I was excited to read this book. I’ve been, after all, sober for a year and a half myself. Without going into much detail, my drinking (especially binge drinking on weekends) became a problem and after a few failed attempts at moderation, keeping in mind a history of alcohol abuse in my family, I decided to stop drinking entirely.
I thought this was just the right book for me because as much as I’m okay with not drinking I sometimes find myself bored or even sad. The quitting itself brought less happiness into my life (no fireworks!) than I expected. I thought that perhaps I was doing it wrong so I read this book. Unfortunately, “The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober” was a disappointment.
Let me, however, start with the positive. The author’s been successfully sober for many years and she’s managed to beat a serious addiction so kudos for that. It’s not easy and it’s even more difficult to talk about it publicly. I admire both her self-restraint and her courage to speak up.
I also like the fact that she talks about the societal problem with alcohol. People drink too much and there’s a lot of pressure to not only drink but often to drink a lot. You’re basically expected to drink every time you’re out, whether it’s a writing circle’s meeting, a one-on-one with a friend or a family dinner. Not drinking is considered weird and you’ll most probably get asked “why?”, if someone notices that you don’t drink.
We seem to forget that “alcohol isn’t water, if you have it every time you’re out, maybe you should look at your drinking habits” as my fitness guru, Ewa Chodakowska, says. The expectation of other people that you’ll always order a glass of wine or a different alcoholic beverage is not healthy.
Alcohol drinks shouldn’t be our go-to beverages. It should be okay to have a coffee, a glass of water or a juice instead with no questions asked. More importantly, because we all like to comply this expectation is habit forming and seeing that alcohol is a (potentially) addictive substance it can cause some people serious trouble long-term.
This brings me to my favourite part of the book, which is where Gray discusses the reasons why people are appalled by you not drinking as well as talks about available techniques of dealing with hostile reactions. People should at least be aware that the “Why are you not drinking?” (seeing that “Why don’t you drink?” is unimaginable for most people) question at parties and social gatherings makes it really tough to choose an alternative whether you’re just trying to skip drinking that one night or forever.
I’m glad that someone finally has said it all!
The author also has read a lot about the topic, provided useful resources for people in recovery and even quoted some stats. It’s all very commendable but… my praise finishes here.
I find Gray’s vision of sober life as this amazing, exciting adventure overblown and honestly, socially irresponsible. Recovery is hard and anyone who tells an addict that it’s only a bit shit in the beginning and after that it’s happily ever after is promising them something that’s not going to be true for most people.
The author only really talks about the first few months as being difficult and that includes first times such as weddings and parties. But after that, even if life isn’t perfect, it’s seemingly just shits and giggles.
Don’t get me wrong, she rightly points out the benefits of being sober: no blackouts, no hangovers, no being ashamed of what and who you did last night or not remembering what and who you did last night, better skin, passion for fitness, passion for nature, deeper and more honest friendships and relationships… It’s all true! However, recovering addicts more often than not struggle with problems that are either not mentioned at all in the book or brushed under the carpet (along the lines of “Sure, I lost some friends but they were bad drinking friends, anyway).
When you’re sober you have to deal with everything you did when you were drunk and you’ll have to live with it. There are also your own issues that made you drink in the first place (anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, PSTD…a garden variety of what could it have been, really) that will make your life difficult only that sober you will no longer be able to ignore them. You’ll get random flashbacks of things you didn’t remember and cringe with shame. You’ll have to recreate a new personality beyond the “fun one” and it’s really painful and tough, you’ll also have to do it over and over again every time you meet an old friend. Sometimes you’ll be very lonely but too scared to go out because there will be alcohol there and on bad days it’ll be difficult to be around booze FOREVER. Some friends won’t understand your choice. Some new people will be weirded out by you. You’ll be shamed. People will tell others excuses or outward lies about you to justify your weird choice (“It’s a NEW thing,” as a family member always says to surprised people – in other words, I wasn’t always SO lame – or “They’re trying for a baby” coming from a friend of mine). You’ll feel super awkward in social situations not just the first time when you’re going through them sober but often and then you’ll feel at ease and then on a bad day you’ll feel awkward again.
Sure, it’s better than being addicted and there are all the perks that Gray mentions but you don’t feel them 100% of the time. Sometimes you’d just prefer to share a bottle of wine with a friend after a stressful day or get drunk with girlfriends for fun.
The point is there’ll be bad stuff too and quite a bit of it. Being ready for it will make the process easier.
One last thing I didn’t like is that Gray is preachy about how evil alcohol is and I really dislike fanaticism. Anything is potentially addictive. I know people who smoke a cigarette here and there all their lives and those who become addicted after their first packet. I’ve met proper pot heads but also people who smoke occasionally. How many people struggle with good eating habits or their sugar intake? Surely, no on would argue that sugar should be banned. When you have a problem, you should address the problem but when you don’t have it…what’s the harm in not being perfect?
Sure, getting drunk isn’t great because you could be doing something productive instead but if it’s once in a blue moon, I don’t see what the big deal is. Similarly, I don’t understand what’s wrong with a cigarette from time to time or a whole chocolate cake for your bday. Moderation is key in life and cutting something out entirely is a good solution… but only if you can’t moderate.
All in all, the book has some merit but I didn’t find it very realistic or helpful. I could relate to some “before” parts but not to the “after” ones. I’m happy for the author if she’s truly as joyful as she describes but my honest feeling is that she’s either artificially inflating her reality in the book or she used some other tools than just getting sober with some help from nature, exercises and mindful meditation (all of which I use btw). In a way, I feel like she’s described my reality but made it look much better than it actually is. This Life Beyond My Wildest Dreams hasn’t been my experience or the experience of sober people I’ve met.
Last but not least, you may want to check out #englishrosiee’s review of another book by Catherine Gray “The Unexpected Joy of Being Single“.
Ok, I’m done now. Do you drink? Do you feel pressured to drink on social occasions? Do you give people a hard time when they don’t drink? Let me know!