I keep a notebook beside my bed. Occasionally I have ideas in the middle of the night, and I want to capture them before they become something I can’t quite reach, like grabbing onto a comet before it goes whizzing past.
Sometimes the notes are nonsense. The other day, however, I woke up and found I had left myself just one sentence: “I am sober, and I am scared.”
This wasn’t a mysterious phrase to untangle. It was the absolute truth — something I only bared in the middle of the night when my pen couldn’t lie, something I hadn’t even acknowledged to myself in my waking life. This note plucked from the void was a mirror. I am sober, and I am scared.
As we start returning to normal life, my sobriety will come as a surprise to almost everyone I know.
For many years, I worked for a daily newspaper, where I wrote lifestyle articles and long-form features, as well as a weekly cocktail column. I still remember the time I attended the company holiday party, where I congratulated my editor — a man I admired and considered a mentor — on winning a national award. Then I jokingly said, “You’ll have to tell me how to get one of those.”
He replied, “Well, you need to be more than Drink of the Week.”
Those words haunted me for more than a decade. No matter what I wrote, drinking was my identity, and unable to shake it, I leaned into it. After a while, I even liked it. I considered myself a bon vivant, my lips perpetually stained merlot purple, always an appetite for more.
When the covid-19 pandemic began, I was still that boozy social butterfly, the person who turned every occasion into happy hour. So when we went into lockdown in March 2020, I secured the essentials for my household: canned food and bags of rice, toilet paper, disinfecting wipes. But I also bought two cases of wine, many bottles of assorted hard liquor and several mixers.
I drank my way through the pandemic’s first couple of months, as though I could avoid the virus by pickling myself. My group of mom friends and I swapped memes about how much alcohol we were consuming, and I was comforted by the fact I wasn’t alone.
In fact, the American Psychological Association conducted a nationwide survey in February and found that nearly 1 in 4 adults drank more over the past year to alleviate stress. The rate doubled among parents who had children between the ages of 5 and 7. (My son is 6.)
Even as a longtime binge drinker, I knew I was drowning.
“Seriously,” I texted in the group chat. “I’m going to have to deal with my alcohol problem when the pandemic ends.”
We all know what happened next — the pandemic didn’t end.
From a practical side, drinking didn’t make sense anymore. Life in lockdown was stressful enough, and I actively made it more difficult with blackout nights, hung-over mornings and endless fatigue. Often I woke up sweaty and sore, and I didn’t know whether I had contracted covid or if it was only me hurting myself again. I worked out every morning for an hour just to sweat out the gin from the night before, and only then did I feel almost normal.
What if I made things easier? I wondered.
If this time has shown us anything, it’s that life is brief and unpredictable. When I took stock of who I was and what I want to achieve while I’m still alive, I knew I couldn’t get there without changing something. And one part of the equation clearly didn’t belong.
I’m sure the stress and anxiety of the pandemic has made maintaining sobriety difficult for many, as people have been marooned from their communities and support systems, but my experience was the opposite. The pandemic brought me so far outside of my old routine, it presented me with an opportunity to replace my habits with new ones. Social distance made space for inner scrutiny. Here was my chance to be more than drink of the week.
As part of the process, I read several books (Holly Whitaker’s “Quit Like a Woman” was particularly helpful), and I followed a timeline of what happens inside a sober body at 24 hours, one week, one month, six. Ultimately, I realized that for me, consuming alcohol is a daily choice about moving forward or going backward. And because I no longer felt obligated to wear my party-girl persona like a sparkly dress, that decision was easy.
It reminded me of how I once sat so still, I could hear the tiny “pop!” when a daffodil bud burst from its sheath and opened into a blossom. That’s what quitting felt like. It was quiet, and it was slow, but every moment was imbued with the conscious choice to grow.
Many months later, I am confident about who I am without a cocktail in hand. I once thought that would be the scary part — this reckoning and self-examination — but it wasn’t. I’ve enjoyed the act of discovery and becoming more present in my own life.
However, with my part of the world opening up again, I’m anxious about my new place in it.
I’m not the same person who went into lockdown. I don’t think any of us are. We’ve all changed — cultivating new skills, changing our behaviors, facing our fears, grieving, healing. We have spent a year fighting to flourish in the negative space, the place where things we love went missing. We have contemplated our places in the universe.
My friends haven’t even met this version of me yet, and I’m not yet acquainted with them. It’s like I’m returning from Mars.
This is where the fear comes in. I’ve watched enough astronomy documentaries to know that reentry is the real challenge for anything that ventures into new frontiers. Do it quickly, and you’ll burn. Do it slowly, and you’ll burn out. The trick is to navigate the perilous environment deliberately, to stay cool, to lessen the shock.
When I wrote in my bedside notebook the other night, I had reached out to myself from the infinite space of my dreams. And what I told myself was that hurtling toward Earth is indeed scary, but you do it anyway.
You do it because sobriety, like returning to this planet, is the only place where you can see the light.
Maggie Downs is a journalist and author of “Braver Than You Think.”