"Your thing was cocaine, right?" someone asked me recently when I told them that this Saturday I will have four years sober from drugs and alcohol.
"Not really," I answered. "I mean, I did it, like, six times."
The person seemed let down. I tried to cheer them up with confirmation about how much I enjoyed the illicit substance.
"But yeah, you're right," I said. "Pretty much what got me to stop everything was seeing how much I liked it."
There is a look of disappointment that registers on people's faces when they learn that I was not at the point of needing drugs or alcohol to make it through the day, that I did not have bottles of booze stashed away in my home or workplace, that I did not experience the shakes because I had a physical dependence.
Sometimes I just drank too much. And I experimented with hard drugs a few times. And I couldn't predict when it would happen. And, ultimately, my life became better when I identified as an alcoholic and used this new accountability to stay sober.
"My life isn't bad enough to quit drinking," a male friend who confessed to blacking out more than he would like told me a while back. "I did check out AA like you told me, but I haven't had anything really bad happen to me to think I have a problem. I mean, I have a good job. But I like hearing other people's stories when I go. Like, when their lives get really messed up."
"You know your life doesn't have to be that bad," I said. "One person's rock bottom might just be a low-level depression after too many happy hours. You don't actually have to destroy your life to quit drinking. You don't need some amazing story about punching your mom and setting your house on fire. You know that right? Your bottom could just be a blackout. I'm not telling you to do one thing or the other, but you keep coming to me to talk about this, so..."
Then I hear my friend's resistance speech. Then there is the declaration that a social life is not possible without drinking. Then the subject gets changed altogether.
But not every time. Sometimes someone who needs and wants to stop decides to test it out -- and in the process their life actually changes.
Which is a testament to exactly why I disagree with the whole resistance speech against quitting (even if you know you have a problem).
Your social life absolutely does not end when you stop drinking. In fact, I think the only thing that changes when you get sober is finding out that the reserves of strength inside yourself are far greater than you ever realized. Sobriety is when I learned for the first time that I did not have to let life happen to me. Instead, I could take the ownership of setting the course myself (along with all of the terrifying accountability that involved) along the way.
And I discovered that a rich personal after-hours life is in fact possible without drinking. Of course, sometimes it involved me saying, "No, I'm good." Or "I'm just going to stick with water for now." Or "I'm going to pass on drinking tonight." Or "If you are really telling me that I should 'just go home' if I don't drink, then let's call this blind date a bust, shall we?"
The old me, before I decided to actually make a commitment to sobriety and turn it into this non-negotiable thing, would have seen all these pressuring situations as ones I couldn't possibly wrestle my way out of, and besides there was probably a good story to be gained, don't you think? The new me realized that I could respect myself enough to honor commitments that I had made to myself.
Distinguishing yourself as a person who does not drink -- something that is such an overwhelming part of our social and sexual literacy -- is a very scary move to make. But it can be thrilling.
It is thrilling in the same way that making any kind of commitment to yourself is. Like, say, not beating yourself up for past mistakes or resisting the lure of crazy-making people or seeing the immutable value you hold in yourself simply by existing -- rather than requiring the sparkle and validation of a man's attentions as he buys you a white wine or the prospective boss who clinks a glass of Makers with you to bond.
Everything is illuminated sober.
Once you make it through the first several months and then somehow that becomes a year and then two and then three and then you see that this is really not going away -- that you're not going to let it go away -- life episodes that in the past might have devastated you are suddenly no more scary than a tiny child pummeling her fists during a tantrum. You laugh at what had once seemed so terrifying. Humiliation? Social embarrassment? Instead of devastating, it feels amusing and sweet, like the trumped-up monster in a fairytale.
"You were once scary, weren't you," I've almost wanted to say when encountering a situation that in the past would have taken my breath away.
Why is everything so much easier to handle in sobriety?
I think because when you experience everything with no mood alteration -- no elevated drunky bombast and no bottomed-out next day crash from a riding-high roller coaster ride of manic energy -- all of the ups and downs of life become a lot clearer. Evened out, crystallized and illuminated. You can see the monsters for what they were -- shadows against the wall. Or in many cases, simple transitory fights and emotions and just plain old human beings. You realize that no one thing has to mean everything. You start to approach life as if you were the one living it, rather than just passively sitting in the movie theater as events unfold around you.
You even learn to like saying no.
"I don't want to go out tonight." "I think I want to do this instead." "I don't like being around that person." "I feel better when I am doing this." "I'd like to do this other thing to take care of myself."
Oh, and that part is wonderful. You fall in love with self-care. It seems revolutionary, the idea that you could nurture yourself -- using the hilariously New Agey term of "tools" -- with so many different ways of simply affording yourself good care: of your life, of your body, of your mind. Things that once seemed dumb -- like, say, meditation -- start seeming like a showering of jewels and presents that you never even knew were accessible because you were so preoccupied in being cooler than the whole idea in the first place.
You start to know your body.
This may even be what led you to stop drinking in the first place. For me, my body ended up in places where my mind did not feel good. And yet -- initially -- I knew that since no one around me would identify me as an alcoholic I couldn't possibly be one.
When in fact, I would find that identifying as an alcoholic was one of my very first radical acts of self-love and self-care I would ever make.
But I will not lie. It is a scary thing, especially at first, to tell people things are not OK, that you are not OK.
Isn't that what we spend our whole lives trying to show other people: how we are in fact OK? Nothing to see here, move along.
God there is such power in admitting that things are not OK. It will be four years of sobriety for me this month, and I'm so very grateful to not be OK.
In that spirit, if you've ever thought about quitting drinking and you are wondering if you should, I would ask yourself the question someone asked me once: "Do you want to keep repeating the same story every few months, or do you want to change your life?"
I've been writing this new story of mine for the past four years now, and I'll leave you with four takeaways I've learned along the way.
#1: "Take what you like, and leave the rest."
Sobriety does not mean that you have to be some perfect member of Alcoholics Anonymous (or even a member if that's not how you do it). For me, I needed that support, and I look at even the worst meetings as a kind of gift. I've always gotten at least one small nugget of wisdom out of attending, which might partly be due to the fact that you're actually allowed to lift the veil of societal perfection in those rooms. You can be human. Even if you never want to become sober, attending some kind of a 12-step meeting feels like magic in the healing elixir properties it holds when everyone in a room admits just how imperfect they really are. You can just go and be flawed and honest. It is heaven. Like a salve from modern-day fakery.
#2: Experiment with the idea of making things that are good for you non-negotiable.
This is honestly the only way I've been able to not drink. I don't miss it at all now (and I've also just seen how much better my life has become in every way -- from better health to better happiness to better energy to better sex) but because I'm such a malleable people-pleaser, the fact that I was able to do something so frowned upon by the majority of our bar-happy culture and my media industry in particular seems like nothing short of a miracle. The fact that I was able to develop a backbone is a beautiful thing. You can, too. Even if it's not about sobriety. It could just be about how people treat you or how you spend your life and time.
#3: No one is your guru or your leader.
I've had one sponsor in AA. She relapsed. I was sad. I still did not drink. I've had a few different boyfriends since becoming sober. We broke up. I still did not drink. When I had been in the program for two weeks, some dumbass guy with several years of sobriety and who should have known better held my hand, took me to his place, fooled around with me and then acted mystified as to how that had all happened. "I don't really know how people date," he said. "Yeah," I said, "I get it." The next time I went out with people after a meeting, a girl at my table told me that she had been with this same adorable little predator. Both of us still did not drink.
And don't even get me started on the number of dirty sober people who will tell you about how excited they are to have 10 years in the program while they are holding a martini or a glass of wine in their hand. It's OK, though. To each their own. We are all flawed human beings.
"Just be sure you don't make some guy your higher power," a wise person with more than 30 years of sobriety once told me as I prattled on about some man I was involved with when I was at a meeting. The statement took me aback. I thought about how much wisdom there was in the sentiment. How easily we turn people into gods who are guiding our decisions, our sense of esteem, our everything. Don't make other people your higher power.
#4: Make yourself play a scenario out ahead of time.
Just the other day I made myself do this, and it stopped me cold from reaching out to someone who had hurt me in the past. It's human nature to want to try to replay these wounding scenarios so you can have a chance to heal that which has hurt you. Resist repeating patterns you know don't make you feel good. All you have to do is ask the one question: "So, how did that work out for you last time?"
You may just find out, it's all the answer you need.
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.