Making the decision to get sober can feel like you’re trading in your identity as a Fun Person to instead become a bummer. But I’m going to tell you a secret, something so annoying, so frustrating, and so correct that it blew my mind: Being sober made me cool.
Listen: I KNOW. Drinking doesn't make you cool is exactly what PSAs told us when we were kids, and it was an idea I railed against for 28 years of my life. Anyone who said that obviously didn’t know me; I could drink whiskey and beer, stay up all night, and party beyond reason. That’s fun—I was fun! I jumped off cliffs into lakes, I dove headfirst down icy driveways, I got in cars driven by people I knew were wasted and I didn’t say anything about it—see? Fun!
Being not-boring—being cool—meant I could keep up with my guy friends and coworkers when we went out on the town and partied until our livers pickled, just to wake up and do it again. It meant that I went along with whatever was happening or whatever my friends were doing as long as I had alcohol, even if I wasn’t actually interested in what was happening. A house party with older college dudes and no way to leave? Not where a 21-year-old lesbian wants to be, but I was cool, you know? I was drunk. I didn’t have to care.
I told myself that I was "relaxing." In reality, every time I got drunk, anyone around me became my de facto therapist, as all the feelings I compartmentalized away came bursting through. It was always the worst if my girlfriend and I were fighting. My fears about being trapped in a relationship or being in the wrong one with the wrong person spilled onto relative strangers’ shoulders. I don’t know if it ever made it up to their ears.
It didn’t matter that anytime I did anything uninhibited while I was drunk, I’d usually regret it fiercely the next day, which wrapped my anxiety tighter and tighter around myself. Alcohol gave me plausible deniability for my feelings: I didn’t have to actually let people in to see the real me—the one who had hopes and dreams, but was too afraid of failure and rejection to say them out loud when I was sober. I could always apologize for them, laugh about them, or otherwise wave them away the next day. Because of how feelings used to explode out of me, I began to associate them with being uncool. That meant to stay cool, I had to become numb.
After I decided alcohol had run my life long enough and that I needed real coping skills, I no longer had access to instant extroversion, nor could I hide behind excuses like, “Oh yeah, sorry! I must have been really wasted!” if I expressed a concern or love or a crush or anger or...any feeling that you have to own to explain. My body felt pretty great, but, brain-wise, all I had was me without booze, and I was ashamed at how much I believed that wasn’t enough. If I couldn’t be the cool girl who drank whiskey straight and made wild decisions (like building a side table with pneumatic power tools while extremely intoxicated) and called it Joan-Jetting, how could anything else I had to offer compare?
I'd long internalized this standard that I should be on top of everything (aka, myself and my true feelings) all the time—no wrinkles, no imperfections, or else I was toast. (For some reason, I never applied that same standard to other people in my life, just to myself.) I also mimicked other people’s behaviors when I didn’t actually know who I was—because it felt cool when they did it.
As I stayed sober, I realized that my self-awareness of my imperfections didn’t drive people away, and if anything it was the opposite: they helped people feel at ease with me, and built trust. If you’re willing to look at yourself clearly, there’s a good chance you’re capable of doing that for others. I learned the key is not, as I’d thought, to always be perfect; in fact, nothing attracts people like someone owning their imperfections without excusing them.
When I first told people I wasn’t drinking, I could feel the heat rise in my face. People would ask why, and I’d deflect, unsure how to handle myself on my new sober legs. I’d say, “I’m on medication,” or “I’m just taking a break.” I was worried people wouldn’t believe me if I said, “I’m giving it up for good,” because how many times had I and my friends been hungover one morning and promised never to drink again? How many times had I said I was going to do something, and then never did?
This couldn’t be one of those times, or else I’d go back to drinking and then a judge or death would have to stop me. That prospect of people finding out I’m bad at drinking via the news sounded worse, and I made the decision to be honest. It went something like this:
“Hey, can I get you a beer?”
“No, I’m good. I don’t drink anymore.”
“Yeah, I’m not good at it anymore. It was kind of ruining my life!”
“Dude, that’s awesome, good for you. I’ve thought about doing that before, but...”
That was the gist. I walked away feeling lighter—someone else understood how hard this was and thought it was cool that I was prioritizing myself over something that’s hard to stop. I felt a wild freedom I’d forgotten, the kind that comes when you stop thinking you have to spend all your energy hiding your flaws from everyone else instead of accepting them and understanding others have them too.
Instead of needing a drunken late-night confessional around my feelings, they became regular conversational fodder. I talked to friends about how I overcame a particularly nasty bout of depression, or how I felt rejected while dating and looking for work, and they could relate and talk me through it. The next time, I’d talk them through it. After a while, I started realizing I had a knack for understanding how people are feeling, and instead of being known for late-night confessional explosions, my friends and family started noticing this radder version of me too, someone who was there for honest, compassionate conversations.
This didn’t mean my self-esteem issues went away, but understanding where they came from, and that they’re a normal part of being human, gave me the strength to give myself some grace. Finding wells of approval within yourself is hard, and others want to know how to achieve that. I understood that the people I’d looked to for my cool cues weren’t cool because they could throw back booze, but because they were themselves. A friend who chased after everything she wanted wasn’t cool because she could party, but because she didn’t give a shit what anyone thought except herself.
After drying out, it took me a few weeks to get up the courage to socialize with people who’d known me before. The first party I went to after sobering up was so difficult to handle that I had to leave early. I felt jealous that everyone else seemed to be able to drink and carouse and I was the only one who was fucked up about it. It had been a couple of months without alcohol, and I was mortified thinking about how I might be perceived: weak, a drunk, a weak drunk.
But that didn’t happen. People went about their regular party business of drinking and getting louder and bolder, and I watched, sort of stunned, as they got messier as the night went on. Couples fought, people cried, and I watched drunk tension rise between a couple of guys who eventually took it outside to fall over a lot. After a few of these outings, I realized that it wasn’t just me who had trouble with alcohol. It wasn’t just me who had regrets and hangovers and emotional outbursts.
I was fun sober, and some of these people were not very fun drunks. I’d cringe, recognizing behavior I hated in myself, like when I got cornered at a party by a drunk person who refused to express their feelings until the dam burst. It’s also not fun to have the same dam burst six times on you because they forgot they’ve already cried about that.
It didn’t matter if people questioned me for not drinking that night (and if that sounds like something you might ask a friend: stop doing this to people). I had a whole new understanding about what I had to offer the world and the people in it, whom, when I met them at parties and events, I could build good relationships with now, because the conversations we had weren’t just going in one ear out the other. One of the first friends I made after I gave up booze started like this, when we talked about our shared love of Real Housewives and the outdoors, and especially when the two mix. I followed up on that potential friendship, and found a relationship that wasn’t based on alcohol.
After a few months of sobriety, something changed. I woke up knowing exactly what had happened the night before and knew there was no reason for me to feel ashamed of myself. I could remember trains of thought for days and weeks at a time, instead of having to start over every day with a cloudy head.
I had the centered reserve of someone who knows who they are and didn’t need the approval of anyone else. I could be alone with myself for 10 seconds or 10 days, and I was fine with the company. This was when I knew I’d been thinking about coolness all wrong, and that it wasn’t something you drank or a magic sequence of words you could say. It’s that that being exactly who you are lets you stop worrying about who you think you should be.
These more consistent, honest thoughts included new approaches to my personal development. Instead drunkenly aspiring to goals, like working out every day, I started actually reaching them. I gravitated naturally toward what I liked, which meant reading self-published lesbian romance novels on my Kindle and taking classes to become an emergency medical technician. When I was a kid, I loved little figurines of anything, and had a bunch. I also loved gemstones, and did all the research I could about them. Growing up meant expanding my interests, but the main interest I ended up expanding was drinking. I’d lost touch with being so fully immersed in something I loved that it totally absorbed me. Having a sober brain for several months straight brought that back to life for me, and now, years later, I’ve got a whole shelf of books on gemstones and their makeup, and an expanding, tiny zoo of miniature animal figurines that I love. When I made room to enjoy those things again, I was surprised that it didn’t feel childish. It felt like coming home.
I knew who I was, what I wanted, and, just as important, what I didn’t want. I knew I wanted someone who loved me and a home and a life without fear, and I knew I didn’t want to waste any more time pretending to be someone I’m not. The relationships I’ve built on common interests and true affection for one another are so much stronger than any of those I’d built on a shared love of being drunk and no one saying anything about how much you drank. I got to choose to be the homebody I’ve always wanted to be. One Friday evening, I found myself comfortable at home reading a book and knowing full well that my friends were out on the town; the ease I felt with myself was better than any of the times I felt the Fireball shots finally kick in.
When you stand up for yourself and say, Enough. No more, to a substance, you are courageous, and that bravery starts seeping into other parts of your life: If I could give up booze, I can do this. I started pitching more writing and getting published, I said yes to professional development opportunities, and I got a divorce and still managed to keep alcohol out of my life in the aftermath. My spine grew in, and I fell for the kind, messy, complicated, and flawed doofus wrapped around it. When I do fail, or feel shame, I know that those feelings happen because they happen, not because I’m a bad person.
I still miss alcohol every now and then, despite the time we’ve spent apart. But finding that I actually like myself, and could even love myself, gave me a sense of calm that feels like the opposite of FOMO. Knowing I didn’t have to worry about what other people were doing freed me up to do what I wanted, which was extremely helpful when I started dating after I got divorced, and eventually found someone who loved all the little pieces of me I’d kept hidden even from myself. Knowing myself meant making the decision to move halfway across the country to start fresh and having little doubt it was the right call. It’s led to better friendships, better romance, better jobs, and, honestly, much better sex.
When I understood that alcohol isn’t Instant Cool or Automatic Fun, and that all actually depended on me to build toward, rather than expect in every single minute, it was worth every moment of angst, and every hard decision to forgo alcohol in favor of seltzer, and of a better day tomorrow.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.