Booze Free Hero: Sarah Hepola

 

It is not surprising that Sarah Hepola's first book, Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, was a New York Times bestseller. Her story was so completely gripping, I read it from cover to cover in a day.

I had been a fan Sarah's work as a writer and editor from her time at Slate.com. When Blackout was published in the summer of 2015, I was still a ways off from quitting drinking, though I was already flirting with the idea. I had heard her interview on Fresh Air with Terry Gross and obsessed about the things she said until I had her book in my hands.

As I read Blackout, I counted the ways my own drinking was different than Sarah's, but I knew there were many more similarities thanks to the clear and precise way she was able to describe her own thinking about drinking and her emotional relationship to booze--a thing that can be surprisingly hard to pin down. The booked moved me a lot and it stayed with me.

After Sarah answered my Q&A via email, I was inspired to re-read Blackout. It was just as compelling as it was two years ago; I read it in a day. 

From my new perspective as a nondrinker, I focused more on the similarities in our drinking than the differences. The associations of drinking with creativity, with being a powerful woman, and worldly, are toxic ideas we shared. I appreciated Sarah's writing about how alcohol shaped her relationships and especially how drinking and not drinking affected her weight and body image. If any of these things are on your mind, too, you should pick up the book.    

Sarah is now working on another book and I can't wait to read it. 

Here's Sarah's Q&A, we talked over email.

When did you first realize that life could be better without booze?

That took a while. I knew from an early point that life would be *simpler* without booze. I could save money, sleep through the night, stop apologizing. But for at least a year, I carried a sense of gnawing deprivation. I would get these little moments of reprieve — a sunrise without a hangover, a fun night playing silly board games —  where I would think: Maybe this won’t be so bad. But I had to power through that miserable year before those moments could link together in anything resembling a better life. 

Part of that shift also required me to make certain changes. I moved out of New York City, which helped my finances. I stopped binge eating, which helped me find more peace in my body. I started working on a book, which I had wanted to do for as long as I can remember, but I could never find the focus or discipline. I started realizing: So all this time I was *drinking* to feel better, I was actually keeping myself from feeling better on my own? That was such an epiphany. Drinking hadn’t fixed me; it had kept me stuck. Once I could see that, the gnawing deprivation began to transform into something more like the fondness you feel for an early love. I’m grateful I had it, and I’m grateful I’m beyond it.

What do you most enjoy about not drinking?

I’m still delighted when I go to a nice restaurant with a fellow non-drinker and the bill comes. I wrote once that “getting sober is like dining out with a 50 percent off coupon.” That’s not what I enjoy most, but seven years in, I still enjoy it. No, the best times are the unvarnished moments of intimacy with a friend or someone I’m dating. Those moments when I know this connection, this bliss is authentic— as opposed to being delivered by a bottle of wine. People think of alcohol as “the great revealer,” and it can be, but just as often, it’s the great distorter. I loved everyone when I was drinking, but it was a counterfeit affection, very surface-level. Now, when I feel that surge of affection and acceptance, I know in my heart: I really love this person. It’s a happiness that feels earned.  

Do you have any advice for people who might be considering taking alcohol out of their lives?

When I first started trying to get sober, I spent a lot of time in my mind wrestling with the “Am I an alcoholic?” question. I went pretty deep with it: What’s the cause of addiction, and what does science say, and what’s the meaning of alcoholism. Fascinating questions, but also a way to procrastinate. Like, I know I need to quit drinking, but first, let me figure out the nature of man. One of the best litmus tests I did around that time was to try controlled drinking —  basically, you limit yourself to two drinks (no more, no less) each night for a month and see if you can successfully moderate your drinking. I think I failed the second day. That made it pretty clear, although I still dragged my feet for months. Looking back, I wish I’d spent less time wringing my hands over whether I was an alcoholic and just asked a more direct question: Is alcohol working in my life? 

What is your favorite festive nonalcoholic beverage?

I’m a big fan of the La Croix line of flavored seltzer. Passion fruit is my current obsession. A few weeks ago, I went to a fancy restaurant that served craft cocktails without booze, and it was so delicious. Why more restaurants aren’t doing this, I can’t fathom. It’s a goldmine, because the restaurant can charge you an arm and a leg for a drink that doesn’t even have alcohol. But people like me will pay that, because we like the special-ness of having that pretty cocktail glass. (There goes my half-off coupon). Unfortunately, there’s a stigma to non-alcoholic drinks, and because nobody offers them, the logic is that no one wants them. I think that’s a missed opportunity. If the juicing trend has proven anything, it’s how much people will pay for drinks with no booze in them. 

What is one assumption drinkers have about the dry life that you think they’ve got wrong?

I really thought everyone drank. This is something heavy drinkers like to tell themselves, and it’s enforced by the fact that they hang out with a self-selecting group of boozers who make it *seem* like everyone drinks. I was shocked at the number of people — people I knew and admired — who didn’t drink at all, or drank very little, but I had never noticed. There’s a statistic that ten percent of drinkers consume more than half the world’s booze. That was my tribe. But once you’re out of that 10 percent, that’s 90 percent of the world to meet. 

Also, I thought sobriety would be boring. Drinking nights were my source for wild fun, so without the alcohol, I thought life would be drab. But sobriety is a very intense trip. Sex is more intense, conversations are more intense, everything. It’s funny, because heavy drinkers tend to be the extreme type, who want to experience everything to its fullest — but alcohol is numbing. Ultimately it distances you, and it anesthetizes you. Sobriety has brought me nose-to-nose with what it means to be human. It’s challenging, and I’ve used up a lot of Kleenex, but it’s worth it.

 
joy manning