Daniel Dalton / BuzzFeed
It’s not about needing to drink. It’s about having the option.
Two months after I quit drinking, I fell dick-first into a fling with a co-worker at the bar where I collected glasses. She was 21, four years my senior. It was fun at first, but it wasn’t long before my insecurities, and up to 20 phone calls a day, tore it apart.
When she started spending time with a handsome older trainee manager, I knew I’d lost her. At a work party I watched as they kissed in front of me. I nearly threw up. I stumbled outside and slumped to the pavement, humiliated.
It hurt the way only a broken heart does: entirely.
No one at the bar knew about our thing. In the hope of winning her back, and because I’m an idiot, I respected her wishes not to make it public.
Without knowing where else to turn, I told my brother. Though we’re almost as close as siblings can be – we’re fraternal, not identical twins – we weren’t close.
“I wish I could take you for a beer,” he said. “We could talk about it.”
“Can’t we talk without one?” I wasn’t about to pick up a bottle, to break this promise to myself, because of her. Or anyone else. He shook his head. As young men, unsure of ourselves yet unwilling to compromise, we drifted apart.
Hurt and headstrong, I chose ideals over intimacy. When people asked how long I was quitting for, I’d tell them I’d start again when I felt like it, even though I felt like it a lot.
I was resilient and determined and stubborn enough to keep it up for 10 years.
Sobriety suited me. It gave me a cause, a mission. It also gave me a superiority complex and made me an insufferable shit much of the time. I don’t preach, I’d say, grinning like Tom Cruise in Magnolia, before telling everyone how great not drinking is.
I’m surprised I didn’t have pamphlets printed.
Long-suffering acquaintances praised my willpower. “I couldn’t do it,” they’d say, and I’d nod like I understood, hearing only the sweet sound of validation. Unquestioned conviction is absolute.
And I did enjoy being sober. I could dance and drive home and wake up without a hangover. I could spend all my extra money on travel. But I still needed alcohol: I needed others to drink past their own fears and insecurities before I could fully cast mine off.
I never said this out loud. It didn’t fit my narrative, and the narrative was everything. Instead of dealing with anxieties I didn’t understand and discomfort I refused to recognise, I constructed a reality that suited me better.
Look how together I am! Look how hard I’m winning! Cranberry juice tastes great!
Most people bought the story. I certainly did. But I wasn’t exactly a reliable narrator. Turns out making life choices off the well-meaning but ultimately misguided thoughts of your 17-year-old self is never a good idea.
I barely know anything now, at 32. Back then, I knew less than fuck all.
My third year of university I lived with six other students. A friend of a housemate visited for the weekend and we spent the afternoon talking. When my sobriety came up, I expected the usual questions: Are you an alcoholic? Was there an accident?!
Her question caught me off guard: What the fuck are you afraid of?
It was punch in the throat. I seized up and shut down. I’d never been challenged like that before, and I didn’t like it. I felt naked. I felt stupid.
“I’m not afraid of anything,” I said. “I enjoy being sober.”
I wished I had a pamphlet to give her.
I was terrified, of course. I just didn’t know how to admit it. My fear was crippling. I was afraid of losing control. I was afraid that I’d never leave my hometown, that I’d just become one of the drunks propping up the bar where I worked. I was afraid of intimacy, of not being good enough. I was afraid of an average life.
It seemed that alcohol offered only limits, but abstinence came without borders. That was the promise. That was the lie. Because eventually my identity was so entwined with sobriety – I’d clung so tight to it for so long – that I was afraid to let go. I wasn’t sure who I’d be without it…