sober questioning

‘I Got Sober by Mistake — Can I Go Back to Drinking?’

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

Dear Ana,

Throughout my life, I’ve had a disordered relationship with alcohol, mostly binging behavior — I could not drink, but if I had one I had lots. I have given up alcohol for various reasons over the years — new diets, dry January, interactions with medications, pregnancy and breastfeeding — but they were always intended to be temporary, sometimes attempting to reset and kickstart healthier behaviors, but I did always eventually revert to disordered drinking.

My current sobriety started the same way: I was doing 100 days sober starting Jan 1, 2020. Before I hit 100 days the world ended, and when I did hit 100 days I was already in a pretty deep depression that I knew would prevent any healthy attempt at reintroduction. 

And so now here I am two years later, still sober, still not necessarily planning on forever, overall feeling pretty good, missing good champagne and margaritas, but also afraid of falling off the deep end. I feel like I need to either accept that this will be forever, or develop a plan to be a moderate/occasional drinker. 

How do I move out of this limbo?

Accidentally Sober

Dear Accidentally Sober,

In my 20s, I stopped drinking for a while. I’d just survived a particularly brutal breakup, which resurfaced particularly sour memories of my mother’s post-romantic-breakup binges. I didn’t put a timer on it. I also didn’t go to AA or identify as an alcoholic or even as someone who was “sober.”

Up until then, I had been what you might call a “controlled binge drinker” — my consequences were limited to hangovers and one-night stands — but over those dry months I saw that not drinking was clearly better for me. I finally started therapy and psychiatric meds. I was better about deadlines and commitments. I didn’t have either the crushing guilt or crushing headaches that used to come most Monday mornings.

And then, a few months in, I went on a date. He ordered a martini and I changed my order from a seltzer to “I’ll have what he’s having” and proceeded to drink without interruption for over a decade with increasingly grim consequences, and here we are.

You, older and wiser than I was at the time, are already thinking about your drinking with more seriousness than I was capable of. I share my story to illustrate how easy it is to bet on the upside of going back to drinking: If it works out, you get it all, right? You get the social lubrication and deliciousness of cocktails and you get to have an as-normal-as-possible relationship with your dignity, health, and loved ones.

What I didn’t consider was how hollow “having it all” might be compared to what I was risking — when framed as a contest between “margaritas with the girls!” and, in my case at least, simply the increased possibility of suicidal depression, who consciously and deliberately picks the former?

That choice still exists for me; it still exists for you. Consciously or not, both of us have been making it every day, and we’ve both strung together quite a few 24 hours taking the safe bet. I’ve been choosing sobriety for long enough to discover that for me, not drinking is more than a safe bet — it is, in fact, a kind of jackpot. But the difference between us isn’t how long we’ve been doing it but the way we frame it.

For you, the idea of deciding anew every day whether or not today is the day you’ll try out drinking again is limbo. For me, it’s freedom. I have never made a decision to stop drinking forever. I just have decided to stay sober for as long as it keeps working for me, for as long as what I get out of being sober is more precious to me than what I may get out of drinking. When I really want to freak someone out, I tell them I’ve only made a commitment to sobriety until the next time someone offers me a glass of something — and at that point, I get to drink or to recommit to recovery again.

Your email subject line was “accidentally sober,” but the more I think about the phrase, the more I feel like there is no such thing. You have wanted to be sober more than you wanted to drink. You just haven’t felt like you were choosing sobriety. Sometimes we don’t realize we’re making a choice until the option to do otherwise disappears — but that doesn’t have to be true for you.

People who have been sober for a while decide to drink again all the time. Some of them keep deciding to drink. Some of them decide to get sober again. My own experience is that once I start using, alcohol and drugs will soon start deciding things for me: Not just whether I should have another drink but what kind person I am.

My choice not to drink is the choice that makes all other choices possible.

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‘I Got Sober by Mistake — Can I Go Back to Drinking?’