While there once may have been a stigma around divulging your sober status, for many millennials, living without alcohol is becoming more and more common. In 2016, the Guardian reported that "juice crawls" are replacing bar crawls, along with "sober day raves, alcohol-free bars, boozeless dinner and dance parties, and a sober social network that organizes group outings." Translation: being sober isn't something you have to do on your own. But for someone who lives with substance use disorder, or who's concerned about their drinking, getting sober isn't necessarily going to be easy.
The American Journal of Preventive Medicine reported that binge drinking is most prevalent among people ages 18 to 34. At the same time, women are less likely to seek treatment for substance use disorder, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. And though alcohol use and use disorders had been traditionally associated with men, a 2106 study found that millennial women's rates of drinking had evened out with men's, as had the health consequences. For women who have become sober, the ways they've made this change are all unique — and so are the ways their lives have changed since.
Deciding To Make A Change
"After two hospitalizations for alcohol poisoning in the course of 18 months, I [...] knew I needed help," Laura Silverman, founder of The Sobriety Collective, an online creative community for people in recovery, tells Bustle. "I didn’t intend on quitting [drinking] forever since that was too loaded a concept for me to handle. I enrolled in an intensive outpatient program just a few months after turning 24, hoping to get some clarity into [the] reasons I drank. Again, I had no idea what I was getting myself into — but the more days and weeks that passed by without ingesting substances and waking up hangover-free, the more I liked the feeling." The now-34-year-old is also the director of community relations at Potomac Pathways, a treatment program for teens and young adults, and ambassador for Shatterproof, a national nonprofit committed to reducing the stigma and secrecy associated with substance use disorder.
For many people like Silverman, making the decision to stop drinking or using drugs can be the first step to starting a new life. Amanda Fletcher, a nonprofit manager and freelance writer in Los Angeles, began experimenting with alcohol and drugs while she was in high school and college. Fletcher decided to get sober when she realized that while she used alcohol as a lubricant to manage her emotional pain, she couldn't use it to escape a life-threatening health crisis.
"When I was partying, I loved that I never knew where the night [...] would take me. And then I was diagnosed with breast cancer in my early 30s and I realized I had to take charge of my health," Fletcher tells Bustle. "Turns out, binge drinking is a prevalent risk factor. I couldn't change my past, but I could take better care of myself in the future. One way I could do that was to stop drinking. So I did."
One of the phrases that's often repeated in recovery circles is that people finally seek help because they are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
"I stopped drinking nearly a decade ago because I didn't like who I was when I was drunk," Amanda Mayers, a paralegal, tells Bustle. "I was using alcohol as a crutch to hide deep emotional issues that I failed to deal with in the past." What's more, she knew that she was at a higher risk for developing a substance use disorder because of her family history. "That was not the life I wanted for myself. I had to quit completely because I can't have just one. I would always drink to the point that I was absolutely wasted."
One of the phrases that's often repeated in recovery circles is that people finally seek help because they are sick and tired of being sick and tired. For Lee, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, that's exactly what happened. "As the story goes, I couldn't stop drinking. I was 29 and felt like I had lived a thousand years. I was tired," she says. Lee tells Bustle that few people knew about the extent of her substance abuse because she was successfully holding down a job and raising her son. But, she says, "The hole in my soul was huge."
Casey, who asked her last name not be used to protect her privacy, says that by the time she was 21, it was clear to everyone around her that her substance abuse was negatively affecting every aspect of her life. "I was unemployed, my parents weren't talking to me, and my friends wanted nothing to do with me," Casey tells Bustle. "I stole, lied, and cheated anyone I came into contact with. I continued to do these things even though every part of me wanted to stop."
Once You Decide To Stop
The women interviewed for this story each say that deciding to stop using and actually stopping are two very different things. Before she stopped drinking, Silverman says, "I didn’t know how to deal with my crippling anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder." For Casey, after she decided to seek help, but before she went to treatment, she had little confidence in her ability to stay sober. "The core of who I am is not that person, but drugs had such a hold on me that I could not help but behave this way. Up to the day I walked into rehab I didn't believe that I could change," Casey says.
Lee shares similar feelings. "The hardest part about getting sober is believing that I can do it [...] I do it one day at a time, and sometimes one minute at a time," she says.
When you decide to stop drinking in your 20s or 30s, many social activities still regularly include alcohol, and it can be hard to figure out where the new sober you fits into your old life. "Staying sober when all my peer group were out socializing with liquid 'courage' proved to be challenging — and in the beginning, I just didn’t go out much, if at all," Silverman says. "Dating sober is whole different ball game — one that still has its own set of hurdles, even well into my 30s, because of the culturally ingrained notion that dates have to center around alcohol. That just doesn’t have to be the case."
Both Silverman and Fletcher emphasize that, if you're newly sober and you think a particular event might be a trigger for you, you are totally empowered to turn down invitations. "I just arrive early, and I'm one of the first to leave," Fletcher says. She also suggests that if you're newly sober it's important to stay busy by seeking out different types of socializing. "Prioritize social events that don't involve drinking. Go hiking. Make day dates. Exercise is your best defense. Group classes are a great way to make friends." According to Fletcher, while it can seem daunting to embark on a new path, getting sober can offer new avenues in which to make authentic connections.
Why It's Worth It
Even though seeking sobriety can be one of the most difficult obstacles a person can face, each woman interviewed for this story says that the rewards were worth it. "Life is far more beautiful and worthwhile now, even in the mundane moments. Even in the heartbreaking ones too. All that to say that there will always be ups and downs in sobriety. I’ve experienced mountainous highs and deep, deep lows — all while staying sober," Silverman says. "But I’d so much rather surround myself with loved ones, rely upon my recovery toolbox and higher self, and just be without having to numb out because of life."
Fletcher, who recovered from breast cancer while getting sober, has learned that she doesn't need alcohol to experience life. "Before, life was full of incredible highs, but really low lows. Now, I get glimpses of joy and I don't have to work so hard to dig myself out of the bottoms because they are manageable."
Mayers, who is now married with two children, a Girl Scout leader, and president of her business networking group, says she feels like she finally has control of her emotions, and she shares her story in hopes of letting others know they're not alone.
If you are concerned about your substance use, there is help available. You can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration's 24-hour helpline, which can help refer you to treatment options. And, remember, you don't have to do it alone.
"Find a tribe — be that one or two true friends, a social media sobriety group, or an in-person support meeting, Shatterproof 5K team, a yoga studio, a meditation community, and/or a Meetup.com event," Silverman advises. "Immerse yourself in the blog, podcast, and Instagram world of recovery, if that feels right to you. Read articles. Reach out to people. Ask questions. Consider therapy," she adds. "There is such a wealth of information in 2018 that the decision to get sober will be much easier because of the support and resources at your fingertips than, say, when I got sober in 2007. Find those connections and be gentle with yourself; remember, recovery is a process — not an event."