There was a time when the thought of a friend getting sober was laughable. Sobriety was for my older relatives — the ones who pack a separate cooler with O’Doul’s every holiday — and sad sacks who had finally “hit rock bottom.” My dim understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous came from books, TV and movies that made the meetings dramatically tense and bleak. You didn’t wind up there without destroying your life, more or less. As so many do in their early 20s, I felt basically untouchable. A bad hangover here and there wasn’t going to slow me down.
Those who make it to their mid-30s hear that tune start to change, sooner for some than others. The first to quit booze have to overcome a certain stigma and awkwardness: When everyone else is drinking, and alcohol is a default social lubricant in almost any context, you worry about being the odd one out (or worse, a buzzkill). As time goes on, however, the drinkers may feel more uncomfortable. In my case, I realized that the people close to me who one by one set aside the bottle — a woman I was dating, then a co-worker, then another friend — were my drinking buddies, the people I could always count on to keep up with me, or incite a binge.
After they made their life adjustment, we’d continue hanging out. We didn’t need mutual intoxication to enjoy each other’s company. But when they stuck with water as I got tipsy… well, it was sort of embarrassing. They’d cleaned up because they drank as heavily as me, and there I was, continuing to drink that hard. Right in front of them, no less. I have never been so dependent on alcohol as to lose a job, seriously endanger myself or cause an emotional rift; I drink to excess in a way that still seems “controlled,” although that sure sounds like denial.
What I do notice, however, is that liquor, once a vice for parties and special occasions, has become a mostly private indulgence. If there’s a gathering at a bar across town, I’m far more likely to stay home and knock back five cocktails for a fraction of the price. My tolerance is at odds with my bank account, and I’ve found that I would rather be steps from my bed when I’m soused.
It’s a reversal I didn’t expect. My sober friends, and the friends who happily drink in moderation, are more socially flexible, open to new experiences and acquaintances. Whereas I’m conscious, in the back of my mind, that when the sun goes down — and occasionally well before — I’ve got to break out the vodka and self-medicate. Particularly in health-conscious L.A., where thousands upon thousands are seeking every alternative to the old self-poisoning habits, a strong daily dose of ethanol cannot be easily framed as a long-term plan for living. I suppose my fear is that eventually, I’ll be left behind, the last serious drinker of my group, unsure what else to do but sit around listening to records, continually topping off my glass. Technically I have the options of giving it up or cutting way back. But at certain moments, neither is imaginable.
Here’s the funny part: My own body may have figured out how to free me from the influence. In the past year I’ve experienced a massive, unprecedented outbreak of psoriasis, a hereditary autoimmune disorder that causes the formation of itchy, peeling and sometimes painful scales on the skin. It’s not a seriously threatening disease, but it is a psychic irritant, a problem that inflames the mind as much as the epidermis. There’s also plenty of evidence pointing to alcohol use as a compounding factor, specifically in men. I may hate the idea of tapering off the booze, yet psoriasis is one of those needling, unflagging torments that have you ready to try anything in hopes of a mythic total cure. I’ve talked about a period, at least, of abstention. I might be ready.
I’d be far less willing, however, if not for the loved ones who have taken the plunge into sobriety already, showing me their strength and capacity for change. What might’ve helped tip me over the edge is an album: indie-rock duo Best Coast’s Always Tomorrow is a document of frontwoman Bethany Cosentino’s happy arrival in the land of the sober, littered with titles including “Different Light,” “Master of My Own Mind” and “Used to Be,” and lyrics such as “I feel like myself again / But for the first time.”
Her poppy, sun-spangled guitar lifts the heart and expands the possible. There’s a good party on this side, too, it says — you only have to show up. I guess this is the opposite of the peer pressure that leads some to their drug of choice: a reminder that the choice is mine.
I’ll let you know how it goes.