Amanda Ward and Jardine Libaire are the authors of the forthcoming book, “The Sober Lush: A Hedonist’s Guide to Living a Decadent, Adventurous, Soulful Life—Alcohol Free,” which hits shelves June 2.
Back in the day, we knew how to party, how to slip into magical dim bars that smelled of smoke and promise. We knew who could be relied on to day drink with us, who stashed an extra box of wine in the garage fridge. We knew how to drink away painful thoughts and intense self-consciousness, at least for the night. We had tricks, too, for staggering through a hangover. What got us sober was knowing too well the feeling of waking at 3 o’clock in the morning, pierced with shame and regret, our hearts beating fast, a nameless panic coursing through our veins: “Not this. Please, not again. Not this.”
But what else was there? What other life could we live?
We’re feeling lost in a similar way now, our days pale and endless and unfamiliar. We miss our friends, our regular yoga class, restaurants, the thrum and excitement of the world. We can white-knuckle it, just get through, keep ourselves and our loved ones fed and safe and alive. But can we add beauty and lushness and connection to the equation at some point, and if so, how?
Our experiences during early sobriety offer some ideas.
When we got sober, we were suddenly confronted with days (and worse — evenings, happy hours, late nights) that stretched and yawned before us. We hurried to fill them with ice cream and bubble baths and junk TV, all of which helped fill the gaps, but didn’t immediately obliterate and shift the world the way drugs and alcohol once did. (Amanda still misses the first night she drank two wine coolers — she was 14 — and time seemed to blur at the edges and catch fire. Jardine romanticizes the first two glasses of anything, as if they were magic shields to reality.)
In those very first weeks of sobriety, before we could do anything else, we realized we had to grieve what was gone. Our known and reliable ways of connecting (“Hey, wanna grab some brisket and whiskey, I’m in your neighborhood?”; “Hey, I just broke up with so-and-so, wanna go dancing and get blitzed?”; “Hey, I’m home with the kids because so-and-so is on a business trip, wanna come drink wine and watch a movie?”) were gone. This was a concrete loss — of possibilities, and the comfort we human beings find in ritual and habit. Giving permission to ourselves to miss it all was liberating. We decided we’re allowed to mourn, even if what we’re mourning might seem to someone else to be little things, silly things.
We also quickly discovered that we drank, in many cases, because we were terrified of our own thoughts, of being with ourselves, of feeling our feelings. Boredom seemed to be the villain, but in those first days and weeks and months of sobriety, it became clear a lot was waiting in the shadows of that boredom. Sure, some demons were hiding in there, but so were important feelings we’d been avoiding processing, old and new: ambitions repressed since childhood, or blips of resentment from a conversation that afternoon with our boss. Lurking in the void were also glorious ideas — tiny ones, like switching the bed to face the window, or having a eureka moment about a project concept. So we allowed ourselves to feel tender, made a space for our fragile selves. In this new hush of quiet, we could finally hear our true voices, the ones that had whispered to us at dawn after a bender, saying, “This needs to stop.” Now we learned to make room for them. Even when the answer could be inconvenient or catastrophic, we asked, “What do I honestly want?” And closed our eyes and listened.
In the very, very beginning of sobriety, we needed to be calm, to just simply recover from what drove us to give up liquor. But once we regulated our nervous systems a bit, we started to redevelop an appetite for life, for lushness. After a bit of solitude, we craved people and bonding again; we even longed for a certain level of beautiful chaos. We felt a spike of hunger for surprise, for transcending the average day or night. Yoga and working out and meditation helped soothe our souls in those early days, but calm didn’t feel like the absolute end goal. What about feeling wild and alive? What about falling in love? What about being raw and creative?
We learned quickly that one of the biggest benefits in early sobriety was that by making a safer space, by getting more and better sleep, by having a less shattered psyche on a daily basis, we found ourselves able to take chances — in love, in art, in thinking out of the box, in being okay with the unknown.
Sobriety, it turns out, didn’t mean we suddenly became straight arrows. We misunderstood this going in, and thought we’d have to be productive and well-behaved once we stopped drinking. In fact, that period of time is pretty much characterized by a dismantling of old ideas. What was left at first was the naked, vulnerable feeling of not having any new principles and ideologies to take their place yet. We had to exist without any solid outlook for a spell.
We also realized, after a bit of the new sobriety, that the urge to check out and be transported wasn’t gone. We were turned on to new ways of turning our brains off: tasting honey, watching marathon-knitting videos or webcams of birds nesting in Australia, napping on the lawn in the sun, floating in a tub full of Epsom salt and lemongrass oil, trying to lucid dream with an Internet guru, reading comic books. We didn’t need to be on point every minute; it was exhausting. We wanted to be stupid. We wanted to not think.
New role models and new communities helped in all of this. “Please,” we said, “show us how you do it.” Sometimes they were people we met in recovery, and sometimes they were people we’d known forever and we’d just never asked what they did beyond the bar. One friend belonged to a women’s motorcycle club, for example, and another volunteered at a prison. We joined a life-drawing class, befriended beekeepers and learned how to keep a hive. Meetings and online groups gave us new support and ideas and connection, propped us up in that first stage.
We actually met each other in 2016 and became friends as we were both learning, through trial and much error, how to make a beautiful life without booze and drugs. Jardine had three years sober at that point, and Amanda was just beginning. A mutual friend put us in touch because we were both writers, both trying to be sober and both fairly bewildered. We found strength and solace in long talks with each other, walks, hot cups of French press coffee. Together, out of the ensuing conversations, we wrote “The Sober Lush.” The book was a way to keep each other company and to track our attempt to rediscover the roots of everything we’d classified under “hedonism,” things we’d come to associate with alcohol that don’t actually belong exclusively to alcohol.
But if we sound like we knew what we were doing, be assured that early sobriety only makes sense to us in hindsight. While we were going through it, we were confused, surprised, humbled, insecure. We followed wrong leads, came to dead ends, compared ourselves needlessly and fruitlessly to other sober people and doubted ourselves — all while having epiphanies, sparking new relationships, finding joy in the least expected spots and enduring boredom past where it usually beat us to find the jewels and treasures right beyond it.
We took it day by day, and when we say we took it, we mean we took the questions, the uncertainty. Not always gracefully. But we took it.
Adapted from “The Sober Lush: A Hedonist’s Guide to Living a Decadent, Adventurous, Soulful Life—Alcohol Free” by arrangement with TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020, Amanda Eyre Ward and Jardine Libaire.