On Choosing Sobriety at 40

"I have more clarity than one year ago, and when I think about my body I feel proud knowing that I’ve done what I can to give us a fighting chance in life. I also feel different because I’ve had to fight for things (mentally and emotionally) that I’ve truly never had to fight for before because I always had alcohol to fall back on."
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A photo of Catherine Abegg in her home.

A photo of Catherine Abegg in her home.

Sobriety has undergone a reinvention of sorts lately, with empowerment at the core. Choosing a “straight and narrow” path (which in and of itself may be an outdated term) does not hold the negative connotations or social implications it once did. Sites such as HIP SOBRIETY emphasize mantras of convincing courage: "You don't need to hit rock bottom,” and “Am I an alcoholic? is the wrong question." Perhaps it’s due to our increased, borderline incessant, interest in wellness these days, coupled with self-care and a self-awareness that affords many the opportunity to recognize addictive triggers before they become a toxic pattern. So by choosing a lifestyle of preventative measures, sobriety may be one piece of the puzzle. We were curious to learn more.

Catherine Abegg helped answer our questions by sharing her sobriety story. Her personal journey toward abstaining from alcohol is a moving testament to putting yourself first, and the confidence that comes from this choice. But admittedly one of her greatest challenges? Feeling very alone. Which is why we feel strongly about having hard conversations like the one below — because sharing Catherine’s courage may just be what another woman needs to hear as she gathers her own strength to make a change. So read on for sincere and frank advice on the challenges and triumphs of leading a sober life.

You celebrated a year of sobriety recently — how did that feel? In what ways are you different now than you were a year ago? 

I did. "Celebrated" is an interesting way to look at it, because in many ways there is a lot of shame associated with the notion of sobriety. Even when I felt really proud of what I considered to be a major accomplishment, I restrained from sharing too much because I feared being judged by others. 

But otherwise, when my one year of sobriety rolled around, I felt humbled and also quite proud. I felt more powerful in my own mind and body then I had one year before, even though I have a small child at home which means that I suffer from all sorts of related ailments like a very neglected body, sleep deprivation, and a general lack of intelligence and wit. 

Even so, I have more clarity than one year ago, and when I think about my body I feel proud knowing that I’ve done what I can to give us a fighting chance in life. I also feel different because I’ve had to fight for things (mentally and emotionally) that I’ve truly never had to fight for before because I always had alcohol to fall back on.

Thank you for sharing the reasons you decided to pursue a sober life. What was most difficult and what was surprisingly simple about stopping drinking? 

I will start by saying the most surprising thing about stopping drinking, for me, was how easy it was to hang out with friends and not drink. I thought for sure that I would never be able to socialize again! But instead I have found that I love going out for hours on end, and I actually feel so much more confident sober than I did drunk. This has been truly surprising because I had convinced myself that I was only “myself” when drinking — but happily found out that being my true self was so much better.

The most difficult part about stopping drinking is the feeling of being so alone. Our society does nothing to encourage sobriety as a normal lifestyle, and the repercussions of this is that most people think there is truly something wrong with someone who chooses health over drinking. 

After coming out of the first few months of not drinking (those first few months were also the most difficult part of stopping, truth be told), I have often felt perplexed and frustrated by our general mistreatment of people who make the choice to not drink.

Health is at the top of reasons why I chose to pursue a life of sobriety. I first came to seriously think about a life without drinking when my friend Kelly shared her journey in an eloquent Facebook post with a list of resources. The thought of someone in my social peer group going “sober” really intrigued me, and per her recommendation I read the book by Annie Grace called The Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life.

I related to so much of what she talks about regarding regrettable nights and mornings (who wouldn’t!), but I was especially struck by learning about what alcohol really does to our bodies, both physically and mentally, and couldn’t seem to find common ground with how I chose to live my life (mindfully) and how I chose to drink (recklessly). So just as I stopped smoking cigarettes many years ago (I like to joke that “I identify as a smoker!”), I knew that I also had to stop drinking.

Even though health initially motivated me, I also knew this was a long time coming. As with so many families I know, alcoholism and depression run rampant in my family history. My grandparents on my mom’s side were both alcoholics, my uncle was an alcoholic to the point of abandoning his family and living on the streets and one of his sons (my first cousin) overdosed on oxy when we were in our late twenties. This is a devastating notch in our family’s tree (not to mention my great uncle who committed suicide and my great aunt who was given a partial lobotomy for being “crazy”). Whenever I had friends who suffered from alcoholism and would hear people talk about them with words and phrases like “disappointment,” “carelessness,” “no regard,” “how could they,” and “why can’t they just get their shit together?” I felt defensive because I knew that only luck seemed to keep me just one drink away from the same fate as anyone who suffered from alcoholism.

But before I knew it, and as I got older and “life" happened in ways that so often got the better of me, I felt that one drink that was supposedly keeping me away from alcoholism, draining slowly. I also felt myself falling prey to the cliché of moms needing a drink, and even though I prided myself on this beautiful life that we built and how wonderful it was to be a mother and how peaceful I felt spending all of my days with my son, I secretly could not stop thinking about having a drink.

I always knew how much was left in my bottle of wine at all times (and always had a backup), and many times a day I would find ways to convince myself that it wasn’t too early too drink… it’s 5 o’clock somewhere, am I right?

This started to scare me but didn’t feel like it was enough to mean that I had a drinking problem — because our society has us convinced that there truly is no problem with drinking. Someone else has a drinking problem, but I don’t have a drinking problem. Slowly I realized that I couldn’t wait on the societal norms to back me up on this, and knew that I needed to do something about it on my own.

How did your friends and family respond?

The hardest part about quitting drinking (besides the actual quitting) was that my husband, Michael, felt betrayed by my new sobriety. He loves to drink and I now see that we were a “drinking couple.” Our lives together revolved around drinking together (we met at a bar) and it must’ve felt like I stole something away from us. 

Michael knows that I’m outwardly honest about everything, so I don’t feel bad talking about the issues that we face. He has said many hurtful things because he felt betrayed, in a way, but I also felt betrayed by his lack of support, which I had been able to count on in every other situation in all of our years together. He said I wasn’t fun anymore… which, by the way, what do you say to that? “I’M STILL FUN!!!!!!!” He would talk about all the things we could no longer do together, like cheers on our birthdays, and he said it in kind of a mean way. 

We still talk about New Year’s 2015, when we got so wasted that every hilarious thing we did that night was because we were so drunk and in love, but he looks back on it with sadness that we can’t do that anymore. I look back on it with sadness that we couldn’t have been that much in love while sober. So, this has been a process for us, and not an easy one! I remind him over and over that all I want is to be the best mom and partner that I can be, and one way to do that is to hopefully live a long, happy, healthy life and that I no longer saw drinking alcohol as a part of that equation. We’re still working it out.

My friends who drink have been supportive in the only way they know how, and that is by staying silent. Many times I’ve had friends tell me that I didn’t have a drinking problem, and many times I’ve had friends ask, “Are you still not drinking?” in a way that felt more out of annoyance than inquisitive. I haven’t felt enough freedom to openly talk about it with most of my friends to be honest. When I was about two months very newly sober, I realized that it was a lot like what it must feel like to be newly religious: I wanted to shout “the truth” from the rooftops, but knew that I would mostly be met with doubt and ridicule.

But! My non-drinking friends have been literal life-savers for me, even when they didn’t know it. The first month I wasn’t drinking, my friend Marilee texted me and I told her that I wasn’t in a good place to talk — which was in my bed literally crying my eyes out because I couldn’t have a drink. Anyway, about twenty minutes later she showed up on my doorstep and made me leave the house with her, and somehow she didn’t even need to ask what was wrong. She knew. I also have friends who would randomly just check in, or who would have get-togethers with other non-drinkers, if only to be in a safe space together where we felt understood.

What have you discovered about yourself in this process? What has been the most rewarding?

Well, I inadvertently discovered two more reasons why I’m glad that I stopped drinking: My mom’s parents were both alcoholics. I remember a long time ago, while trying to figure out why my mom is how she is, my older sister came up with the term (via the Oprah show, if I recall) “adult children of alcoholics.” While I didn’t look much into what that might entail (I was very young when she told me about it), I was left with the impression that what our parents leave us with have farther reaching implications than what could even seem possible. 

In our case, I think it even affected us as the children of the child of alcoholics. I have no doubt that my mom loved us five kids, but she wasn’t very available to us and didn’t show any desire to provide support or teach empowerment. This might be a digression and I honestly have no idea if this is at all connected, but I do know that my grandparents were alcoholics and that their alcoholism severely damaged my mom and her siblings — and I couldn’t bear being the parent who did that to my children.

The other reason why I may have decided to sober up? There is not only millions (billions?) of dollars aimed at encouraging women and mothers to drink, but there is quite possibly millions of dollars aimed at preventing women from knowing the truth about drinking. I could feel it before, but now I can see it too. Here is one of the articles I found most enlightening. I understand that some might view such articles as a hyper vigilant opinion at best, but it’s hard to deny that there are so many ways that the patriarchy is doing their best to keep women down. And in light of our current world I didn’t want them to have one more thing over me.

Aside from all of that, what I learned about myself in this process is that I’m stronger and more capable than I ever knew that I could be. I experienced deep sorrow and anxiety during the first four to six months of being sober when the realization set in that I would have to actually deal with whatever life presented. There was no escaping my issues, numbing my pain or dulling the noise; my only resource for survival was ME, and it was nothing short of an awakening.

Is this your new way of life, or are you open to drinking again in the future?

I currently feel comfortable saying that I won’t ever drink alcohol again, but there is an almost invisible fine line between feeling that confidence as strongly as I feel fear. If I have learned anything in life, it’s that I cannot control life or make wild assumptions about the future. I want to say that I am open to anything, therefore open to the possibility of drinking in the future, but I immediately feel a strong sense of caution and dread. 

At least three to four times a week I have vivid dreams of drinking; some of those dreams I am having an awesome time and everything feels right, but some of those dreams are actual nightmares where I’ve lost my children or I can’t find my way through a strange city because I’m too drunk to see. Dreams can be just dreams, but at this stage in my sobriety the extremes of those type of scenarios feel all too real for me and thankfully keep me scared sober.



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