Taking a Step Back Doesn’t Mean Giving Up: Lessons from “falling off the wagon”

Today, I reach the three year mark in my continuous sobriety. I emphasize “continuous” because I had a full year sober before those three years, but I drank a few times (three) in the weeks between breaking my sobriety and beginning it again. Sometimes, it’s tempting for me to regret those three times. To wish I were celebrating four years, period. Rather than one year and then three years. However, on my way to work earlier this week, I thought about those three times and how really, without them, my continued sobriety might not be as easy as it is for me today. (and YES, the not drinking is easy. The rest of it, not so much).

I’ve told this story many times, how on the last time I drank I promised myself I’d only have three—which slid to four while I gave myself a pep talk in a restroom stall. (You can’t really get drunk from three drinks!) But four somehow turned into six (we were celebrating!). I didn’t do anything particularly cringe worthy that night—didn’t black out, didn’t curl up in my bedroom the entire next day, regretting my actions and beating myself up. But I did feel the resolve I’d practiced all year start to slip away with that first glass of champagne. Realized my tolerance hadn’t subsided much in the past dead sober year. That, more than anything dumb or dangerous I’ve done while drunk, scared me. Holy shit. This was a problem. Obviously, I’d known there was a problem with my drinking. There had been for nearly half of my life by this time (I was 30 the first year I got sober). Almost from the first time I drank, I knew it was dangerous for me. I never consciously drank to not feel something, but that’s what I was doing. I “knew” I was more fun, more outgoing, not so anxious or insecure while I was drinking (except those times when I was, cripplingly—when every fault and flaw and pore and pound seemed to be magnified and matter so.much.more.). I could (and often would) talk to anyone while drunk. Conversations lubricated by massive quantities of keg beer, and then, yearsandyearsandyears later: wine, gin and tonics, champagne. My inner critic (and honestly, sometimes toxic friends or random assholes) telling me that I was not “good enough” or “pretty enough” or “whatever enough” died down a bit while I was drinking. So, I drank, not recognizing for a long, long time what I was actually doing.

Everything came to a head around the time I turned 30. I made myself a promise--on an airplane, buzzed off red wine-- that I would do a year without drinking. 365 days. And I did. And it was hard. And it was lonely. And it was sad. And it was scary. And it was also liberating and thrilling, and it made me really fucking proud. And it was maybe one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. And it was. And it was.

And then, all of the sudden, it was over. I “could” drink again. I reached the 365th day and I wrote about it. I felt accomplished. Maybe even more so than when I finished graduate school or got accepted into an extremely selective global health fellowship. Three days later, at the wedding of an estranged friend (v awkward), booze was all around. I’d told one of my friends I didn’t want it to be a big deal when/if I drank again. I wasn’t sure what I planned to do. I certainly had never planned to be sober forever. I wasn’t sober—I had taken a year off drinking. So, when I thought no one was looking, I took a sip of my boyfriend’s wine. Yup, tasted the same. “OHMYGOD! SHE’S DRINKING!” squealed (shouted?) a friend. The same friend I’d just told I didn’t want to make a big deal when I drank again. There she was, across the table, making it a big deal.

I guess it was.

Bigger than I was willing to admit.

And now, three years into renewed sobriety, I think back on that night—that sip—the few times after that which followed. In some ways, I think dipping my toe back into the scary waters of alcohol was a necessary experience for me. I needed a confirmation that drinking would be the same. That I would be the same. That a year doesn’t magically change my body’s or my mind’s chemistry. That there was still work to do (spoiler alert: there’s ALWAYS work to do). That alcohol and I don’t mix. And honestly, we don’t. I’ve always known that, no matter how many times I tried to avoid the cold, hard truth. No matter how many times I stuffed it down, covered it up with more drinks or slept it off. No matter how much I plastered over it with the BandAid of friends doing the same thing or enabling boyfriends with their own alcohol issues.

I am sober. I’m not taking a break. I am 1,095 days from my last drink. That’s a lot of fucking days.

And, in addition, I’m celebrating. I’m celebrating all the shit I’ve uncovered and worked through and cried about and all times I felt like the deck was stacked against me. I’m celebrating that even on those dark days when I worry that if I have kids they’ll turn out like me, I still don’t drink to ease that pain. I feel all my highs and all my lows (so many lows) and I keep going. I am celebrating my FOUR years of sobriety (1,460 days). And I’m not doing it for you, or him, or them anymore. I’m doing it for me.

And I’m celebrating those drinks I took, and where they led me—to today where I can say, yeah, I took a drink and I didn’t let it mean I took a step back.