My first year sober
Illustration by EC Miller for WBEZ

My first year sober: Why I did it and what I’ve learned

Too many activities became, over time, just a reason to drink. As the world emerged from COVID restrictions, I started to imagine a life beyond booze.

Illustration by EC Miller for WBEZ
My first year sober
Illustration by EC Miller for WBEZ

My first year sober: Why I did it and what I’ve learned

Too many activities became, over time, just a reason to drink. As the world emerged from COVID restrictions, I started to imagine a life beyond booze.

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The realization that I wanted to quit drinking felt like a lightning bolt in my mind: sudden and unmistakable. But I didn’t immediately have the words, or energy, to explain how it felt both thrilling and nerve wracking to imagine a life beyond booze.

My last call came in the waning days of spring 2021, after getting vaccinated and feeling certain we were on the cusp of a “normal” summer. When en route to an all-day party, I tried to game out what time I wanted to start drinking, when I’d switch from beer to something stronger and how I’d successfully avoid being the one who got “too drunk” — at an event entirely about drinking.

While doing this mental math, it occurred to me that I didn’t want to spend my summer — nay, my life — doing these calculations before every social gathering. I didn’t want to get it “right” one Saturday just to mess it up the next. I didn’t want to continue to try to master alcohol — only to fail again and again. I wanted to free myself from drinking completely.

Somewhere in a corner of my brain that I was keen on avoiding, I’d known for years I would someday need to reform my relationship with alcohol, especially the way I had slowly come to think of too many activities — from holidays and birthdays to beach days or even going to a movie — as a reason to drink. Then, while hunkering down amid the pandemic, it was the absence of these activities that became the reason to drink: a way to pass the many consecutive nights stuck at home.

I was far from alone in seeing my drinking increase during the pandemic. Alcohol consumption in the U.S. in November 2020 — about eight months into capacity limitations and social distancing here in Chicago — was 39% higher than in February 2020, according to a study from the research firm RTI International. Binge drinking during that time saw a 30% increase, with women imbibing more than their male peers.

The startling rise in drinking among American women is well documented in Holly Whitaker’s book Quit Like a Woman, which made me feel like I wasn’t alone when I read it during my first month of sobriety. Even the reboot of Sex and the City seemed to acknowledge the drinking crisis among women. The original show, which I religiously watched reruns of as a teenager, glorified female drinking and the perfectly pink cosmopolitan. In last year’s revival, Miranda’s drinking leads her to ordering a copy of Whitaker’s book — a familiar act for me.

Much like the women in Sex and the City, I drank regularly, and frequently heavily, for nearly a decade. But I don’t ever remember asking: Is this something that makes me like myself? When I did start asking that question, the answer was a resounding “no.”

That type of questioning has been dubbed “sober curious” — or getting curious about why you drink to begin with, how it feels physically and emotionally when you do and what life would look like if one cuts back on drinking. It’s also a strategy that moves your mind beyond the ever-daunting question of “do I have a problem?”

When I did wonder if I had a problem, I typically concluded that I didn’t because of some arbitrary justification, like: I don’t always drink on weeknights or even some weekends and I rarely finish a bottle of wine by myself. Maybe this would have worked for months, or years, or even the rest of my life, but I realized I didn’t want to ignore what I knew to be true: Alcohol had more control over me and my time than I was willing to accept.

As clinical psychologist Daniel Fridberg of the University of Chicago put it when we spoke by phone recently for this article, “you don’t have to be, I’m using my air quotes here, addicted to alcohol to have problems with alcohol.”

Fridberg rattled off possible problems like having arguments or fights when you drink, neglecting your work, passing up other activities to go drink or having a hard time controlling your drinking once you start. And as he points out, “none of that requires that you be physically dependent on alcohol.” But it can all lead people to the point I found myself at last year: questioning if it’s even worth it to drink anymore.

Author Ruby Warrington, the person who coined “sober curious,” told ABC News this year it’s about asking “could my life be better without alcohol?” For me, the answer to that question felt simple. Yes, absolutely yes.

Of course, being sober curious is different than it was even a couple years ago. Now, taking a break no longer confines you to drinking water, soda or maybe an O’Doul’s if you could find one.

Non-alcoholic options, smartly packaged in eye-catching cans and bottles just like their alcoholic counterparts, have started popping up everywhere — even at Chicago’s baseball stadiums and German-themed Christmas markets.

A widely cited NielsenIQ report found that sales of non-alcoholic beverages increased 33% from November 2020 to November 2021 — pulling in $331 million. Sales of non-alcoholic beer on the online booze distributor Drizly — which promises drinks delivered to your door in under 60 minutes in cities across the country, including Chicago — increased 200% year over year in 2021. Orders for NA spirits were up 600%.

I am both grateful and bemused that I waded through my first year of sobriety at the same time the market for mocktails and non-alcoholic beverages has seen an unprecedented boom. I’ve come to love offerings like Ghia — a non-alcoholic aperitif that’s made of botanical extracts — and will often pick up a bottle of TÖST, a sparkling NA drink that isn’t too sweet, or a six-pack from the popular NA beer brand Athletic to bring to events where other people will be drinking.

However, it’s not merely about swapping the alcohol I once drank equally for an NA alternative: Sobriety instead feels like a greater reckoning of how I spend my time and what I want from my life.

Cristina Torres, who hosts regular sober events and is raising money to open Chicago’s first-ever dry bar, told me part of her early sobriety was “relearning who I am.” That’s why she’s focused on creating a space where people can come together as a community — with activities that aren’t tied to alcohol. But she’s also thinking about how to incorporate non-alcoholic drinks in a way that’s not triggering to people who may want to gather in such a space.

I appreciate the way Torres is thinking about creating concoctions that expand beyond the flavor profile of typical cocktails — rather than just imitating them. Especially because if you’ve spent time drinking non-alcoholic beers, wines or spirits recently, you know how close they are getting to the real thing. That’s why Dr. Fridberg, who sees people with ​​alcohol use disorder in his clinical practice, told me he advises his patients to stay away from non-alcoholic beer, wine and spirits altogether.

As for me, I have stood in store aisles many times in the past year and intensely examined the packaging of these products. No, I think over and over again, I don’t want any CBD. I don’t want to feel “free” or “chill” or good God, “euphoric” the way some products promise. If I wanted to try to get that from a drink, I’d go back to heavy-handed pours of red wine and cheap champagne. What I want is to feel sober.

Today, that feels clear to me, but at first it felt confounding and entirely too fragile to speak about. Instead I told people I was observing “sober June” — a made up, midyear equivalent of dry January. I realize now that this was, in part, a way of giving myself an escape plan. If I didn’t stay sober, then I wouldn’t have to admit to anyone else that I failed at attempting to.

When I did stick with it, well-meaning people started to sometimes ask me if I noticed any changes. I knew what they were asking — was there something singular and miraculous that had happened to my physical health — but I struggled with how to answer. It was never about losing weight (thank goodness, because when I stopped drinking, I gained weight. Go figure). It wasn’t about sleeping better, although I eventually did — after initially struggling to fall asleep at all. Or about clearer skin (my breakout-prone skin did not suddenly gain an influencer-level glow).

But do I notice any changes? Yes, of course I do.

Before I was ready to talk out in the open about being sober, I made it a point to message people who posted about sobriety on social media: to say congratulations, to say thanks for sharing, to say “same here.”

In response to one of those messages, a fellow journalist wrote back, “Brava to you for making the decision to live life.”

I knew exactly what he meant. That’s the change I notice a million times a day — me, really present in my life. In the sweet goodness of it and the sticky mess of it. In the pain and the joy and the mundane. I set myself free and that’s a change far bigger than any I could have imagined and one that will last whether or not the market for mocktails does.

Courtney Kueppers is a digital producer/reporter at WBEZ. Follow her @cmkueppers.