This post was originally published on January 7, 2016.
I was out car shopping with my husband, and we tucked inside an old tavern for lunch. I don’t remember what I ate, though I do still have a picture of my coaster. It was campy and fun, stained with beer rings and probably a few tears. I remember I left a small amount of beer in my glass and told myself it was a good sign. It was going to be my last beer for the next 30 days.
I can do a lot of unpleasant things for 30 days. I’ve cut out sugar and exercised daily for 30 days. I could probably wear clothespins from my earlobes for an hour every day if I knew it was only for a month.
It was the beginning of January then and the beer I walked away from felt like dead weight. I was beyond tired of the hangovers, guilt and regret that seemed to come with drinking. It was time to get it back under control.
Maybe this plan would have worked if my drinking had ever been normal, which it had not. In fact, I’d already done the 30-day quit 15 years earlier. After throwing up in the hallway of our apartment building and a particularly shitty hangover, I hunted bookstore shelves until I found a plan that involved quitting for a month and then learning to drink moderately. I can’t say that it worked, but I did look for the same book again 15 years later.
By then I was 10 years late to the news that the author of that book and founder of Moderation Management, Audrey Kishline, had killed two people while drunk driving. Even old news of someone you didn’t know can hit you in the gut. But drunks aren’t easily daunted. I just bought a newer edition of the book, a handy workbook that made no mention of its poor founder.
For the next 30 days, I didn’t drink and poured over the workbook. The 30-day abstinence period was intended as a preview of sober life. It was supposed to show me what I was missing when I drank myself into a thick fog every night. I also hoped it would reset my tolerance, which had grown increasingly ravenous and unpredictable. I drafted out a drinking plan of exactly what days I would drink and how much and then emailed it my husband. It turns out that using Excel to track your drinking and roping others into accountability is a sign you have a drinking problem.
I’m trying to remember what I felt during those 30 sober days. They were nothing like the magical pink cloud I felt on and off during my first real year sober. I know I felt relief that I didn’t have to obsess over the never-ending when and how much of drinking, and I know I didn’t miss the hangovers. But I was still pretty sure I could hit the reset button on drinking. I really thought it was just a matter of willpower and having a plan.
When the 30-day abstain period was up, I dipped my toes back in. I followed my written plan perfectly. I only drank Fridays to Sundays and had no more than three drinks a night. And you know what? It totally blew.
During those roughly two weeks that I drank moderately, I hated it. I hated all the waiting and withholding because there wasn’t even payoff. If I spaced my drinks apart like I was supposed to, there wasn’t much of a buzz. I couldn’t check out into fuzzy mindlessness because I had to watch the clock for when I could have my next drink or put myself out of misery by going to bed, where I did not sleep well. What was the point?
About two weeks into this moderate drinking plan, I started drinking later so I could have my drinks closer together. I found a little buzz again. But it was only about another week until I poured a glass of wine or four after a particularly hard Monday. The great moderation experiment was over and I had failed.
I kept drinking for the next four months. Remember how I thought 30 days of abstinence would reset my tolerance? Ha! It was more ravenous than ever. I had some real scary moments in those next four months. I blacked out, something I hadn’t done in 15 years. The hangovers were some of the worst I’d experienced. Some were so bad I had to have a little hair of the dog just to function. Maybe that’s what shook me. I finally understood morning drinking beyond the context of a Lifetime movie.
When I decided to quit drinking for good in June of that year, there wasn’t any big event. I didn’t wreck my car and no one threatened to send me to rehab. I think I just got incredibly tired of failure.
There’s an expression “sick and tired of being sick and tired” that perfectly describes what it was like for me to be at odds with my own drinking. Sometimes I wished I could be one of those people who never seemed to mind how their heavy drinking made them reckless and sad. Now I see this for what it is: the best gift I ever got.
Six months after that dry January, I sunk into a hard folding chair in a room that smelled like floor wax and bad coffee. Even though I didn’t feel great, I finally felt relief. I didn’t have to think about when I could drink and when I might sneak a little more and how I was going to downplay the whole nightmare in my head. When I woke up the next morning or even in the middle of the night to comfort my kid from a nightmare, I wouldn’t be hungover. I would just be me.
I have no regrets for that dry January five years ago. It showed me what sober life can be like. What started out as a temporary plan to regain control of my drinking evolved into a lifetime goal of abstinence, which turned out to be a much easier ride.