I’m not here to convince you to never pick up another drink.
But if you find yourself questioning your relationship with alcohol, I have a simple request: stay curious. Nourish your curiosity. Feed it with conversation. Make sweet dialogue. Go deep. Take pleasure in the digging. Delight in the excavation.
I was curious about my drinking long before I made the decision to get and stay sober 11 months ago. I spent years asking questions that I preferred remain unanswered: do I have a problem with alcohol? How much is too much? Is it normal to feel perpetually anxious? Is it possible that my depression is linked to the booze? (Surely one isn’t rendered depressed by a depressant. And even if that were true, I would be the exception.)
I was curious about my relationship with alcohol, but I didn’t stay curious. I couldn’t stay curious. Taking a magnifying glass to my drinking would have scorched me sober. I was protecting what I loved. The wine, the beer, the vodka, the Stockholm syndrome—it had me.
I recently unearthed a pair of five-year-old journal entries written at the beginning and end of Dry January. I don’t recall having awareness at that time that my drinking was problematic, but the evidence is damning: I wrote about my pain. I gave it a voice. I admitted that I had a problem. Within the sanctuary of those pages, I dared to confess that I was reaping the benefits of even a short respite from drinking.
Five years ago, my inner voice, my “knowing,” was confident and direct, “Stop drinking.” This wise and benevolent guide was not suggesting that I stop drinking only for the month of January. Some part of me knew exactly what was required for me to radically change my life for the better. My higher self was broadcasting her wisdom, and I smothered her into silence.
I resisted my evolution with earned defiance. I had traveled too far to turn around and admit that the road I had been following for so long was a dead end. It would take four more years of ritualistic self-destruction before I allowed my curiosity to reroute me—to show me how to lift myself from the vast, ocean-blue soul ache.
Journal Entry: January 2, 2016
I just started this Dry January thing. I already hate it. Who am I without alcohol? Will I just never go to bars again? Can I really have fun without drinking? Life without alcohol feels colorless.
And then there are the feelings. There are too many of them. My drinking has gotten so much worse since my dad died. I keep telling myself it’s a phase. But it’s not a phase; it’s a progression.
I’m not sure if I can call what I’m doing actually “living.” Sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in an endless cycle of waking and sleeping. Why doesn’t anyone warn you about how exhausting breathing can be? The anxiety is beginning to outweigh the pleasure, though I do a masterful job of forgetting this every day.
My psychiatrist keeps warning me about the potential for respiratory failure. Apparently, combining my meds with alcohol is epically stupid and dangerous. Closing my eyes at night is like playing a game of Russian roulette. Will I wake up? Do I care? This incessant not-dying is making me smug.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m staying alive to be polite—to not bring pain to my friends and family. I don’t think it’s supposed to feel like this. Life can’t be this. This can’t be living. How did I get here? How did I get so trapped?
By far, the worst part is that I’m petrified that I might actually be more than this—that this “hot mess” persona is a sneaky, if unoriginal, defense mechanism, so I don’t have to actually show up for my life. It’s hard to describe, but it’s as though I’m right at the edge of something beautiful—a very different life, the life I’m supposed to be living.
Journal Entry: February 1, 2016
I made it through Dry January! Here’s what I’ve learned:
>> I have a problem with alcohol.
>> I really don’t like admitting that I have a problem with alcohol.
>> I would like to make that problem go away.
>> I am 100 percent capable of making that problem go away.
>> I keep telling myself that I can’t stop drinking.
>> I make excuses about how alcohol benefits me.
>> I’ve been anesthetizing my pain for years.
>> I know that alcohol is connected to every other problem in my life.
>> I’m terrified of being sober forever.
I feel healthier than I have in years. My mood has never been better. It’s this indescribable relief. It’s so freeing to not expend an enormous amount of energy each day deciding whether or not to drink or how much. There’s no internal battle to fight, no self-inflicted anxiety, no guilt-ridden aftertaste.
I don’t know what February holds. I committed to January, and now I’m panicking. I feel good, but this is still so hard. Why does common sense require so much courage? It should be easier to stay alive and not want to poison myself.
The Unlived Life
A few days later, I scrawled in shaky handwriting that I gave in and drank; if shame was a font, it was all over those pages. I continued to drink, more or less continuously, until I made the commitment to get and stay sober 11 months ago. On March 6, 2020, my intention was—and still is—for this to be a permanent choice.
Reading these journal entries was haunting and intensely painful. I was right there, on the brink of this unimaginably gratifying, sober life—and I knew it. I could sense its proximity with my razor-sharp intuition. What if I had listened to my inner voice five years ago? What if I had done the digging, excavated the truth, stayed curious, stayed sober?
In the spirit of “everything happens for a reason” (a notion I don’t fully subscribe to), one could argue that the years unfolded exactly as they needed to. Perhaps there was no other path. But I’m unconvinced that it works that way. The universe is more gracious than that. There is more than one way to become.
I gave myself permission to grieve the life I chose not to live—the life I denied myself by choosing alcohol over intuition, by valuing today over tomorrow. I mourned the expansive love, peace, and healing that could wait “just one more day”—day after day after day. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, months to years.
If you’ve made it this far into Dry January, it’s likely that you’re already harvesting the rewards of an alcohol-free life. Or perhaps putting down the bottle, feeling your feelings, and navigating life completely naked is the hardest thing you’ve ever done. It’s amazing how fertile the space is between the worst and the best of things.
If you’ve been called to examine your drinking, my wish for you is that you get and stay curious. Find the reasons under the reasons. Don’t tune out of the frequency of your most enlightened teacher (you). You wouldn’t be hearing the messages, however faint, if you weren’t ready to receive them.
Despite efforts to silence the inner voice and obscure the path, you will eventually choose to listen. Your knowing doesn’t quit. There is no “off” switch. It will not give up on you. The question is, will you listen now, or will you listen later?
I meant what I said: I’m not here to convince you to never pick up another drink.
But please do not, under any circumstances, do what I did. Do not postpone your growth. Do not prolong your suffering. Pain is inevitable; suffering is a lifestyle choice.
If you stay in the ache longer than necessary, you will still find your way home. We inhabit a merciful and compassionate universe that extends infinite chances to get it right. You cannot miss your destiny, but you can certainly take the long way. I recommend turning around the moment you sense that you are traveling a dead-end road.
This February will be my 12th consecutive month of sobriety. If you care to join me in staying curious, I hear Dry February is pretty fabulous.