A Non-Alcoholic Takes the Sobriety Test
A liquor-lover describes his heroic effort to put down the bottle for nine months, in solidarity with his pregnant wife.
There's that sparkling, lazy afternoon in a tiny port town, working through ice-cold carafes of retsina, Greece’s resinated white wine. And that surprisingly good pizza, washed down with lukewarm bottles of Toña, Nicaragua's answer to Budweiser. Even anxious memories fraught with fear, like braving an illegal back alley bar in Pakistan, are made more profound with booze.
Liquor has been part my life for so long, I finally understand why recovering addicts and alcoholics keep a careful count of their sober days.
In February, my wife and I stopped drinking. For some couples, this would be a minor sacrifice. But Neena and I met and courted at bars across downtown Manhattan. We fell in love toasting sunsets under thatched roofs throughout Central America. For us, dinner without wine isn't much of a meal, and a weekend without time spent in a dark bar isn’t much of a weekend.
I’ve always been an enthusiastic, loyal drinker. In fact, after smoking weed in high school and sucking down the usual pollutants in college, I spent my 20s in an exclusive relationship with alcohol.
Sobriety didn’t arrive unannounced. We spoke at length and prepared for it, much as one readies for an imminent storm. Still, it was a shock to learn on a random Monday morning that Sunday night's wine had been our last. We should’ve splurged on better bottles.
At this point I should mention that my wife's not an alcoholic. Neither am I. She's pregnant, and I’m trying to be supportive.
When it comes to incendiary topics, partner sobriety during pregnancy runs a close second to expectant mothers drinking alcohol. Pity the woman who turns to mommy blogs and baby forums for advice on broaching the subject of alcohol use with her partner. Should the all-knowing crowd deem her husband or boyfriend’s drinking as excessive, she is urged to leave this good-for-nothing sperm donor. Even when they’re not labeled alcoholics, drinking partners are regularly condemned online as traitors for lifting a single beer.
Fortunately, the middle ground is more reasonable. Hidden among the hysteria, most expectant mothers ask just one thing of their partner: Don’t be an asshole. For some couples, this means dual sobriety. For most, though, partners continue to drink in moderation. Writing on the web, some women even take pride in being the “DD” (dedicated driver) for their “DH” (dear husband) or “SO” (significant other).
Months before Neena got pregnant, I offered to stop drinking when the time came. When the test came back positive on that Monday morning, my abstract idealism quickly became a grim reality: Holy shit, I’m going to be sober until October. And even thereafter, with a newborn and a new life, drinking would never be the same.
A few months into our new lifestyle, I’ve realized something: Sobering up isn’t the worst idea I’ve ever had. The last time I dried out was 2005, when I was running a weekly newspaper in New York City. Between the job stress and the newspaperman’s romantic urge to hit the bottle, my nightly drunkenness was entirely justified. But it was getting out of hand. There is a breaking point, a Rubicon that must not be crossed, and it was near.
Taking a cue from a friend who’d given up the bottle for an entire year for similar reasons, I vowed to dry out for however long it took to clear my head and get a handle on things. By then, I’d been drinking for more than 20 years, starting with a mickey of blackberry brandy passed around before a middle school dance. I’ve always been an enthusiastic, loyal drinker. In fact, after smoking weed in high school and sucking down the usual pollutants in college, I spent my 20s in an exclusive relationship with alcohol.
My 2005 dry spell lasted about four months, and ended when my father died. I wouldn’t say my head was entirely clear, but I had certainly stepped back from the brink. All things considered, it was a success.
Truth be told, I’m happy to abstain during the week. I’m in my mid-40s, an age when most men bulk up if they don’t exercise regularly. Thanks to the empty calories of alcohol, I've carried an extra 10 or 20 pounds for longer than I’d like. A few months ago, when every dinner included wine and we drank beer by the caseload, working out meant breaking even, at best. You’d think, then, I’d be shedding weight. But the body wants what it's had, and mine craves sugar. My sweet tooth is out of control, and non-dairy Cuties frozen treats don’t actually qualify as healthy snacks.
It’s the weekends that hurt. Since it’s too early to build a nursery and shop for baby things, we fill our days with activities. We hike in the nearby hills above Santa Monica. We play paddle tennis at Venice Beach. We do everything we can to run down our engines, wearing ourselves out like small children so we’ll fall asleep early. Still, the urge to drink is always there, tapping at the window like a vampire anxious for an invitation.
For the newly sober, the toughest challenge is often one of lifestyle. After Neena and I moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 2011, we had trouble finding our rhythm. Two years later, we finally have a favorite dive bar for summer Fridays when she leaves the office early. We found the right jukebox and pool table for idle Saturday afternoons. We even found a dog-friendly patio where our mutt can join us for Sunday pints, as she had in our old neighborhood.
Those hard-won locals are now a thing of the past, destined to fade into fond memories. Some non-drinkers can still visit their favorite haunts, ordering club soda and O’Doul’s, concentrating on the company not the cocktails. Not us. We’re even avoiding favorite restaurants whose meals are lessened without good wine pairings. Dry meals are easier on the budget, sure, but I'd gladly blow $200 tonight if it meant a hearty red with my steak and a perfect port to end the meal.
At least our non-drinking has been good for Netflix. We finally caught up with Arrested Development, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. We may finally succumb to peer pressure and binge on Mad Men. We'd better cram it in now, before the baby arrives and there’s no time for real television. Or real drinking, for that matter.
I’m actually grateful for these next few months of clarity and hangover-free mornings. I’m particularly glad it’s a voluntary dry-out, not lifelong abstinence. If all goes well, sometime in October I’ll be popping a bottle of champagne in a Santa Monica hospital room. In no time, Neena will be sneaking glasses of white between feedings. No doubt, we’ll be that annoying couple with the baby at the bar. We’re not entirely out of the game.
Will I miss those lazy Saturdays that start with mimosas, continue with pints and end with nightcaps on the couch? Those carefree Sundays when the most important decision is, which bar? Of course. But as Old John told Joseph Mitchell, as quoted in Up in the Old Hotel, I’ve had my share. More important matters are at hand.
Jeff Koyen is the former editor of the New York Press and founder of the software startup Assignmint.