Breaking my silence about alcohol, shame and sobriety

Me, free. Photo: Felicia Chang Photography

When alcohol starts taking more than it gives, it’s time to talk

For all its trials, 2021 was a remarkable year for me. Publishing my first book was a very big deal, but I also did another equally momentous thing: I said goodbye to alcohol.

Closing in on 9 months of sobriety, divulging this still remains scary for me. My journey thus far has starkly revealed how alcohol, addiction, recovery and sobriety are all still largely cloaked in shame, judgement and lack of nuance in understanding. In the spirit (haha) of furthering my healing and perhaps inspiring others in similar straits, I am stepping out of my comfort zone to share my story.

Hi. My name is Madeleine and the thought of naming myself as an alcoholic makes me want to jump out of my skin. My squeamishness reflects many things: damaging stereotypes, misinformation and social privilege, but most of all just straight-up shame. And yet I am 100% clear on the fact that I have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, to the point where I have spent the last few years on a largely private quest to confront and change it.

My journey has brought me to the conclusion that shame and its chief colluder, silence, are preventing significant numbers of people who struggle with drinking from getting help. I have also learned with immense relief that I am part of a sea change currently unfolding around our choices, collective conceptions and social mores about alcohol.

My turning point came in the recognition that alcohol was occupying a disproportionate amount of mental real estate — meaning that I was uncomfortable not so much with how much I was drinking (although that was part of it), but rather how much I was thinking about it. How did I know that I had a problem, especially when by many people’s standards my wine intake was ‘no big deal’? Rather than fretting about quantity and frequency of consumption, my moment of truth came when I asked myself a very simple question: whether alcohol was taking more than it was giving.

Mental real estate examples include feeling a bit of worry that there may not be enough to go around when sharing a bottle of wine at a restaurant. Wondering whether alcohol would be served at social events that I was planning to attend. Anticipating wine upon arriving home from work. And of course doing the inventory-keeping and shopping to ensure that I never ‘happened’ to run out. With so many other more interesting and important things to potentially occupy my mind with, thoughts like these just seemed like a huge waste.

I tried moderation. Drinking only on weekends, or just at social events, or never when I was alone. I was never able to stick to it, and grew increasingly alarmed by this failure. Having been a nicotine addict for many years, I recognized eerily familiar feelings — the never-quite-forgetting about it, the justified ‘me time’ moments, or an unpleasant sensation of alarm when alcohol wasn’t around when I expected it to be.

Drinking culture, meanwhile, has been emerging as a humorous trope in popular culture. Kristi Coulter, a writer whose essays about alcoholism and recovery were vital to me, recently posted a photo to Instagram. It depicts a grocery shopping bag printed with the quip “Wine is basically fruit salad”. “That means fruit salad is the third-leading cause of preventable death in America, with a direct link to 740,000 cases of cancer last year! Gosh, I had NO IDEA.” she scathingly commented.

Is this type of humour innocent? Am I being uptight that it makes me cringe? I probably would have thought so, a few years ago. A florist that I regularly visit has a vast collection of similarly-themed “wine joke” cards and wall plaques that now irk me. “Wine” is an innocuous, friendly-seeming stand-in for alcohol, a drug that I now realize I was in a serious, no-joke battle with.

It’s in many ways thanks to Kristi Coulter and a growing host of whip-smart, vocal recovering writers and other leaders that I am here, sharing something that I would have felt mortified about just a few months ago.

I took my last drink on April 13th, 2021. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was in fact the last one — it was just another Tuesday night. There was no bittersweet farewell or final savouring; I don’t honestly remember it clearly, and not because of excessive consumption. I likely had a glass-and-a-bit of white wine to keep me company as I prepared dinner, and then perhaps another with the meal. By then, alcohol had long since transformed from being an occasional, celebratory accent to a daily, routine act that no longer felt like a casual choice.

Roughly speaking, I would say that by the time April 14th, 2021 rolled around, I’d had concerns about my relationship with alcohol for at least 5 years. The quitting process itself took around 4 years, starting with doing Dry January a few times, and progressing to a 100 Day Challenge in 2020. The Dry January experiences gave me a taste of how much better I felt when not drinking for more than a few days in a row (a lot!).

The latter, however, was a turning point in terms of showing me — not how under control I was, but ironically the opposite. I had committed to 100 days, and it was going extremely well — the storied ‘pink cloud’ of confidence that often graces the newly sober. Even though I was feeling fantastic and I knew that I had the energy and inspiration to keep going past the 100 day mark, the ‘wine witch’ (an unfortunate term used in some recovery circles to describe the inner voice that masterfully justifies its consumption) had her way and I ended up immediately returning to my old habits.

Looking back, I’m pretty sure that it was my “100 days and then see how it goes” attitude that did me in. Brains dislike uncertainty. “You proved your point! There is no way that anyone with a real problem could do 100 days!” she rationalized. And yet there I was, on my daughter’s birthday no less, back with a glass in hand on Day 101. It was the last shred of illusion that — even with the magical 100 days under my belt — I was ‘fine’.

Alongside all of the intermittent dry spells and dithering, I started to read. If anyone reading this is feeling even a shred of resonance with what I’m saying and wants to cut to the chase about what to do next, I suggest getting your hands on a copy of Quit Like a Woman: The Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol by Holly Whitaker (don’t be put off by the ‘woman’ part of the title — feminism is good for everyone). Or just search ‘sober curious’ and be prepared to go on a very long informational trip.

Quit Like a Woman (QLAW) changed everything for me. Until I picked it up, I had never had any meaningful education about what alcohol even is (ethanol was only vaguely familiar, in the context of gas stations of all places), its social and health impacts, how our brains and bodies respond to it, approaches to recovery beyond the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and how amazingly wonderful sobriety can be for folks who have managed to escape from a dependent relationship with booze.

In my early drinking days, alcohol was bound up with the usual things — teenage badassery (I got sucked into cigarettes this way too), celebrations (the classy frisson of champagne), “fuck it” moments (breakups, bad news, or just a less-than-great day at work), and, eventually, a daily routine that required no justification at all — it was just ‘wine o’clock’.

With few exceptions, all of my friends and family members drink to greater or lesser degrees. In my pre-sobriety life, to ‘grab a drink’ with someone felt fun, conspiratorial and a bit edgy. When someone quit, I perceived it as a loss that they “couldn’t handle it” anymore. To me, an alcoholic was someone who lacked self-control, who either didn’t care or was simply incapable of knowing when to stop. Either way, it was basically their fault: it never crossed my mind that the deeply addictive nature of alcohol and its broader social context were also part of the picture.

My view of ‘responsible’ drinking (not becoming dependent) was not unlike assuming that you can play with fire and simply think your way out of getting burned. I now see this as a highly privileged perspective. I accepted the common vernacular that ‘alcoholic’ was an appropriate label for someone addicted to alcohol, and furthermore understood that the only remedy for their “disease” was to attend AA meetings for the rest of their lives, poor souls. It was basically the last thing that you would want to be, and it surely didn’t apply to me.

At the other end of the to-booze-or-not-to-booze scale lay the baffling, distant land of sobriety. Rather than perceiving it as a positive personal choice that some folks make for whatever reasons that require no justification, I saw it as a mark of failure and deprivation. Opting not to drink carried a whiff of sanctimoniousness, as implied by the prudish terms ‘abstinence’ and ‘teetotaler’. So not fun.

I should add that all of this was filtered with little-to-no awareness about genetic factors, alcohol dependency’s strong statistical correlation with the experience of abuse or its historical use as a tool of oppression against Indigenous people and other equity-seeking groups. While my understanding of these topics is growing, I do not pretend to understand or offer advice for others about alcohol and recovery. If nothing else, I’ve learned that it’s the stereotypes and one-size-fits-all judgements that keep many people trapped, myself included.

In hindsight, my narrow, shame-based views are part of why it took me so long to quit. I wasn’t the belligerent, blackout, beer-for-breakfast kind of drinker that the term ‘alcoholic’ used to conjure for me. I was sophisticated. I appreciated good wine and food. I seldom if ever got messy or did things while drinking that I was later embarrassed about. In my mind, alcoholic behaviour was, by definition, way beyond how booze was showing up in my life. And yet, even though I did not fit this highly problematic stereotype, I just knew.

Thanks to these unhelpful perspectives, I initially kept my growing concern about my drinking to myself. Even admitting to myself–-let alone anyone else-– that I felt like I had a problem and needed help to solve it brought up waves of shame. I had definitely let down the ‘Take It Or Leave It’ team and needed to set things right quietly, without making a fuss or embarrassing my family.

My research, however, opened me up to two important new ideas: 1) that perhaps my situation was not 100% my fault and 2) that sharing my struggle would not only help me deal with it, but further contribute to dismantling the repressive culture that had lubricated my slippery slope to dependency in the first place.

Bit by bit, heart pounding, I began to share my struggle with close friends and family. Aside from a few instances of stunned disbelief and rapid change in subject, people’s reactions have been a balm. It’s one thing to have a problem, and another entirely to be so deeply ashamed of it that it prevents you from seeking the support you need to address it. Love and compassion were there for me in spades: I just needed to resist the culture of silence and affirm my own worthiness.

Hitting menopause was another critical milestone in my final decision to break up with alcohol. As if night sweats weren’t bad enough, waking up at 3am, parched, with a mild headache and nagging feeling of regret did me in. I could handle one or the other, but absolutely not both. I have since searched for information about alcohol’s effects on menopausal women, and even asked world-renowned experts for their opinion. Guess what? Practically nothing — basically ‘no big deal’, in fancier terms. Is it really just me? I was left thinking.

Having learned by this point — thanks to QLAW and a slew of other excellent, eye-opening books on the topic — how alcohol was impacting not just my sleep, but my mental health, cancer risk and even appearance, I could no longer turn away from the fact that even my innocuous-seeming ‘glass or two’ was more than my body could handle.

My book trail led me to the attractively-named The Luckiest Club (TLC) support meetings, founded by another neo-sobriety leader, Laura McKowen. Having been zigging and zagging on my own for a couple of years, I was looking for a community outside of AA that made room for ‘sober curious’ types like me. I have witnessed how important and effective AA has been for many people, however I don’t resonate with some of its core ideas and resonated with the emerging feminist leaders in the recovery field.

I attended my first TLC meeting online on the morning of April 14th, 2021. I hadn’t fully decided on a quit date until I joined the call. I instantly fell for the kind-yet-charismatic moderator, and was enthralled by another attendee fatefully named Hope. Hope was celebrating her one year sobriety anniversary, and I was drawn to her like a human North Star — I wanted to go there, and to be her. I imagined how wonderful it would feel to be showing up to this meeting a year hence, radiating such pride and calm excitement. I took her name and presence as a literal sign.

It wasn’t just Hope, though — everyone’s ‘shares’ struck a chord for me, and the chat was filled with encouragement. On Day 3 for your 8th time? “Push off from here”, “Call me”, “You’ve got this” chorused the 200+ participants. It just felt so safe. My internal “soon, but not today” narrative suddenly opened into a gentle, clear now. Like a prisoner who has just had the gates miraculously opened, I knew that I needed to make a metaphorical break for it. Today was the day — no more thinking or drama required. Headphones on, carting my laptop, I sought out the final dregs of alcohol remaining in the house, unceremoniously poured them down the drain and put the bottles in the recycling.

Following the meeting, I simply kept telling myself to quietly trust, to be present with whatever came up, knowing that I have the resources to deal with it, and if not, then I would just deal with it anyway. No more going around hard feelings — I was finally committed to going through, come what may. I sat in awed gratitude for this moment of grace that I had finally arrived at.

Of course the journey is about so much more than attending a one-hour meeting and then magically being ‘over it’. Surprisingly though, my challenging moments have turned out to be less about alcohol itself than I would have imagined. I had a full-on meltdown a few weeks ago while on holiday with my family and some treasured friends. While I was certainly aware of the fact that almost everyone else was drinking, mercifully I didn’t feel the urge to do so myself. It was the powerful feeling of being different and left out that caught me by surprise and released the floodgates.

While I had been angry about the wasted time, health, money and so on related to my drinking, I hadn’t grieved its loss. I realized that I had previously thought of alcohol as a kind of friend. The relaxing times with my liquid companion— a cool glass of wine — over a beautiful meal or blissful let-your-hair-down ‘cheers’ moments — were over. I cried like I hadn’t in years. My friends and family rallied around me, and I was fine. More than fine, in fact. I had gone through, not around, and was all the stronger for it.

Some folks are well served by the classic ‘one day at a time’ mantra as an antidote to a possibly-overwhelming ‘forever’ alcohol-free vow. Me, not so much. In reading QLAW I learned about Allen Carr’s (another early neo-sobriety luminary) maxim to never question the decision once one has made up one’s mind to quit. This idea works as kind of a mental anchor for me, and allows me to instantly shut down any engagement with the wine witch.

A close friend who has been sober for many years shared his experience that it was much harder to make up his mind to quit than it was to subsequently not drink. It didn’t 100% make sense to me until that fateful April day. Keeping up the yo-yo mindgame of drinking/not drinking had become more painful than the seemingly-impossible idea of letting it go. Making up my mind once felt a lot easier than doing it all over again every single day, leaving the door open for the wine witch to pay me a visit. Saying never again felt like the equivalent of blocking her calls — it was a relief.

Sure, there have been times when I have craved a mental break where normally I would have sought refuge in a glass of wine, especially in Covid times when fear and disappointment are the norm. For the most part though, I don’t even think about it — it’s just not an option anymore. I have become a huge fan of non-alcoholic beer (ironically, I never was much of a beer drinker until I quit drinking), but more than anything, I just feel better. Like, so much better. Sleep is really just the beginning of a long list. Alcohol to me now is like seeing a former partner that I’m glad that I broke up with: their charms just aren’t there anymore.

It’s as though my body, recognizing that I was finally exhausted by the whole exercise, is giving me the biggest, most grateful break. Sure, I remain anxious about the future in a heap of ways. And I know with the greatest certainty that I am now equipped to deal with it all with more clarity, patience, calmness and energy than if I was still drinking. I now have what it takes to go through.

To anyone who is feeling any of this: you are not alone. You have not ‘failed’ and are not ‘weak’. You are an inevitably imperfect human being who has been seduced by a skillfully marketed, highly addictive drug that is presented as fun, chilled out and sophisticated. Be kind to yourself. Resist shame, and if at all possible share your concerns and experience with others — there’s a whole new world of support out there. Let’s talk.

Entrepreneur, feminist, gardener. Author of The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People Who Want to Change the World.