On Sobriety
by Rax King

art by Lydia Horne

The day in 2022 when I decided to get sober wasn’t so different from any other hungover day. I woke up late as usual, dribbled a little pale vomit into the toilet as usual, swallowed my usual four Advil to combat the pounding headache I’d woken up with nearly every morning for over a decade, and declared that I’d never drink again before starting my work day. But this time, when I swore I’d never drink again, I happened to mean it. Probably I’d meant it every other time, too, only those swears hadn’t stuck.  And this one, so far, has.

In an AA meeting, this might be described as my “rock bottom” — the moment when a problem drinker says she can’t live like this anymore and means it.  She’s hit the bottom of the pit, from which the only direction she can go is up. But I could be wrong saying anyone at an AA meeting would call this my rock bottom, because I don’t attend meetings. 

When I quit drinking and using cocaine, my family’s response was essentially a muted “welcome to the club.” My mother, an AA old timer, knew better than to push me into church basements, but whenever we got together in those early days, whenever she too-casually asked whether I’d “checked out” a meeting “yet,” I could feel her anxiety. In her 30 years of dedicated AA attendance, my mother has seen what happens to drunks like me who neglect the process, who bail after one meeting and then turn up dead. 

I did intend to go at some point, maybe, eventually. As a little girl, I had often accompanied my dad to his meetings. Sobriety, as I experienced it then, was a forbidding vibe, a shutting-down on my parents’ part whenever alcohol or drugs were even mentioned. So I figured, as a child, that you went to AA only if the very idea of intoxicants made you crazy. After years of sobriety, my mother and father still treated alcohol like they owed it money: evade it, and if it gets too close, run. 

I won’t lie: I, too, feel a little crazy when I smell a dive bar or accidentally order a dessert with uncooked booze in it. During the cocaine-chopping scenes in Boogie Nights or the shooting-up scenes in Trainspotting, I find a reason to leave the room.  However, though I call myself sober, unlike my parents — I still smoke weed.  Sometimes I even take psychedelics. 

In my family, you aren’t really sober unless you’ve graduated from the Betty Ford Center with a B.A. in Alcoholics Anonymous. You can never drink, never smoke weed — even painkillers after a major surgery are frowned upon. Total rigidity is the only way to stay strong, and even within those bounds, it’s easy to make a mistake. My father didn’t drink for the last 30 years of his life, but my mother considered him a dry drunk till his death because he never worked the program. (GLOSSARY: a “dry drunk” is a person who’s quit drinking but still obsesses or lies like an active addict; “working the program” means systematically completing AA’s twelve-step program with a sponsor, as opposed to just attending the meetings; a “sponsor” is a person, also in AA, who agrees to shepherd you through the steps.) 

An AA "old timer" like my mother is not necessarily old but their sobriety is — old and set in its ways. These old timers are notorious for their inflexibility, not only about the rules of sobriety itself, but about the rules of the program. Maybe it goes without saying: these days most old timers, my mother included, are baby boomers. 

Some old timers don’t like it when a newcomer mentions their drug use in an AA meeting, because what is this, Narcotics Anonymous? Others shut down newcomers who want to skip one of the twelve steps, or do them out of order. One common saying in AA is “it works if you work it,” meaning the program (it) will help you stay sober as long as you hew precisely to the steps (working it). These old timers aren’t needling newbies about the rules because they’re a passel of nit-picking grannies with nothing better to do. Some of them probably are — but more than that, they want you to save your life. And what saved their lives? A different crop of old timers, needling them about the same rules. 

Contrast that with the laissez faire approach of young people like my friend Hannah, who, like me, only allows herself weed and psychedelics. My friend Craig has implemented a rather tortured rule where he can only do drugs that are taken as one-offs — like acid or molly — as opposed to intoxicants (like weed) that most users re-up for hours on end. Even Demi Lovato has a song called “California Sober,” sample lyric: “Used to live in fear of always slipping / But living for perfection isn’t living.” I should note that Lovato’s definition of “California sober” at the time included both smoking weed and drinking alcohol.  Some just call this mild mannered.

AA was founded in 1935. Our parents, the boomers, are the first generation to have grown up alongside AA. While we, their children, came of age as their sobriety did, sometimes literally — my mother and Hannah’s both got sober within months of our births, Craig’s a few years later. Perhaps our resistance to AA is like any kid’s desire to live exactly as his parents didn’t — but I think not. We three all grew up in homes that AA had turned into unintentional monuments to drinking. Alcohol was a trickster deity whose name we learned not to speak, lest it visit us. Present or not, it called the shots. 

The old timers’ position is that quitting drinking but continuing to use any other substance is like locking the front door against addiction while leaving all the windows open. It’s true that I’ve only been California sober for a year and a half after a 15-year love affair with liquor and hard drugs, and it’s also true that relapse is a natural part of recovery.  I may have years of relapses in front of me. I don’t think I do, but the mouthy old timer who lives in my head disagrees. Even Lovato ultimately changed their tune about the practice, posting an Instagram story in December of 2021 that read “I no longer support my ‘California sober’...Sober sober is the only way to be.” 

And you know what, fair enough. Despite being less than a century old, Alcoholics Anonymous has long set the tone of sobriety, and that hard-assed, all-or-nothing shit has helped a great many people over a great many decades.  I, especially, am not here to re-litigate the ever tiresome question of whether AA “works.” Sure it works. My parents would not have been able to raise me without it. But in a time when unusually many young people are going alcohol-free, it’s worth wondering: is it the only thing that works? 

One point of tension is the classic “story” — attendees at the podium telling the tale of the drunken life that brought them to this meeting. It begins with the first drink, crescendos to “rock bottom,” and typically ends with gratitude for the program.  “AA rescued me from myself” is a bromide in the rooms, where addiction is confusingly cast both as an inherent disease and a failure of the addict’s ego. 

The rock bottom part of the story invariably reveals to the speaker that sobriety requires total humility. After all, the very first of the twelve steps is admitting your powerlessness over addiction. Then, once you’re good and powerless, you surrender your will and life to “the care of God,” rebranded in some meetings as a Higher Power. AA devotees stress that the H.P. doesn’t have to be Christian God, but it certainly behaves like Him, demanding obedience and penance from its acolytes. 

Remember my pitiful “rock bottom,” which was just another boring, hungover morning? I’m being very literal here, but I don’t see that moment as an admission of powerlessness. Indeed, admitting my powerlessness over alcohol is what I did when I wanted to get wasted, a sort of “what are you gonna do” passivity. I didn’t want to crawl out of addiction on my belly, begging. Seeing the light of God had nothing to do with it.

I wanted to feel better. And luckily for me, “feeling better” has been having a cultural moment lately. 

Supposedly, sobriety is trending up among us younger millennials and zoomers.  I always feel obligated to hedge such declarations with ‘supposedly’ as I once participated in an anonymous survey of millennial drinking habits while I was still drinking… and I lied. That’s how much of a drunk I used to be: I lied about how much I drank to some pollster who didn’t even know who I was! 

But if the numbers are true, they speak to an unusually high rate of sobriety among the young people we might otherwise expect to be sowing their wildest oats: a 2021 Gallup survey says that 60% of U.S. adults aged 18-34 are drinkers, compared to 70% of adults aged 35-54 and 52% of adults 55 and over. 

Starting as long ago as 2018, the “sober curious” movement has been gathering young adherents. If the “curious” don’t quit outright, they stop drinking for periods of time, avoid certain alcohols (“wine gives me headaches!”), or just generally abstain from binge-drinking. Maybe these people will ultimately decide they’re addicts who must embrace total sobriety; maybe not.  Either way, they don’t all tell the usual story about how alcohol addiction has made their lives unmanageable. Often, they’re using the language of health and mindfulness instead. In online communities like #SoberTok, users share before-and-after photos that showcase how much clearer their skin is after quitting drinking, or how much less bloated they are. With big smiles, they point to where the bags under their eyes used to be. 

The other day, my mother and I had dinner plans. I knew we would talk, as we always do, about how quitting drinking has been going for me. As I dressed for dinner, I took note of how much clearer my skin was that night, maybe because I’d stopped dehydrating myself with alcohol for ten hours a day, maybe because I was no longer too wasted at the end of the night to take my makeup off.  I dabbed cream where the bags under my eyes used to be. I felt a first-date nervousness, an unusual sense of occasion. Tonight, I had something I wanted to share. 

Over chocolate lava cakes (dessert being the vice of teetotalers and potheads alike), I finally admitted to her that I still use weed regularly, expecting her to explain how I’m endangering my fragile sobriety. Maybe I am, maybe there’s a relapse gathering strength while I bluster in this very essay about how much I don’t need AA. I still feel this nagging doubt that without it my sobriety is no achievement at all, something a weak breeze could scatter to pieces. 

But, to my astonishment, my mother only laughed. 

“I think we can agree that that’s not the same as getting blackout drunk every night,” she said. And, pleased with her unexpected new leniency in the face of an evolving world, I did agree.