With Apologies to My Fat-Headed Irish and German Ancestors

By Catherine Northington 01/31/18

I armed myself with a boatload of euphemisms for my Sober January: I’m using it to “reevaluate my relationship with alcohol,” I’m trying to “turn over a new leaf,” to “discover a new me.”

The back of a woman in an office chair looking at a calendar on the wall.

Lately, begrudgingly, I've been paying more attention to my drinking habits.

This is an unprecedented exercise in self-care. Ever since the first time I got drunk—Laurie Graham's heated pool, August, 2008—I've hardly looked back at life without booze.

It’s become second-nature to pick up a drink. Happy? Beer. Sad? Beer. Angry? Beer. Bored? Beer. Traveling? Beer. Homework? Beer. Writing? Whiskey on the rocks (because, you know, art).

Somewhere along the line, alcohol became more of a fact than a question: “Do I want a beer?” slipped into “I am having a beer”; “What are we doing this weekend?” slid towards “Where are we drinking this weekend?”

It only takes a quick walk around Manhattan to confirm I’m not alone. Evading booze in New York City requires Matrix-style levels of dexterity—every other bar, tavern, or restaurant has a dusty sandwich board outside with some invitingly booze-centric message chalked up on it.

In just the last week I’ve seen:

  • A banana is 105 calories. A tequila shot is 64. Choose wisely.
  • Alcohol! Because no great story ever started with a salad.
  • If you're drinking to forget, please pay in advance.
  • Soup of the day: Whiskey

These signs have a way of pissing you off when you’re not drinking. It's tough not to get defensive—especially in these first trying months of 2018. Such chalkboard platitudes are particularly aggravating in a political climate like today’s, where the thought of drinking to escape reality grows ever more appealing.

As with many New Year’s Resolutions that we desperately try to frame as beneficial due to how fucking boring they are, I armed myself with a boatload of euphemisms for my Sober January: I’m using it to “reevaluate my relationship with alcohol,” I’m trying to “turn over a new leaf,” to “discover a new me.”

You know, all the bullshit we repeat until the shine of the New Year wears off and we return to our fatter, drunker, meaner selves in February.

Still, the bullshit is sort of working. There are perks to being booze-free. For one thing, I’ve saved tens or even hundreds of dollars replacing my usual $7 and $8 bar orders with $2 cranberry-seltzers (oftentimes they’re free). For another, I’m not constantly sucking down Pepto Bismol to combat my writhing intestines after a night out. Most noticeably, my anxiety levels have decreased to the point where I can not only perform basic human tasks, but even some semi-productive ones. I have more energy to get out and see the world—museums, shows, parks.

There are also struggles. For instance: No, my intestines are not writhing, but they seem to have taken an extended vacation from doing much of anything in the absence of alcohol. Which is to say: Fiber is the new black. I also continue to struggle with the bewitching phenomenon that is small talk—though I am able to walk away hating myself less after I inevitably fuck it up.

Most troubling of all, though, is that once the initial sober energy fades away—the flush of pride, productivity, enlightenment—there’s a thick crust of boredom lingering underneath. Teenage pseudo-existential Catherine has reawakened, asking useless questions like “What’s the point of all this?” and “Is the world that miserable that we’re all clamoring to escape it every chance we can?”

This, in turn, reawakens the worst and most punchable Catherine of all: Tortured Artist Catherine. “The world is miserable, but as artists we’re sentenced live and breathe that misery to its fullest. If we need alcohol to cope with the burden, so be it!”

I've had 744 sober hours to come up with a satisfying resolution for this month-long exercise, and have yet to figure out what it is. The only really clear Sober January takeaway is that I am literally and figuratively filled with shit.

That said, I've had enough snake pit intestinal issues and disappointing nights in my drinking career to determine that alcohol is not all the glamour and romance we make it out to be. Knowing the costs of my hangovers these days, I’m ready to be choosier with the boozing. That said, if you think my K-town karaoke days are over, you are dead wrong—those nights’ll just be weighed more thoughtfully against the idea of an “I want to light myself on fire and flop down onto FDR Drive” hangover the following day.

Maybe next January I’ll have more answers and less questions when it comes to breaking the habit. ‘Til then, friends: Salut, Prost, Cheers with my ginger ale.

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Catherine Northington is a creative nonfiction writer from Philadelphia. She is currently seeking her MFA at Columbia University, and can be reached at [email protected].