Looks Like I Picked the Right Year to Stop Drinking

Sobriety gives you a foundation for handling random difficulty, including the end of the world

There was already so much to drink about.

We’ve been in a climate crisis for years. American voters have narrowed the most diverse field of presidential contenders ever down to three elderly white men. And now, here to bring the majority of human activities to a screeching, expensive halt is COVID-19, in all its apocalyptic glory.

Standing in my kitchen, reading the latest disorienting, overwhelming news about the virus, I hit “send” on a tweet asking whether it’s dumb to stay sober now.

I had split a cucumber-flavored seltzer, gussied up with simple syrup and lime slices, with a sober friend who was watching TV on my couch, and I called out to her.

“Do we really have to stay sober in a global pandemic?” I shouted over the television.

“What?” she called back. I came into the living room and sat down. “We got sober to be able to deal with normal life, right? But if things are falling apart, don’t we kind of have a pass?”

She laughed — the kind of alcoholic-to-alcoholic laugh of understanding I’ve come to recognize.

“I’m afraid not,” she said. “It would just make our anxiety and depression worse. Plus when things get really bad, we’ll be too hungover to help anyone.”

I took a sip of my gin spritz without the gin. “God, how annoying.”

Despite the headline on this piece (a reference to the meme from the 1980 disaster-comedy Airplane!), it has been two and a half years since I got sober. The first time I sat down in an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, a chunk of text from the AA Big Book called “the promises” was being read aloud. “If we are painstaking about this phase of our development,” it began, “we will be amazed before we are halfway through.” I closed my eyes and, behind my lids, rolled them privately. “We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.” Yeah yeah, I thought.

The promises — grand, impossible-sounding — continued, until one line brought me up short: “We will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us.”

This promise was a perfect encapsulation of just what I was seeking. Freedom and happiness were too distant to even imagine at that time, but intuitively knowing how to handle my life? That was the shit I was desperate for.

Though it can sometimes feel corny to admit, the promises have all started coming true. Freedom, happiness, serenity: check, check, check. (My memoir, Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls, comes out next month.) But the thing I heard that first day about handling situations intuitively has turned out to be the most valuable gift of sobriety.

In some ways, it seems obvious that a deeper, more reliable intuition sets in when we stop drinking: Finally, we can hear ourselves think. We can (we must — ugh) feel all of our feelings. Relationships and other dynamics that seemed painfully complex reveal themselves to actually be quite simple. “Not easy, but simple,” as my first sponsor used to say. We begin to gain the confidence and the clarity to see things as they are, to be more fully ourselves.

So it isn’t surprising that we learn to live more intuitively. We can finally trust ourselves, at least a little.

To drink or not to drink today? That might seem a fairly insignificant issue in the grand scheme of things. But for me, it isn’t.

Watching the news, looking at the terrifying graphs, listening to the president’s robotic monologue — it would all be a lot easier to swallow with a tumbler full of vodka in my hand (and the rest of the bottle nearby).

But I know my friend is right. I need a calm, clear mind if I’m going to absorb all this baffling information, if I’m going to be able to help my parents and explain this to my children — and keep them safe. If I want to continue to be able to hear my own intuition, that little voice that’s been growing louder the past couple years, I cannot pick up a drink.

Surely many of us are weighing these decisions as our phones light up with notifications and our anxiety increases. For those of us managing addictions and dependencies, the drive toward oblivion is particularly strong at the moment. But the work we may now be called upon to do — the work of remaining alert and aware, of caring for others — requires that we resist it.

Sobriety works because it happens this way, in small, everyday decisions and gestures of support from my friends and those I saw in the replies to my tweet. It’s a makeshift, slightly desperate bid to remain calm in the midst of existential uncertainty. It’s an attempt at sanity in a fundamentally insane world. And it’s most useful in moments like this — in conversation, in community with others who feel similarly overwhelmed. In a sense, then, sobriety is designed precisely for times of extreme unpredictability and precariousness, times of hardship.

All we can do is take care of ourselves and look out for one another. Little by little. Or as we say, one day at a time.

Author of Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love. Work in NYT, New Republic, the Guardian, Jezebel, and more.

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