Just over six months ago, I did something I’d previously considered unthinkable: at the ripe old age of 22, I stopped drinking, and it’s been most instructive. Some aspects of recovery are uniform across age groups – a sense of social isolation, for example, or the shakes (oh god, the shakes). But young people, gin-soaked as their social dynamics tend to be, face a particular set of challenges and new experiences when they try to give up alcohol. Below is a list (by no means exhaustive) of some of the things I’ve learned since I put a plug in the jug.
1. You will keep expecting there to be an end in sight – and there isn’t.
We don’t often think about it, but up until age 22 or so, our lives are planned out in bite-size chunks with clear goals. When you’re born, your main objective is to meet the usual milestones – walking, talking, potty training, transubstantiation, you know. After that, the chunks become school-centered – three years for middle school, four for high school, and often another four for college. We’re trained to think in terms of time periods, which presuppose a defined terminus.
This gets tricky when you stop drinking. You still feel like there’s an end somewhere down the line (well, besides death). This kind of thinking is great, if you’re trying to accomplish something in an organized, methodical manner, but for alcoholics, sobriety is an ongoing project. Specific goals may be very important (“my significant other will leave me if I keep drinking”) but they’re peripheral to the main goal – do not drink. Moreover, the reward for all your hard work is almost never immediately apparent; beyond the health and financial perks, it’s mostly internal growth. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a rewarding labor, but by your 20s, you usually haven’t had to cope with the idea of permanence very much. It’s a tough shift.
2. It’s a good way to genuinely impress people.
Remember when you were a kid and everything you did even half-decently convinced adults that you were “precocious” and your peers that you were a witch? That feeling was one of the most wonderful things in the world, and it’s hard not to resent how much higher the bar sits after puberty. One of the saving graces of sobriety when you’re young – aside from a liver that doesn’t frighten and confound your doctor – is that people will be flat out speechless when you tell them. It’s not the same saccharine admiration you get when you talk about the unpaid internship you got with a company nobody’s ever heard of; it’s real, honest-to-gosh awe, and dammit, you deserve it. So many of our accomplishments in life are merely meeting the expectations of others; it feels incredible to be lauded for something you do of your own volition. Sober living isn’t something many alcoholics can do, even those with eons of life experience behind them, and giving up booze when your whole social life hinges on it is a huge accomplishment. There aren’t many times in life when nobody can fault you for self-congratulation, so back-pat away; it’s just important to be mindful of the line between pride and hubris.
3. You’re every bit as directionless as you were before – you can just see it a lot more clearly.
The dialogue on both sides of the aisle is misguided. On the one hand, people in their early 20s have a lot of trouble imagining a life without booze – the bottle has, after all, been our most stalwart ally in every venture from making new friends to getting laid. A lot of us realize, abstractly, that this may eventually need to change – but it’s a distant enough future that it hardly bears thinking about. On the other hand, there’s an idea that “cleaning up your act” is one sweeping lifestyle shift, and once you’ve undertaken it, you are irrevocably changed for the better.
The sometimes-sad-sometimes-happy reality is that giving up drinking when you’re young doesn’t change all that much about your place in life. If you were unemployed before you put down the bottle, you’re still unemployed after. Your car still breaks down just as often. You’re still pretty bad about making it to the gym, and you still smoke too much. The only real change is that you can see all these things in agonizingly sharp detail – and you can’t just down scotch until the F on your transcript blurs into an A.
4. Metaphors and cliches start making sense.
We live in an age of justified but reflexive skepticism. This applies not only to today’s news, but also to the wisdom of yore. When is the last time you honestly took to heart that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush? How many of you have literally stopped to smell the roses? And how the hell would anyone ever consider a single pole a raft? These figures of speech are so mundane that we often forget the genuine wisdom buried beneath the trite phrasing.
When you quit drinking, you start to see why they became cliches in the first place – when you’re really, truly desperate for advice, you lose the knee-jerk urge to make a snide retort, and instead start to listen. There’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous has a million and one short mottos – “one day at a time”, “first things first”, “this too shall pass”, and so on. It’s because these kernels of sagacity will help you get through the day without stabbing people and/or going mad, which I suspect is what they were originally designed to do.
5. You start to realize that no trajectory in life is totally like another; the same basic combination of ingredients can yield wildly different results, and you can’t assume people have had or will have the same experiences you have merely because of some superficial commonalities.
There’s a concept called “high bottom” vs. “low bottom”. It’s a distinction between where people were in life when they decided to seek treatment. There are some alcoholics (“low bottoms”) who shoot Everclear until their families fall apart, their houses get repossessed, and their health teeters on the brink of oblivion. There are other alcoholics who don’t drink every day, and alcoholics who – to all eyes but their own – seem to have everything together (“high bottoms”.) When it comes to treatment, though, what matters is not how bad your problem was – what matters is that it was bad enough for you to try to fix it. Sobriety can teach you to stop seeing everything as a competition. What difference does it make if your addiction is “as bad” as your neighbor’s? It’s a humbling epiphany, and it makes accepting help so much easier. You’re both trying to solve the same problem, and as the old saying goes, two heads are better than one (especially since your own head’s the dumbass that made you start drinking in the first place).