I’ve Been Sober for 5 Years. Here’s What I’ve Learned So Far

Elyse Cizek
Feb 26 · 13 min read

TW: Mention of drug use and a handful of cuss words.

Photo of the Author by Aaron Alpert

February 18th, 2016 was a day like any other day. I worked in the morning and had the following day off, so I was going to celebrate my mini weekend with a night out. I got my hair done, got my lashes done, got my nails done, and I was prepared to celebrate — but the truth is, I didn’t have much to be proud of. The life I had created for myself then, at 28 years old, was one full of running, hiding, lying, cheating, half-assing, and blaming everyone for my circumstances but me. I had big dreams but no sense of responsibility. I had big ideas but only after a night of drinking and cocaine. I was a slave to what you thought of me, lacking the ability to connect with my own identity because I was so consumed by wanting to be liked.

And I had no idea what the next days would bring.

February 18th, 2016 was the last time I got drunk. It may not be the last forever, I might start up again at any moment. But as of today, I have been sober for 5 years and three days, 24 hours at a time.

Sometimes when I tell people I don’t drink they tell me I have incredible will power, or that I’m brave…some make fun of me and say things like “I don’t trust someone who can’t handle their liquor.” Some even get defensive of their own drinking. And I get that. Because I used to say those things, too. The truth is, I don’t have will power. I’m not bravely white-knuckling through sobriety or looking down upon people who drink. The only reason I’m able to be sober today is because I gave up. I gave in. I threw my hands up and said “I don’t know how the fuck I’m gonna survive this,” because I didn’t.

I gave up the idea that I could somehow manage it. I gave up the idea that I could ever have a glass of wine like regular people. This wasn’t instantaneous. I had no idea that my partying had anything to do with the amount of hatred and desperation I’d been living with most of my life. I just knew I was miserable and I needed to be done and that I didn’t know how to be done without help. My ideas sucked. My plans all fell through. My greatest intentions always led me back into dirty house parties and basement bars, blacking out and unable to trust myself to get home without causing myself harm or allowing others to harm me. No matter how many promises I’d made to myself, to my partners, to my friends, to my family…there was nothing I could do to stay stopped. So I stopped making that promise.

I’ve received help from people I never would have considered listening to before. Some of the greatest kernels of knowledge that have become my life’s purpose came from the mouths of felons, bikers, actors, CEOs, people who’ve lived without homes, people of all ages, races, classes, and genders. And I’ve learned to listen to them because the problem we have is the same, and the solution they’ve found has no requirements, fees, rules, or punishments. It’s anarchy. And it’s beautiful. And it’s worked for me.

I’m not here to talk about that whole thing, I’m here to share with you the greatest lessons I’ve learned from giving up, showing my cards, and raw-dogging the world without a buffer for five years. In these past 1,829 days, I’ve learned how to be a grown up, how to show up as a person in the world, and how to get out of my own way. I’m not done learning, as you’ll clearly see. In fact, even though I know how to do these things doesn’t mean I’m going to always do them. I fuck it up all the time. But I want to share my experience so that if anyone out there doesn’t believe that people can change or believe that where you are right now is the life you’re stuck with, I’m living proof that you never know what can happen if you give up what you think you know.

Photo of the Author very drunk at a night club. Photo via Weekend Natives

When was a kid, I created a lot of ways to survive. Between conflicts in my home, bullying from kids at school for my race or my height or my personality in general, coping with loneliness, and childhood depression, I found ways to manage. When I became a teenager, one of those coping mechanisms turned to drinking. Other things, like lying, denial, dissociation, manipulation, hiding, or acting like someone else were tools that helped me survive. I needed them. But all of those mechanisms had proved in my adulthood to be more damaging than helpful. They stopped working and so did the drinking. The pain I felt, the discomfort, the depression, the obsession, the misery, the shame — I couldn’t make them go away using anything that had worked before. The thing is, these mechanisms were all I knew. I was desperately afraid of being honest or vulnerable because I hadn’t done it before. I didn’t know what would happen. While my coping mechanisms were harmful and damaging, I knew what would happen if I used them. There is comfort in knowing what happens next, even if it’s horrible or painful or makes you feel worse. It is uncomfortable to try something different, but this is the only way I can change.

My way of living for most of my life was causing my misfortune. As much as that feels like something I should feel shame for, instead getting really acquainted with my wrongs allows me to turn from them. It allows me a whole new world of possibility when I start facing the discomfort of not knowing what’s ahead. I don’t know what will happen when I stay sober through a crisis. I don’t know what will happen when I tell the truth to someone I’ve wronged. I don’t know what will happen when I offer to help someone instead of judging them for needing it. But when I try these things instead of doing what feels most comfortable, I get to experience life in a way I never would have imagined. Which, in my case, means having nothing to drink over.

In America we don’t have an example of radical accountability and honesty. We don’t. We have a society built on pointing fingers, blaming the other guy, assuming victimhood instead of owning up to our part, and finding someone more guilty to play the scapegoat. We don’t have an example of holding ourselves responsible for our own problems. Now, don’t get me wrong, bad things happen to good people every day here. Oppression is real. Systemic racism, sexism, etc., are all real. But something I was faced with early on in my sobriety is that blaming someone else for my situation does not allow me to grow from it.

Honesty for me allows me to stop judging my truth as unacceptable before the person it affects has the chance to feel their own feelings about it. It allows those in my life to have autonomy, to keep me from playing god, to keep me from manipulating a situation so that I don’t have to feel uncomfortable. Honesty for me is accountability, and it also allows me to learn. The best part, is that sharing my honesty is the only way to create a connection with another human being. When I share my truth, others who feel the same or who have experienced the same things are able to share their experience with me as well. If I’ve lied, or cheated, telling the truth allows the person I’ve betrayed the validation of knowing exactly what they’re dealing with and gives them the ability to act for themselves. When I admit that I don’t know something, I allow others the ability to teach me.

Admitting fault is hard, because we aren’t good at it as a society. Apologies are hard because we don’t have a lot of examples for how to do it. Since getting sober I’ve had a lot of lies and deceptions to atone for. I’ve learned from doing it that I’m not going to be a good person in everyone’s eyes. People I’ve harmed aren’t responsible to forgive me. The best way for me to heal the wounds I’ve created is to first admit that I’ve created them; second, allow the person I’ve harmed to feel how they feel; third, be willing to do whatever is necessary to fix it; and finally, to forgive myself by not doing it again.

Telling the truth isn’t fun. It’s admitting that I’m not perfect. It’s letting down my guard. It’s getting vulnerable in the face of the consequences of my own actions. But without it, who am I? No one can know me if all they know is the character I’ve created to appeal to their best interests. Telling the truth, admitting when I’m wrong, and letting myself admit weakness goes against everything I’d learned as a child to protect myself. But in getting sober, I realized that the person I was trying to protect was actually desperate to be loved, and didn’t know how to be. She didn’t know because she was never vulnerable enough to receive it.

Photo of the Author performing in LA in 2019

I built an entire personality around being the girl that could drink the boys under the table. I was the girl who would be at the party then the after party. I was down for whatever. I would take your drugs if you were offering. I would jump into strangers’ cars if they were going to a party. I would go out to clubs alone and pour myself drinks from your bottles and giggle and flirt my way into whatever you were doing next. I knew how to work a room. All of these things gave me hits of self-esteem, but much like the cocaine I was doing, it only lasted for a second and I was always chasing the next hit.

When I woke up in the morning I had nothing. I didn’t love myself. I didn’t find myself attractive or worthy of much but your attention. And your attention and validation is all I had in my bank of self-esteem. Worst yet, your disapproval or subtle validations of my insecurities would send me spiraling. Suicide felt like a viable option. Wanting to disappear was a daily feeling. When I quit drinking, I didn’t know what would be left of me. Without your approval of my “fun-ness” or my sexiness or my ability to drink or hold my liquor, who would I be?

Turns out the answer is unlike anything I’d ever imagined. Turns out I’m funny. Turns out I’m actually kind of smart. I love to write and I’m a good writer (moreso sober for sure). I can laugh at myself. I love dancing. I love performing. I love acting and cooking. I have real actual friends who know everything about me and love me because of it, not just in spite of it. I’m good at my job and I can do things I never thought I could. Turns out I love being outdoors and having adventures. I camp. I hike. I travel. And, most baffling of all, I’m cute. Like, even though I don’t go out to make out or hook up with people anymore, I look in the mirror and I actually like how I look more often than not. I don’t always need a man to buy me a drink and try to take me home in order to believe that I’m attractive.

While these may seem like very basic core understandings of oneself, these were things I lacked until I set the bottle down. When I got sober, I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask to be cute and fun and have self-esteem. I thought all I wanted was to stop blacking out. But when I gave up trying to be someone else and drown the person I thought I was, it turns out I have my own personality. And honestly, she’s pretty rad.

I hang out in bars sometimes without drinking. I go out dancing. I go on dates. I have friends who drink. I’ve traveled to London and Paris by myself and stayed sober. I’ve gone to beautiful restaurants and parties. I’ve performed shows in bars with my band, I’ve partied with celebrities, I’ve spent weeks at a time with my family (!!) and stayed sober. I’ve been through breakups, deaths of friends, losing every dime I had and making more money than I’d ever imagined, and I’ve stayed sober through it. Everything I thought I needed a drink to handle I’ve been able to do sober. Yes, I still definitely know how to work a room, but I’m not afraid to leave before the party is over. But that’s because I show up as myself and leave as myself. I focus on what I can bring to a gathering rather that what I expect to be given. And I no longer feel like I need the social “lubricant” of alcohol to survive it. This is not what I asked for and this is not at all something I thought I could, or even wanted, to be able to do. But I wake up from nights out remembering who I met and what I did and I make actual connections with actual people. And I like the person they meet today.

Photo of Author on top of a mountain

Something that a lot of newly sober people or people suffering from addiction are afraid of is having to figure out how to live life sober. I know this sounds insane, but hear me out: You don’t have to. All you have to do is do it. I have thought myself out of so many things in my life and for much of my life I thought myself out of getting sober. I created equations to prove that everything was fine and believed them even when they proved time and time again to fall through. I limited myself. I created walls where there were none. I put obstacles up in my own path based on fears of what might happen that stopped me from moving forward, when had I just put one foot in front of the other I likely would have made it through just fine. When I start overthinking or trying to “figure it out,” I taint the possibility of everything working out in a way that I never would have imagined. Like playing god. When I let my fears or my worries or my manipulative projections of what “should” be or “might” happen, I don’t get to see what else could be out there for me.

If I drink because I’m hurting, I know I’ll feel better for an hour or two before I blackout or the hangover kicks in the next morning. But if I stay sober through it, I don’t know what will happen. If I sat trying to figure it out, trying to plan how to handle everything, I’d be limiting myself and my potential outcomes to only what I can imagine. And as creative as my imagination might be, it rarely included anything like what my life looks like today. So instead of trying to figure anything out for myself, I ask. I ask someone who’s been through what I’m going through. I ask them how they handled it and I ask them what I can do to get through it. Then I do those things. Usually it’s not what I had in mind. Usually it’s not what I would have done. But I do it anyway. And somehow, here I am, 5 years still sober, living a life I never expected.

I’m not perfect. I still like to come up with plans and do dumb things and make selfish or short-sighted decisions. I still piss people off and I still say too much or too little and I’m still really really single. I’ve got a lot to learn and more to do. But the one thing I have is another day where I haven’t had to poison myself to cope with existing. And I’m gonna say, that’s pretty sick.

Listen, sobriety isn’t for everyone and honestly, what your drinking looks like is none of my business. There are lots of people out there who drink way more than I did who don’t have a problem, and people who drink way less who do. All I know is that the life I have today is nothing like what I thought I was capable of. If you told me 5 years ago that I’d be living in a beautiful apartment in the valley with my beautiful dog (that I take good care of), that I’d be able to afford to live comfortably, that I set aside time each day to be of service to other people, for free, and feel excited to do so, or that I’d go for 5 years without tasting bourbon, I’d say “wow, I’m gonna be a big loser.” But today, this life is exactly what I want. I’m grateful every day for this quietness and the simple freedom of paying bills and being decent. I get to have real adventures and have real memories with people I really love. And most importantly, I am learning how to love this woman in the mirror.

This is not a success story or a before/after comparison in that the gifts and the lessons I value today only stick with me as long as I keep choosing to stay on this path. When I pick up the glass again, I know that for me, all of this falls away. So I am not done and I haven’t finished working. I have a lot more to do, much more to uncover, and I’m going to do a hell of a lot more screwing up as I go along. I’m also probably going to look back on this in ten years and say “yikes” about something or another. But today, I have been sober for 5 years. I never thought this is what I would be like at 33 years old. If you wonder whether or not you could do this — trust me. If this recovering party girl can be content in her life without happy hour, I promise you, you probably can, too…if you want it. All you have to do is give up and ask someone who’s done it how they did it. Then do that. 24 hours at a time.

Curious

Find out what others have already figured out. Follow our publication to join our community.

Sign up for Curious Hits

By Curious

Find out what others have already figured out. Subscribe to receive top 10 most read stories of Curious — delivered straight into your inbox, once a week. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Elyse Cizek

Written by

Author. Poet. Musician. Actress. Instagram.com/elyse_just_elyse

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Elyse Cizek

Written by

Author. Poet. Musician. Actress. Instagram.com/elyse_just_elyse

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store