Nothing is Perfect; Everything is Better: my first alcohol-free anniversary

Madeleine Shaw
8 min readApr 15, 2022
The best gift. Illustration: Gigi Roddick

On escaping monsters, free birds and the evolving mystery of becoming a different person who is also more herself

This is the fourth installment of a personal essay series about quitting drinking, sobriety and recovery.

  1. Breaking my Silence About Alcohol, Shame and Sobriety
  2. Gratitude and an Uncomfortable Truth About Revealing my Drinking Secret
  3. Unwined: Reflections on Ten Months of Chilling While Sober

Yesterday marked my first ‘soberversary’. Having observed in a previous essay that life feels more ‘technicolour’ without alcohol in the mix, true to that assertion, the day featured a wild mix of joyful, unnerving and unexpected elements.

First off: the wonderful. I woke up to a precious handmade card and loving note from my daughter (pictured). Swallows have taken on particular resonance for me in sobriety, representing freedom, resilience, grace and the hope of renewal. Feeling seen and celebrated by her was the most perfect way that I could have imagined to start the day.

Other elements included a satisfying virtual walk with a close friend, kind and moving messages of congratulations, and a sadly thwarted ‘cake’ date with a dear sober friend, thanks to me getting rear-ended on the way to our rendezvous. I also tearfully attended a The Luckiest Club meeting, as this was an essential element of marking my Day 1. The phrase “Nothing is Perfect; Everything is Better” came to mind as I tuned in, which felt like a fitting metaphor for my day, as well as this journey to date.

What’s becoming increasingly apparent to me as I reflect on the past year is that when we make a personal change of the magnitude of overcoming an unhealthy relationship with alcohol (or anything), not drinking (or whatever the thing is) is just the tip of the iceberg. As I shared in my last essay, removing wine from the puzzle of my life has reverberated in many other aspects. In some ways, I feel like a completely different person, which sits oddly with simultaneously also feeling more like myself — it’s a strange and wonderful combination.

As documented in previous essays, when I was still drinking there was an intolerable internal negotiation happening between the self who knew that alcohol was doing me no favours, and the thirsty Winer, an inner voice that argued for its continuation. When I stopped drinking, it was a vote for the me who was crying out not just for physical relief from a toxic substance, but moreover the principle of honouring myself. The Winer has mercifully now for the most part left the premises.

We often hear about listening to inner guidance, intuition, and putting ourselves first. Quitting drinking is one of the most resounding examples of doing what my truest, innermost self desired. Doing it has in turn opened up a new avenue of clarity about what else best serves me, which I hope will continue to ripple for the rest of my life.

As I said in my third essay, how I deal with challenging or uncomfortable emotions has changed, and I am far more ok with just letting them be or run their course, rather than trying to avoid them through drinking. I’m still learning about a concept called ‘emotional sobriety’, however I have a feeling that this type of response is along those lines: basically being present, rather than trying to numb myself.

The thing that I am far-and-away the proudest of when it comes to recovery relates to my daughter. I have been transparent with both her and my husband about my struggle, and they have been unhesitatingly supportive. Given addiction’s pervasive nature, I feel like it can only benefit her to have a bird’s eye (lol! see what I did there?) view of what can go wrong and how to ask for and receive help, especially as she heads into the home stretch of high school, with post-secondary education and its accompanying partying opportunities likely to follow.

I have been very clear with her that I am not ashamed that I had a drinking problem, and that I am lion-proud of my recovery. We have frequent dialogue about it, and she often checks in and celebrates my monthly milestones and moments of healing with me.

Is my image as a role model tarnished in her eyes? I feel like, if anything, having a clear-eyed picture of me as a complex, imperfect human being courageously taking on a challenge is all to the good. If we want our kids to be in touch with and unashamed of their precious, messy, imperfect selves, then I actually feel like I’m doing a great job. As an example of how normalized recovery now is in our household, in a recent text exchange about one of her basketball games, my husband said “take some shots for your Dad”. I quipped, “none for me, thanks — I’m trying to cut down ;-) LOL”.

On the broader relationship front, when I quit, an obvious concern was how friends and family with whom I previously enjoyed drinking would react. Would I be excluded from events, or perceived as less fun or interesting? Drinking is an integral part of most of my family and social circle’s celebrations. Since I quit, I have enjoyed many times, places and people where and with whom I previously would have been partaking. To date, these have included two vacations, a few dinner parties, Christmas, New Year’s eve, and my birthday — times when I would previously have imagined feeling the urge to drink.

Fortunately, I did not feel like drinking, so I was not struggling with the Winer’s favourite “just one” thin edge of the wedge come-on. Mercifully, that door is firmly closed, key tossed and duct-taped around the edges to boot. The piece that does me in is actually about feeling different and left out, which is obviously hard, but manageable.

I recently visited a bar/restaurant for my first time since pre-Covid, and it definitely brought up some feelings, particularly as I observed a member of our party consume multiple glasses of white wine across the table from me. I’m sorry to admit that there was definitely part of me that was judging them, a feeling that I did not enjoy, and yet there it was. Taking a deeper look, I am now coming to see that this reaction is actually more about me not yet having fully forgiven myself for whatever harm I may have caused to myself or others. It’s only been a year, so I am trying to be gentle and treat my less-than-best-self moments with compassion. And a note to bar and restaurant owners out there: please upgrade your non-alcoholic beverage options beyond Budweiser Zero (it lives up to its name) — argh!

With few notable exceptions, I have been gratified by how kind and supportive people have been of my new AF status. Having been uncertain about how people would react, I can only say that I have been blown away by people’s kindness. It’s also made me feel more connected to people who were not necessarily close friends. Everyone has a story about alcohol, and it seems like me stepping forward has inspired lots of folks to open up about theirs.

That said, getting sober invariably holds up a mirror to others around you who drink, like it or not. Remember, I loved my wine, so it has surprised me when a handful of people with whom I previously enjoyed drinking have kind of ignored the ‘new me’. Is such a dramatic behaviour change not worthy of interest? Or is the assumption that I am still bought into the shame-based culture around alcohol dependency and would rather not talk about it?

I’m feeling the latter, given that I admittedly was the one who hid my concerns and recovery from all but my inner circle until I felt ready to go public. How ironic, though, that people would think that I would be more ashamed of overcoming my problem than I was of struggling with it, and yet that’s the vibe that I get.

I understand that sobriety has become like a new hobby that I’m enthralled with, but not everyone else appreciates the fascination. Or that it can straight-up be misinterpreted. In a recent conversation about the health risks of alcohol consumption, someone said “But what about people who enjoy drinking, but don’t have a problem? Are you saying that they’re doing something wrong?”

Um, no. I have always been and firmly remain of the opinion that others should freely make their own choices, just that in the case of alcohol, as consumers we are decidedly not being accurately informed about its risks. And as such are not able to make a truly free choice. And that, frankly, pisses me off.

An image that comes to me to explain how I see the you/me drinking/not drinking thing, is of two people walking down different sides of the same street. We are doing the same thing in the same place: walking down a street, but on my side, there is a monster chasing me. The person on the other side doesn’t have a monster chasing them and is just enjoying their walk, oblivious to my challenge.

When I finally get away from the monster and meet the other person at the end of the street, they are confused. I am over the moon to have escaped and am freaking out with joy at my newfound freedom, whereas for them, it’s just another walk down the block and they are having trouble understanding why our experiences are so different. The street is drinking, and the monster, of course, is addiction. If you’re monster-free, fabulous. If not, you deserve to be believed, helped and celebrated for your courageous escape (I should add that I have also had more than one person tell me that I didn’t have a ‘real’ drinking problem — would it be too much to ask for me to be the judge of that?). Either way, let’s not fall into the trap of assuming that our experience should be true for others.

Having made it to monster-free land is a big deal to me, and I deeply appreciate all and any kudos that come my way. As an example of how I wish that an ‘I’m not drinking’ conversation could go:

Friend who does not know that I no longer drink: “Can I get you a glass of wine?”

Me: “Oh, no thanks. I quit drinking in April and brought my own non-alcoholic beer.”

Friend: “Oh. Wow. Way to go! Is there any way that I can support you? If you feel like sharing, how’s that going?” Or something along those lines.

Either way, the next time that someone tells you that they have quit drinking, please congratulate them and ask about how it’s going. If they wanted it to be a secret, they would not have told you ;-)




Madeleine Shaw

Author, The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People Who Want to Change the World. Adventurer in sobriety and recovery.