Drinkless and content after 37 years
Sobriety is worth more than any anniversary gift
There’s nothing noticeable about the number 37. It is a prime number, of course, divisible only by one and itself. The numeral is not on the list of traditional anniversary gifts, caught in a netherworld between the 35th year (jade) and the 40th year (ruby).
But last week, I achieved 37 years of sobriety. My gift is more precious than jewels – the reward is waking up clearheaded and, in my case, usually content.
Not drinking no longer feels like a mountain to climb every day. It’s just who I am, at least for this one day.
I have been sober longer than I was alive at the time I stopped. Since I began drinking at 13, and stopped at 28, I peaked early.
Given my precocious start, it was no surprise that I ran into trouble. Nearly half of all who begIn to imbibe before the age of 14 become dependent, according to a survey of 47,000 adults. Those who start drinking at 21 or older have less than a 10 percent chance of dependency.
Staying sober all these years has been made far easier because I am married to a man who can go weeks at a time without drinking. When Pete does indulge, he almost always just has one.
There have been moments that I came close to drinking. During my trips to Russia as part of journalists’ exchanges, I would survey the glasses at elaborate dinners and, at my seat, turn all but the water glass upside down. There were several: the shot glass for the many planned vodka toasts; the wine glasses for the red and white bottles of wine with varying courses; the brandy snifter for after-dinner drinks.
My Russian hosts were routinely scandalized. Once, they argued with my resolve, insisting that I drink. Sensing my panic, my friend, St. Petersburg editor Natasha Chaplina, ordered them in rapid Russian to stop bothering me. It was a close escape.
I was apprehensive about traveling to Ireland without drinking, and yet, for me it turned out to be one of the easiest places to stay sober. When I entered my first pub, the bartender silently raised an eyebrow and an empty pint glass. I shook my head, and he immediately poured me a steaming mug of hot Irish tea, which I accepted with gratitude. (Years later I wrote about my experiences making sober pub crawls in the land of my ancestors for the New York Times travel section, being ever grateful for the talented copyeditor whose melodious headline was, “Drinkless in Ireland: Pubs but No Pints.”)
I’m blessed to have been sober this long, but I have lots of company. Data from six large studies estimate that around 25 million American adults (about 10 percent of the adult population) are in recovery. If anything, I regret not being open about my sobriety until I was well over 20 years sober. And I regret even more that I rarely wrote about my own story in 30 years of opinion writing, although I returned to the problem of addiction again and again in writing for four newspapers. My reticence wasn’t a sign of my commitment to anonymity.
The fact is, I didn’t write about my need to stop drinking because I was so deeply ashamed.
Not guilty, mind you. I felt shame. Guilt is remorse for what you did. Shame is despair over who you are.
I didn’t feel much guilt over my drinking because I mostly only hurt myself. But I felt deep shame because I was engaging in behavior, then a habit, that I knew to be at the root of my father’s awful, sometimes insane, actions during my childhood. And he was acting out an addiction that repeated itself for generations in my family.
It took me 10 years of sobriety to realize that not only did I have nothing to be ashamed about, but that I had accomplished something pretty fabulous. I had broken the invisible handcuffs that kept me a slave to my addiction. The chains around me had melted away – chains that are still wrapped tightly around too many people.
If I could wish anything on my odd-numbered anniversary it would be that more recovering people shed anonymity and tell people that they are gratefully sober, particularly at parties and over the holidays.
That, no, they aren’t skipping a beer to lose weight. They aren’t passing up a drink for just a week or two. That sober is the way they want to live, period.
My guess is that such admissions and openness would help a lot of people. It would also help others understand what I know in my bones: that the joy gained from not drinking is far greater than the fleeting, boozy high I once so eagerly sought. That blessed sobriety is worth more than either rubies or jade.
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Happy 37!! Was there a moment of inspiration when you chose to embrace sobriety? Or was it a slow decision that evolved over time? Thanks for sharing your heartbreak and triumph.