The space between my belly and the bar

Today marks three years since I’ve had a drink.

I’ve never spoken much about this. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. But with three years under my belt, I thought it might be time to break the silence. My story—like all stories—is unique, but maybe someone out there will find it useful.

I never use the word “sober,” because technically, I’m not. In the three years since I’ve said goodbye to alcohol, I have, on special occasions, ingested certain psychedelic substances. I have also consumed my fair share of medicinal herbs. I am perfectly OK with this.

You see, alcohol was what I had the trouble with, not addiction across the board. I’m not sure if it was even an addiction to alcohol (it certainly wasn’t a physical one), but rather an inability to control myself under the influence, an inability to realize or care when I’d had too much, an inability to recover the following day. Even after three years, I believe that having even one beer could set the whole monster in motion again, so I stay away from the sauce completely. (Is this what addiction is?)

Herb never caused me any harm. No amount of pot smoking ever led me to take my clothes off in public, sleep with the wrong person, or get into huge screaming matches with my partner. It never gave me vomitous hangovers that lasted for days. Other than inciting fear of legal repercussion (of which I’ve had almost none), or making me eat too much pizza, weed never did anything wrong to me. Now as for the other stuff, I always have believed in the value of a semi-annual psychedelic experience (and still do). I find it good for the art and the heart. With the exception of one wild year or two in college, I never had any desire to do it more than a couple of times a year, and almost always, those times have been beautiful. (Even Alcoholics Anonymous founder, Bill Wilson, thought that psychedelic experiences were good for you, and even believed that LSD, when used in a safe environment, could be helpful to alcoholics. This practice, however, is considered controversial by the AA organization, who believes a strict abstinence from all controlled substances is necessary for recovery.)

When I was 22 years old, I brought my dog Siddha to a party. She was a rambunctious little terrier and I brought her everywhere with me. I was drunk, and dancing, and not paying attention, and Siddha had slipped out of the house. I’m not sure how long she had been gone when I realized it, but as soon as I did, I had a wretched feeling. “If something bad happened to Siddha,” I thought, “I will quit drinking right now.” A few minutes later, I got the call. But I didn’t keep my word.

The hardest part about giving up booze was worrying about what everyone would think. I was afraid of being labeled an alcoholic. I was nervous people wouldn’t want to hang out with me, or that they’d be suspicious of me. I was terrified of being uncool. Drinking was a crucial component of my identity and I didn’t know who I was without it.

I started partying fairly young. Before I even started high school I had been drunk more than once, and soon after came other drugs, body modifications, sexual experimentation, and so on. I prided myself on this. I kept lists of all the substances I’d tasted or people I’d fooled around with. I kept empty liquor bottles on a shelf like trophies. I wanted to try everything. I wanted to be a rebel. I wanted to be very cool and these activities were inextricable with that. I’d seen The Doors biopic as an adolescent, and in it, Pamela Morrison (played by Meg Ryan) says, “The first time I did acid, I saw God.” Despite all the terrible things that happen to she and Jim over the course of the movie, the message I was left with was “Wow. I’ve gotta try acid.”

Fortunately, I had a good head on my shoulders and wanted to be successful in life, alongside being a party animal. I never wanted to peak in high school and become a burnout. (I knew the real parties were waiting for me in college). So I maintained a solid grade-point-average and always made it to class, even if I was sky high on pot brownies while I sat there. (And really, what better way to discuss the symbolism of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? Ken Kesey was not likely sober when he wrote it.)

Being a party girl had been good to me. It was how I’d met most of my good friends. It had brought me into wildly beautiful situations. It led me to travel the country for raves and festivals and all-around good times. It gave me stories-a-plenty to dazzle friends and strangers with around campfires (or on stages). It was a fun identity, and it suited me.

But of course, it had a downside (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this). Of course, it got me into trouble now and then. Of course, it is a lot cuter to be wild party girl at 19 or 22 or 25. But when I decided I needed to put some space between my belly and the bar, I was on the heels of 29, and I had just crashed my boyfriend’s Mazda. I woke up in a hotel room vomiting gin and realizing what I’d done. (I’ve blogged about the accident before [see Motorcycles]; it was a minor fender-bender and the only real casualty was the driver’s side mirror). None of it felt cute anymore. It felt pretty pathetic. So I holed myself up in my apartment and did not drink or smoke or do anything for weeks. But eventually I would need to interact with the world; eventually I would need to tell people that I wasn’t drinking. This had me anxious and confused.

The more defined this fear became, the more I was able to articulate it, the more I knew that I had to continue my alcohol abstinence. If I didn’t know who I was in the world without a beer in my hand, maybe it was time to find out. If I was terrified of what people would think of me if I didn’t drink, maybe it was time to discover who my real friends were.

And most people didn’t care at all. Most people never gave me an ounce of shit about it. For the most part, my anxiety about what others would think was just as excuse to keep drinking.

At first I was just “taking a break” from alcohol. After several months, I thought I might be able to make it a year. The one-year mark was just two months shy of my birthday, so then I thought it would be nice to ring in my 30th booze-free. After that I thought might never drink again. I never told most people about the accident. I did not disclose the real reasons I stopped drinking. I just said that we wanted to “get healthy” and “save money” and “try something different” (which were all also true).

To this day, people often say things like, “I didn’t know you were that big of a drinker.” I was definitely functional. I still don’t know if I would consider myself an alcoholic. But I did have at least one beer or cocktail most nights, I’d been drunk probably every weekend for the past 10 years, and I’d gotten pretty wasted on every birthday, last day of school, graduation, wedding, New Year’s Eve, and any other major excuse to party. My life was not in a state of catastrophe, but I certainly drank a lot. 95% of the time, I was a perfectly well behaved drunk, but about every six months or so, I would blackout and be a complete shithead.

The worst part of all of this was that my body hated alcohol. I was notorious for enduring killer hangovers. Even when I was younger, even when I ate a good meal beforehand, even when I stuck to just one type of booze: I was an absolute wreck in the morning. I was always stocked with Gatorade, Alka-Seltzer, Pepto-Bismol, Imodium, Emergen-C, and other varieties of electrolyte-filled, anti-nausea concoctions. I was always trying a new booze regimen—only beer; only gin; only alcohol without sulfites; only alcohol without gluten; nothing that contains sugar; and so on—to try and reduce the next morning’s effects. I always ate dinner and drank lots of water. My body was just terrible at processing the stuff. It was not until I had stopped drinking for a few weeks that I realized how much of my life was spent dealing with stomachaches. It was the prospect of never being hung over again that really made me want to give up on alcohol for good.

In the beginning, sometimes people would feel compelled to apologize for or justify their own drinking (much like when I was vegan, people would always want to tell me about their iron deficiency.) But I wasn’t judging their choices. I actually really like to be around people who are drinking. I still love a good party; I love the atmosphere of celebration. And drunk people are really fun for a few hours; they are looser which makes me looser; they are down to talk and dance which invites me to talk and dance. And by the time they start to slur and repeat themselves, I just leave. They won’t remember that time of night anyway, and I can go home and get a good night’s sleep. Everybody wins.

Early on, an old drinking buddy would occasionally try to twist my arm. “I’m only in town for a night and I just want to party with you,” or the ever-famous, “For old-times-sake.” There was never malicious intent. I know that. They just missed me and wanted to have a good time. Eventually these invitations petered out, although I can imagine (and kind of hope) that sometimes this happens behind my back, when people are hooked arm-in-arm and swaying and professing their love for one another. I can envision old friends slurring, “Man, I wish Nico could be here.” And sometimes I wish I could, too.

Finally–and although this situation is rare, I think it’s worth mentioning–there are some pushy people who still can’t understand why I won’t just have a sip of champagne or whiskey or what have you. “We’re all toasting for chrissakes.” Like they just can’t believe that I’m the type of non-drinker who won’t even have champagne on New Year’s Eve. I generally think these people are assholes. I’m happy to toast with club soda and I don’t see why it should make a difference to them.

While we’re on the subject, club soda—delicious, refreshing, bubbly club soda—deserves a huge happy shout out for being my non-alcoholic ally. It cannot be overstated how much the act of drinking involves wanting something to do with your hands and your mouth. It punctuates your sentences. It gives you a reason to start a conversation or to end one. It creates a frame for the whole social event. Fortunately, I adore all kinds of sparking water. Fortunately, you can order this with a lime at any bar. Fortunately, you can buy it in a can and put it in a coozy. Club soda is my homegirl.

My sweet partner, Rafal, deserves a major shout out too. All I had to say was, “Will you try to quit drinking with me for a while?” and he was by my side without a fuss. He knew it was what I needed, and that it would be good for our health, our pocketbook, and most of all, our relationship. We still fight sometimes, of course, and we still get frustrated with each other, but we have not screamed at each other—not even once—over the course of these three years. In another year, we will have been together longer as non-drinkers than we were as boozehounds. It doesn’t really seem possible, but it’s true. (I often say, “I know we have more money since we quit drinking, but where is it?” I think we just spend more of it on ice cream and La Croix.)

Rafal and I reminisce about drinking often. We laugh about the time he lit the lawn on fire, or the ridiculous wasted photos we took on my birthday, or the time I was so hung over in Hot Doug’s that I couldn’t even stand. We sip O’Doul’s Amber and remember going skinny dipping in Lil’ Grassy Lake. We talk about the beers we used to like—Double Haul IPA, Redhook ESB, Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale—and sometimes we go to breweries just for the atmosphere (shout out to Scratch for having awesome homemade sodas).

Sometimes it’s still awkward. Sometimes I still don’t know who I am, especially around people I am just meeting and with whom I do not already have a cache of coolness from the past. Sometimes I crack a dumb joke like, “I don’t drink because I love to drink,” so that they won’t think I’m a narc or a Mormon. Now that I have a baby, my coolness quotient has slipped even further, but it’s become harder to care. In less than two months, it will be my birthday yet again. And for a 32-year-old mother, I have to admit–booze or no booze–I still feel pretty badass.

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