Drinking alcohol — which Google kindly informs me is a psychoactive drug — is widely considered to be normal. (Read that again)
What’s considered just as widely to be abnormal is sobriety. At least it seems by many drinkers of alcohol, my former self included.
Usually described by reference to the things it lacks — the main one obviously being alcohol — we’re told that sobriety is also without style, sophistication, fun, enjoyment or good times. It is a necessary-but-grey alternative for those who, for seemingly unmentionable reasons, can’t or shouldn’t drink. Or so the story goes.
For those of us who ever normalised our drinking, sobriety can also be hard to achieve. Yet another point against it. It took me two significant attempts over 20 years and a landslide of smaller ones in which I swore off the booze on Sunday morning… and promptly went back to it by Wednesday night.
I don’t consider my drinking to have been anywhere near alcoholism, thankfully. But drinking to excess was the norm in my social group and always seemed to be a necessity to get to know colleagues after work. (Both actually turned out to be falsehoods and I can thrive in those groups alongside drinkers, but the ideas were powerful incentives to continue drinking while I still believed them).
I didn’t just drink to belong though. Alcohol also masked a range of unresolved problems, anxieties and things I felt unable to tackle in life. Issues I felt truly alone with. It anaesthetised me, numbing me to their symptoms rather than addressing them in any way. So becoming sober, at least for me, didn’t feel as simple as deciding not to drink.
Perhaps sobriety’s biggest image problem though was that I didn’t see it as a positive choice in its own right, rather than just the absence of drinking or (apparently) fun. I didn’t compare and contrast it meaningfully with how I felt when I drank. I didn’t think about the things I might manage to do with my life whilst sober, which were limited by drink.
I can remember fleeting moments as far back as the mid-90s in which I believed I wanted sobriety, as I wandered with friends from venue to venue in London’s club scene, consuming fun in bottled form but actually running away from my life. What I really wanted was an end to the suffering and the mess that drinking often brought with it… and the problems I was running from by consuming it.
I wanted to stop feeling like a moth forever circling a lightbulb that burned me whenever I got too close to it.
But for some reason, I still didn’t feel as though sobriety was something I could pursue. I had to reach the point where I saw my drinking as untenable. The search for that need to be sober is a lonely one, despite being surrounded by friends as you drink your way towards it. Many people, sadly, never pull up from the downward trajectory it involves.
Finally, for me, it was only by seeing other people in my life who had somehow achieved it that I began to consider sobriety seriously.
Those sober reference points, whether friends or colleagues or people I saw on television, showed me that it was an achievable choice in its own right and a hugely freeing one, not just a lack of alcohol or a need to escape it. They made it seem positively compelling. Contrary to the messages I had swallowed for decades.
And so this is why, at 7 years sober today and way beyond the date I stopped commemorating the anniversaries for myself, I still talk and write about being sober.
In the past year alone, four friends have told me that I was the quiet-but-positive sober reference point that inspired them to consider it seriously, just as other friends before them were mine.
Alcohol has the weight of the marketing and advertising industries behind it, making it look sophisticated, wrapping it in sleek packaging, aligning it with the idea of fun… and lying through their teeth in the process.
Sobriety, sadly, doesn’t have a product to sell or an advertising budget to go with it.
But it does have sober reference points, like me, if anyone else could use one.