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Illustration by Alyssa Kiefer

I started experimenting with alcohol when I was 13. Unlike most teenagers who start with beer or wine, I went straight to the hard stuff: vodka. I’d sneak sips out of my mom’s alcohol cupboard, loving the woozy sensation after a couple of gulps.

When I was 14, my grandmother died. And the night before her funeral, I got drunk for the first time. I quickly understood that alcohol was an excellent anesthetic for the intense pain I was feeling.

Unfortunately, getting drunk to avoid difficult emotions became a pattern of behavior that lasted for the next 2 decades. My drunken antics ruined friendships, impacted my work, and, sometimes, made me wonder if life was worth living.

My body is a tapestry of scars from falls I don’t remember.

In January 2017, I visited my doctor to talk about a nasty bout of anxiety and insomnia. He asked about my drinking, and I was honest — I regularly drank to the point of unconsciousness and even had a few drinks before my appointment, because I was scared of confronting my feelings.

He suggested I give alcohol a break for a month to see how I felt. I was exhausted and figured I had nothing to lose. Little did I know that month would turn into another, then 6 months, a year, and the rest of my life.

For me, sobriety means that I’ll never be able to drink alcohol ever again. Moderation and I were never acquainted. Once I started drinking, it was a slippery slope to oblivion.

In 2019, I also gave up medications containing codeine after I recognized I’d become over-reliant on them to deal with gynecological pain. I didn’t view codeine as a “problem,” because it was prescribed. But I became ever more tolerant of and dependent on it.

I recently had major surgery, and my pre- and post-op medication had to be tweaked, so I wouldn’t be given any opiates.

I’m lucky that my medical team understood my situation and went out of their way to find alternatives, so I could manage the pain without fear of relapse

The biggest thing I learned is that getting sober didn’t make me a perfect human. I’m still deeply flawed, but that’s OK. We are all a little bit messed up.

All my friendships changed when I gave up drinking. I was the only one in my immediate friend circle who didn’t drink at first, and that was hard.

In the UK, alcohol is a massive part of our culture. It’s how we bond, how we celebrate, and how we commiserate. Every social function — from baby showers to funerals — is an alcohol-soaked event.

It was hard letting go of alcohol, because it was the longest relationship I’d had — a constant in my life for 20 years. I was letting go of an entire identity, and that was terrifying, because I wasn’t sure who I was without a drink.

In the first year of sobriety, I became socially isolated, because I couldn’t be around people drinking. I didn’t “come out” as sober until I’d celebrated a year without alcohol. I wanted to make sure I was comfortable sharing with the people I loved, then telling my old drinking buddies that I was now abstaining.

I naively thought that my decision to give up drinking was something I only needed to do once. But the decision to stay sober is one I make every day. Every day, I choose the best possible version of life — one with pain, yes, but also one with great joy and love.

Being able to feel all of your emotions is actually pretty great.

Early sobriety can be pretty lonely, but finding other sober people was a lot easier than I thought. Thanks to social media, I connected with people locally and internationally who had very similar stories to me and spoke my language.

It’s so refreshing speaking to people in recovery who “get it.” We have our own lingo, and there’s a lack of judgment when you forge friendships within the recovery community.

We celebrate, not just the significant milestones, but also the days you do something you didn’t think was possible, like buying a bottle of wine for a friend and not drinking it yourself.

I tried Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), because I know it’s helped and saved so many people. But it just wasn’t for me. I work better with science and research-based solutions than ones grounded in spirituality.

I did find myself drawn to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches to my addiction. Combined with mindfulness meditation, it’s helped me control my emotions and learn new coping mechanisms for triggers.

You’re going to feel worse before you feel better. Early sobriety feels like walking around with all your nerve endings exposed, and you’re not going to be able to fix that with a drink. So be prepared to feel all your feelings.

Strap in — it’s going to be a wild ride.

Catherine Renton is a UK-based freelance writer for Elle, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29 and others. She specializes in content around health, sobriety, relationships and culture.