These are gifts I never want to take for granted. Given that I didn’t even know some of them were possible reminds me that — when it comes to sobriety — the best is always yet to come.
People often talk about sobriety as a gift and also as a giver of gifts. I am definitely one of those people. Sobriety has given me a sense of self-respect and self-love that I have never before experienced. It has allowed me to live in integrity with my values, made me a better friend, partner, and family member, and saved my body from a downward decline that had started to pick up serious speed as I entered my 40s.
But the holidays are a time when sobriety can feel a little less magical; the pressure to socialize — to be jolly and merry — is high. Under non-pandemic circumstances, we may be expected to visit with family members who stress us out or socialize with coworkers in a way that feels unnatural. Booze was always there to help. When it’s not, it can feel less like something was given and more like our security blanket was taken away.
With that in mind, and since I’m sitting home this year rather than experiencing the holidays full-force, I decided to meditate on the things that felt different about the last two winters since I quit drinking. (This will be my third holiday season as a sober adult.) The list I came up with may seem a bit superficial at first glance, but they are all things that made November through January noticeably more enjoyable and manageable — and way less stressful — than in previous years. And besides, much of life is actually lived in the mundane details, so it’s OK to celebrate superficial gifts sobriety gives us, too!
1. I don’t destroy my clothes.
A few years before I got sober, I was invited to a last-minute holiday party that I didn’t have time to shop for. Ripping through my closet, I came across a dress I had totally forgotten about. It was a perfect lacy party dress with a festive bow and an adorable halter neckline. I was saved!
Except I wasn’t saved, because when I actually laid it out on my bed, I saw a giant purple streak right down the front of the cream-colored skirt. It didn’t take a forensics expert to detect the splash pattern of a drunken drink-drop.
I stared at the stain for a long time, trying to remember the last time I had worn that dress. But it didn’t really matter. The festive party nights I had gotten sloppy and ended up spilling — on myself or someone else — undoubtedly outnumbered the nights I had kept my drinks in their glasses. That realization conjured up a burning shame that usually reserved itself for hangovers. This was a new kind of shame. Pre-shame.
I am not the world’s most graceful person, so it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that, now that I’m sober, I never come home from parties worse for wear. But have I soaked my clothes in red wine lately? No. Have I ripped a brand-new pair of designer jeans climbing a cyclone fence because it would be “faster” to walk home that way? Nope. Have I thrown up on my vintage cowboy boots after getting kicked out of a dance club in Vegas? Negative.
It is not lost on me that, during any of these incidents, I was also putting my body at terrible risk. But knowing that I can now buy something nice and reasonably expect that I won’t destroy it the first time I wear it contributes to a larger sense of self-worth that wasn’t even in my emotional library when I was drinking. By taking care of myself, I am taking care of all the parts of my life — including my belongings.
2. I actually look forward to seeing people.
There is a “click” that drinkers know all too well. It doesn’t happen for everyone at the same time or for the same reason; for me, it would happen during my workday when I remembered that I had some kind of engagement that evening. It didn’t matter if it was happy hour or dinner with friends or a movie, because the click had nothing to do with the actual event. The click was the realization: “I get to drink tonight.”
Realistically, I would drink even if I didn’t have an engagement, but the social excuse made things really convenient for me. After the click, I could daydream about drinking and focus on that as my reward for getting through whatever work sent my way. Once the witching hour arrived, I was perfectly happy to gather and see people, but if I am being honest, the people were almost never the main attraction. One of my most vivid recurring memories of drinking at parties is talking to some perfectly nice person and glancing obsessively at the glass in their hand, waiting for them to finish so I could go to the bar and fill my own, long-empty glass.
Now, when I attend a gathering, it is because I feel like seeing people and being seen, being in a crowd, and exchanging energy, laughter, and ideas. If I don’t feel that way, I don’t go. The people I socialize with now are getting the best, most present version of me. I am only ever there because I enthusiastically consent to be there. And I am never, ever just waiting for my friends to stop talking so I can score a refill.
3. I enjoy (and remember) the food.
There were two kinds of food calculations for me during my drinking years: 1) How little food could I get away with so I could get drunker more easily? and 2) What kind of food would allow me to drink more and for longer? Neither of these calculations involved questions like, “What kind of food do I feel like eating? What would taste good to me? What has the host poured their heart and soul into? What would l like to try?”
And let’s not talk about how a night of winding up on the bathroom floor can ruin a food experience. Yuck.
Food is awesome, and getting to geek out on food for food’s sake is a pleasure I didn’t even know I was missing out on until I quit drinking. And I know people like to claim that “real” food experiences aren’t complete without wine pairings, but if your food can’t stand alone without alcohol, are you actually a good cook? And, as the consumer, if you end up blacking out the whole dining experience, was it really that great to begin with?
4. I don’t have to choose between a party and a weekend.
Early in my drinking days, I was very good at what I called “smoothing out” the weekend. That basically meant I could get blasted on Friday, and if I started drinking early enough on Saturday, I could carry the party forward without having to feel the full effects of my hangover. This would, inevitably, catch up with me by Sunday, but that was fine. Sunday’s not a prime party day, anyway.
As I got older, my ability to smooth anything out, much less my hangovers, diminished considerably. That meant I had to limit myself to one event because, if I wanted to get properly drunk (and what would be the point of going, otherwise?), I would need to spend the entire rest of the weekend recovering. Not cleaning my house, not playing with my dog, not writing or working out or gardening or cooking. Just lying in bed scrolling on my phone or watching TV, feeling like death and, usually, enduring waves of shame for whatever I may have said or done at the one event or activity I had chosen above all others.
I try not to live in regret, but the amount of time I wasted in that pitiful state is something that does really bother me. Remembering those days is, honestly, one of my most fail-safe sobriety enforcers.
It’s pandemic times, so I’m not exactly party-hopping this holiday season. But if this were a normal year, I could pack my weekends full of fun social activities and manage all of them — without destroying my wardrobe or my friendships, without starving myself or eating way too much greasy food, without having to metabolize poison from my bloodstream or trying to crawl out from underneath a mountain of crippling anxiety. These are gifts I never want to take for granted. Given that I didn’t even know some of them were possible reminds me that every day I remain sober holds the possibility of new and surprising gifts. That — when it comes to sobriety — the best is always yet to come.
Adrienne is a writer and podcaster living in Jersey City, New Jersey. Her podcast Feminist Hotdog explores finding joy through feminism and living a feminist life. Listen to Adrienne’s interview with Holly Whitaker, author of Quit Like a Woman.