On the morning of New Year’s Day in 2019, I sat alone by a swimming pool in South Florida. My friends and family slept or nursed hangovers. I, however, had quit drinking alcohol. Yet, instead of being happy and headache-free, I felt cranky. Holidays tested my willpower. To be honest, I wanted to drink many mimosas.
My current sobriety attempt started after a bad night involving a reggae concert, too many double-vodka-tonics, a knee injury, and puking in an Uber. When I drank and I blacked out—but still, I struggled to stay sober. I would log two or three weeks alcohol-free, then decide it was stupid to quit. I’d give up and drink again. This cycle repeated for years.
Then finally, something changed on that New Year’s Day morning.
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Restless by the pool, I opened my phone to look for a book to read in order to take my mind off mimosas. The first recommendation popped up: This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, and Change Your Life by Annie Grace. The timing was too synchronistic to ignore. Had all the “Am I an alcoholic?” online quizzes given me away? Did Amazon know me better than I knew myself?
I thought, if you still want a mimosa after finishing this book, then you can have one.
Selecting the audiobook version, I clicked play. The author, Annie Grace, explained in a calm voice how alcohol addiction functioned, that with enough drinking, everyone will become addicted to alcohol. She described the terrible things alcohol did to your brain and body. I was hooked.
By the end of the book, I wanted to stay sober forever. Mimosas canceled.
And so, I decided that whenever I craved a drink, I would read instead. It worked once, it would work again. Unable to do anything in moderation, I set a goal to finish one book per week. Like every idea, someone on the internet has already done it and made a hashtag. I found the #52BookChallenge and saddled up my Instagram to follow others doing the same thing.
Next, I burned through Russel Brand’s audiobook, Recovery: Freedom from Our Addictions, listening in the car, while folding laundry, and on walks. I related to many of Brand’s addictions—alcohol, social media, ice cream, chocolates. Then I read Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola, nodding as she described her struggles with blackouts.
These books offered me a low-risk entry point to the recovery world. I listened to the experiences of others without the anxiety of going to meetings or sharing my story. I plowed through several more recovery memoirs, like Girl Walks Out of a Bar by Lisa F. Smith, and Nothing Good Can Come from This by Kristi Coulter.
While reading in early sobriety was not always easy and post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS) from alcohol at times made my brain feel like soup, here is what helped me stick with it.
1. Ease-in with audiobooks.
Gone are the days of CD boxed sets and bulky books-on-tape. Reading audiobooks is as effortless as listening to a podcast. There are also free apps, like Libby, that play audiobooks from your public library. Often, the authors, or sometimes famous actors, read the books themselves, which adds to the entertainment value and flare.
2. Read different genres.
Instead of the liquor store, I hit the library and sampled different genres. If you are not enjoying the books you think you should read, then stop reading them. Try some top-rated books in a bunch of genres. If bestsellers do not appeal to you, test out different genres for free on Wattpad. With Wattpad, you can also leave comments and interact with authors.
3. Share your intentions.
Set a reading goal and tell at least one person about your goal. A couple of books in, I started doing my own Instagram posts about the #52BookChallenge, mostly to hold myself accountable. I shared my goal and posted brief reviews of books I finished. This outed me as someone with a recovery-book habit, which lead to great online conversations. These exchanges helped me to be more comfortable talking about sobriety in real life.
4. Short is sweet.
Not every book needs to be War and Peace. In between addiction memoirs, I tried young adult novels, a comic book, novellas, and a poetry chapbook. I loved reading the YA classic, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, written for 4th graders. Other favorites were an eco-sci-fi novella God, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robson, and a poetry book touching on addiction by a former prisoner in West Virginia, Ultra Deep Field by Ace Boggess.
5. Self-help books can really help.
Reading is healing. Without Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind, I might still be drinking every night. In the past, buying a self-help book at a bookstore counter could feel embarrassing. But now with online shopping, no one needs to know. To avoid duds, choose self-help books with loads of positive reviews from critics and readers.
My favorite healing books from this challenge were: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love by Sonya Renee Taylor, The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu by Katja Pantzar, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose and The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, both by Eckhart Tolle, and Lifted: 28 Days to Focus Your Mind, Strengthen Your Body, and Elevate Your Spirit by athlete Holly Rillinger.
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By the 20th book, my intellectual processing speed went from dial-up to 5G. I no longer wanted to take naps mid-chapter. Reading in the evenings became more appealing than watching television. It delighted my partner to find me in the bathtub with a book, instead of passed out on the couch beside empty beer bottles.
Friends also noticed the changes. Seeing my #52Book posts, several asked me how I could read so much. Proud of myself, I would smile and say, “Well, I quit drinking, so I gotta do something with my time!” More than a few confessed to wanting to stop or slow down with alcohol.
To further expand my sober social circle, I joined a recovery book club. We shared stories and read and discussed In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté and The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober by Catherine Gray, as well as more memoirs about addiction, like Lit by Mary Karr and Dry by Augusten Burroughs. I made new friends, and we even took sober group trips.
By the end of the year, I exceeded my #52Book goal, finishing 64 books. More importantly, I did not drink. Reading is as much a part of my life now as alcohol used to be, and I’m grateful to be sober.
Give your brain a gift: Read books. In the era of rapid swiping, click-bait, and 15-second videos, reading an entire book is enchanting, sobriety-fueling magic.