For many of these women, Dry January was an opportunity to try sobriety with community instead of stigma. But what happens when the community cracks under pressure?
It hadn’t taken the 2016 election to set me on a path of problematic consumption. For nearly a decade, I’d turned to booze in times of despair. For a spell in my early twenties, I mixed in cocaine. Cigarettes were a constant. I was a cliché: precocious perfectionist teen with a difficult home life turned party-girl young adult with anxiety and depression.
I drank under the guise of misguided feminism, a mix of “Fuck you, I can shoot whiskey and smoke cowboy killers too” and “How the fuck do you expect me to deal with the constant shit the world throws at women without a goddamn shot or seven?” I drank because I didn’t want to be a good girl. Didn’t want to be a polite little lady. Didn’t want to put up with men’s shit. I drank because I had to be a good girl, a polite little lady, put up with men’s shit.
The more I rose in my career, the more I exhaled by imbibing. The tension I carried throughout my days as a star employee, graduate student, board member, volunteer, freelancer, girlfriend, friend, daughter, and human faded with each sip. But I never wanted just one. Never wanted to take the edge off. I wanted to find the edge and take a sledgehammer to it.
Almost no one considered my drinking problematic. I did not drink every day. Did not drink in the mornings. Did not drink at work. Did not always get drunk. Did not black out all that often. Colleagues and classmates saw a put-together woman climbing the ladder. My family thought my wild days were behind me. My friends thought I was fun, marveled at how I could still go shot for shot with bartenders and twenty-one-year-olds.
Only my best friend and my roommate saw behind the curtain, saw the bruises from stumbles up stairs, the weekends worked to make up for unproductive mornings, the texts making sure I hadn’t done something stupid the night before. They alone knew how thin the line between keeping it together and falling apart was. But since they were at the bar next to me, they weren’t going to say a word.
My first sober day was like many before. I woke up cotton-mouthed and bleary-eyed and decided on the way to work I couldn’t keep doing this. I smiled through my headache in the Friday-morning staff meeting.
“Click rates and engagement are up across channels,” I reported, taking slow sips of blue Gatorade from my coffee cup and counting the seconds until I could retreat to my dimly lit office. Once there, I searched for an essay about the cozy relationship between women and alcohol—and the culture that encouraged it—by Kristi Coulter. One that had gone viral a few months prior, in which she wrote:
“Is it really that hard, being a First World woman? Is it really so tough to have the career and the spouse and the pets and the herb garden and the core strengthening and the oh-I-just-woke-up-like-this makeup and the face injections and the Uber driver who might possibly be a rapist? Is it so hard to work ten hours for your rightful 77% of a salary, walk home past a drunk who invites you to suck his cock, and turn on the TV to hear the men who run this country talk about protecting you from abortion regret by forcing you to grow children inside your body?
“I mean, what’s the big deal? Why would anyone want to soften the edges of this glorious reality?”
From her essay, I found Belle, an anonymous sober coach and blogger. And podcasts like Home, hosted by Holly Whitaker and Laura McKowen. An entire world of women who were willing and proud teetotalers. They spoke of sobriety as an act of feminist rebellion, enabling you to use your anger instead of drown it, and alcohol as a tool of the patriarchy, disguised as the self-care and equal opportunities we so deeply deserved. They demanded lives that didn’t make them want to escape.
They rarely used words like alcoholism or addiction. Aside from the shame those words carried, I felt I had no right to claim them. People had real problems, my brain told me. Every woman I knew threw back shots and enjoyed craft cocktails. What gave me the right to think my experience was somehow special?
Instead of asking me to admit to being an addict or an alcoholic, they gave me permission to say, “Enough is enough. It does not have to get worse for me to get better.”
I listened to them every day. I read their work, played their words, signed up for meditations. And I stayed sober.
When a professor made a hate-filled joke about Caitlyn Jenner, I craved wine. Knowing it wouldn’t help, I asked myself what would. During a class break, I walked up to him and said, “One of my favorite parts about this school is the work we’re doing around inclusion. That’s why I was so surprised you’d put down a transgender woman.”
I let him stammer his response. I didn’t tell him it was okay. And I stayed sober.
It does not have to get worse for me to get better.
I stayed sober on Day 30 when my grandfather called me a bitch at Father’s Day dinner. I decided to leave rather than fight. And because I stayed sober on Day 30, I was sober on Night 30 when my injured cat had to be rushed to the emergency vet. I stayed sober on Day 150, when I shared my own #MeToo stories with the world and read countless others, channeling rage into the volunteer work I had begun with our local rape crisis center.
I stayed sober because I heard their words saying sobriety was my way to a better life, instead of the more pervasive message telling me I’d earned that rosé just by making it through another day in Trump’s America. Instead of numbing my anger, I learned how to sit with it, how to act from it, how to let it go. I learned when to fight, to fly, to freeze. I learned to enforce boundaries, to speak up for myself and others, to confront my feelings.
I knew it was a privilege to take care of myself this way, to have the resources to pour into my sobriety, instead of the quicker, temporarily cheaper fix of pouring whiskey-rum-wine-vodka-who-the-hell-even-cares down my throat. For many years, a two-dollar well pour at happy hour or a $4.99 bottle of wine on the way home were more than I could afford but less than the cost of therapy, running shoes, yoga mats, or prescription co-pays—at least, in the moment. To redirect my time, money, and energy into a new way of living was a privilege many are not afforded, and I wasn’t going to waste it.
But could I have stayed sober through an insurrection on Day 6, with my companions fleeing the wagon? Would I have said, “Maybe it’s okay for them to quit Dry January. Perhaps they will go back to a glass of wine with dinner on Fridays, a flute of champagne on special occasions, a single pour of whiskey on coup-days. Good for them. Not for me.”
Or would I have asked myself, “Good grief, the last thing I need is to add pressure. So what if I escape sometimes? It’s a coup in the middle of a pandemic!”
These are questions I am grateful I don’t have to answer.
I knew it was a privilege to take care of myself this way, to have the resources to pour into my sobriety.
Even now, nearly four years in, sometimes the edge is still sharp, still hurts. Sometimes the call of oblivion is a siren, beckoning me to leave it all behind. But nothing good lies on that island, not for me. I turned to alcohol to let go, but I only ever lost myself. In turning toward other sober women, the ones who saw me gaining so much more than I was giving up, who whispered “keep going” instead of “give in,” I built a better life.
I would love to tell you that in that life, I followed my own advice on January 6. That I turned off the TV, set down my phone, and took care of myself. Got a good night’s sleep and rested for the fight ahead. In an early version of this essay, that’s exactly what I wrote.
You can see what a tempting conclusion that would be, much cleaner than the fact that I am no more a calm, wise woman now than I was a badass, whiskey-swilling cool girl then. Those are only the stories I tell myself. Sobriety does not prevent bad days or hard things or imperfections. But it does, for me, remove alcohol’s magnifying lens, which zoomed in, shined a light, and lit a fire on the bad, the hard, the imperfect. In the quiet space of the distance it creates, I find the room to know myself under those stories.
Meg Ringler is a writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. She is working on a collection of essays about sharing her home and husband with Parkinson’s disease, the joy of sobriety and her love/murder relationship with plants. Find her on Twitter and Instagram at @Meg_Ringler.