My First Sober Holiday Season Was Anything but Merry

Molly Torian
Molly Torian

For better or for worse, January always carries with it the promise of a fresh start. And for many people, it feels like a good time to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol. The holiday season is more steeped in booze than we often realize: parties, gifts, Champagne-swilling traditions. It makes sense, then, that this is the month many people choose to step back and reasses.

If you're taking part in Dry January or are just interested in taking a deeper look at all the ways in which our culture has become enmeshed in drinking, Sarah Levy's new autobiography-social critique "Drinking Games: A Memoir" is for you. Out today, the darkly funny "Drinking Games" follows Levy as she discovers her relationship with alcohol has spiraled into something harmful and scary — even though from the outside, her life seems to be perfectly on track. Levy also speaks honestly about the ups and downs of stopping drinking in a world that sometimes seems to revolve around alcohol. The following excerpt is adapted from chapter 11, entitled "'Tis the Season to Be Drunk."

According to my dog's trainer, January 1 and July 5 are the most populated days of the year at animal shelters. The crowds consist of worried owners searching for their pets, scared dogs who ran away during festive fireworks the night before. I relate to those dogs.

Holiday noise always sent me running. From myself, from my life, from the reminder that another year had come and gone, and I was in the exact same place. I was single and aimless and these festivities were an excuse to escape wrapped in a bow. I drank spiked cider and mulled wine at winter holiday parties, mystery punch at Halloween mixers, and red, white, and blue Jell-O shots at Fourth of July barbecues.

Celebration absolved me from the rules of consumption. I feigned enthusiasm about the holidays, but a single refrain—more—ran through my head. More drinks, more parties, more justification for an entire month of hangovers. I smudged lipstick on cocktail napkins and strangers' collars, slurring my plea. Let's go to another bar, let's take one more shot, let's stay out all night. It's only (insert holiday here) once a year.

* * *

The year I moved to New York City I lived in an apartment on top of a bagel store and across the street from a Duane Reade. My Midtown West zip code lacked charm, but it was within walking distance from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. I took the long way home most nights that winter, letting myself be carried by the throngs of tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the holiday tree. New York was lonely, and that tree felt like a place of worship: a safe space for lost souls. I stood silently, transfixed by the spruce, taking a respectful, blurry picture every time I visited. I hoped I was absorbing whatever Christmas magic lingered in the air, charged holiday particles that might imbue me with an elf-like dose of cheer.

Cheer came in the form of SantaCon, a "holiday" primarily observed by recent college graduates in cities across the country. In New York, the festivities typically started in Murray Hill or Lower East Side apartment pre-parties before spilling into the streets. Technically, SantaCon is a holiday-themed bar crawl. In practice, it's an excuse for twenty-somethings to drink heavily at 11:00 am in Santa suits.

In retrospect, I understand that SantaCon is embarrassing and awful. It's a day New Yorkers dread, a sloppy assault on city sidewalks and subways. But at twenty-two, I was excited. It had been two months since Halloween, the last time I had been given an excuse to devote an entire day to drinking in a disguise. I ordered my Santa suit online and made plans to get ready with friends.

It was 8:30 am when we began to pour ourselves screwdrivers, mimosas, Baileys Irish Cream. As always, the alcohol had an enhancing effect. My blemishes were erased, my boots were unscuffed, my teeth were whitened. I inspected a picture of myself on my iPhone, illuminated in a sea of red Santas, and thought I had never looked prettier.

By 11:00 am, we started to take vodka shots. Holiday music swelled. Our hugs were getting longer, our smiles loopier, our bodies looser. We were so happy to see each other, we slurred, and we meant it. By 2:00 pm I blacked out.

* * *

The idea of a sober holiday sounded anything but merry.

For my first sober Christmas, my work was gearing up for a big holiday party. One of the founders at my startup had decided the goal was to get everyone drunk. He was thoughtful in his approach. I think, he explained as we walked to get coffee one winter afternoon, it's important for me to drink the most so I can lead by example. This way no one will feel uncomfortable letting loose.

The night of the party, I watched as my coworkers morphed from affable employees into party animals, hitting the makeshift dance floor in our basement office with the kind of gusto reserved for raves. When the co-founders made their way into the middle of the room with a bottle of tequila and began pouring it into employees' mouths, I pretended they'd already served me. I left early; when I walked outside, it had started to snow.

The next day, a friend texted to see how the party was. It was objectively not fun, and I hid in the bathroom multiple times. But I am so happy I'm not hungover today. It wasn't much, but it was enough.

In the movies, the holiday season is a time to tell the truth, fall in love, and make out in the snow. I spent my first sober holiday season watching movies with my parents and cousins, eating cheese, and avoiding parties. The thought of standing in the middle of a room, stone-cold sober, while people coupled up to kiss at midnight around me was too unpleasant to imagine. I rang in that new year clinging to my sobriety and with very little holiday cheer to spare. There were some experiences I found surprisingly fun when I was newly sober: dancing, concerts, vacations. The holidays were not one of them. But that wouldn't always be the case.

* * *

My first SantaCon didn't end as splendidly as it started. When I came out of my blackout, I was lying on my friend Sarah's couch, still wearing my Santa suit. It had gotten dark outside, and people had ordered food. I found a half-eaten Chipotle bowl at my feet when I got up to leave.

I tried to hail a cab, but drivers swerved to avoid me, a still-drunk Santa with a purse. I walked for twenty blocks until I realized I was in Times Square. The sight of the bright lights suddenly sent my stomach lurching: I tumbled into a trash can and promptly threw up. Elmo bumped into me as he moved to take pictures with tourists.

I replayed this memory during my first two sober holiday seasons whenever the urge to chug mulled wine started creeping in. I wanted to be the girl who sipped on Christmas cocktails underneath the mistletoe, but my old holiday stories bore a simple lesson. My drinking was never cute, and no amount of tinsel would change that.

Once I stopped idealizing boozy festivities, I realized my circumstances could only improve without alcohol. When I started dating someone in my second year sober, we spent Halloween together watching scary movies and eating mini candy bars. I was surprised to find it was one of the most fun Halloweens I had had in years.

Holidays sans booze continued to get more fun as I became more comfortable with myself. The desire to escape and disguise started to dissipate and made room for tiny moments of joy. They weren't the over-the-top celebratory variety I had always strived to create when I was drinking; these were simpler. I leaned into childhood traditions like putting out pumpkins in the fall, lighting the menorah at Hanukkah, and watching Frosty the Snowman.

On my third sober New Year's, I woke up on a Caribbean island with my boyfriend. I slipped out of bed as he slept and walked down to the ocean. The night before, we had celebrated the new year by eating mini hamburgers, blowing on noisemakers, and dancing until midnight. As the waves lapped at my feet, I smiled with the memory of how my heels had started to hurt the night before. I could still feel my toes aching. Someone had spilled a drink on my purse, and my bag still smelled vaguely like rum. In the pictures I looked a little sweaty, my hair frizzy, my smile lazy. But I remembered and felt it all, every tiny detail. I didn't want to lose myself in a crowd or hide behind a costume. This, I decided, must be holiday cheer.

From "Drinking Games" by Sarah Levy. Copyright © 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Publishing Group.