Stumbling into Sobriety for my Thirty-Fifth Year
A continuation of The Margarita Morning
A plan. I needed a plan if I was going to at least attempt abstaining from alcohol for any significant length of time.
This is probably a good time to mention that I am not much of a planner, much to my husband’s delight.
The desire to stop drinking was there. The knowing that it was necessary was there. But the how remained elusive.
I am quite sure that I did, in fact, drink again after that fateful morning. The specifics on that are not entirely clear within my memory, whether that is a result of shame or alcohol-induced amnesia is hard to say.
As I ruminated over the idea of leaving alcohol behind, I was faced with the stark realization that nearly all of my social interactions featured alcohol in the leading role. Outside of work and children’s activities, hanging out with friends or date night always involved alcohol.
Was this a problem? I’m not sure. Maybe? Probably. I did not black out every time I drank but I hated stopping after just one.
I hated stopping when I could start to feel that buzz, when I felt my shoulders relax, and when my confidence and lightheartedness started to swing up. I loved that feeling. One especially fond memory is tossing cheeseballs in the mouth in kitchen and having the kids count how many I could make in a row (14, for those wondering).
I was a fun drunk… until I wasn’t.
A memory with a little less sparkle? Probably when my husband and I had a big fight while our family of 5 was on vacation in a cabin by the river (not to be confused with a van down by the river). I was probably 5 White Claws in and his joke didn’t land right. I got angry, there were words, and then I started crying. What was the joke? What were the words? As any good drinker can tell you, alcohol isn’t known to improve your memory. Did I mention that my husband’s older brother was there? Or that when we fought I acted like I was going to up and leave him? Classic Mean Drunk Brandi move.
Eventually, a plan fell into my mind. I would make my 35th year on earth be a year of sobriety. I was going to turn 35 in September of 2019. I felt pretty confident in my abilities to follow through, as I was able to go 40 days alcohol free during the summer of 2018 after a particularly embarrassing evening while out drinking with college friends.
There was still some confusion on how this could work with our social life. How would I interact with neighbors while everyone else was drinking? What about when coworkers met for after work drinks? How would I explain that I am not drinking for awhile? Do I tell them I am nervous I am losing control? Will they judge me when I say that? Probably, I thought. Then what was the alternative? To say nothing? Do I not leave the house?
I decided to wing it. A brilliant plan indeed.
My birthday came and went, with the celebration involving a gluten free strawberry birthday cake instead of champagne or Stella Rosa. I stocked our fridge with carbonated, flavored water and kept alcohol out of reach. I requested my husband not drink in our home for the time being, as I knew that his drinking (in front of me) would make my abstinence more difficult.
A week came and went. The habit started to lessen a bit. I would come home and grab a flavored water instead of a White Claw. I was doing okay without alcohol.
And then we were invited to our next door neighbor’s surprise 40th birthday party, 13 days after I started my year of sobriety. It was at a bar and grill in Sioux Falls, not too far from our house. I liked this neighbor. She was kind and friendly, I wanted to go.
We took family photos that day at dusk in a town an hour away. We missed the “Surprise!” but stopped by the birthday party on our way back. All of our neighbors were there and, as expected, everyone had a drink in hand.
“Do you want a drink?” My neighbor asked, the question I knew was coming.
I looked around and said, “Yeah. I’ll take a cider. Thanks.”
Brandon looked at me, but said nothing about it. He was not entirely sure why I thought I needed to stop drinking for a year… as I had never told him about the aforementioned Margarita Morning. He ordered a Blue Moon, no orange.
I walked around and socialized, drink in hand. I felt dirty. I had broken the promise I had made to myself. But I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know how to be there and not drink. If I didn’t drink, they would all assume I was pregnant again, which I wasn’t. Having them believe that falsehood is certainly not the worst thing that could happen, but… it bothered me. I didn’t want my ‘friends’ to think I was lying when I wasn’t. (opportunity to add message about how many feel the need to be perceived as authentic more than the need to be authentic to self)
I drank most of the cider, leaving a few drinks behind. We left the party and headed home with our 3 kids. I had a mix of feelings. Somewhat proud that I had limited myself to only one, but also somewhat shattered at giving in so early and so easily.
The next day, I started it over again. I just was not going to drink anymore. For a month, I became a bit of shut in. I did not really want to socialize because I was still unsure how to navigate that setting.
A few weeks later, my husband was running a half marathon in Minnesota (rather Nebraska). Our neighbor was also running. We (our neighbor, his wife, my husband, and me) decided to all ride together, the wives in the cheering section while the husbands ran. We had traveled like this before, but that time I had been running as well.
The night before the race, we went out to eat together. My second test. Jess, our neighbor, ordered a Michelob Ultra. My husband ordered a Guinness (?). Jess’s husband, Gerald, never drank before races, so he got a water. I placed my order for a Diet Mountain Dew and proceeded to tell them that I was taking a break from drinking. They were surprised but okay with it.
“I just feel like I need a break. It’s really hard for me to just have one or two, and I was getting nervous that I was losing control.” I explained.
“Yeah. I drink more in the summer, too. But I can usually stop after 1 beer,” said Jess. “You and Tay were drinking quite a bit for a while there,” she added.
“Yeah. I know that now. I don’t know if this is a forever thing, but it feels good to reset.” I responded.
Gerald nodded and said, “I think it’s cool. Good for you.”
The dinner proceeded without further discussion on it. I felt a little more sturdy in my plan.
The next morning, we were up early to drop the men off and then get to the appointed cheering areas. After they crossed the finish line, we chatted for a while. Eventually, we decided to grab something to eat.
We walked around a few different places until the runners found something on the menu that they liked. It was a Sunday during football season in Lincoln, therefore everywhere we went there were football games on the TV and places to sit, drink, and eat.
This time, everyone got a beer but me. Again, it felt a little weird. But maybe a little bad-ass, too? Like I was sticking it to the proverbial man? Ha. Maybe? But I made it, again. With each small victory, I gained a bit more confidence. Felt a bit more sure of myself without the crutch of alcohol.
The next test arrived in the form of a Halloween Party at another neighbor’s house. My friend Tay and her husband loved Halloween. They went all out with decorations, costumes, and awards for best costumes. It was a big deal.
This would be my first time going sober. I was nervous and did not really want to go. I knew that one neighbor in particular would be fairly vocal about my not drinking. To shield the questions, I grabbed my trusty mint Yeti mug and filled it with sparkling water. I then hid more of that water in the cooler holding my husband’s beer. I would pretend to drink. Another fool proof (zero proof) plan.
Until I needed to refill the mug... and failed to morph into my more sassy counterpart, whom we shall refer to as ***.
“Are you not drinking?” the outspoken neighbor asked, loud enough for all to hear.
“Yeah, no. I am taking a little break from drinking.” I responded.
I heard a “Hmph” and saw raised eyebrows as people looked at one another.
“Also, I am not pregnant. For anyone believing that that is the reason.” I added quickly, wanting to leave already.
Silence. Until a whispered, “Yeah, we’ll see.”
I took a deep breath and tried to shake off my anger and the rising discomfort. Why do I feel embarrassed? I asked myself. I’m doing nothing wrong here. Why is this an expectation? Why is it weird to not drink?
Honestly, I could not be too angry. Before deciding to get sober, I would have been the one encouraging everyone else to drink and have a good time. I would have been the one egging people on, thinking I was helping them relax to have a good time.
I went to stand by my husband and laid my head on his shoulder. He was in a red sweatshirt and dressed as Coco. I was in a black cat onesie/costume that matched my daughter’s. She was at home in bed, as were her brothers. We had hired a babysitter. I tried to decide how long I needed to stay in order to not be perceived as rude or bitchy.
That was October 2019 and after that awkward evening I started staying home more. I started missing more of the neighborhood get-togethers. I was feeling a bit lost, but wanted to stay true to myself and my word.
My friend, V, from a few hours away sent me a book called Sober Curious. I was already a few months into my sober experiment by the time this arrived, but Ruby Warrington’s words were like salve to my bruised soul. I felt calmer and understood. Knowing someone else had stumbled through the beginning sobriety was comforting.
I found that the farther I got away from drinking, the easier it was to not drink. After a few weeks, I would have a bad day at work and not even consider drowning that discomfort with alcohol. I would hit a goal (like lead my first group meditation) and not need a drink.
Nacho Cheese Doritos were a common bandaid for emotional pain, but I tried to enjoy those in moderation.
And then the Coronavirus hit. A little less than 6 months into my year long experiment.
Some days, when homeschooling was hard and it was too cold to send the kids outside, I really, really wanted a drink. But I didn’t. I had built up my ability to say no to that societal fix that didn’t really fix anything. And I didn’t want my kids to think I drank because of them. Because they’re kids. And they’re supposed to drive their mother crazy sometimes, right?
It’s been 18 months now without alcohol. My husband has pretty much cut out drinking, too. Some of that is because of me, but he’s seen benefits, too. The hangovers were real and the emotional toll of COVID could have really expedited a drinking problem. So while I may have chosen the hardest time to be sober, it was probably also the best time.
I do not envision alcohol going away. I do not envision everyone getting sober. But I do hope we can all reflect upon why we drink, and how much we drink.
Is it because we’re happy? Or sad? Or lonely?
Is it really helping, or just masking the pain? Or the joy?
I think it’s probably both.
Will I drink alcohol again?
I’m not sure. Maybe, maybe not. I do not really have much desire to drink at this point. I want to fully experience life and remember each and every moment. I have been to some amazing concerts (The Weeknd, Garth Brooks) and can only remember bits and pieces of those events. That feels like such a shame now.
Alas, shame is a worthless emotion. The past cannot be changed and I am excited for my, for our, future.
Cheers to you, with my NA brew!
This piece was written and contributed by:
Brandi Johnson was born and raised in a small, Midwest, rural, conservative town. Her parents were free thinkers, which she embodied as well. Growing up, Brandi learned to use caution regarding her truth, as different thinking was not typically welcome. Eventually, she followed the path laid out before her and became a licensed pharmacist. Motherhood was something she always longed for and she is blessed with 3 children and a wonderful husband. Despite these blessings, Brandi struggled with postpartum anxiety and depression after her 3rd child. While battling this, she found her love of writing.
Writing has become Brandi's way to relax and recenter among the stress of life and motherhood. It is a time of reflection and release that brings both joy and peace, which has increased her capacity to love and enjoy life. Through writing, therapy, and meditation, she has found her truth and her voice again.
Brandi attended Mount Marty College for her Undergraduate Degree and South Dakota State University for her Doctorate in Pharmacy degree. She also became a Certified Meditation and Mindfulness Teacher in March 2020 and a Usui Holy Fire® Reiki Practitioner in November 2021.