When I woke up in a stranger’s bed a few days after my 28th birthday, I decided to stop drinking. It wasn’t the first morning I woke up in an unfamiliar apartment after a night out partying, but the shame I felt was deep enough to cause a change.
A lot has changed in the five years since The Hangover in Brooklyn. First, a little backstory. I am a millennial and grew up in a work hard, play hard, work hard culture. As long as my looks were impressive — my grades were good, my body in shape, my social life strong, I was fine. But I wasn’t okay. not really. I suffered from low self-esteem, disordered eating, and a brain telling me none of my achievements were good enough.For years, alcohol was my antidote to anxiety. The first sip at 16:00 was a respite from my exhausting inner monologue, a copious sigh.
You already know where this is going. My drinking got messy. I often passed out, lost my wallet, and got into fights with friends. The next morning, I regretted and cringed at my drunken hookup reading my call history and text messages. I tried to limit my alcohol intake and made rules about my consumption – wine only, no shots, water between drinks – but nothing seemed to work. Call it whatever you want – alcohol use disorder, problem drinking, addiction. Labels weren’t the problem. I was preoccupied with habits that no longer served me.
I slowly calmed down all at once. I skipped happy hour and stuffed my shoebox with old shot glasses and hid them behind rain boots in my closet. Meanwhile, the recovery came in piecemeal. With my therapist’s advice, I navigated my life in 24-hour increments—one day at a time. I bingeed on TV shows, drank six packs of seltzer, and told myself that the desire to drink would probably pass. Also, “play tape” helped. I imagine a movie in which I drink that first drink, then my second, then my third, etc., and wake up the next morning with a splitting headache. say the opposite. Finding a sober community through recovery meetings in my city also proved to be strong in the first few months.
After several weeks of hibernation, I began to reappear to the world. I had big occasions to celebrate—engagement parties, weddings, birthdays, holidays—and I was determined not to miss them just because I wasn’t drinking anymore. The event was challenging. At my friend’s engagement party, I ordered myself a glass of water because I wanted to look like everyone else was drinking. I hid in the bathroom until cocktail hour was over at the wedding. I felt like a raw nerve, exposed and aware of every second. I was surrounded by friends and loved ones, but I couldn’t remember how we connected.
My discomfort was temporary. Within a few months, my desire to drink was almost gone and I began to fall in love with the perks of living without alcohol. I was calm. I started to develop more self-esteem, proud of my persistence with sobriety. was.
In some ways, attending the event with early sobriety provided a new kind of high. I was a doe baby deer, timid but ready. I walked around alcohol-free firsts like an anthropologist, observing habits I had missed in my drunken stupor. I was with my friends and asked them questions about their lives. At my dear friend’s wedding, I cried tears of joy. I’ve cried at weddings before I was sober, but it usually happened at the end of the night when I was drunk, sloppy, and lonely. Now I knew how to truly celebrate others without needing a drink to heighten or hide my emotions.
But while pleasant events no longer drove me to drink, there were other moments in life that I wanted to numb. I cried non-stop for months when I lost her grandparents her second year. Their death seemed premature. Both were relatively young and died suddenly. My grandparents lived in France, but COVID restrictions prevented my extended family from coming together in person for funerals or hugging each other while in mourning. My emotions – anger, sadness, resentment – were big and ugly. I was jealous of people who could soothe their sorrows with a glass of wine.
In my early twenties, drunk and narcissistic all the time, I hadn’t been to see my grandparents in years. In the time we’ve spent together since I’ve been sober, I’ve made amends for the last ten years of absence and prioritized happy moments together, like looking at old photo albums and hearing stories from our youth. On a solo trip to visit them, instead of indulging in wine at lunch, my grandmother and I laughed when we ordered a second plate of fries. Two days before my grandfather passed away, I was able to say goodbye to my father by boarding an international flight back to France on time without a hangover. We would stay up for days cleaning their apartments, jetlagged and deranged, laughing through tears as we uncovered old photos and memories. I was just staring. At least that meant I was curled up on my grandparents’ couch one last time.
Before I was sober, I had a long list of future events that I thought I couldn’t handle without drinking. Losing a loved one was one. My honeymoon was something else. The whole premise seemed contingent on having cocktails on the beach with the love of your life. I thought it would look boring. Even without a boyfriend, let alone a honeymoon, the mere thought of it kept me drinking for years.
When I got married four years later, my dream trip came true. When I arrived in Hawaii, I realized I was right. Alcohol was waiting for me everywhere. A welcome bottle of wine at the hotel, a cocktail menu on the beach, and complimentary champagne at dinner. But I saw something completely different from what I once imagined. My honeymoon was living proof that sobriety was the right decision for me. In the end, my honeymoon was the trip of a lifetime in ways I never could have imagined. We got up early to see the sunrise, made each other laugh, chatted in bed, then went to sleep excitedly the next day. Without the alcohol mist, I remembered the whole trip clearly. I gave up one thing, alcohol, and got so much more in return: her life, and that virgin pina colada, has never been sweeter.
Sarah Levi is the author of drinking gamesa new memoir of essays about her relationship with alcohol and how drinking changed her life is now available from St. Martin’s Press.
P.S. How Joanna Changed Her Relationship With Alcohol
(Top photo by Anna Rvanova/Stocksy. Author photo: Molly Trian.)