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Sobered: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
There have been a handful of times when I've been motivated to pay extra close attention to my relationship with alcohol. The first we will call the Red Wine Revelations.

In college, I studied abroad in Malbec country — Mendoza, Argentina — and was immersed in a culture in which booze was not the means to a drunken end, but part of a daily meal or an afternoon in the park. It was revelatory to be pulled away from binge drinking college culture. And also, a lesson learned that more than one glass of red wine makes my head feel very...ouch.

More recently, alcohol observations came from a phase I've dubbed, "COVID and cocktails." In the first months of the pandemic, I noticed myself drinking more often than I had before. I've never been much of a weeknight drinker, but then I was turning to a semi-frequent 6pm cocktail routine when I needed something more tangible to shift from the working to the non-working parts of my day.

Would I ever consider myself someone who's struggled with my relationship with alcohol? No. But, is my relationship to the "why" behind my choice to drink worth exploring from time to time? Certainly, yes.

This is Embodied, I'm Anita Rao.

Data shows I'm certainly not the only one who had a "COVID and cocktails" phase. In 2020, alcohol sales shot up nationally, and nearly a quarter of Americans said they were drinking more. But, there are plenty of folks out there who have made a decision that's less mainstream and committed to a life without alcohol.

Cara Smelter
You know, it's interesting to stop and think about our collective culture around drinking. Recounting a wild night drinking heavily, maybe not even remembering the whole evening, will generally be met with laughter — maybe a few winks. However, the mention of active recovery — going to a meeting the night before or calling a sponsor — is too often met with discomfort. It's a real problem in our contemporary culture that alcohol is celebrated, but the active participation in recovery or in not partaking comes with immense baggage.

Madison Speyer
The first time that I got drunk, it was in a very safe environment with my closest friends. After that night, I told myself, you shouldn't do this often. Because I have a very addictive personality, I tend to fixate on things. And I didn't want to even run the risk of turning that hyperfixation and that obsession towards something that could possibly hurt me or hurt my relationships and the other people in my life.

Anita Rao
That was Cara Smelter and our intern, Madison Speyer. You're gonna hear from both of them later on in the podcast. There is no one way to be sober from alcohol. And, no matter the reasons behind your decision, being sober can change your friendships, romantic partnerships — even your relationship to yourself.

Tawny Lara
I woke up one morning and realized that I was just sick of being a party girl. I was sick of being hungover, sick of making really stupid drunk decisions, and I just decided not to drink for one year and to write about it.

Anita Rao
That's Tawny Lara.

Tawny Lara
Yes, I'm Tawny. I'm a writer in New York City and working on a book about sober sex, dating and relationships. I've been sober six-and-a-half years.

Anita Rao
Like me, Tawny is a host of a podcast and into talking about sex and relationships. She even goes by the moniker The Sober Sexpert. Unlike me, she's about to publish a book. It's called "Dry Humping: A Guide to Booze-Free Sex, Dating & Relationships." If you want to read what Tawny's first year of sobriety was like, and her journey since then, she documented her experience on her blog. She named it SobrieTea Party.

Tawny Lara
It was just supposed to be a year-long social experiment and six-and-a-half years later, I will say the experiment worked. It's not all fun and games, sobriety is pretty freaking hard sometimes, but I'm happier than I've ever been without alcohol.

Anita Rao
Tawny's relationship with alcohol was shaped by years working as a bartender.

Tawny Lara
I was the stereotypical party girl, I danced on bars, I was like wooing — taking shots. You know, you've all seen it, you know exactly what I'm talking about. And bartending just normalized that, you know, if I wasn't serving the drinks one night, then the next night I was on the other side of the bar, drinking the drinks. And, bartenders — we all know each other — so you hook each other up, you give each other free shots. And before you know it, it's 3 a.m. and you're — you took the party home with you.

Anita Rao
Tawny's story isn't unusual, but every person's particular reasons for becoming sober are unique, and so is their recovery. We hear a lot about people hitting rock bottom and that being the turning point, but it's not always so linear.

J.Nicole Jones
When I did get a DUI, that was when I was 19. I said, "Hey, I'm not drinking anymore. I need to get my life in order." And I did not become sober until I was 23.

Anita Rao
That's J.Nicole Jones. She's co-host of the "Sober Black Girls Club" podcast and host of "The Grief Bully" podcast.

J.Nicole Jones
Even though I was trying to get to this level of sobriety, it was hard to do. I was a senior in college. I played basketball — you drink if you win, you drink if you lose. So that was tough. And then one morning, I woke up, I had a drinking episode where I couldn't really fully remember everything that day, and I'm looking at messages I sent. And I just felt really embarrassed and tired of this being a pattern of life. And I wanted to be the best version of myself, and I knew I could not do that drinking. And so from that day — December 22 — I just said, "Hey, I'm going to be done with this." So, just from there, one day at a time, I've been able to put 13-and-a-half years together.

Anita Rao
When J.Nicole realized she had a problematic relationship with alcohol, she was already familiar with some resources to get help. She had been to recovery program meetings, like Alcoholics Anonymous before as a support for family members, and knew that that was an option for her. But when she tried going to some of the meetings at age 23, she had trouble fitting in.

J.Nicole Jones
Being an athlete and someone who is used to achieving things with other people, it made sense for me to want to be involved in the rooms and going to meetings and just, kind of, having that structure. But it did feel a little bit out of place because, again, I was a lot younger than a lot of the folks there. And so, I just didn't fully fit in. A lot of the rooms were not filled with a lot of African American, people of color, Black people. So, I moreso relied on my own will and my decision-making and the support of the family and friends that I had. After trying AA, I did still lean towards some of it, but I never finished all the 12 steps.

Anita Rao
I want to pause for a second and talk about some terminology that's already come up a few times in this conversation. It's the distinction between the words "sobriety" and "recovery." Tawny has dug into this in her writing and on her cohosted podcast: "Recovery Rocks." So, I'm gonna let her explain it.

Tawny Lara
I would define sobriety as abstaining from a substance — for the sake of this conversation, you know, alcohol. Someone can be technically sober, but not in recovery — meaning, like, they're not drunk right now, you know, like, the designated driver is sober. So it's just, I would say they're not consuming; whereas, recovery is really figuring out why you were consuming in the first place. For me, it was really getting in touch with my mental health diagnoses, with depression and anxiety, learning that I was self-medicating, learning that I was outsourcing my confidence to, you know, the proverbial liquid courage. And a big part of recovery is knowing that it's — it really never ends. You're always learning new things about yourself. And, like I said earlier, six-and-a-half years in recovery, and I still learn new things about my past behaviors and current behaviors.

Anita Rao
Becoming sober and going through recovery can change big parts of your life. But it may not be until after you take a step back from drinking that you notice everything that has shifted.

Cara Smelter
Prior to assuming a sober identity, I was an extra dirty martini queen. Part of my identity was alcohol and drinking. Good times, have a drink. Bad times, have a drink. Average day, have a drink. Bored, have a drink.

David
I decided to stop drinking about three months ago, and I was immediately fascinated by how many things were suddenly just a little better. Activities as simple as making breakfast in the morning or packing lunches, all just felt a little brighter. Going on work trips and getting back to my hotel at the end of the night and then genuinely laughing out loud at surprise at how good it felt to come back from a work event and be completely without alcohol. And excited to have a good night's sleep and excited to wake up the next day. I don't think I'd ever really experienced that in the past.

Chelsea
I've been sober for 10 years this year. When I was first sober, I felt like I had a neon sign on my forehead saying, "alcoholic." And I thought that everybody could see that aspect of me. But then when I told them, they'd want me to come out. And, it was uncomfortable coming out, and so they're offering, "Let's just have you do whipped cream shots while we're doing liquor shots." Which they just don't understand how triggering that would be. But, you know, they want you to be normal, and being normal means being able to drink alcohol.

Anita Rao
That was Cara, David and Chelsea. For J.Nicole, getting sober met reflecting on the version of herself that most often came out when she was drinking.

J.Nicole Jones
I was often told that I became a different person, I wasn't myself, like, there was a lot of anger involved and just, like, things along those lines. So it would kind of be like a date or an outing or something going well — Netflix and chilling going well — and then, until it's not. When I've drank too much or, like, it could have been cool an hour ago, but now, because I wanted to go to the next level of drinking, that everything became a disaster. And I didn't really date people who also had this issue. So, it was glaringly obvious that I had things I needed to work on, as it pertained to alcohol, and other people didn't.

Anita Rao
I mean, it's challenging too because that environment in college is obviously one where, like, binge drinking is super normalized, and is a big part of, kind of, how people are hooking up and relating to one another. So, it's kind of hard to distinguish, you know, your experience from everyone else's. And that's something that we heard from one of our listeners about. She was only 21 when she became sober, and she shared her experience with us. This is Chelsea.

Chelsea
It was hard to have friends, it was hard to have friends my age, and it was hard to spend time with them. So I didn't really. And there were some relationships, both family and friends, that I struggled with.

Anita Rao
That was a listener named Chelsea. So Tawny, I'm curious about what hearing that clip brings up for you and a bit about, kind of, that early experience of being the only sober person in the room, which can be really uncomfortable. How did you work through that discomfort for yourself?

Tawny Lara
Yeah, that's a really good question. I think if I could do that first year over again, what I would change would be finding peer support. That first year — since my approach to sobriety was more a journalistic social experience through blogging — I didn't have a support group. I started therapy at nine months sober. So I think people — whether they're sober or reevaluating their relationship, doing a dry month, whatever — I think it's just really important to find some sort of peer support or an accountability buddy. So I guess I relate to a lot of what she was saying where it can feel lonely, especially if — because most of your friends are going to drink alcohol. So, you have to find these circles and safe spaces where, even if they're not — your friends aren't sober, they're not drinking or putting you in uncomfortable situations.

Anita Rao
J.Nicole, talk to me about your friendships and how those changed after you got sober.

J.Nicole Jones
So a lot of my friends were actually really happy and ecstatic that I made this decision. So honestly, I feel like they became accountability partners that I did not ask for. Them knowing, I felt like, man, I'm trapped. If I now make a decision to drink again, there are so many people who are going to have something to say, there's so many people that are going to be disappointed. And so, while at the time, I thought that was a pain in the butt, now looking back, it was one of the best things I could have done, was to make this declaration to people and to say, "Hey, I'm not going to be drinking." So, my friends — I started drinking in high school. So a lot of my longtime friends — we're still friends now — they all experienced me drinking younger, me drinking in college, and so when I became sober, they were happy.

Anita Rao
Having an accountability buddy, and a compassionate one, really can go a long way. You met one of our listeners, Cara, earlier. For her, that accountability buddy was also her romantic partner of 15 years.

Cara Smelter
I feel particularly fortunate that my partner, Phillip, quit drinking with me. He is forever my original drinking partner, so having the opportunity to shift from drinking partner to sober partner was critical to my continued success abstaining from alcohol. He craved with me, he avoided triggers with me, he experienced withdrawal symptoms with me — and the withdrawal is no joke. He also enjoyed the wonders of sober sleep with me. Together, we have found greater connection in our sobriety and our love.

Anita Rao
Tawny, I know that experience resonates with you, because your partner Nick is also sober. So, talk to me a bit about having a sober partner and how that's been a part of your sobriety journey.

Tawny Lara
It's been monumental, being able to be with someone who really speaks the language. I've dated people in sobriety that weren't sober, and it was fine. You know, like, it's not that I necessarily needed to be with someone who was sober, but Nick gets it. You know, like, if I have a really crappy day, and I come home, and I'm just like, "Oh, God, I would love to have a drink right now," he knows that I don't really want to have a drink. It just means that I had a really crappy day, and I need a healthy way to unwind. And I don't have to explain that to him. And, I think that — and it really is almost like we speak the same language. And just, having someone else in recovery means that they're also plugged into their own mental health. You know, like, it was very important to me that I found a partner that was in therapy, or had gone through therapy, and someone who was, just, aware of their mental health and willing to talk about those uncomfortable moments.

Anita Rao
J.Nicole, you have been married to your wife for five years now. And I know that she's not a big drinker, but she's not sober. So I'm curious about what it's been like for you to be in a relationship with someone who isn't sober and the role that's played in y'all's relationship.

J.Nicole Jones
I think the major key there is that I don't believe that it would have this potential with just anyone. My wife is an amazing person. And, just as far as being on the same page, morally, mental health being important, our communication being important. And then the most important thing was her relationship prior to dating me was a person who drank excessively, and it was a constant problem and issue. And so when she's thinking of the next person I date, like, "I want to meet someone that doesn't drink as much," and not knowing that she would meet someone that was completely sober — at this point for quite a few years — was the last thing that she was expecting.

Actually, on our first date, we met up for drinks. But, I never specified prior to meeting that I actually don't drink alcohol. But, drinks are drinks, I just said drinks — I can drink soda. And so, I did explain that on the first date that, "No, I don't drink, I'm sober." And. she was like, "Whoa, that's really different." Like, you're like a unicorn when you're, like, in your 20s and you say that. But it actually ended up working out to be great, and she's heard plenty of stories from other people — family, friends. So, it's considered an honor that she never met that version of myself. And then, now going into parenthood, it's even more of a bigger deal that I do live a sober life, and having this particular partner has been completely game-changing. So, I don't think that just anyone it would work with, but this particular person, it's been amazing.

Anita Rao
You mentioned parenthood, I know your wife is pregnant. Congratulations! I'm curious about how you all are talking about the role that you want alcohol to play in your life as you think about parenthood and think about this next step.

J.Nicole Jones
That's a good question because we actually were just speaking about this recently, that I'm — I'm happy that I have had my life experiences, but I'm also proud that I've overcome them and that I did choose sobriety. Because now, when I am facing my daughter — she decides to partake in alcohol or anything like that — I can have very open, honest conversations where I can show the worst of the worst. And, I can also say, this is why these things should be of a concern and where we are. So it's, it's not coming from a hypocritical standpoint. I will be able to be empathetic and understanding to that, and also give the best advice that I possibly can. I don't think it'll be that big of an issue in my home based on exposure, but children are going to be children, people are going to be who they're going to be, you can only be there to guide them based on your lived experience. And I know we'll confidently do that together.

Anita Rao
Socializing around alcohol is often the default. But, what if it wasn't?

David
Before, I just accepted that there was maybe an hour less in the day, so to speak, because I'd get tired, and not have the energy to really do the things I love. And that was the big change for me, about why I decided to stop drinking. I didn't love the numbness that I got from alcohol more than I loved being able to play music or playing games with my family. And I — all the stress that I used to have when I'd wake up at two in the morning, just because the chemicals in my brain decided to have a field day — that doesn't happen anymore, and I can't imagine getting myself to go back to that.

Madison Speyer
I think there's a lot of pressure — particularly in popular media — to, kind of portray the only way of making friends and hanging out is going out and partying or going on a bender. And that's just not representative of real life in my opinion. With my friends, I've never felt pressured to drink even when we're partying or going on a night out. Everyone was very much of the mindset that, you drink if you want and you don't drink if you don't want to.

Anita Rao
That was listener, David, and our intern, Madison. Madison also told us about identifying with a term that has sparked a growing movement. It's called sober curiosity. This concept was coined in 2016 by British author Ruby Warrington. She defines sober curiosity as choosing to question the decision to drink alcohol, rather than going along with mainstream culture. The sober curious movement is inclusive of those who choose to be fully sober, and those who drink occasionally. J.Nicole sees a lot of good in the conversation sparked by those who are sober curious.

J.Nicole Jones
I'm a "do what's best for you" kind of person, in that, you don't need to have so many labels and fit into certain categories that people want you to fit in. If you want to make a decision to better yourself — if that means to take a month off from drinking, or if that means that, hey, I think I may have a problem, I'm not sure. I don't really want to make this declaration — like I did — and then get put into this space where really, you can drink responsibly, you're just going through some internal things that therapy and different things like that can help you navigate. And then, maybe you're not using this alcohol as an outlet or a coping mechanism. So, I think it's really important for us to be able to do that. To this day, I — gonna be completely honest here and say that, I cannot say that I'm an alcoholic. I truthfully can't do that. And I don't know who that's shocking to, but what I can say is that I was a problem drinker. And I did not like my life with alcohol in it, so making a decision to explore a life without it was the best thing I was able to do. So, I think that it just really depends on the individual on what you need. And how can you even know that sometimes, if you're not curious about what the heck is going on here.

Anita Rao
I really appreciate all of that nuance. And, it's something that I've thought about a lot, kind of, in reading about sober curiosity as a way to, kind of, explore your own relationship to alcohol while also being sensitive to the fact that, for some people, just, deciding one day to be sober and then stopping drinking isn't available if they've had a substance use disorder — if they're really in the throes of working on their relationship. So Tawny, how can people, kind of, be sensitive to the range of experiences and things that lead people to sobriety, while also exploring their own curiosity around their relationship with alcohol?

Tawny Lara
I'm a big advocate for approaching — even if you're just doing a dry month, let's say you're doing Dry January — I would encourage the person to look up some recovery language. You know, maybe read some sober memoirs, maybe listen to some podcasts about recovery, maybe talk to your therapist about your relationship with alcohol. Taking a dry month, you can get so much more out of it if you focus on a more comprehensive approach, as opposed to just not drinking for a month. If you can do some soul-searching and really figure out why you're reaching for a glass of wine at six o'clock every day, or why you feel the need to take a shot before you want to try something new in the bedroom. You know, really figuring those things out and talking about it with, either a mental health professional or a friend or someone that you trust, can — I think you can really get a lot more out of a 30-day sober experience.

Anita Rao
Whether you're taking that contextualized approach to Dry January or in the midst of a recovery journey, it can be hard to find alternatives to these drinking rituals. There are some good resources out there now for those planning sober weddings and navigating big events, but smaller drinking customs embedded in the day to day may be harder. Liz Tracy is a journalist who has been sober for five years, and she's noticed the particular challenges of being a sober parent.

Liz Tracy
Being sober has taken away one of the main ways that our society allows us to relax as parents, which is alcohol. Our systems lack the support that parents need to find time and space to reconnect with themselves as human beings, and to find ways to thrive as parents — but maybe away from their children for a few hours a day. For me, as somebody that has stopped drinking, I still have ways of relaxing. I have always really turned to PBS to relax, to the British shows, British murder mysteries. While everybody is not going to pop on PBS, I think that people can come back to their roots a little bit and think about what was something that was calming to them, maybe in middle school? What is something they wanted to do when they were younger and never really got around to doing? And, I think you have to really be resourceful when you're trying to relax and you're sober.

Anita Rao
Choosing to not partake in post-bedtime drinks did also make it harder for Liz to strike up friendships with other parents. And talking with sober queer people, Tawny heard similar stories about feelings of isolation from otherwise common experiences.

Tawny Lara
I will say "The Gay Bar" is such a rite of passage for queer people. You know, you turn 18, you go to the gay bar. And that's really often the first time that you're with people that are like you. And it can really be a positive thing, because you're around people that are like you — there's visibility. And that can definitely make someone feel empowered. Where it can be a bit problematic is when you're finally meeting yourself, and you're being introduced to alcohol for first, second, third time. So, it's like your safe space is inherently tied to alcohol. So I think that's just something to be cognizant of, that — I know, as a queer person and someone who's interviewed a lot of other sober queer people — figuring out their queer identity outside of the gay bar has been a significant part of their recovery process.

Anita Rao
Finding safe sober spaces can also be part of that process. There are Facebook groups and Instagram pages specifically for sober queer folks. And some, like the Chicago-based Queer Sober Social, have hosted online events that anyone can Zoom into. For J.Nicole, finding sober spaces where she can be in community with other Black women has been a big part of her recovery journey. She found one more recently in the Sober Black Girls Club: an online community that provides support and resources to Black women, femmes and gender nonconforming people. J.Nicole and the club's founder Khadi now cohost the "Sober Black Girls Club" podcast together.

J.Nicole Jones
It has been amazing, and I have to say, shout out to Khadi for creating the Sober Black Girls Club at a time where, I think, a lot of us in 2020 needed that. And needed that online space where we could feel seen, you could feel heard, you could feel comforted. But I admire her ability to create something that is nonconforming and allowing people that freedom to feel their way through it with other people who are kind of doing the same thing. The podcast, we went into it saying, hey, we wanted to try to have as much fun with it as you can when it comes to sobriety, because — let's be honest — a lot of the topics are quite heavy. But what we've learned is just sharing our story is what brings the community together. Because, being honest and transparent has made so many people feel like, "Wow, I can do this, they've done that." It has been a really big thing because, like I said before, some of the other sober avenues or processes or treatments that are out there, you don't really see a lot of Black people in them. And so being able to create this podcast has been one of the best things that I've ever been a part of.

Anita Rao
Being honest with yourself, finding support, community and a space to process are all parts of the sobriety journey. But if you're newly sober and feeling lost, this is what Tawny and J.Nicole would advise.

Tawny Lara
I think it's important to not compare your relationship with alcohol to someone else's relationship with alcohol. That was something that kept me drinking a lot longer than I should have. I compared my drinking to what someone with a drinking problem looks like on TV. I compared my drinking to friends, like, "Oh, at least I'm not drinking that much, or at least I'm not doing this when I drink." And when you compare your relationship with alcohol to someone else's, you're not seeing it for what it actually is, and you're not able to truly examine it.

Anita Rao
How about you, J.Nicole?

J.Nicole Jones
I would say be true to yourself, and absolutely take it one day at a time. Like, I thought that people were just saying this AA jargon to me early on, like, "One day at a time. Keep it simple, stupid." But in reality, you really have to live by that, because you're constantly making a decision. It's not just one decision. You're gonna have to make that decision every single day to stay on this path. And I would definitely say to be curious about what is maybe playing a role in this drinking — whatever your drinking situation looks like for you. And I would definitely advise them to seek a therapist or mental health professional to help you work through that. Do not rely on your friends or family members, like, kind of go all in and do this in tandem. Because if you don't do the inner work, I, just, am concerned on the longevity for the sobriety aspect of it. And maybe that's — for some people, maybe it's AA, maybe it's different things like that. But I do think that trying to do it solely on your own and not getting to the root of what's really going on could be detrimental.

Anita Rao
There's so much that is going to stick with me from this conversation. But two things I'll certainly keep front of mind the next time I'm at a bar or going out with friends, are the benefits of inviting in a little more curiosity into my own relationship with alcohol. And the reminder to keep my eyes on my own cup. Unless, of course, you want to talk with me about your thoughts on alcohol after listening to this episode of Embodied. And, in that case, I'm game.

Embodied is production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

This episode was produced by Kaia Findlay. Audrey Smith also produces for our show, Amanda Magnus is our editor, Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

If you enjoyed this show, leave us a star rating and review on Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listened to this episode. It really helps new folks find our show. Thanks so much to David, Cara, Chelsea and Madison for contributing their experiences to the conversation.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao, taking on the taboo with you.

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