When I was still drinking, my husband and I made a pact one night that the next big snow day, one of us would drive the other to this divey old watering hole for a day of unfettered drinking. We hadn’t figured out the logistics, like which one of us would get this fantasy vacation or why the other would be risking life and limb to drive to a bar in a snowstorm, but this was my idea of the perfect happy hour(s). Dark, dusty walls…beer bottle rings worn in the bar…the lingering smell of stale cigarettes from when you could still smoke in bars. I hope I don’t sound like I’m romanticizing it, though I suppose I am in my own sad little way. Drinking will always be the lover I gave up for my own good, but I’ll probably always miss it a little too. The fucker.
When I gave up drinking (365 days ago today!), I had to find replacements for happy hour. Happy hour at an actual bar hardly ever happened, but I happily drank at home. I mixed gin and tonics or vodka tonics and then moved onto beer or wine until I was cut off by the bartender (husband) or myself (“going to sleep”).
Newly sober, I was terrified of picking the kids up after work and coming straight home. When I ran out of libraries to visit or errands to run, I came home and felt twitchy and unsettled. The liquor cabinet was still in its same spot, but I was not. I poured myself an iced coffee and went out on the back porch to smoke a cigarette instead.
This recipe for iced coffee saved my life back then. I made it up in giant batches each week and stirred in heaping tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk because at least it wasn’t a vodka tonic. That ritual of another sinful drink was crucial. I am a creature of habit.
It was more than just habit, though. It was about treating myself after a long day. It was about escaping from the tedium of parenting and life…the snacks and baths and homework , the dinner, the laundry. It didn’t occur to me that these things would get easier and actually stop feeling like tedium in sobriety. I wasn’t there yet, so iced coffee and smoking were my new drugs.
The funny thing is I gave up both those things suddenly only months later. Smoking was first on the chopping block because I hated that my kids saw me smoke. Drinking was easier to hide from them, but smoking was so obvious. I’d quit before and I quit again and missed it for awhile, but then eventually I didn’t.
My sweet iced coffees were next. I started having searing pains behind my breastbone that made it difficult just to breathe, and they’d last for days. At first I thought I might be dying, but fortunately and unfortunately, the internet is great for self-diagnosis. My doctor put me on prilosec for a month and told me to watch caffeine intake. Iced coffee was sweet while it lasted, but it didn’t last long.
I can’t forget the meetings, either, though those were decidedly good for me. Healthy. I went to 3-4 meetings a week all summer long. That’s not a lot of meetings to some, but it was a big deal to me. I went at night after my husband got home from work and the kids were in bed. I did it so I wouldn’t sit on the couch and reach for a glass of wine that wasn’t there. After awhile, I found I could sit on the couch again and watch a movie without wishing myself dead.
The meetings were good for me because I heard absolute truths and secrets I’d never told anyone, only they came from the mouths of perfect strangers. The rooms had that faintly churchy smell of floor wax and cheap coffee, and I never felt so at peace as when I closed my eyes and just breathed in. There was no pressure, no judgements, no nothing but just feeling like it might all be okay again. Most of the time I didn’t talk to anyone, and that was fine by me. Sometimes women introduced themselves and we made small talk about what it was like to quit drinking.
Once I told a woman about my newfound love of candy and she smiled to remember how she carried around a bag of starburst candies in her early days. While I was thinking “my god, they sell starbursts by the bag?” she added “but you have to be careful with the candy.”
“What does she know,” I thought. “Candy is all I have left.”
This was not entirely true because I also had ice cream and cookies and ice cream cookies and all of those things dipped in milk, even the ice cream. I had some real sweet eating habits there for awhile (and still do at times), but I was like an ice cream cookie dunking robot. It was a compulsion I felt helpless to resist, plus I rationalized it was still better than vodka tonics. And it was.
The thing about giving up booze, at least for me, was that I was not able to replace all those calories with dessert. Doesn’t seem fair, I know, but I gained 10 pounds in short order and felt absolutely miserable. What I did next, though, was something else healthy.
In late winter, I started running. I’d walked regularly and done other light exercise for the last three years, but then I started feeling restless and motivated and like I wanted more. Exercise releases neurochemicals I don’t begin to understand, but I do know that after I run or otherwise work up a sweat, I feel really, really good. I feel good about myself and I feel strong, but there’s some other change to my mood that I love so much it hurts. It levels my bad stuff in the same way drinking used to…only better.
What strikes me now about all of these routines that replaced drinking is how they’ve progressively gotten healthier. Smoking, then coffee, then overeating, now exercise. I should also mention buying stuff I don’t need and spending too much time online, but the list could go on and on, couldn’t it? I still slip back into bad habits, but I’ve learned to be more gentle and forgiving with myself because I’m not doing the worst one of all for me: I’m not drinking.
Mostly I want to stress that all of these changes came gradually and naturally. When I look back at the blur of the last year, I almost feel like all I had to do was stop drinking and the rest just kind of happened in a chain of events that helped me make smarter, healthier decision. I’m sure there was more to it than that, but it seems almost laughably simple in a way. I do know I’m a lot happier now and I attribute that to one thing: sobriety.