From the ages of 19 to 39, I lived what I thought was a full and mostly happy life.
I checked off all the conventional boxes: college, marriage, home, kids, and career.
But it was also a life framed and embellished by alcohol.
I was the enthusiastic party planner who brought my friends together, and those get-togethers always included drinking. From brunch with the girls and vacations with my husband to my daughter’s birthday parties, I always had a glass of wine or a beer in hand. Whether it was one (big) glass of wine while reading in the bath, or 10 beers in the backyard during spring’s first barbecue, you could count on me to get the party poppin’.
There were epic good times I wouldn’t take back. Like a surprise birthday getaway with all of my college friends on Minnesota’s north shore. Mornings turned into afternoons drinking many Bloody Marys, then beers, then shots with strange and interesting men on the patio of the Uptown Bar in Minneapolis. And there was beer and whiskey at band practice. Elaborate weekly dinners and a metric ton of pinot grigio every Thursday to watch “Friends” and “Will & Grace” together. Bottle after bottle of not-great merlot on the Turkish Riviera with my college love. Labor Day camping on the Saint Croix, shot-gunning Coors and taking turns doubled over in laughter.
Back then, my formula for happiness was: my people, a great meal, and a river of alcohol. For me, that was my heaven on Earth. In times like these, I felt like I belonged. I felt beautiful and free.
But alcohol quickly seeped from my social life into my everyday life, as it tends to unless we exert some degree of control over it. Having a drink became a given. Broadway legend Elaine Stritch so honestly said, “I wasn’t drunk every day, but I drank every day.” In my case, I didn’t drink every day, but I drank most days—whether it was two glasses or 12.
I was not a “problem drinker” in terms of having a reputation for becoming belligerent, getting sick, falling down, blacking out, or any of that.
Don’t get me wrong—I did each and every one of those things more times than I can remember over the 20 years that I abused alcohol. But I wasn’t necessarily that girl—that “liability” that everybody knows they’ll be hoisting into a cab after she’s picked a fight and thrown up all over her halter top.
While I suffered and caused plenty of complication and injury as a result of drinking—from an abusive long-term relationship in my early 20s, to depression, anxiety, terrible hangovers, perpetual body-bloat, and constant fatigue—my drinking was more or less aligned with everyone around me.
And if tolerance was a measure of my ability to consistently binge drink and still check off those basic boxes indicating having one’s sh*t together, then I figured I was doing alright. And I was mostly enjoying myself…until I wasn’t anymore.
Picture a 34-year-old mother of a two-year-old, plus one-year-old twins. I’m on my knees hunched over the toilet, ramming my toothbrush down my throat in an unsuccessful attempt to bring up the previous night’s poison. Tears run down my face as I started to panic. Those three babies are playing just on the other side of the door, and I can’t unpin myself from the floor to care for them. If you have kids and you’ve ever drank to excess, you likely know that hungover parenting is no joke. It’s pretty much a waking nightmare.
Around age 36, I began to sense that a great parting of ways with alcohol was in my future. I hadn’t truly enjoyed drinking for years. I couldn’t catch a buzz to save my life. Even after buckets of pinot grigio while out with my friends, I just felt like a sober person trapped in a slow, heavy body—the opposite of beautiful and free.
I persisted nevertheless, even though I’d come home from these gatherings feeling evermore empty and disconnected from the life and the people I had long loved. I could go out to the best restaurant with the best friends, drink volumes of the best wine, and still leave feeling empty.
To an Irish-Italian Leo who had formerly lived for that sh*t, it was like a slow death.
I realize now that I felt empty because it wasn’t actually the good energy of these good people I was connecting with anymore. I was there for the wine—the release from fear and suffering through distraction—expecting it to fill me up, or make me feel something dressed up as pleasure.
Eventually, “enthusiastic drinking woman” simply wasn’t a meaty enough role to play. I wanted to be about so much more than that. But if drinking with my friends wasn’t fun anymore, who was I? And if it wasn’t fun anymore, what was the point?
Alcohol no longer delivered on its promise.
And I was paying attention to how often it let me down.
I thought about my three young daughters, and how I wanted their lives to be. I wanted them to drink from the growler of life itself, rather than live a half-life: half present, half hungover, and more than a little dependent, numb, and damaged. Frankly, I wanted them to have better things to do with their time, and to be so turned on by their life and its purpose that alcohol was an occasional accompaniment at most.
But how could I give them a model for genuinely joyful and resilient womanhood if I wasn’t living that way myself?
I’d had a drink in my hand since 1997, when I started to believe that I wasn’t beautiful or lovable without it. So what the hell did I know about living authentically and appreciating the miracle that is this experience?
“You hypocrite! You drink all the time!” I heard them yell, a future argument playing out in my head.
I realized that I have three little girls who will quickly become women in a sometimes intensely cruel, dangerous, and fear-torn world. So I’d better be raising warriors, not winos. And I can’t very well teach them the way of the modern female warrior unless I am one.
Still, it amazed me how much I’d accomplished as only half of myself. What was possible, then, if I showed up as a nondrinker with all of my faculties and energy at my disposal? What might I have to offer the world, and what might I have to get real honest about, were I to stop trying so desperately and unsuccessfully to extinguish my own fire?
The idea scared me a bit, because that fire—my creativity, my ideas, my stories, my compassion, my imagination, my grief, my love, my wildness, my sensuality, and my outrage—that sh*t felt like it could burn down a ZIP code without alcohol to dampen and contain it.
I drank in part because I didn’t know how to tolerate my own creative power, let alone wield it. I didn’t feel strong enough to withstand the fire of my higher self, burning and beckoning me to remember why I came here, and to create something in service to others.
So I decided to be a nondrinker for at least a year.
I wanted to give myself an expanse of time to explore and experience life without a drink in my hand. I’d quit for two months several years prior, as well as during my pregnancies, save for the odd two ounces of red wine pitifully nursed over as many hours after the first trimester. This go-round, I wanted to have plenty of room to work with myself.
I had my last glass of wine at midnight on August 18, 2017, after coming home from my birthday dinner. Much to my amusement, I couldn’t even finish it.
Quitting booze wasn’t like driving a flag into the ground with a bold statement of self-improvement, or a righteous, “from-now-on” style of self-discipline. Rather, it was my happy secret, and I was really looking forward to it. Drinking had become such a chore, and I was beyond fed up with the disappointment in finding no pleasure there. So I was excited and relieved not to make this change, but to gratefully accept that the change had already been made on my behalf. That’s how it felt anyway—like someone had flipped my drinking switch.
Instead of willpower, which fails us and leaves us more damaged than before, I had the blessing and the advantage of fundamentally changed core beliefs about drinking. I no longer believed that I was enjoying it. I no longer believed that I needed a drink in my hand to be witty, sparkly, likable, and comfortable. And I also magically cared a whole lot less about being those things. And anyway, it was making me the opposite of all that. Drinking was making me feel bored and boring, tired and old.
Once my beliefs about alcohol changed, I can’t even say that I quit. I just let it go. I let it shrivel up and fall away like so many aspects of my identity that I thought were permanent.
I have been a nondrinker for nearly seven months.
This is not a success story. This is a work in progress.
It’s also not a condemnation of anyone who drinks—which would just be so rich, wouldn’t it?—or anyone who is in recovery, or using any other recovery/sobriety modality. I do not call myself an alcoholic and I am not in recovery. What I did is called spontaneous sobriety. I do not know or need to know that I will never drink again. I’m only certain that I will never again drink the way that I did—as a presumption, a given, a daily habit without conscious examination and questioning.
Overall, my life has become much better, and also more difficult.
While drinking habitually is hard work in and of itself, these first several months have been harder. They’re not harder in terms of resisting the urge to drink, which I don’t really have.
But the reality is that, once I stopped running and numbing, every last sh*t-lump of hot and heavy grief was there, and had been waiting for me all along. I finally stopped, turned around, and said to my pain, “I am ready. Do your worst.” And so in some ways, it has—and in all of the ways that it needed to.
I am no longer using alcohol to chase down pleasure and avoid pain. I am allowing duality. In between joyful times, I have sorrowful waves of unpleasantness. And they do not have definitions. It’s not like “Oh, there you are Specific Unresolved Childhood Trauma. I’ve been expecting you.”
No, these emotions are dense, faceless, and nameless, and they do not care about my plans to feel good today. They’re more like The Wedding Singer saying, “I have the microphone and you don’t. So you will listen to every damn word I have to say!” And so I sit with it, and it lifts and lowers as it must, each time revealing a little bit more of what’s been there all along, for better or worse.
Elaine Stritch also said, “Don’t drink too much. Because you know what it does? It destroys who you really are.”
So I’m going back to get that girl from 1997, just as she was about to forget herself. I’m pulling up to Billy’s on Grand at last call and yelling, “Get in, Chuggles! You have sh*t to do.” We’re going to pick up where we left off: full of fire, but wielding it rather than allowing ourselves to be consumed by it, and ready to offer our gifts of comedy, compassion, and healing to others. And we’ll comfort, love, and heal ourselves in the process.
It’s about remembering what I’d forgotten. Or what I’d never been aware enough to appreciate in the first place.
At home, my three daughters are reminding me what real joy looks, feels, smells, and tastes like—what it’s like to be fiercely happy, accepting of suffering, truly resilient, and free from the misconception that I need alcohol to enhance the experience of my messy and magnificent life.
My husband, also a nondrinker for more than two years, reminds me that I am loved, destined, and capable, even as a perpetually yoga-panted recluse. He still seems to enjoy being wed to “She of the Attic Dwellers,” since I spend much of my time in the peak of our little house, figuring myself out while he dutifully keeps the wheels on the Family Truckster. Thank Goddess for his unfailing devotion, his utter selflessness, and his ability to see my path even clearer than I do sometimes.
I like to think that this party girl will return to the scene someday—a major, splashy comeback—per chance to celebrate the book launch in my dreams. I picture myself impeccably dressed, having burned the pajamas I lived in for months (years?) to write my book. I’ll have a soda with lime in hand, and my husband and our girls by my side. I’ll feel beautiful and free—authentically on the inside—and my outsides will match. I’ll stand tall and bright, having created something in love and devotion to others, and I’ll be fully rooted in the splendor of that moment—just as it is.
To check out the resources I’ve enjoyed thus far on my journey, consider listening to the Home podcast, reading This Naked Mind, and following Hip Sobriety and Laura McKowen. Thanks especially to these brave, brilliant, and articulate women for lighting the way for the rest of us.
Bonus: How to Bike Every Day.
Author: Kate Rusciano
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy & Social Editor: Nicole Cameron