TRIGGER WARNING: This post references an account of sexual assault and may be triggering to some.
“When you quit drinking you stop waiting.” ~Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story
I’m now at 181 days teetotal. I prefer teetotal to sober. I say sober sometimes, but teetotal feels lighter, airier, and I feel lighter and airier these days.
For the life of me, I can’t remember when I took my first sip of alcohol. It probably came from a grownup’s glass.
What I can remember is being sixteen or so, half waking up from a blackout with a friend’s hand down my pants.
Or being eighteen, head in a toilet, while a guy I didn’t know followed me into the bathroom to “help me hold my hair back”—and instead helped himself to my body as I cried for help from a girlfriend who eventually came to my rescue, kitchen knife in hand, and forced him to leave.
Or many a morning waking up with a blinding headache, ashamed of what I might have said, done, or was afraid I let happen the night before.
I can remember that exposed, unsafe feeling, and thinking to myself, “Never again.”
I can also remember (and well) the little voice that come late afternoon would say, “A drink will make this better.”
And it did. And then (surprise!) it didn’t.
Although this article isn’t about sexual assault, I want to mention that this has happened to me sober as well, and to acknowledge that a person letting their guard down doesn’t amount to an opportunity given. Seizing vulnerability and framing it as invitation is predatory, period.
With that said, my adventures in drinking after I turned twenty-five tended to be less extreme. I became more careful about where I drank and who I drank with. Par for the course were physical and emotional hangovers, and those I learned to deal with. The tradeoff was worth it to me. Everyone drinks. It’s what we do when we get together! It’s fun and it’s fine, and you can always apologize the day after if things get out of hand, and maybe no one will remember anyways.
And if you drink alone… well, that’s okay too! No need to apologize for anything.
But something happened around three or four years ago. Friends I’d enthusiastically drank with, or who I knew cracked a bottle open to unwind at the end of the day, decided to go dry. Hand on my heart, I was happy for them, but hand on my heart… not for me.
Booze, namely a glass (and then another, and then another) of very cold rose on a warm evening outside, or if I was feeling creative, was at the pinnacle of my pleasure pyramid. I loved chatting and drinking, playing music and drinking, writing and drinking, dancing and drinking, anything good and drinking, really.
Give that up? I don’t think so.
Last summer, I packed up my life of twenty years living in Brooklyn and moved, alone, to a hill near Florence, Italy. Don’t be fooled by the cliche of a thirty-something straight, white woman moving to Tuscany, though. It’s been a heavy and wild couple of years, and life on this cypress-peppered hilltop’s often been more Werner Herzog than Nancy Meyers.
This chapter of my life, hugely marked by the choice to estrange from my mother and navigate the grief that’s come with that—not to mention in isolation, in what used to be a convent in the backwoods of a country I know no one in—has been, in one word, rough.
They make wine here; did you know that?
Really good wine. Really good, cheap wine too. The weather and setting are also great, so that pleasure pyramid pinnacle I mentioned earlier? Yeah, it beckons all the time, and being that I’m alone a lot and still know very few people, reaching for a bottle’s been a no-brainer and… a surefire ticket to the emotional rollercoaster from hell.
On that morning 181 days ago, I woke up hungover with a body like a bucket filled to the brim with sadness, anxiety, fear, and nausea. Slosh, slosh, slosh. Nothing new.
A few weeks earlier, one of my sober friends had come to see me, and what struck me most about her manner was that, far from being overwhelmed with emotion (which, as I understood, was one of the “costs” of sobriety: FEELING A LOT), she seemed so even kilter. So damn okay.
It looked incredible.
Around that time, it occurred to me the reason I’d made all these changes (the move, the estrangement, other things too) was to enter a new phase in my life. One that was more even kilter, more okay. I’d made all these moves, really hard ones, but I was still resorting to the coping mechanism I’d employed to tide me over in my previous life: Drinking. What throughout my twenties and into my thirties had been coupled with pleasure, relief and connection was actually keeping me stuck, sad and isolated.
So there I was, in my front yard, actually weeping as the world spun, waiting for my dog to pee, when something welled up from inside me and said (and meant), “No more.”
No more, Melanie.
And so it was, and here’s the most surprising but not surprising thing I’ve learned since.
Empty calories, empty emotions.
The hangovers and subsequent emotional manholes I’d have to crawl out of virtually weekly left me under the illusion of processing what felt like a bottomless well of despair. I was doing the work, right? That’s what it’s all about, feeling the discomfort. Feeling the trauma. Being in the hole. Grieving. Aching. Sticking with it. Right?
I’ve read that drinking doesn’t necessarily make you pack on weight, but your body burns the calories from alcohol first. So rather than using what you eat for fuel, when you give your body booze, it’s the booze it runs on and the real nourishment that gets stored.
For me, it wasn’t just that way with the calories, but with the feelings too. Even a little alcohol (and it was rarely a little alcohol) created a synthetic emotional experience I had to overcome that took precedence over my very real emotional surplus and felt like labor. Like doing the work.
But that wasn’t my real labor, my real pain, my real trauma, my real unmetabolized feelings. Turns out my real ones are of a completely different quality. Even when they’re hard, there’s an ease to them, a naturalness to them. Even when they’re heavy, they’re lighter. There’s a purity to them, a pulling up rather than down. An unburdening that registers fully, a clearing like the sky after a downpour. The relief of a healthy morning poo rather than being covered in shit.
The work of healing has not only been a constant in my life; I made it my job. Oh, the humbling irony in realizing a good 70% of the emotional hellscape I was trying to overcome, not to mention my lack of clarity, energy, and zeal, was pure ethanol.
Alas, all the positive feelings I’d tried to get through every avenue other than choosing water over wine have cropped up and grown robust in 181 days (that feel like 181 years considering how full they’ve been). Feelings like inner peace, inner safety, well-being, courage, honesty, efficiency, self-trust, joy, and resilience are finally setting in.
Now we’re cooking with gas.
In many ways, drinking became a way I kept myself from healing in the way I allegedly wanted to. A way to postpone the well-being I didn’t feel entitled to. A way to remain tethered to the drama I’d become so used to trying to overcome. A manifestation of my skepticism that what I was looking for might actually exist—in me, no less!
I’m lucky. Every morning upon waking fresh as a button, especially on weekends or Mondays, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude at this inner leveling. Almost every day, I reach out or hear from my two teetotal close friends, and 99.9% of the time we don’t discuss how hard or boring life without alcohol is, but how much better, easier, brighter, richer, and solid we feel. How happy we are to have gotten out of that cul-de-sac.
There’s a lot of shame and shaming stitched into the drinking dilemma, and I find it such a hindrance. For me, this hasn’t been a journey from shame to pride, and I’m completely convinced that had it been, it wouldn’t have stuck for more than a couple of weeks.
Pride can be so brittle, so about the shame in the end, like the ‘after’ looking at the ‘before’ with a smug superiority. That doesn’t sit right with me.
This has turned out to be tender, a pleasure, a streamlining of emotion, abundance, self-giving, taking, daring to receive, and giving from a full well. I sleep like a baby, say what I mean, mean what I say, know what I want, and know I have the energy to execute it. And as it happens, I have a personality that’s not bottle-of-wine adjacent, and I love her.
This isn’t a badge; how dead, how bland. This is a delight, alive and fluid and not for tomorrow—not to deserve something better now that I’ve quit that I didn’t deserve before, or to be better than people who haven’t quit. Hell no. This is my experiment, a treat from me to me.
Have there been added bonuses? You bet. I’ve processed more trauma, melted more limiting beliefs, felt my nervous system unwind more, and even had bigger breakthroughs in my work in these past few virgin months than I did in decades before, and with far more ease.
What changed for me that February morning wasn’t so much that I was done feeling those super low lows, but that for the first time in my adult life, I felt worthy of feeling myself. Just myself. And wow. Pretty cool.
I won’t lie to you, sometimes around sunset, when the breeze is blowing and the crickets are singing and the company’s good or a favorite song comes on, I do think, “Dang, a cold glass of vino would make this even better.” But so far, the fresh mornings after, the healing that’s unfolded in this untampered space, and how much more present I feel for the sunset and the breeze and the crickets and the company and the song, has been kicking that thought’s ass.
I’ve committed to a year of not touching the stuff, and I’m taking it a day at a time, but I don’t know, this is really good. It’s hard to imagine giving it up. Hah! Who’d have thought?
Thank you for reading. Whatever relationship you have with alcohol, wherever you are with anything you’re struggling with, no judgment. Really, truly, no judgment. And to any person who’s experienced sexual assault, drunk or sober, you were never at fault.