For as long as alcohol’s existed, I’m sure there have been people who have chosen not to drink it. This sounds like common sense, I know. In 2021, we like to think we’re well aware of the many reasons for abstaining from alcohol (or drinky-poos, as I like to say, much to the horror of anybody within earshot), and greet most admissions of sobriety with understanding and respect.
That’s what we like to think. The truth, however, has a bit of catching up to do.
Nearly eight years ago I stopped drinking because I was – am – addicted to alcohol. I started drinking in high school and the confidence that accompanied whatever anybody’s older sibling could buy me felt like a gorgeous reprieve from the insecure, emotional teen I was day-to-day. But as I got older, my reasons for drinking began to change. I drank to fit in, to feel nothing and to write, and convinced myself that I couldn’t do any of that without a bottle of wine beside me. I self-medicated with alcohol and chased it with cough syrups and cold medicines (a DIY sleep tonic), so that by my mid-20s I was treating it as a non-negotiable item I needed to function. I needed to drink because I didn’t want to think of a reality in which I didn’t. It was a constant. Alcohol and I understood each other. I didn’t even care who I’d morph into when I started to drink because unlike anything or anybody else, it was always there.
I quit in spring 2013 when I started to realize how reckless my booze-induced behaviour had become. At the time, admitting that I had a problem felt like I’d chosen to break up with someone who everybody else thought was great. I knew a few friends who’d gotten sober and were quick to have my back, but among most of my pals, I stood out. I was lucky to have their support, their empathy and their tireless efforts not to make me feel uncomfortable at dinners or at parties, but sobriety still felt strange. Everybody drank, and I still wanted to join them. But I couldn’t, and that problem was mine. And our culture didn’t really let me forget it.
But the thing is, people break their habits all the time. We quit smoking, caffeine, sugar and any other number of behaviours that we’ve realized are hurting us. When someone announces that they’re off gluten or dairy, the revelation is typically met without any follow-up questions and they’re congratulated on their willpower or new life choice. In the first few years I’d gotten sober, however, the reveal that I didn’t drink alcohol was often met with, “Why?” (I liked to respond with, “I have alcoholism!” which quickly shut that conversation down.)
That said, in 2021, we finally seem ready to start asking that question a little less. (Slightly) improved discourse around addiction and mental health on both social networks and in mainstream media has begun “normalizing” sobriety. For example, Chrissy Teigen’s recent announcement she wasn’t going to drink anymore was met with online support, not judgement or condemnation. It’s about time. Why is sobriety even news? Hasn’t freedom of choice always been “normal?” Or maybe this latest installment of “normalization” is the overdue acceptance that “normality” is a myth – that nothing and no one is normal – which makes discussions around addiction and mental health easier.
I like to think so. Especially since these types of conversations are becoming more commonplace after a year in which we were forced to examine ourselves in painful and uncomfortable ways. The pandemic has left us to acknowledge our self-destructive tendencies or long-suppressed traumas (among much else), and mostly usually under the restraints of quarantine. Some of that honesty may lead to the decision not to drink anymore – a move that’s easier to embrace when met with understanding and acceptance instead of awkwardness or blank stares. Especially since a person’s sobriety isn’t about anyone but them.
There’s a difference between celebrating someone’s choice to get sober and interrogating them as to what led them there, why, and if they’ll ever drink again. (There’s also a difference in announcing one’s intentions not to drink and condemning anybody who still does; let’s avoid that, too.) So maybe this new normal – our improved understanding of alcoholism and self-medication – can be rooted in acceptance. Maybe, the normalization of getting sober doesn’t need to be grounded in alcohol consumption at all, but in the transparency that comes with deciding that it’s time to change. Personally, I’d like to see more talk of honesty and vulnerability in conversations about mental health and addiction instead of who does and who doesn’t drink alcohol. Especially since someone’s drinking preferences are only part of someone’s story. And I can promise the rest is much more interesting.