sober questioning

‘Can I Get Sober If I Haven’t Hit Rock Bottom?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Ana,

I’ve been drinking since I was a teenager, on a regular basis, and loved getting drunk. Even now, I don’t know how to really fathom a gathering as being “fun” unless booze was involved. It’s been decades, and even though I have done some bad things during those decades, I know I should stop and that it’s bad for me health-wise and emotionally,  but I can’t come up with a reason why. 

I’ve talked with my therapist about this and she’s pointed out that my drinking has never had any consequences I couldn’t live with, whether it was that time I got super wasted and said some dumb stuff, or got really drunk during an emotional dinner with an ex (who was sober) and I cried at the restaurant, or gotten blackout drunk and went home with someone. I forgot to add that I also don’t get hangovers, so there’s also that. 

As someone who hasn’t seen the bottom or hit it, is it possible to stop when there aren’t serious consequences? 

Looking for the Bottom

Dear Looking for the Bottom,

None of the emails in the Sober Questioning inbox so far have haunted me quite like yours. I can answer the question you’re asking; what I’ve been contemplating for a while now is how to answer the question you’re not asking.

Is it possible to stop drinking if you haven’t had serious consequences? Of course it is. People quit drinking for all sorts of reasons every day. They realize they don’t like the taste. They want to save money or cut out sugar or they got their very first hangover. Some people realize they don’t like the way they feel when they’re buzzed. (That someone could not enjoy being buzzed is, to me, the surest proof that aliens walk among us.)

To judge by the context of the question, however, I think what you’re really asking is, “How can I make myself want to stop drinking if I don’t want to stop drinking?”

For those who can put down booze without much thought, this query might have the feel of koan. How can you make yourself want to do something you don’t want to do? Just want it, right? How hard is that?

But during my drinking years, I asked myself — and others — that question with perfect sincerity. It was a riddle only because I made it one. “Help me want to stop” was a lot more palatable an idea than what was true deep inside: I didn’t want to stop. Period. On some level, I didn’t even really want help wanting to stop, which was great because it’s actually impossible to do that.

All other people could do was point out reasons why quitting drinking was a good idea. (You’ve listed some of them!) Or list all the ways that drinking had made my life worse. (My experiences were similar to yours.)

But you can’t use logic on a decision that’s centered around a substance designed to lift logic away. You can’t argue anyone into an emotion they don’t feel. I know because I couldn’t.

Even in the end, when drinking almost killed me, it wasn’t that I wanted to stop drinking — I just wanted something else even more than I wanted to drink. As the rewards of sobriety have grown (friendships, good health, looking myself in the eye, etc., etc.) the list of things I want in my life more than I want a drink has grown as well. Your letter resonates because I had to lose those everyday gifts in order to realize that drinking couldn’t replace them.

When people say they’re hesitating about getting sober because “nothing bad has happened,” the truism they often hear back is that “bottom is when you stop digging.” I’ve always wondered if the cliché is all that effective. If “nothing bad has happened,” you probably don’t think you’re in a hole at all. So I won’t ask you to look down to where your bottom might be if you keep drinking. I want you to look around at what you still have.

The words that stuck with me most, what cracked my heart every time I thought of it, was this: “My drinking has never had any consequences I couldn’t live with.” I have no doubt that’s true. Humans are almost infinitely adaptable; the only consequence you can’t eventually live with is the one you don’t survive.

And  you deserve so much better than just “living with” what you’ve done. You deserve a life in which you don’t have to do moral calculus in the morning or lower your expectations of your own behavior. You deserve to feel good about your choices, not just to be able to live with the times you made bad ones.

The good news is I suspect you know that. You took the time to write. You put down in pixels those things you’re willing to live with and maybe you can now look at them with a little more discernment — as if your letter was written not to me, but to yourself, on behalf of someone that you love very much.

What do you want for the person that sent that letter? You might not want to stop drinking, but maybe you’d like it if she did.

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‘Can I Get Sober If I Haven’t Hit Rock Bottom?’