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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Elaine Stritch: “You Can’t Enjoy Them Sober”

ElaineStritchIn the February 2, 2014 issue of The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Elaine Stritch was interviewed by David Itzkoff in a piece called, “You Can’t Enjoy Them Sober.”

In the article, Itzkoff asks Stritch, the nearly 89-year-old actress and subject of a new documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot me,” about her decision to drink again after over 20 years of sobriety.

Itzkoff: You were completely sober for more than 20 years, but you’ve since allowed yourself to drink again.

Stritch: I’m almost 89. I’m gonna have a drink a day or two. I know how to handle it, so there. I’m proud of the fact that I can handle a couple of drinks.

Itzkoff: That’s not at all dangerous?

Stritch: No. I’m not going to have three drinks, I’m not going to have four. I’m going to have two, and that’s it, folks. I just want to enjoy life and relax a little bit and go out with the rich ladies in Birmingham and enjoy them. And you can’t enjoy them sober.


The notion of stopping for all those years and then beginning to drink again is perplexing to me. I’d love to hear from  readers what your thoughts are on the subject and if you think it’s a feasible goal.

To read the complete New York Times interview, click here.

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What Is Emotional Sobriety?

Ingrid Mathieu

by Ingrid Mathieu

What is emotional sobriety? Some might think that it means being “happy, joyous, and free,” a common adage in 12-Step meetings, taken from AA literature. Of course, people like this definition. It means that if they work a good program, they will achieve physical sobriety (abstinence) and become happy in the process.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but this definition puts a lot of recovering people in a tough spot. For example, what does it say about a person’s emotional sobriety if they are having a hard time? What if they are afraid, anxious, sad, angry, confused … the list can go on and on. Does this mean that they aren’t emotionally sober?

I believe that emotional sobriety is less about the quality of the feeling (“good” or “bad”) and more about the general ability to feel one’s feelings. Being restored to sanity isn’t about getting the brass ring—or cash and prizes—or being “happy, joyous, and free” all the time, but it is about being in the present moment, whatever it happens to look like. What are you experiencing right now? And how about now? Can you be present to all of your feelings without any one of them defining you?

Sometimes emotional sobriety is about tolerating what you are feeling. It is about staying sober no matter what you are feeling. It means that you don’t have to blame yourself or your program because life can be challenging. It means that you don’t necessarily need to do something to make the feeling go away. Many people will take their bad feeling and try to pray it, meditate it, service it, spiritually distract themselves from it, thinking that this means they are working a good program. This experience is actually called spiritual bypass.

John Welwood coined the term spiritual bypass and defined it as “using spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep personal, emotional ‘un-finished business,’ to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to belittle basic needs, feelings, and developmental tasks, all in the name of enlightenment.” The shorthand for spiritual bypass is when a person wears a mask or presents a false spiritual self that represses aspects of that person’s true self. Spiritual bypass involves bolstering our defenses rather than our humility. Bypass involves grasping rather than gratitude, arriving rather than being, avoiding rather than accepting.

I am forever interested in how mind, body, and spirit interact for people in recovery and how the “ism” (alcoholism) is always trying to steal the show. “Ism” doesn’t want you to acknowledge that you are scared, ashamed, lost, or angry. And let’s face it, some people in recovery don’t want you to acknowledge that either. Because then they would have to look at that stuff (and feel it), and they just might not be ready. So spiritual bypass becomes a tool for working a spiritual program that is really in service of controlling obstacles and outcomes. It provides the illusion that the addict can still manage their feelings even though they aren’t using their drug of choice.

In my own spiritual journey, I have experienced spiritual bypass many times. As a defense mechanism, we are all susceptible to this unconscious drive to protect ourselves from our painful realities. And using spirituality as a defense certainly looks a lot better than using drugs or alcohol. But it is a defense mechanism nonetheless and most people in recovery want the ability to access all of their feelings, because being present to what is real is what enables choices, and choices propel people towards their most authentic and fulfilling sober life.

I have spent a great deal of time studying and researching the experience of spiritual bypass in 12-Step recovery. I’ve written a book called Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice that goes into great depth on this topic. Every person in recovery who I have interviewed or worked with in my psychotherapy practice has gained tremendous insight by looking at their own experiences of spiritual bypass and I hope that you will gain similar results. If nothing else, give yourself permission to feel all of your feelings. Know that we don’t have the sort of surgical precision to only feel the feelings that we enjoy. Happiness might be sitting right next to regret, joy might be right next to overwhelmed. That is just the human condition. And experiencing all of our feelings is true emotional sobriety.

Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist and author of Recovering Spirituality: Achieving Emotional Sobriety in Your Spiritual Practice. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook. This post originally appeared on the Psychology Today blog.



Fear of Flying (Sober)

By Melissa Burton

We live in an alcoholic world. Even if you’re a sage of sobriety, it’s incredibly difficult to resist the barrage of alcoholic images that wash over you wherever you turn—from the sexy studs gazing out at you from Budweiser billboards to the sweating glasses of Pinot Grigio  that a waiter traipses across your favorite restaurant. For a recovering alcoholic, images like these are a constant tease. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we go on autopilot when it comes to our cues and responses. Even the mere sight of liquor kicks up my cravings. When I’m at home, the familiar routines of recovery protect me from going off the rails. But when I travel it’s a whole different story. Which is why, for me and many other alcoholics I know, flying can be such a torturous experience.

Take my recent trip from New York to Los Angeles. As soon as I enter the terminal in JFK,  cocktails begin to beckon me as shamelessly as hookers at a Shriner’s Convention. After enduring a half-hour line and a clumsy pat down at security, I sullenly trudge towards my gate, dragging my leaden bag behind me. As I make my way across the airport I pass an endless procession of cheesy bars and lounges. Despite their over-priced drinks and ludicrous decor they seem strangely enticing—a restful oasis amidst all this airport awfulness. Suddenly a familiar voice starts up inside my head,  “Stop, relax, have a quick cocktail!” it whispers. “Does a watered down daiquiri at JFK even count as a real drink?” The flush-faced revelers at the bar all look so happy and content; a stark contrast to the sour dowagers biding their time  at the gate. Is there really any question about where I’d rather be? The serenity I have carefully cultivated during my many years of recovery starts showing cracks, replaced by a panicky craving. I take a series of deep breaths and try to ignore the enticements, keeping my fragile sobriety intact for the moment.

After settling into a cramped seat in the back of the plane, I’m  joined by a frazzled blond in her late twenties who sullenly plumps herself down next to me. As soon as she’s buckled in, she begins frantically stabbing at the flight attendant’s call button, crossing herself as though seated in a pew at St. Patrick’s. When the stewardess finally arrives, she anxiously demands to know how long she has to wait to order some wine. After takeoff, the flight crew begins taking drink orders and dispensing colorful little bottles all around. In no time at all, everyone around me is flying high—the general mood brightens noticeably while mine continues to plummet. Once again I fight off the urge to join in, and resign myself to a long, boring flight, while the blond bimbo blithely sucks downs her fourth bottle of Merlot. Flipping through the channels on my in-flight TV, I stumble on a marathon of back-to-back episodes of Millionaire Matchmaker and spend the next five hours watching hook-ups that all revolve around drinking and bar hopping.  When we land in Los Angeles, I leave the plane with relief and head to the safety of my hotel.  As soon as I check-in, a buff bartender hands me a glass of complimentary wine and brightly informs me that Happy Hour has just kicked off in the lounge.

Cranky and disoriented from my long day of flying, I find it increasingly difficult to deny the magnetic pull that the tacky lounge exudes. I no longer have the strength I did when I began my day—I feel weak and uncertain as I pass the lounge and head upstairs in the elevator. Once I’m safely tucked away in my room, the key to the mini bar key beckons me cruelly.  To avoid tempting fate, I struggle not to open the fridge, only to find a bottle of Merlot prominently placed between the peanut M&M’s and bottled water. How many times in one day do I have to refuse alcohol while I struggle to remain sober?  For a few moments I contemplate.  I remind myself that if you’re trying to curb impulse shopping, you’re supposed to go back and make a few visits over the course of a few days before you make your decision. But how many times does a recovered alcoholic have to “visit” the concept of taking a drink before they are justified in caving in to the urge?

My addict brain wants to scream at every poster and every person who tempted me with a cocktail. I search my mind for some snarky retort to the poor person who innocently offeres me a cocktail. Oftentimes, I think the cards are stacked against me. I get tested over and over again. My next relapse sits patiently waiting for a changing of the guard in my psyche. I berate myself mentally and wonder why I can’t just let it go and get over the controlling voice that keeps urging me me to drink. This is my daily mantra.

For me, staying sober is a daily struggle. My cravings are an ever-present threat that I’m always trying to escape.  As I write this, I close my eyes and taste the warm, full, satiating flavor of a glass of really fine red wine, the soft burn it produces as it slips down my throat, the sweet bouquet that wafts from the glass. And just as quickly as I slip back into my mental love affair with alcohol, I must turn it off and return to my reality.

At tenuous moments like these, I try to remember the disasters that induced me to get sober in the first place. When I finally decided to stop drinking, I was a sad and lonely and desperate person. I was ready to give up.  I have no desire to retreat to that old life. Instead, I  am determined to stay healthy and happy, reconnect with my family and friends, and stop disappointing everyone who cares about me. I try to remember how great it feels to go to bed sober, and to wake up in the morning unabashed and with a clear head. Mornings have always been the best time of the day for me—I have a feeling of strength and growth and gratitude for making it through another day. In fact, a day after my flight, I feel my old self regaining control over the frazzled mess I’d become. I don’t give another thought to alcohol for the rest of my trip.

As I’m constantly reminded, I can only hope for a daily reprieve from this disease. Since nobody can spend their lives free from the lure of alcohol, it’s crucial to build up a core of strength and spirituality that will protect us from life’s inevitable enticements. It’s not always easy, but after some time and practice,  I’ve built up the strength to ignore the mini-bottles of Absolut and the open bars and hotel happy hours. I can fly without getting high. That’s the good news. The bad news is I have to fly to Mexico City next month.

Melissa Burton is the executive director of Loft 107, a sober living center in Brooklyn. This essay originally appeared on The Fix, a website about addiction and recovery.

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The Fiction I No Longer Live

by Jill Talbot

The weekday bartender was asking Jeremy, a regular, if he had had anything to eat as I sat down on the fourth stool at Chili’s bar and opened up a copy of The Great Gatsby.  I was looking for lines spoken by Daisy, when she asks what they’re going to do today and the day after that.  I had alluded to it in my nonfiction writing class a few hours before, urging students to step away from the story and interject a statement, a philosophical pondering. “Open it up; develop it,” I’d suggested, “Make it mean something beyond what happened.”

Fitzgerald was always doing this—dragging his readers into “the dark night of the soul,” where it is “always three o’clock in the morning.”  I asked my students what he might have meant by this three-o’clock-in-the-morning business. Maybe, they suggested, he meant waiting in What-a-burger drive-thru lines.  Or sleeping. One young man confessed to a recent night of walking the streets at that very hour.   Another remembered that Fitzgerald himself was a drunk and guessed it might have been his “coming around” hour.  I liked that one.  Insomnia, a few mentioned.  “Yes,” I said, “Hemingway ends a ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place’:   ‘“After all, many must have it.’”  The eager innocents wanted to know what “it” was—I told them I hoped they never knew.

They pressed, wanted to know if I knew.  I said, “Indeed,” and moved on.  I would not tell them of the nights I drank myself into the wee small hours of the morning in Utah, trading one glass of Chardonnay for another until I passed out, then woke to a glass in my hand, candles across the mantle and on top of the coffee table still flickering, a Dan Abrams re-run on MSNBC.  Nights I astounded myself with my wine stamina, the mornings of opening the front door to check the porch like a crime scene:  empty wine bottles, a glass on the top step, the worst nights evidenced by a glass still full:  a sign that suddenly, I shut down and went inside, where I’d wake, never in my bed, but somewhere else, the couch, the mattress I had lugged into the living room.  The empty bed too empty.

Those were the years I shouted through the evenings, Chardonnay taking me toward or away from the truth:  I had lost love.  Again.  And I knew my drinking to be part of the ruins, so now that I was on my own, I was going to drink, dammit.  A lot.  All day, if I wanted, days that carried over into nights and drinking that started earlier and earlier with each day.

I flipped through the novel’s pages, looking for the blue of my underlines.  Always blue.

That day was a Pinot Noir afternoon for me, and it was my last time in that bar, but I did not know it.  Jeremy was telling me about the latest episode of Robot Chicken as I found Nick Carraway at the end of another chapter, “watching over nothing.”  That afternoon, as Jeremy paid carefully before nodding to me on his way out, I asked the bartender, Angela, his story, and she told me he was a meth addict.   I felt guilty knowing.  This was too private.  This was not control and escape; it was desperation and captivity.  I shifted in my seat, looked around.

I saw that I had traded hiding in my house in the grips of a third bottle of Chardonnay for the blue and brown tiles of a bar.  I no longer had it in me to delve into desperation, allow myself to be captive to the glow from a glass and the thwop of a cork’s release all through the night; no, I drank with others, in public, in the daylight.  Look at me, how well I can control my drinking with an honest glass or four of wine.  But what if I all I had traded was time and place?

Dary plopped down two stools away, ordered her usual, the Grand Patron margarita, a dangerous drink served in a blue, oversized martini glass.  She’d knock back two of those swimming pool-size cocktails instead of a burger or a salad, then head back to work. She told me she fell asleep when she drank wine.  So do I, I thought.  In fact, it’s the only way I can.

I ordered another Pinot, watched a loud man amble into the bar area.  He said two words, “Bud.  Tall,” before Angela could place the requisite coaster in front of him.

Dary told me that she was “way hungover” from closing down the bar on the corner of Washington and Sixth the night before.  I never went to any of the bars in town, afraid to run into my students, fearful of my inability to control myself if given the chance not to control myself.  So, I reserved my drinking for restaurants during the day and my living room at night, but no more than one bottle, no more waking up to burning candles.

The love I had lost so long ago had become something I only wrote about, and even then, I couldn’t separate what I was writing from what I had known. Love had become a fiction, and so had I.  So had my drinking. The story I told myself was that drinking at a bar in a chain restaurant four or five days a week was far from waking up on the floor of my hallway wondering why I’d landed there.

The loud man demanded to know what everyone did for a living.  He broke protocol, as all of us sat, staring ahead in our own private Oklahomas.  But it was Angela’s job to engage him, so she smirked at me and told him I was a writer.

“Yeah?  Hey, that’s really cool.  Did you write that?”  He pointed to Gatsby.  I was polite, said no, understood that the world I lived in had no meaning for him whatsoever.  Honestly, it had little meaning for me.  I was drinking away any meaning my life could have had.

For a while that afternoon, a quiet man sat across the bar over a glass of Pinot Grigio, and I was surprised, convinced I had drained the supply during a recent Thursday’s long afternoon of Grigio and Didion.  A chapter, a glass, and on it went like that until every line I read was blue-underline poignant, and that’s when I knew it was time to go.   Strange, how we create ways to measure our limits.

The man’s name was Peter.  He had broken up with his lover.  Lover said he drank too much.  “But,” Peter said, “we manage our vulnerabilities.”  I grabbed a napkin, wrote that down with my blue pen.

“What’ll we do with ourselves this afternoon,” cried Daisy, “and the day after that, and the next thirty years?”  Not this, I thought.  For two years, I’ve kept that napkin on my writing desk.  For two years, I have not gone to a bar alone to drink.  For two years, I have slept in my bed.

That afternoon, the restaurant empty except for those of us in the bar, I asked for my check, tipped Angela heartily, emptied the end of my Pinot, then tucked the napkin into that novel I had written and walked away.

Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007).  Her work has appeared in journals such as Notre Dame ReviewUnder the SunBlue Mesa ReviewCimarron ReviewSegue, and Ecotone.  She teaches at St. Lawrence University. You can read her Drinking Diaries interview here

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Photo Source 3: Jill Talbot