Book Review: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray

sober

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!

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4 comments

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this review so I wasn’t the only one hating on Catherine Gray. And a person who actually gave up booze completely can offer a more balanced perspective on it.

    I read this after the ‘Unexpected Joy of Being Single’ because people said this was actually the better of the two books. However, in both cases I thought she got a bit fanatical.

    Both books start of fairly well. In the single book, she was talking about how there is this immense pressure for everyone to settle down and that often forces us to rush things or feel inadequate – all very true and valid points. And then she talks about how we should embrace single life and realise its not all the bad. But eventually things escalate rather quickly – and its like just accept your single status, you don’t need a companion – dogs, nieces/nephews and friends can all fill the void. This is where I draw the line. I don’t believe we should ever give up on love. Perhaps you can take breaks from actively searching, but you should never resign yourself to spinsterhood and think a dog (or dildo) can take the place of a real romantic connection. Its all a bit fatalistic to me.

    With the booze-free story, again, her research was interesting – how there is this growing ‘sober-curious movement’. Our generation are still big boozers but I actually thing we are more moderate than our parents generation. Then there is evidence to say that the generation after ours is actually even more sober – with many choosing to not drink from the get go. This is also seen with by the growth of these ‘dry bars’ in places like London and NYC. (Although, as I saw one person comment I don’t see the draw in spending the equivalent of a glass of fine wine on a overpriced juice…I honestly think the juice needs to be laced with crack if we are expected to pay through the nose for it!). Where she annoyed me was when she hated on ‘Dry January’. She basically says its commendable but if really want to experience the joy of being sober you need to give it up for at least 90 days. I’ve done Dry Jan for the past few years (sometimes its Dry Feb or Mar because I fail a few times but you get the sentiment) and this year I was dry for about 60 days. I don’t do it because I fear I might be an alchy or have seen the light and realised booze is the devils work. Like the majority, I’ve just overindulged over the festive season and feel its time to give my body a detox. It always feels good, but then again so does wine in moderation. I also got the impression, she implies we are all a bit alcoholic and somewhere on a spectrum. I don’t believe this to be true at all. There are many that are and others that are borderline. But I think most people just like alcohol but if they had to give it up for a legit reason they would (perhaps with a little sadness in their heart but they would). How do so many pregnant woman do it, then? By her standards, I’m should check myself in for chocoholic therapy – because I would kick off more about having no chocolate in my life, than having no booze.

    Finally, I think its OK to be a bit preachy from time to time. I’ve currently got a busted ankle and can’t exercise to the extent I’d like. I’m always judgey about lazy people, but I’ve found that since becoming a crip I’m even more judgy – it’s like a look at all these slovenly people that can’t even walk 50 metres to collect an uber eats delivery (yeah, they deserve my judgement) and I’m sitting there like DUDE!! GO FOR A RUN PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEASE, your legs are fully functioning unlike mine!!! Clearly, I’m just frustrated because of my own circumstances. At the weekend, I went out with a friend who has been sober for almost a year and when I ordered a glass of wine, he rolled his eyes at me. So, I went off on one and told him I wasn’t asking him to drink with me and I wasn’t there to get wasted either. Eventually, after a heart to heart he admitted he was just a little bit sad/jel because he’d like to be able to drink again, but just can’t for health reasons so he gets judgey about it sometimes. So yeah, we all get a bit judgemental from time to time but I think we just need to look at the reasons why before we go overboard about it ‘Catherine Gray’ style 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. It’s black and white for addicts, not for everyone. I think we’re on a spectrum of everything… of fitness, of sugar intake, of smoking, of drinking, of working… I also didn’t understand her issue with dry January because dry January was why and how I stopped drinking. I’ve tried moderation before and I could never manage it for long. One of the reasons why I realised I had a problem was that the thought of Dry January was so scary for me. I was like: I couldn’t do it. Then when in December I decided to stop drinking entirely I remember lying to others that I’m just doing Dry January. When I was getting weak I’d even lie to myself saying that it’s just for Jan and then we’ll see. It was also enough for me to see the difference in my mood after January to then lie to myself that it’s also “just for February”. Even now I don’t like to use the word NEVER and just prefer to focus on here and now. It was very similar for me with quitting smoking with the difference that “drinking less and less” just never happened like it did with “smoking less and less” and I had to go cold turkey.

      It’s okay to be anything from time to time, including preachy but this book to me was quite hectic on the preachy scale.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I also felt she should have cut her losses at an earlier stage in the book because by the end she was clutching at straws and it weakened some of the stronger arguments she put forwarded. Like when she literally started quoting every celebrity whoever said anything bad about booze. I saw her quoting Ed Sheeran, and I was like wow he doesn’t booze and then I saw him drinking beer with his bodyguard on insta. He probably just said the usual : ‘Fuck I have a hangover and I’m never looking at booze again’ and she took this to mean he was a teetotal advocate!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ed Sheeran shouldn’t be drinking with his bodyguard because apparently he has a drinking problem and is trying to stay sober. Anyway, that’s beside the point. I found it a bit comforting that so many celebs don’t drink but I also didn’t see much sense in her including it there. She was just jumping around the reasons why you shouldn’t drink throughout the book – some seemed directed at addicts, others just at normal people. I think that the biggest weakness was that she didn’t have a proper target reader chosen. Was she writing to addicts, to people in recovery or preaching to everyone to stop drinking? I’m a bit sad it wasn’t a better book because it’s an important topic and she just makes it look too black and white (any booze bad, sober life AMAZING).

        Like

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