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My Chosen Sobriety: What It's Like to Give Up Alcohol Due to Illness

I didn’t always order a Shirley Temple or soda during Happy Hour, but I do now. I used to sip on a vodka and cranberry juice, joking with my friends that it was a healthy choice because cranberry juice is supposed to be good for the kidneys. But at 31 my life changed and sobriety became a choice I had to make for my health.

At 30, I had finally come into my working adulthood. And by working adulthood, I mean I was finally able to enjoy Happy Hour after work. I finally had enough money to splurge for the good vodka too, the kind you dream about just after your 21st birthday. I enjoyed the time after work to sit socializing like I would see on TV shows. It just seemed so “adult” to me – like my 30s were going the way they were supposed to go. But during my 30th year of life, I began to notice I had more aches and pains than usual and I was also exhausted after work. I blamed it on age, but I now know rheumatoid arthritis was lurking.

At 31, I was formally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. My diagnosis and the months leading up to it are a whole other story; but at 31, I finally had a diagnosis and an appointment with a specialist. I should add that I had no idea what rheumatoid arthritis was when I was first diagnosed and I made the mistake of thinking it was my grandmother’s arthritis. My family doctor tried to explain it to me, but I was certain I would take some sort of a pill and be all better and back to living my adult life. Those of you reading this who have RA know my thinking was certainly naïve. With my first rheumatologist appointment six weeks away, I enjoyed Happy Hour a couple more times but began to notice an increase in pain that followed each of those outings.

The day came to meet with the rheumatologist and discuss a treatment plan. As many RA patients, I started on a medication called methotrexate immediately. This doctor was not open to a lot of questions and dictated treatment to me. He explained to me that with the treatment plan he was prescribing alcohol would have to be avoided. At that point in my diagnosis I didn’t really care about anything more than “how long is it going to take these pills to work?” But I do remember telling the doctor that after Happy Hour I experienced a lot of joint pain. He explained that in some patients alcohol is a pain/inflammation trigger.

What I did not count on was the response I would receive to my newfound sobriety: sobriety by choice. Please don’t get the wrong idea that my whole life was wrapped up in Happy Hour because it certainly wasn’t a college frat party. I was 31, living in a metropolitan city and working in a professional office. A couple of times a month we would walk somewhere after work to vent about something that had happened recently at work. The first Happy Hour after diagnosis was awkward. I whispered to the bartender, “I’ll have a Shirley Temple.” He couldn’t hear me and asked me again, “What can I get you?” To speak over the noise at the restaurant, it felt like I had to make an announcement over a loudspeaker when I said for a second time, “I’ll have a Shirley Temple.” At that moment I felt like the elephant in the room. I was forced to share my new diagnosis and treatment.

My first year of chosen sobriety was the toughest. I felt as though I made others uncomfortable when I ordered sodas or virgin drinks, and so I cracked jokes to ease the tension. When ordering I would say things like “I am the designated driver today.” I really wanted nothing more than to follow the best treatment plan I could to give my body a fighting chance at better health. When navigating a new diagnosis this patient was still learning her new normal and was willing to do absolutely anything she could to ease physical pain. I started to notice invites out didn’t come as often and my new diagnosis had completely changed my social life.

Chosen sobriety is not congratulated, and truthfully, it makes one odd in others’ eyes. At least that is my experience. I want to be careful to note that my sobriety was chosen – I could have cheated and never told my doctor and risked injury to my liver and kidneys, but I am not one to play with fire. Also, I have seen loved ones experience the disease of addiction and sobriety for these warriors should absolutely be congratulated. They should celebrate their milestones and birthdays. And I am not asking for the same response to my chosen sobriety, but it would be nice not to be pressured into alcohol when out. It has happened multiple times while out that I am asked what I will have to drink. When I reply, “I’ll take a coke,” the response I get is “Are you sure? We have red wine, white wine, beer…” Even after stating, “I take medicine so I can’t drink,” I am pressured with people saying, “Well, one won’t hurt you.”

It has now been eight and a half years of my chosen sobriety. Honestly, I miss Happy Hours and being invited to events. I think what people don’t understand is that my chosen sobriety doesn’t mean I no longer want to be social or that I am judging others’ behavior. My chosen sobriety is just that – a choice I have made to take the best path I can to preserve the little health I have. For many RA patients, medications cause liver damage and kidney damage even without introducing alcohol into diet. I feel very grateful that is a challenge I have yet to face.

I have found that lunches out with co-workers prove just as rewarding for venting as Happy Hours. Also, I am saving money since that good vodka I could afford at 30 also carried a good vodka price tag. So if you are reading this and you have chosen sobriety as well, let me congratulate you. I know you have also found alternative social outings with friends: coffee, lunch, movies. But, if you are a friend of a patient who has chosen sobriety, let me encourage you to continue to invite them out. Their chosen sobriety is not awkward for them, but the awkwardness comes when attention is brought to him or her by not including them in outings.

Now, who wants to help me complete my bucket list adventure of going to the Below Zero bar in Las Vegas? It is a two-drink minimum. I’ll pay for the drinks, you just need to drink them for me.

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Thinkstock photo via monkeybusinessimages.