When I woke up in a stranger’s bed a few days after my 28th birthday, I made the decision to stop drinking alcohol. It wasn’t the first morning I had woken up in an unfamiliar apartment after a night of partying, but the shame I felt was deep enough to inspire a change.
In the five years since that hangover in Brooklyn, a lot has changed. First, a bit of backstory: I’m a millennial who grew up in a work-hard-play-hard culture. As long as my outsides looked impressive – good grades, a fit body, a robust social life – it meant I was okay, too. But I wasn’t okay; not really. I struggled with low self-worth, disordered eating, and a brain that told me none of my accomplishments would ever be good enough. For years, alcohol was the antidote to my anxiety. That first sip at 16 was a massive exhale, a respite from my exhausting inner monologue.
You already know where this is going. My drinking got messier. I blacked out frequently, lost wallets, and picked fights with friends. I regretted drunken hookups and cringed as I read my call log and text messages the next morning. I tried to moderate my alcohol intake and made rules about my consumption – wine only, no shots, water in between drinks – but nothing seemed to work. Finally, in a moment of desperation, I became willing to make a change. Call it what you want – alcohol use disorder, problematic drinking, addiction. The label didn’t matter; I had become hooked on a habit that wasn’t serving me anymore.
I got sober both slowly and all at once. Giving up alcohol happened swiftly: I skipped happy hours and filled a shoebox with old shot glasses, stashing it in a closet behind my rain boots. Recovery, on the other hand, trickled in. At the advice of a therapist, I navigated life in 24-hour increments: one day at a time. I replaced the wine in my kitchen with bags of licorice and, in moments when a cocktail sounded good, ate candy to replace the sugar craving. I binged TV shows, drank six-packs of seltzer, and reminded myself that the desire to drink would likely pass. By the next day, it always had. I also found it helpful to “play the tape forward.” I would imagine a movie of myself taking that first drink, then the second, third, etcetera, all the way to me waking up the next morning with a splitting headache. They say connection is the opposite of addiction, and finding a sober community through recovery meetings in my city also proved powerful in those initial months.
After a few weeks of hibernating, I started to reemerge into the world. There were big occasions to celebrate – engagement parties, weddings, birthdays, and holidays – and I was determined not to miss out just because I wasn’t drinking anymore. Still, those first sober events were challenging. At a friend’s engagement party I ordered myself a shot of water, desperate to appear to be drinking like everyone else. I hid in the bathroom at a wedding until cocktail hour was over, not trusting myself around the free flowing Champagne. I felt like a raw nerve, exposed and aware of every passing second. It was confusing: I was surrounded by friends and loved ones, and yet I couldn’t remember how we used to connect.
My discomfort was temporary. Within a couple of months the desire to drink had all but disappeared, and I began to fall in love with the perks of an alcohol-free life. I was clear-eyed, well-rested, less bloated, and remarkably calmer. I was proud of myself for sticking with sobriety, and began to develop more self-esteem. And where my liquid courage always wore off, my newfound inner confidence seemed to stick.
In some ways, attending events in early sobriety provided a new kind of high. Everything, from dates to Friday nights, felt fresh. I was a doe-eyed baby deer, timid but ready. I walked through my alcohol-free firsts like an anthropologist, observing the customs I had missed in my drunken stupors. Because I wasn’t constantly obsessed with getting my next drink, I was more present with friends and asked questions about their lives. I remembered to bring cards to birthday dinners and helped my mom with the dessert dishes at Thanksgiving. At a close friend’s wedding, I cried genuine tears of joy. I had cried at weddings before getting sober, but it usually happened at the end of the night when I was drunk, sloppy, and lonely. Now, I knew how to authentically celebrate others without needing a drink to enhance or conceal my emotions.
But while joyful events no longer tempted me to drink, there were other life moments I wished I could numb. Grief, for example. When I lost both of my grandparents a year apart, I wept nonstop for what felt like months. Their deaths seemed untimely; both were relatively young and passed away suddenly. My grandparents lived in France and, because of COVID restrictions, my extended family was unable to gather in-person for their funerals or hug each other as we mourned. My emotions – anger, sadness, resentment – were big and ugly. I was jealous of people who could temper their grief with a glass of wine, an admission that felt shameful to confess out loud.
In my early twenties, perpetually drunk and self-absorbed, I had gone years without visiting my grandparents. In the time we had together after I got sober, I made amends for my absence over the last decade and prioritized joyful moments together, like looking at old photo albums and listening to stories from their youth. On a solo trip to visit them, instead of getting buzzed on wine at lunch, my grandmother and I giggled as we ordered a second plate of fries. Two days before my grandfather passed away, I boarded an international flight back to France – on time, without a hangover – so my dad and I could say our goodbyes. We stayed up for days cleaning out their apartment, jetlagged and delirious, laughing through tears as we uncovered old photos and memories. I eyed my dad’s wine glass at the end of each long day, briefly curious about how it might feel to lower the volume on these particularly terrible feelings. But I was also oddly grateful to be sober and present for it all. At least it meant I was there, really there, curled up on my grandparents’ couch one last time.
Prior to my getting sober, there had been a long list of future events I didn’t think I could handle without drinking. Losing a loved one had been one. My honeymoon was another; the entire premise seemed contingent on sipping cocktails on the beach with the love of your life. I feared that no one would want to marry someone sober; that I would seem boring. The mere thought of it had kept me drinking for years even though I didn’t have a boyfriend, let alone a honeymoon on the horizon.
When I got married four years later, the long-awaited trip came to fruition. When we landed in Hawaii, I realized I had been right – there was alcohol waiting for me at every turn. A welcome bottle of wine in our hotel, cocktail menus on the beach, complimentary Champagne at dinners. But I saw it all differently than I once imagined. My honeymoon was living proof that quitting drinking had been the right decision for me. Because of sobriety, I had developed the self-esteem that allowed me to form a healthy, loving partnership, celebrate my friends, and show up for my family. In the end, my honeymoon was the trip of a lifetime in ways I could have never imagined; we woke up early to watch the sunrise, made each other laugh, and chatted in bed before drifting off to sleep, excited for the next day. Without the fog of alcohol, I clearly remembered every bit of the trip, which certainly would not have been the case if I had been drinking. I gave up one thing – alcohol – and got so much more in return. Life, and all its virgin pina coladas, has never been sweeter.
Sarah Levy is the author of Drinking Games, a new memoir in essays about her relationship with alcohol and how her life changed in sobriety, available now from St. Martin’s Press. She lives in Los Angeles.
(Top photo by Anna Rvanova/Stocksy. Author photo by Molly Torian.)