The College Party That’s Actually Sober

party-sober-2I drank plenty in college. Now I have two kids in college, a freshman and a senior, and I know they are doing the same. Rite of passage, way to unwind, liquid courage, social bonding–whatever the reason, legal or not, there is plenty of boozing taking place on college campuses across the country. Hard to believe but not everyone wants to get drunk in college.

When I read “Not the Usual Party (This One’s Sober),” by Jennifer Conlin, in last Sunday’s New York Times, I was relieved to discover that there are a growing number of college groups offering alternatives for kids who want to be and stay sober. There are, writes Conlin, 135 Collegiate Recovery communities on campuses in the U.S, and “While they vary in size from small student-run organizations to large embedded university programs, the aim is the same: to help students stay sober while also thriving in college.”

At places like University of Michigan, Texas Tech and Rutgers University, students can have access to substance-free living, lounges, parties, sober tailgates, dance parties, study groups and a trip with recovery students from other colleges called “Clean Break.” Drinking and college may be historically synonymous–now’s the time to think out of the box.


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One Step at a Time: One Year Sober

“One Step at a Time” is a series of original essays by writer and mom Patty N.  who has been chronicling her first year of sobriety.

by Patty N.

The day after tomorrow, my handy 12-Step iPhone app – the one with the sobriety calculator that I compulsively check every day – will finally read, “You’ve been sober for one year / 12 months / 365 days / 8,760 hours.”  Yes!

Needless to say, I will not be celebrating with champagne, like I did after drying out in 2008.  That was the year I set out to prove to myself that I wasn’t an alcoholic. So I quit drinking – except at my 25th high school reunion when, in my whiskey-impaired state, I got into a car driven by an inebriated classmate and, thankfully, didn’t die on the way to Denny’s.  I also drank on New Year’s Eve and blacked out after only a few glasses of champagne.  Then there were the prescription drugs – which I took not exactly as prescribed but, hey, at least they weren’t alcohol.

After my year “on the wagon,” I bought myself a big bottle of bubbly and picked up where I left off.  But it became very clear, very fast, that I shouldn’t drink and that I couldn’t stop.  Embarrassed and ashamed, I started counting days in AA.  At first, I felt like I was being punished. I’m the good kid, the hard worker, the hands-on mom, I thought to myself.  How did I end up here?  And, every time I said, “My name is Patty and I’m an alcoholic,” I would think to myself, But I quit for a year! I didn’t drink everyday! I was high-functioning! I can’t be an alcoholic!”

Slowly, though, the veil of self-criticism and harsh judgement receded and a gentle, clear-headed, self-compassion took its place.  I started wondering:  Would I hate myself for having asthma?  Would I attack myself if I had diabetes? Would I be terrified of running into someone I knew at the dentist office if I had gingivitis?  No!!  So why didn’t I view my alcoholism in the same, straightforward manner?  As Dr. Drew says (I can’t help it, I love him), alcoholism is about chemistry, not character. So why would I be ashamed about a condition over which I have no control?

Looking back, I’ve spent a lot of time this year regretting the past and, oftentimes, wishing to shut the door on it.  I realize that’s part of the process. But as I mark this significant milestone, I’d like to quit mourning my old life and start celebrating my new one.  On Sunday, I will go to my regular AA meeting and announce that I have one year of continuous sobriety.  I’ll collect my special anniversary coin and an amazing group of people, whose last names I may never know, will greet me with applause and hugs and flowers from the corner deli.  And I will call myself an alcoholic, without reservation, without judgement, without shame, and with enough strength to finally bust through that cocoon of self-hatred and fly like a beautiful liberated butterfly.


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Interview with an 80-year-old woman alcoholic: Sober for almost 35 years…

desiderataList some words that describe you…

Artist, grandmother, ultra-liberal, health-conscious vegetarian, lover of nature, immigrant.

How old were you when you had your first drink?

I was in my early twenties, I was working as a children’s nurse at a hospital in the city. People smoked and drank. I did it, too.

What was your favorite drink?

I was never really hot for drinking. The only time I liked to drink was when I was on vacation with my girlfriends–we drank a lot of wine and other stuff in Greece and Spain, and I got a taste for it.

Did your parents or siblings drink?

My older brother drank (I am the youngest of 5). My other brother drank only on special occasions. Not my sisters or my mother. In those days (Europe in the 1940s and 50s) it wasn’t fashionable for women to drink. Men and boys drank, but mostly on special occasions, and at dances. I don’t know if my father drank. [He left the family when she was one.]

Was there alcoholism in your family?

According to a family tree that my oldest brother researched and made, one guy a long, long time ago was put in jail for drunken behavior. I have a picture of my father, in a Teetotaler’s Club.

When did your drinking cross a line? Were you aware that you had crossed a line?

In my early 40s. I had been socially drinking before then. I bought a gallon of wine and I drank all day long. I always had liquor in the house, mostly wine–Ernest & Julio Gallo was my favorite–because it was cheaper, and I thought wine wasn’t so bad.

Did anyone notice you were drinking too much?

My husband was nice, but he said things. Some of my friends noticed. Once, on vacation,  [the husband of a friend] said, “You don’t have to drink everything there is.” I guess I drank all the beer in the house. He bawled me out, and it was traumatic.

How was it raising two kids while drinking?

Miraculously, I could function–I don’t remember who made breakfast, or who made the lunches, but I always had dinner on the table.

What was the low point?

We went to Mexico City with our two children and stayed with a friend who had a huge property, like the Garden of Eden, surrounded by a high wall. I got so upset because there was a flood, and I felt like the Garden of Eden was being lost, so I drank myself into oblivion, and ended up in bed. In Mexico, I drank from beginning to end. When we came home, my husband said, “You have to do something about your drinking.” I got scared when he got serious. It’s hard even to think straight when you’re drunk all the time.

How did you get sober?

I was detoxed in a hospital. A lot of people do it themselves. I was in the care of a doctor, and I was in the hospital for at least a week, and then I went to a group for a long time, a therapy group run by this doctor, who was also a psychiatrist and a [recovered] alcoholic. He was the right guy for me. I also went to AA at least twice a week. I made all my friends there. I went to AA for many, many years–20 to 25 years.

Do you have any advice to someone trying to stay sober?

In my case, I had to think about something that could replace the drinking. I was still smoking. Stopping smoking [some years later] was extremely hard.

What helped you the most?

My husband was supportive. He stopped drinking. We had no liquor in the house. If we’d had liquor in the house, I know for sure I couldn’t have made it.

What’s the best part about being sober?

Everything. I was amazed at how I felt in my head. Before, my head felt heavy, like I had cottonballs in it. After I stopped drinking, I got so light; it felt great.

Did you ever have a relapse?


Is there anything you miss about drinking?

Nothing. Sometimes, when I see people drink a little wine for dinner, I wish I could have that, but I put it far away from me. I know it’s untouchable. If I were to start drinking today, I would go back immediately to my dependence.

What’s your view of AA?

It’s great. It saved my life. If I were ever tempted, I’d go back.

Do you have a favorite quote or book or inspiration that has helped you through the years?

When I was in AA, somebody gave me a poem called “Desiderata.” When you drink, you have a lot of self doubt and guilt. It’s a three-fold illness: spiritual, emotional and physical. The poem helped because it says you shouldn’t compare yourself with others, and everybody has a right to be here on earth. Everybody who is born has a right. “The Big Book” from AA and the Twelve Steps helped very much, too. “The Big Book” helps, because it has drinking stories in it.


Will a Slap in the Face Sober You Up, and Other Alcohol Myths Explored

mythbusters-breathalyzer-frame-04Will a slap in the face sober you up? How about exercise? Or a cold plunge? Does coffee really help reverse the effects of a bender? Last night’s Mythbusters featured an hilarious segment on urban myths about alcohol.

The funniest part of the episode was realizing how painful it is to get drunk when you HAVE to.  Adam and Jamie lined up the shots, and gulped them down. “Almost like medicine,” one of them said.

To test their myths, before they got drunk, Adam and Jamie performed a standard coordination test that involved tracing a maze-like line. They measured both their accuracy and their speed. They also blew into a breathalyzer to analyze the alcohol content in their bloodstream.

Can you guess which two urban myths were plausible, and which were not, according to Adam and Jamie’s findings?

Even though running on a treadmill almost killed Adam (see You Tube video here), they found that exercise sobered them up. The other thing that worked? A slap in the face!

Coffee and an icy face-plunge were shown to be myths.

But as they say on the show–don’t try this at home! That treadmill fall looked painful, and I almost got ill watching them pound the shots.

If you want to test your knowledge of more urban myths about alcohol, Mythbusters has a series of fun questions on their site. (They also did a beer goggles myth busting test, and found beer goggles to be plausible, but their test didn’t seem too scientifically sound to me, although I’m sure plenty of anecdotal evidence supports the urban myth that the more you drink, the more attractive you find the opposite sex).


Getting My Mother Sober

russian_family_at_the_feast_tableBy Erin St. John Kelly

Late in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, my mother arrived at my house for dinner holding on hard to my stepfather’s arm, sporting a fresh, scabby shiner.

She’d managed to fall up the stairs, slamming into the baluster of her staircase the night before. I nudged her towards a chair in my little kitchen as efficiently and subtly as I could, hoping to minimize her mobility and the possibility of another accident.

My mother sat at the head of the table, having a slur of a rant to no one in particular. Among my assembled friends and family, one of my sisters and her daughter sat quietly leaking tears at their places. My eldest daughter left the table after a short while and the rest of the children followed her. Their grandmother was scaring them during the appetizer and they opted for crackers and cheese in the next room instead. She was impenetrable, only vaguely resembling the person they’d known as their grandmother.

My brother James had died earlier that year. It was sudden, out of the blue, and far, far away from my mother’s bucolic college town. She hadn’t been able to say goodbye. She hadn’t seen his body. After he died she lamented that she never should have let him go. As if he’d asked, and as if he would have obeyed. She couldn’t relate to the distant place he’d died except through the story of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” because they too had died in Tupiza, Bolivia. James wasn’t robbing banks and he didn’t die in a shoot-out. He and his wife were backpacking around the world, doing good works, before they would settle down to raise a family. He died of altitude sickness in an Andean emergency room that had no oxygen mask. He came home as a box of ashes.

My mother was raised on an apple farm in Southern Quebec, the middle child of seven girls. She was the first ever in her family to go to college. She survived a bout with breast cancer, a stint in women’s prison for civil disobedience, and Woodstock in the rain, but it was her despair from James’ death that triggered her descent into raging alcoholism.

My mother was so drunk she smelled. She wore the same sweatpants and sweatshirt day in and day out. She had once loved a martini – we called them garbage-tinis because she’d pretend it was good for her by adorning it with limp, brown vegetables culled from the drawers of the fridge, creating a stinky salad in a fancy glass. Now she was pared right down to gin, in a coffee mug, while lying in bed.

My mother has read all of Proust.  She has probably spent more time immersed in the matters of Congress, albeit via C-SPAN, than have most actual Members. As a matter of course, three televisions and at least one radio were on at all times, and two or three daily newspapers were ingested. When we were growing up she took us to rock concerts, peace rallies and hitchhiking through the Yukon.

Then, a cacophonous slide into nothing. The televisions were all on but she didn’t care about what was happening on them. She didn’t know what time of day it was– it was irrelevant. She was either in a rage, or on the verge of one.  She complained that she didn’t hear from us, her children, enough. We did call, but she didn’t remember having spoken to us. One winter my eight-year-old daughter realized that my mother was surprised to see her every time she walked past.  She said to me, “Mom, I am worried about Granny’s memory.”  Mom had provided me a tremendous opportunity to explain the nexus of martinis, mourning and memory.

My five remaining siblings and I felt helpless for more than a year to address her drinking, except among each other.  His death brought the revelation that the family had depended on James, the middle child, to be our emotional and cultural center. Now we had lost him, and it. He was so steadfast, earnest and good. He signed off all his emails from abroad with this Mark Twain quote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

James was also a worry-wort. Be it concern for the global state of humanity or trying to eat healthier, he was on it. No one hated my mother’s drinking like James had.

I hadn’t planned to confront Mom for everyone’s Easter dinner.  I had planned to serve a specially ordered ham instead. I had been rolling around the need to deal with her in my mind, but hadn’t been able to form a real plan of how and when to do it. Turns out, there’s no good time for an intervention with your mother.

It started by accident. I sat next to her and suggested she eat something every now and again, maybe even drink a glass of water. I offered to get her one. She mumbled that she couldn’t, that I just didn’t understand how it felt to be her. She dropped the sickening bomb I knew she had, but didn’t think I had it in me to withstand. She didn’t save it up. It came out fast. “You haven’t lost a child,” she moaned. And everything froze.  All the chopping, washing, table-setting and chat ceased.

My voice shook and I paused. Then I continued, motivated by the eternal regret and sorrow that I’d experience if I let her die without trying to make her stop, just once.

“You haven’t lost a child.” It was what I feared she would say. I felt almost guilty for not having a dead child myself. That without one, I had no understanding and therefore no grounds to complain. “No, I haven’t,” I said. Then it came to me why I could confront her. “But I have lost a brother. And now I am losing my mother. And my children are losing their grandmother.” There was more that just tumbled out, but I can no longer remember what else I said. My mother sat quietly waiting for me to finish. “Well, dear, Mommy loves you very much, but now she has to go,” she said, as she put her hand on my shoulder to raise herself up from the table.

I know that it is completely irrational to feel like James’ death was a personal failure of mine, but there it is. I did. As the oldest child I had always felt a conflicted mix of power and responsibility. I fixed things. I adjudicated. I felt I had failed everyone by not bringing him back from Bolivia alive. At the funeral home in La Paz, I saw him for the last time through the glass window of a little blue coffin.  His shoulders were cramped against the wooden walls of a box built for a small Andean native – the biggest coffin his wife was able to find. I am haunted by his face with his lips pursed in the way they looked before he was going to say something that mattered to him. I couldn’t be so weak as to fail him and the family again, by letting Mom die a drunk.

At my desk on Monday, I wrote my mother an email to restate in print what I’d said at Easter dinner – I was afraid that my spoken words wouldn’t stick. I didn’t know how else to try to get through. I hoped that she would be able to process it, staring at the screen in her own time. In my email I begged her to stop, to take some pity on us – the survivors – her children and her grandchildren. Must we watch her kill herself? And then I typed what I had been unable to say: was the death of one of us worth more than the other five of us alive?

I sent a copy of my email to my siblings right after sending it to my mother. I wanted them to be aware of what I’d done, the possible horrors I’d unleashed. I waited with a panicky, shiny sense of dread for reaction – from them and from her.

Two days later, I was sitting at my desk when an email gently floated across my computer screen that simply said, “You’re right. I quit.” Oh my God, it’s a suicide note I thought, and I dialed the phone, to see if I could stop her or if it was too late. There she was on the other end of the phone. I was at work so I couldn’t say much except, “Really? What can I do to help?”

I thought rehab. “Let me try it my way,” my mother said. “If that doesn’t work then I promise to do it your way,” she said. She and my stepfather joined AA.

It’s been more than a year. She showers. She drinks seltzer and fruit juice spritzers in wine glasses. She goes to weekly AA meetings. A former reporter, she listens intently to other people’s tales of horror and redemption. And she thanks me all the time for writing the note. “I want to be sober until the day that I die,” she announced last summer. I believe her. My mother is nothing if not a zealous participator, a whole-hearted committer to things. She’s recommenced being her old quirky self, protesting for peace in front of the post office, glutting herself on news and stuffing her grandchildren full of snacks.

And now, even her sense of humor is reviving. On Mother’s Day this year she took me and two of my sisters out for dinner. She explained it was to make up for whatever she’d done wrong during our entire lives. She was practicing an AA step, and we had about an hour. We sipped delicious, unembellished tap water and I asked her what the secret element to her resolve was. “Maternal instinct,” she said. “I don’t want to worry the children. It’s not the way it’s supposed be.”

Erin St. John Kelly is the eldest of the eight children from her parents’ many marriages. She and her husband have two daughters. She has lived in Brooklyn, New York for almost 20 years. The writing she is most proud of has appeared in The New York Times, Gourmet Magazine, Brain Child Magazine and on WBFO, the Buffalo NPR station. This essay originally appeared in “Knowing Pains,” an anthology that is a fundraiser for a breast cancer non-profit (“)