests is that you get to confront a lot of shit you thought you’d packed away neatly in the past. You name it, my subconscious had it: high school heartbreak, an unapologetically absent parent, being one of the very few Black employees in several lily-white workplaces for decades, being Black in general. It only multiplies when you decide to get sober. Now that I had said ‘peace TF out’ to the swill, alcohol was not available to disguise, hide, or numb my thoughts. When I came home from stressful workdays or my kids were tearing the house apart during noise-filled weekends, my sanity no longer resided in the bottom of a wine glass. Meditation and yoga were nice reprieves but often ended in cleansing tears. In short, those first six months or so had me spiritually wrecked.
That wreckage helped me understand how my ego operated; I recognized when it served me and when it didn’t. I embraced a level of compassion for myself that I once reserved only for my children. Through the journey of acknowledging my deepest internal wounds, I found that external sources of false healing – booze – were no longer my salvation and never were.
I learned that sugar addiction is REAL. Sweets never moved me until I was pregnant with my youngest child. For nearly the past decade since her birth, I couldn’t imagine letting the day pass without several candy breaks. During my first week off the sauce, I started reading whatever I could grab about sobriety (both for education and to keep my wine-thirsty hands occupied). I started with Clare Pooley’s blog and that’s when I learned why my Twizzler consumption had gone up threefold: when you take away the booze, the body seeks a replacement for the sugar buzz. Of all the relationship challenges sobriety has forced me to face, my kinship with sugar has been one of the most telling. I still enjoy my Zoet milk chocolate toffee squares from time to time, but I also know when I need to take breaks from the sweet stuff. I’ve also learned to stop beating myself up over my sugar rampages. I mean, chocolate never gave me a rip-roaring hangover (unless it was a chocolate martini, which I still miss like a dead auntie).
I learned that my creativity had levels, son. To date, I’ve written and published twelve novels, been featured in five anthologies, and penned countless blog entries. The latter includes this very blogpost you’re reading right now, which is also the first piece of writing I’ve completed in over five months. Pre-Sober Me would find that appalling. In fact, during the beginning of my sobriety, I did. I’d started and stopped five manuscripts. I’d joined and sheepishly exited writing challenges. In the midst of getting sober, losing weight, restarting my career, and unlearning a shitload of ego-based thoughts, I was berating myself for not penning seventy-thousand word novels.
Does that even SOUND like that makes sense? Seriously, people. Here I was, rehabilitating every aspect of my life at forty, nurturing my marriage, raising kids, working full-time, and still that negative ego-fueled voice was loud and clear: You should be writing. You’re not a creative anymore.
When I reflect on this past year, I realize that I was able to uncover new avenues of creativity that I may have been blinded to before I sobered up. I helped other writers behind the scenes with their literary goals. I curated online content for the library, including a weekly lifestyle segment and a monthly podcast. I showed up for my sisterfriends’ virtual webcasts to speak. What kept me from realizing this was my inability to grant myself grace. I deserved grace, some flow as I navigated sobriety and broke down the ancestral norms surrounding alcohol that I grew up in. That meant easing up on myself and on writing to open the door to other realms of creativity. I imagine that there’s another book in me somewhere, but I know through sobriety that my creativity isn’t confined to that single artform.
I learned that, to be compassionate, I needed boundaries. Real boundaries, y’all. Those set in love and not fear – because there is a difference. The boundaries I’d set before sobriety were those borne of conflict and desperation. Those ‘If they don’t do what I say/do/demand, I’m not speaking to them’ vibes were what I was calling boundaries. Sobriety taught me how to create boundaries from the heart, not from the ego. It taught me that asking for what I need instead of allowing pride to thwart my path was the way to go. It taught me that ‘No’ and ‘Okay’ are sometimes the most loving responses to people. Even a year in, I still get questions from friends and acquaintances who want the 411 on why I got sober. Somedays, I feel like telling my story; on other days, I simply say, “Thank you for asking but I’m not interested in telling that story right now.” If you decide to begin a sober journey of your own, be prepared for that. You can tell someone you quit smoking and no questions are asked. In fact, you’ll probably get inundated with congrats and pride. There’s something about quitting booze that makes people double take. They want The Story. Just know that you can choose when and with whom to share your story. I much rather spend my words talking to the people who’ve come to me in private to ask how I started my sober journey…not why.
On that Labor Day morning in Chicago, I never imagined I’d be here today – 365 days sober. It hadn’t occurred to me that I could live a life without white wine, craft beer, drunken arguments, and blistering hangovers. But here I am, still standing and looking forward to another alcohol-free year. None of it was easy, but all of it was worth it. Every day of it.