Ellis and his fiancée had just finished shooting their engagement photos when she told him she had a confession to make: She’d cheated on him. The couple had been together for 11 years.
He believes she cheated to sabotage the relationship and leave him no choice but to leave. She lived with anxiety and depression, and she told him she felt she had “trapped” him with her mental health issues. Ellis felt confused and torn, but the damage was done. They broke up.
On the web, there’s no shortage of advice for how guys ought to handle a devastating breakup. Sites and forums say to exercise, stay busy, see friends, give yourself time — all fine advice. But there’s also a corner of Dude Breakup Internet that centers on one thing: getting blitzed. Post-split drinking seems like a fact of life.
But something inside Ellis made him do the opposite.
“I really had two paths ahead of me: to seek comfort in things that would numb me from the immense pain of waking, or facing that pain to make it useful for me,” he says. “I chose the latter.”
Ellis started a period of post-breakup sobriety. It wasn’t because he had a drinking problem he feared his split would exacerbate — he just wanted a clear head. Not drinking gave him the perspective to “clearly see the situation I was in, and feel and remain in control of my emotions.” Also, it stopped him from getting drunk and calling up his ex “when it felt like it was all I wanted to do.”
Ellis isn’t alone in rejecting the boozy breakup. On Reddit, you’ll find plenty of people embracing the newly sober, newly single life.
Some stay sober in complete and utter dedication to the the “no-contact” rule (whatever you do, don’t call them). On r/Breakups, one redditor says he made it through the first four days of the breakup sober. He felt great and gave himself a cheat day. Then he learned his lesson the hard way: “Got drunk and broke No Contact,” he writes. “Spent the rest of the weekend drinking and feeling miserable. Starting again sucked even more than before, but starting to feel better again.”
Others ditch the drink because they know how alcohol made their issues worse in the past. “I used alcohol to get me through my last major breakup before this, and it became a real problem,” writes redditor Soileilunetoile. “There have been some really tempting days, and I’m proud of myself for not giving into it.”
Most, like Ellis, say sobriety gives them both a healthy mindset — but it also helps them get in better shape.
“As a culture, I think we turn to substances that numb us out in order to ‘get through’ such a tumultuous time, when the reality is that the only way out of the experience is through it,” says Alana Ogilvie, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Portland, Oregon. “Staying sober after a breakup can be an incredibly difficult but also incredibly rewarding experience.
“Like any loss or painful transition, a breakup comes with feelings of grief, sadness, anger and sometimes relief,” the therapist continues. “For many people experiencing those feelings, sometimes all at once, it can be overwhelming and painful, which is why so often people turn to substances. They assume they can numb the emotions until time heals the wounds.”
But substances tend to provide only temporary relief. You still need time to heal. “Staying sober gives people the chance to experience their feelings, let them go and move on with their lives,” Ogilvie points out. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s “uncomfortable like working out, not like breaking your leg. Experiencing your feelings is good for you!”
Ellis has lost 30 pounds since the breakup, which was July 17th. He’s currently training for a triathlon in October.
“I wasn’t going to numb it,” he says. “I chose to lean into the discomfort and start working out more. I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since high school, I think clearly and I’m finally focused on all things with my life.”
Perhaps it’s part of the larger trend in millennials choosing not to hit the booze as hard as previous generations, but Ellis and others are hoping to kill the hypermasculine drinking-in-solitude breakup tropes and spread the good word about staying sober after a breakup. “I’m still healing, I’m still learning, I’m still growing,” he says. “That’s the difference for me. When I wasn’t sober I wasn’t growing.”