Why I Quit
Back in December, I was visiting my sister, Jill, and her family. It was basically a typical visit, with plenty of hanging out around her house and drinking. This had been our sister bonding MO for years.
But one night, Jill’s drinking scared me. It was the night before I left, and because I faced a six hour drive in the morning, I’d decided not to drink. Jill said she’d also not drink that night. But then she drank. I knew that drinking after you’d decided not to drink is a red flag for problem drinking. I did the same thing sometimes, and it was hard to watch.
My fears may have bubbled over the top right then because just before I left for that visit, I filed a story on risky drinking for Prevention. It might have been because her drinking episode reminded me a lot of my own drinking; it was like seeing myself from the outside. It might have been because I was leaving the next day and feeling emotional about saying goodbye to her and my three-year-old niece. I love them desperately and hate being apart.
In the morning, I had to say something to her about it. I did it with as much love and support as I could. Even though the incident was hardly what you might see on an episode of Intervention, I reminded her that alcoholism runs in our family and that drinking quickly spirals out of control. I think she felt a bit shamed and judged—but also loved. I hope. Before I drove away, I stood in the street in front of her house hugging her as hard as I could for as long as she’d let me. This is a hard conversation to have with someone you love.
I’ve written a fair amount on the topic of women and alcohol. I’m drawn to the subject because it’s always been an issue for me. Some of my earliest memories are of hating and fearing my father’s drinking and wishing with all my tiny might he would stop. As a kid, I was sure I would never drink at all and avoided alcohol until I was 20 years old, when I started drinking because I wanted to be accepted by a hard drinking boy who monopolized my waking thoughts for several years.
Since then, I’ve had a drinking problem. The problem has never been addiction, at least not the kind of addiction most of us picture. I’ve never had a DUI, a run-in with the law, a one-night stand, a morning waking up without knowing how I got there. I’ve never been a daytime drinker or a flask carrier. Instead, it’s been an invisible crisis of poor judgment and a lack of vision.
For two decades, I accepted feeling less than my best. Even moderate drinking—which was the way I drank most of the time—makes me feel worse than if I had no alcohol. The problem is that I feel a lot better without booze, but I drank almost daily anyway.
When Jill and I got on the phone after I was back home, we talked more about the trouble with alcohol. With the holidays on the horizon, it seemed too hard for either of us to address drinking immediately. She decided she’d take the “Dry January” challenge, an annual program popular in the UK, during which participants abstain from alcohol for 31 days. She asked that I join her; we’d done it together before. I said I would, mostly out of guilt for making her feel bad.
For the first 14 days of 2017, I pushed through the challenge, feeling deprived and resentful, not really clear why I was doing it at all.
Meanwhile, in another lane of my life, I read a bunch of new age-y, spiritual books. This was less to help with the Dry January effort, more to help me think about getting more service, connection, and meaning into my life. Busywork dominated my 2016. The year had been a treadmill of deadlines and weekends I worked through. What did I really want out of my career? It was time to think bigger, set new goals, make an impact in 2017.
So I was reading Spirit Junkie, a book that is mostly nonsense, but I took the parts about asking your inner voice/God/the universe for guidance seriously. I meditated. I journaled. I asked the Holy Spirit to help me.
In retrospect, I was in the final stages of courting the lightning bolt.
On January 14, my resolve cracked and I drank. I had one beer at a party and then two glasses of wine over dinner at a restaurant. I wasn’t drunk, but I did bolt awake at 2 am, heart beating fast and my mind churning. This happens to me almost every time I drink, even as little as one glass of wine.
As usual, I got out of bed and went to another room to read for a while. After that I went back to bed and had a familiar fitful night, drifting into the edges of sleep, never really falling deeply asleep to get that real rest I had been enjoying for the past two weeks.
Those hours were different than before though. I wasn’t angry with myself. I didn’t beat myself up about drinking. I didn’t feel ashamed. I had the palpable sensation of something snapping in my chest, the feeling of tightness being released, a clog breaking up.
I’m done drinking, I thought. This part of my life is over. I’m free. The next day I felt exhausted and depleted, but I looked forward to a booze-free night’s rest. I looked forward to tomorrow, the next day, and the day after that.
Did I just experience a miracle of the Holy Spirit? I wondered. Is this what guidance from the “Universe” feels like? Could I really be done drinking, something that has vexed me for two decades, because of something I do not even remotely understand, something I cannot take credit for? The feeling of closure and freedom I had was strong, but I doubted it. It seemed like it wouldn’t last.
The rational part of me believes that what really happened is that all my past efforts, periods of abstinence, research, writing, soul-searching, and self-experimenting reached a tipping point and I was able to cross over into a new perspective.
The rest of Dry January required no will power at all. I looked ahead to February, when I would move into our not-yet-renovated new house, and on to March, when I had a professional conference. I knew I preferred not-drinking to drinking, and had long known that, but I worried about breaking longstanding habits and social pressures. I didn’t trust the change inside myself. I don’t really believe in miracles, of course.
More than six month into my non-drinking life, I’ve started thinking of myself as someone who doesn’t drink and I welcome that into my identity. More accurately, I’m welcoming it back into my identity. When I was in my late teens, I chose sobriety until I lost that part of myself, among others, to a bad relationship that dominated my early 20s.
I’m not missing out on anything now; I now see what I was missing before.