sober questioning

‘How Should I Think of the ‘Good Times’ If I Go Sober?’

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Dear Ana:

In your introduction to this newsletter, you spoke about lost time when you could have entered recovery with less urgency — I think, maybe, I’m about there. I haven’t lost any big things, and my health is okay. But the bad experiences are increasingly outweighing the good ones, and I know I’m making my world and sense of self smaller with alcohol.

My question is, How do I think about all those not-all-bad and sometimes great experiences I had when drinking? All those memories of long conversations with great friends, nights of adventure, and languid days sipping beers on the beach, which, frankly, would have felt just a little less shiny if I were sober at the time.

Are you able to appreciate the good memories still? Does everything make you cringe just a little? I don’t want to use my good experiences as an excuse to not stop, but I’m afraid of going through this reckoning and coming out the other side convinced my 20s (and a little of my 30s) are all tainted because they were experienced by some less authentic, diseased version of myself. That seems overwhelming and so … depressing.

I’d love to come to some middle place where I can appreciate that, yes, I did have fun, but it’s time to leave the party. I’m just not sure how to hold all those things in my mind in this early stage of sobriety without potentially endangering my commitment to stop drinking.

It Really Was Fun Sometimes

Dear Fun Sometimes,

I get the sense from your letter you’ve already anticipated my instinctive response: to put a flashlight under my face and speak in ominous tones about how those warm memories will just seduce you back to the drinking dark side. Don’t think about the good times! They will make you relapse! Woooooo-woooooo! Scary!

But, frankly, that impulse to warn you away from any nostalgia at all is a function of my own fears and a reflection of how I managed my personal recovery, especially at the beginning. My own low bottom convinced me of the life-and-death stakes of my sobriety; whenever I started to drift into a reverie about the good times, I forced myself to think about the humiliations and losses.

And that worked — for me, for a time, under those circumstances.

As I’ve stayed sober and listened to the experiences of others, I’ve come to recognize that my strategy might not work for everyone. In fact, sometimes I wonder if it really was the best strategy for me. One of the hallmarks of alcoholic thinking is seeing in only black and white; one of the biggest enemies of recovery is shame. I was using alcoholic thinking to resist drinking; I was shaming myself to stay in recovery — a recipe for relapse for a lot of people. I suspect I stayed sober only because at some point, still pretty early on, I tried something else: I just tried to stop dwelling on what I did when I was drinking, period.

Even more important, I filled my life up with new experiences and new memories that had nothing to do with alcohol: Quitting drinking can open up hours of free time you didn’t realize you had, and you’ll need to spend them somewhere! When I was in long-term rehab, a counselor told me every cohort winds up taking up something. One group had a couple of guitar players in it, and everyone learned the basics. She opened a cabinet and showed me shoeboxes full of the nail polish, nail tips, and decals left behind by one group that took up nail art. My “graduating class” got really into knitting.

Our culture makes it really hard to have grown-up good times without alcohol lurking somewhere in the background. You all might find not drinking with each other awkward at first, but I promise that, with anyone who’s a real friend, the discomfort will fade quickly. Bonus: You can’t go wrong seeking out group activities in which you’re not supposed to drink while doing them — I’m never the only one not drinking at the rock-climbing gym.

Get even just a little time sober under your belt and you’ll start to realize how incidental booze is to fun or connection or adventure.

After a while, you’ll unwind the alcohol from the memories as well. You won’t think back to That was a good time I had while drinking but rather, That was a good time. The events that seem so golden in retrospect aren’t tinted that way because of what you were drinking but because of who you were with and what you were feeling. My best friend today was my best friend through the worst of my drinking years (incredibly — I’m not sure how I didn’t lose her), and a lot of our inside jokes stem from three-hour, three-bottle brunches and rewatching Arrested Development hungover. These things are still funny! Someday I’ll tell you about the time we met George W. Bush after enjoying the White House Christmas party a little too much.

You mention a “reckoning,” which makes me think you consider your past alcohol use and make a judgment: Was it worth it? Was drinking good or was drinking bad? To me, that sounds as though you’re thinking of the “good” and “bad” drinking times as equal and opposite — and that you have to judge them both as “things I did while drinking” or, as you suggest, both the products of some less authentic version of yourself.

But what if the difference between the good experiences you had while drinking and the bad ones isn’t just about the presence of alcohol? Alcohol lowers inhibitions, sure. But alcoholics know better than anyone that taking away inhibitions doesn’t reveal the truth of someone’s personality. Our inhibitions are part of us, actually! Someone who steals when they drink but not when they’re sober isn’t “really” a compulsive thief. They’re just someone whose morality got washed away for a bit. So what if only the good times you had were a reflection of your authentic self (who just happened to be drinking) and the bad memories were the reflection of some interruption in that authenticity? What if the authentic you created the good memories and the bad memories belong to a version we can put on the shelf? You can actually test this theory — all you have to do is take alcohol out of the equation and see which self shows up.

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‘How Should I Think of the ‘Good Times’ If I Go Sober?’