Lessons from a decade of recovery
Celebrating my 10-year soberversary
You can listen to an audio version of this newsletter above. Please note that this is unedited and I’m recording in my home office, so you may hear some meows, raindrops, or traffic in the background.
I’m 10 years sober today!
When I celebrated my 1-year soberversary, I ordered a bunch of pizzas, invited my closest friends, and was gifted with this purple Oxalis (thanks, J & E!), which I’ve miraculously kept alive for a decade.
I wrote about the continual process of recovering from workaholism in Monday’s “Sneaky Productivity” post. Today I’m reflecting on my sobriety journey, which is both textbook and unique, sharing my background and 10 things I’ve learned about myself in a decade of recovery.
My experience with alcohol was fun and sad, full of celebration and loneliness. I started binge drinking as a teenager. When I got to college, I drank copious amounts of boxed wine alone in my apartment (sad) or chugged cheap beer at queer dance parties with my friends (fun).
It was easy to normalize throwing back my seventh beer while scream-singing “Deceptacon” by Le Tigre, bumping into the sweaty, happy bodies on the dance floor at monthly “Operation Sappho” parties.
500 miles away and a few years later, I got sober at age 26 when I was finishing my MFA program. It felt relatively easy to hide my alcoholism when I was in grad school. Everyone was getting wasted at house parties and wine was a staple at poetry readings. But I panicked if a classmate snuck a case of beer into a workshop on campus. Not because it was against the rules, but because I knew I couldn’t stop at one.
Near the end of my “active alcoholism,” the sad, dangerous, and lonely feelings far outweighed the celebration. I’ll be forever grateful to my ex who threatened to dump me if I didn’t get sober when I drunkenly provoked an argument after we came home from some punk show at a warehouse where I’d siphoned as much as I could from the keg.
I can joke that I was so codependent at the time that I would rather have been sober than single, but in reality I was struggling and her ultimatum was the wake up call I needed. If I hadn’t stopped then, I’m certain my drinking would have escalated and I likely would have failed out of my the PhD program I would start that fall, been arrested for a DUI, or much worse.
March 17, 2013 was my first day of recovery.
Here are 10 things I discovered about myself since I got sober.
1. Although I normalized hangovers, they sucked.
When I was actively drinking, I accepted that I would feel like crap every Saturday and Sunday (and some weekdays). While I’m still not a morning person—I won’t schedule a meeting before 10:30am—it’s much easier to start my day without last night’s drinks muddling my head and stomach.
2. I had to relearn how to dance.
I used to go out dancing two to three weekends a month. After a few vodka sodas, my inhibitions quieted, which increased my confidence in my moves. Once I got sober, I had to relearn how to dance without liquid courage. Dancing at weddings helped me get my groove back, since everyone goes wild on the dance floor (note the photo of me at my own wedding below).
3. Therapy helped.
I got diagnosed with Complex PTSD and depression the same year I stopped drinking. Without alcohol as a way to numb out, I finally felt the big feelings I’d been masking. Being able to talk to a therapist about my experience as a newly sober person was incredible. I shared how resentful I felt about not being able to “have fun,” and I came to terms with the reasons I wanted to get blackout drunk in the first place. I also took antidepressants for a year, which helped me move through my period of depression.
4. It’s okay to have boundaries around how long you hang with people who are drinking.
Drunk me had a big “YOLO” (You Only Live Once) energy. I felt like I was the main a character in an indie film on an adventure to make my friends laugh so they would love me forever. Looking back, I was likely quite annoying to anyone who wasn’t as drunk as me because I was loud, pushy, and determined that other folks should follow along with my harebrained ideas. Now when I’m at a celebration and folks are getting drunk, I can laugh with them and I can also choose when I want to drive home to curl up with a book.
5. Talking to other sober people is nice.
I have a handful of sober friends and I really cherish them. Being able to relate to other people about how grateful we are to still be here and how excited we are for each others’ journeys—that feels magical.
6. Even when you’re not going to actually drink but you wish you could just space out, it’s good to say it out loud.
My recovery has been relatively smooth, but there have been times when I felt so terrible and I wished I could have checked out like I used to. I’m lucky to have a supportive spouse and friends who I can chat with when I feel overwhelmed. Being witnessed by others helps to create some distance from what’s overwhelming me, which means I can then choose coping mechanisms that are better for me.
7. Some of my drunk time memories are actually fun and funny.
Yes, my drinking did almost ruin my life, but it wasn’t all bad all the time. When I was partying, I’d often get sucked into the awe of the moment and come up with ridiculous schemes. Here’s one of my favorite and silliest memories.
Someone put on Daft Punk at one of the many parties I threw in college, and I was certain that my friends and I could recreate this complexly choreographed video to “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” where two people with lyrics on their limbs rapidly shift between poses to line up with the music, which accelerates in speed.
So I hyped folks up to rustle up some sharpies, strip down to our undies, and draw the lyrics on our arms and legs. We (obviously) failed within three minutes, but it’s still a hilarious memory.
8. Let’s stop moralizing recovery.
People don’t become alcoholics or addicts because it’s fun to be an alcoholic or an addict. People turn to substances as a way to cope with life when living feels incredibly challenging due to white supremacy, late stage capitalism, and other ideologies that result in actual abuse and material harm. Let’s not penalize folks who use drugs or alcohol in an effort to survive. Also, let’s not stigmatize people who choose moderation or other versions of use and recovery. Harm reduction saves lives.
9. Find a special non-alcohol drink to enjoy in a fancy glass.
When we first met, Kris went all out to make me fancy mocktails (thanks babe). Whenever I’m hanging out with pals who are drinking alcohol, I bring a fancy flavored seltzer or bourgeois soda to drink in a coup or wine glass. In my experience, bartenders are happy to adjust an alcoholic drink to make a similar, non-alcoholic one. Just be sure to let them know if you’re okay with drinking bitters or not (I am, and angostora bitters in soda water is my simple bar go-to drink).
10. Everyone’s path is unique and that is okay.
While some folks are great with moderation, I choose not to drink at all so I don’t have to deal with cutting myself off. I do treat my chronic illnesses with tinctures, which are concentrated amounts of medicinal plants in high-proof alcohol, and I feel fine with that. Some folks prefer tinctures made with glycerine instead of alcohol. Some folks do a “Dry January” and decide to have a glass of wine every now and then. It’s okay to try different things and change your mind. We all recover in our own ways.
This section of my letters is for things that made me say “hmmm” or “wow!” recently.
I’m super proud that my best friend Dr. Chris Belcher’s book Pretty Baby is a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award for memoir! Chris and I have been friends since college and I continue to be amazed by her wit and talent as a writer and book coach.
I finished reading Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow last week and it was such a beautiful book and it was fun to learn about video game design in the 90s and 2000s.
I’m reading the first book of R. F. Kuang’s Poppy War Triology and I am hooked. No surprise here as her book Babel is easily going to be one of my top reads of 2023.
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Take care and talk soon,
Your journey and the lessons you've learned are inspirational. What a beautiful look back at a time and making more sense of things as you progress. Thanks for sharing it with us.
Also: that Daft Punk video is actually super funny. Or at least it looks funny to make! :)
What a great list! Always love reading about other people's journies and how they deal with their demons - ongoing and temporary - there's so much wisdom to be found in how people move through life. I love a good mocktail too and totally agree about still making those drinks as special and nicely presented as the alcoholic ones.😍 Also: reeeeally love your leopard print boots -- the best neutral there is, I reckon! 🐆🐆🐆