One mom’s journey to becoming, and staying, a non-drinker

A glass of red wine

By Jordan Souza

My mother went to AA meetings and drank non-alcoholic beers at the pizza joint after soccer games. I never saw her drink alcohol that I can remember and I never thought of my mother as a recovering alcoholic; even my father once said that she was just a serial joiner, she liked to be a part of something.

AA offered her a community. She was never a real alcoholic. I have a photo of her holding me, maybe one day old, on a rocking chair, a pint of beer in her hand and a cheeky grin.

It’s a photo I have many times recreated with my own children: baby on lap, wine glass in hand, a knowing smile to the camera—I can do both, be both. Or arms around my husband, cider clasped tight, a huge smile, as my four year old takes the photo. These pictures show the good moment, when the beer or cider is cold, when the wine hasn’t turned to anxious anger or purple teeth, or the forgoing of baths for the kids because I am just too sleepy, too ready for another glass.

As soon as I was able, sooner than I’d like to admit, I started drinking after my second child was born and it was a foundational part of my life for three years. It did seem to help. It brought me closer to my husband. Sometimes. One time in particular, we were sitting on the porch of our old farmhouse. Our kids were asleep. We opened a bottle of expensive wine and listened to Townes Van Zandt. It was in that blurry, elated moment that we realized we were done having children — our family was complete. We wanted to invest in us. We stumbled to bed happy and the headache in the morning was manageable.

That’s a good story, but it is one of few. Most of the time, I would open a bottle of wine as we were making dinner and drink it through the meal. Maybe finish it off right after. I’d go through putting the kids to bed. And then, settled on the couch, numb out with a sloppily made cocktail or beer. It wasn’t until about a year ago that I started to question my drinking, hold it up to the light.

According to the National Insititute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the recommended weekly number of drinks for a woman is no more than seven. I tried counting drinks for a while, but I never made it and quickly gave up. “This is a coping mechanism that I need right now,” I said. Or “Everyone I know drinks.” But I don’t think other women left a party and thought about what they had at home to end the night with. I don’t think most women could keep up with their husbands.

Lent 2020 rolled around and I decided to kick alcohol to the curb for 40 days. I wanted to give my brain some head space for a while, to see what it felt like to feel. My therapist approved of this experiment. My husband wasn’t sure I could do it. What I found was that it was challenging—to feel my feelings. To sit with them.

In March 2020, the Covid-19 virus hit and we were stuck at home. My husband bought beer in bulk and the liquor cabinet was stocked. I was anxious. I wanted to drink. But I also knew that without the boundaries of a normal working schedule, the lines around when to drink and when to not would begin to blur. Lunchtime beers would spill into afternoon cocktails and then more cocktails. I knew that drinking was a cycle and a lie.

I made it through Lent. With the help of Holly Whitaker’s book Quit Like a Woman, I considered being done for good. I felt like a newborn during that time, so porous and open. I felt like I was on the verge of some great discovery of myself, if only I could stay the course and get past the hump of cravings, I would enter a new world.

If I had done that, and continued to abstain from alcohol, I would have been about five months sober today rather than five days. But instead, I went to bed drunk the first day after Lent. The last few months there have been many stops and starts of becoming a non-drinker. I downloaded the sober app that I used during Lent, but felt frustrated at having to reset it every day. So I would delete it.

I found another app that encouraged you to cut back on drinking, count your drinks, set weekly goals, but like the times before, I never met those goals.

My husband and even my therapist both thought I was possibly being too hard on myself, that my obsession with alcohol was yet another way to self criticize, to try to become a better version of myself. But after months of talking about alcohol, I think both were tired of the topic and ready for me to make a change, any change, that looked like resolve.

I started antidepressants to treat anxiety. The first night I took them, I had had a few drinks. I woke at four in the morning feeling confused. My dreams were absurd. I was scared that some chemical reaction was taking over. I felt guilty. So I stopped drinking.

Just like that.

And yesterday I overcame a social event, a socially distant Fourth of July barbecue, that usually would have me drinking a few beers, unnoticed because everyone was, and maybe coming home and watching a show with wine until I fell asleep numb and grumpy. I may have gotten in a stupid fight with my husband or forgotten to take my contacts out. I might have missed my precious moisturizer or woken up feeling shame, hoping I hadn’t said anything wrong, convincing myself we had been safe driving our kids home.

Instead, I came home and scooped myself a bowl of ice cream. I ate it without guilt. I washed my face and brushed my teeth and applied lavender oil to the soles of my feet. I read a little and fell asleep to the sound of fireworks. I woke up, journaled, and wrote this down.

I am only on the start of a journey, but I like where it is taking me. I like how I am leading it. And while I do miss the quick joy that alcohol sometimes brought, I don’t miss the disappointment and the clawing for more when it didn’t offer up quick pain relief. I don’t miss the hamster wheel of wanting. I like looking at myself in the mirror and seeing an unblurred reflection. I like my clear gaze in the photographs.

Jordan Souza is a writer, editor, and educator living in Portland, Oregon. She’s at work on a novel about turning away from and returning to home. Many soda waters, deep breaths, and long walks get her through each gloriously busy day. 

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