sober questioning

Ask Ana Marie Cox (Almost) Every Question You’ve Ever Had About Sobriety

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

There are a few ways I could start this: Hi, I’m Ana, and I’m an alcoholic. Or: I’m in 12-step recovery. Or: I have alcohol-abuse disorder.

Maybe: Hi, I’m Ana, and I haven’t had a recreational drink or a drug in ten years, ten months, and three days. But here’s the one that feels the truest: Hi, I’m Ana, and I don’t want to drink today.

This “advice” column is for other people who also don’t want to drink today. Or who are maybe thinking about not drinking today. Or plan to stop drinking tomorrow. Or the day after or the next day or the next. It’s also for people who have someone in their lives who wants to stop drinking. And people who just want to know more about what a life without alcohol is like.

If you just want to drink less, you might find it helpful as well. This is a space for you to ask questions and get suggestions for getting through where you might be stuck. But I can’t tell you what to do.

I can’t tell you how to quit drinking yourself. I can’t offer advice or endorse an exact and correct course of action or institution that will keep you, personally, from drinking. I also can’t tell you if you’re an alcoholic or if someone you know is. I can’t tell you if you should stop drinking or if you should cut down. God knows I can’t tell you how to make someone else stop drinking — mostly because you can’t.

I’m not saying this to discourage you from asking the questions that keep you up at night — please email those and any others to soberquestioning@nymag.com. I’m quite excited about wading into these waters. But the only responses I can offer aren’t really answers. I can tell you what works for me, now and back in my early sobriety. How I’ve handled cravings. How I made amends. How I figured out still having fun — including having sex (one of the most terrifying firsts of sobriety for a lot of us). I can share what the roadblocks and challenges have been; what’s helped me in specific situations. I can bring you inside my brain for all the pondering I’ve done about why I drink and all the wondering why I’ve been able to stay sober and so many others haven’t. (I don’t have any answers to that problem either, but I have many thoughts!)

There are many legitimate criticisms of 12-step programs, and I won’t press my solution on you. They don’t work for everyone! Indeed, be very suspicious of anyone who tells you they have a solution that works for everyone! Addiction is still something of a black box to both the medical community and those who live with it. What’s more: What works for you today may not work in ten years — or ten days. Sobriety is a process of elimination in more ways than one.

So like I said, ask me. Since we don’t have any questions yet, how about I answer the question that comes up a lot in real life: “Why did you stop?”

Because I realized I was going to die if I didn’t.

In my 20-plus-year drinking career, I took all the risks that many heavy drinkers find familiar: I drove drunk, I went home with strangers, I blacked out on a regular basis. I mixed drugs and alcohol. Somewhat less commonly: I tried to commit suicide a few times — always while on a drinking binge, when my shame and regret were at their highest and my inhibitions were at their lowest. I was in the ER after my last attempt when I realized that, for me, every binge could end in me wanting to end my life.

I had figured out years previously that I couldn’t control how much I drank. Sure, there were times I could put the bottle down without even getting a buzz (each time this happened, I triumphantly filed it in the somewhat scant pile of evidence against my being an alcoholic). However, I couldn’t promise myself, or anyone else, any particular night would be the night I could control my drinking. Every time I had a single drink, there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to stop.

For a moment, lying there, looking up at the fuzzy hospital fluorescents and noticing that I had tubes in most of my holes, I was genuinely stumped at the shocking development of my existence. Did I want to live? I dunno. I guess? I was, at the very least, getting tired of trying to die.

Sad and sick and as empty as I have ever been, and blinking in the too-strong industrial light, I had this sudden thought — maybe more of a feeling — that seemed almost from outside myself. I can’t quite articulate it; it didn’t come in words. Later, I realized it was surrender. In that moment, it felt like my whole being was a fist I had just unclenched. Fine, I thought, I’ll live. If you (whoever and whatever you are) insist, I’ll live. I’ll at least give it a shot.

I wasn’t happy about it. The best analogy I’ve come up with is that feeling when you’re in a car with someone else and you’re lost and arguing about it until finally you say, “Okay, you drive!” You’re still lost, and you’re annoyed as fuck. But I decided to let the universe drive. I went to treatment, I went to meetings, got a sponsor, practiced self-care, blah blah blah. At some point, I realized I kind of liked being alive after all and, well, here we are.

Sometimes I think my extraordinary circumstances make me a bad example for anyone else who wants to stay sober. “Well, I’m not there,” you can say. “I just want to see what sobriety is like/lose some weight/have a little more control over my life/[insert something less than a life-or-death situation here].”

I say this without sarcasm: That’s fantastic! Wanting to experiment with sobriety without having to? Again, with utter sincerity: I wish I had been as bold. Instead, I let the period during which I could have entered recovery with no urgency fly by. If I hadn’t, I might not have lost as much.

In the 12-step rooms, we remind each other that everyone gets to decide their own bottom. “Bottom is when you quit digging,” as they say. I know women who got sober after a single night of drunken soul-searching. I know women who got sober after their first DUI or first hookup while blacked out or first unexplained injury revealed in the morning light. I know women who got sober when it started to interfere with their relationships. (When it started to interfere!) And then there are people like me. I lost a marriage and the home that went with it. I blew up most of a career and untold relationships. I ruined my credit rating, my liver, and my sense of self. Which, by the way, still wasn’t enough to get me to stop.

Maybe that’s not you. Severe consequences might not even be in your field of vision. You just want to wake up without a hangover. You’ve read one of the many, many studies about how drinking is bad for you. You don’t know why you want to stop, you just do.

For you, perhaps the most relevant testimony I can offer comes out of a question I don’t get that often but I love to answer when it does come up: “Why do you keep not drinking?”

A complete answer to that question is too long to fit on the internet, and I keep discovering new reasons every day. I live in an adorable house by myself that I saved money of my very own to buy. I remember every conversation I had yesterday. It’s been a long time since I passed out so completely that the dog shit on the rug. My relationship with my family is close and warm because I have nothing to hide from them.

When something wonderful happens in my life, I experience every detail of it — the gratitude and satisfaction, the pride in the work that I did, what it felt like to cross the finish line or get the congratulatory email or have someone tell me they liked what I wrote. I don’t lie awake at night trying to forget the shameful things I remember I did and trying to remember what shameful things I probably did. I have no mysterious bruises or stains to discover the morning after whatever it was.

On the woo-woo side: I feel closer to the ineffable power that makes the universe as beautiful and inexplicable as it is. I feel that power’s unconditional acceptance of me just as I am, which I believe is available to everyone, though I never experienced it when alcohol was in the way.

And when times are bad, I don’t fear the feelings that come with disappointments and failures. I still feel them, I feel them hard. But I don’t want to dull them because I also want to feel everything about the good times that will eventually come.

I mean, I’m also in better physical shape and Amazon boxes that I don’t remember ordering no longer randomly show up at my door. (“Bonus Christmas,” as I used to call it.)

Any one of those things might be enough to keep me from a drink today. All of them together somehow still fall short of explaining what I get out of not having it.

And now, your turn. Send me what you got and I’ll give you what I can. There is one piece of actual advice I will offer; something I swear works for everyone, even: Stay curious about what you’re going through and stay curious about the experiences offered in response. Look for the similarities rather than the differences. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to recovery, we who seek it have more in common than we don’t. And no one does it alone.

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, contact the following people who want to help: Crisis Text Line (text CRISIS to 741741 for free, confidential crisis counseling); The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255); and The Trevor Project (1-866-488-7386).

Ask Ana Marie Cox Your Questions About Sobriety