The second time he tried alcohol, at 16, Chris Marshall wrecked his mother's car, racked up a DUI, and landed in jail. That did not scare him sober. Marshall loved how alcohol helped lubricate his social relationships and fortified his sense of belonging. When he entered the University of Texas at San Antonio, he joined a fraternity and only ramped up his drinking.
But gradually, Marshall's alcohol misuse left even his party-hearty fraternity brothers worried.
“It was clear even in that highly intoxicated environment, I was still drinking harder and for different reasons than my friends were,” says Marshall, who grew up in Houston.
When he was 23, Marshall realized that he couldn't quit or even cut back on his own. Luckily he was still covered under his mother's health insurance and could afford alcohol rehab. A perceptive psychiatrist helped Marshall realize that his heavy drinking camouflaged deeper problems: anxiety and depression.
“This was the first time anyone ever said, 'Hey, you're self-medicating'” with alcohol, Marshall says. “All the dots connected.”
Marshall's doctor prescribed several medications for his anxiety, depression, and sleep issues. Over the next 2 years, Marshall not only got sober, but was also able to taper off his prescription drugs.
With hindsight, Marshall now sees that he relied on drinking as a crutch to feel closer to other people and to project a certain identity for himself. “Alcohol is really a social currency,” he says.
James Murphy, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Memphis in Tennessee who studies addictive behaviors, says finding help as Marshall did is key to stemming alcohol misuse.
“Recovery is most likely to be successful when you have lots of support, from professional counselors, friends, support groups, family,” Murphy says.
At the same time, he says, new habits such as therapy, the right medications, and new activities can spark “passion, curiosity, and joy” and help sobriety stick.
Busting the 'Sober Is Boring' Myth
New insights sometimes may help crystallize a path away from alcohol.
Tawny Lara describes her former self as “a party-girl bartender” who, like Marshall, started drinking in her mid-teens. Drugs were part of her scene, too. Now a writer and public speaker who lives in New York City, Lara dallied with sobriety many times before she finally got tired of all the “mental gymnastics” to justify it.
“Every night was essentially the same: binge drinking, emotional meltdowns, fast food at 2 a.m., hungover in the morning,” she says. “Now, my life is full of self-awareness and possibility. I have more time and money to do the things I've always wanted to do.”
Lara's new sober lifestyle also cleared the way to fully embrace her essence: her bisexuality. She gives talks on sober sex and has a book coming out soon.
At first, Lara says, she found sobriety “super awkward. I thought there was a flashing sign above my head that read, 'This Girl Isn't Drinking.'”
The truth is that “most people don't care or pay attention to what other people drink.”
Lara also quickly realized people who asked nosy questions about why she wasn't drinking “tend to have their own hang ups with alcohol.”
“I used to think that sobriety was boring, but now I see that being a party girl was boring,” Lara says.
One key to successful sober living is to map out real-life social scenarios.
“Go to the events with a goal in mind,” Murphy of the University of Memphis says. “If your goal is moderate drinking, have a very specific plan for the amount and type of alcohol you'll consume, and how you'll space your drinks. If your goal is abstinence, remind yourself of why you are making this choice.”
Rehearse how you'll turn down drinks, Murphy says. What alcohol-free beverages will you order? What's your plan if you get hit with a strong craving? It can also help to line up some “safe” people who'll respect your stance.
Also, know you can step away from the party or even leave at any time, Murphy says. “You are under no obligation to tell people why you aren't drinking.”
Lara agrees. “Never compromise your mental health for the sake of going to an event,” she says. “If you're super anxious about a first date or a party where there'll be booze, it's OK to back out or leave early. Anyone who cares about you will understand. Sobriety is about taking care of yourself, not people-pleasing.”
She now loves being sober at big events, such as concerts and weddings. “I actually remember conversations and moments that took place.”
Helping Others to Heal
Marshall grew up in a religious family that didn't use alcohol. In Black culture, medication and mental illness too often are regarded as weaknesses. Overcoming that stigma added to the challenge of Marshall's recovery.
“The hardest part is that in the beginning you may not realize that although your sober life may not feel good right away -- you may feel more anxiety and pain and less joy -- you've chosen a path that will gradually maximize your well-being over time.”
Once he got sober, Marshall became a licensed substance abuse counselor for 8 years. He worked in a detox facility for 18 months.
“I became a 'wounded healer' and became a helper,” he says. Then it dawned on Marshall that the same kind of client kept turning up over and over, with no place to go and no one to hang out with without alcohol.
So in 2017, Marshall opened Sans Bar, an Austin, TX, hangout with only alcohol-free drinks on the menu.
“It's a beautiful thing when people can decide for themselves that they aren't going to partake in alcohol, to celebrate being alive, and make conscious decisions,” he says.
Some companies book happy hour at Sans Bar so people can enjoy the social out-of-office setting, but “no one's saying anything dumb or stupid.” Sans Bar has even gone on tour, with “pop-up” bars from Alaska to New York City.
Useful strategies for people starting on a sober path include breathing techniques and “urge surfing,” a meditation technique for envisioning temptations as waves that you can ride out. Prescription drugs may help curb cravings or dampen the pleasure you get from alcohol.
Marshall believes that full sobriety is a journey as much as a destination. His personal mantra is “as long as you're trying to be incrementally better, you can't fail.”