I never got sober, I just stopped drinking.
This is a distinction I’ve clarified numerous times the past year to friends and dates who brought up sobriety. Friends tell me how “far I’ve come” on my journey. Dates — many of whom were sober — sensitively approached the topic as if hidden trauma lurked just beneath the surface. It doesn’t. I haven’t drunk in more than two years, and substance use in nearly all other ways was never part of my life. But it’s important to know my decision to cease drinking was elective. “Sobriety,” I’ve learned, is a term most often accompanied by a 12-step program or another intervention.
That’s not to say I didn’t struggle. In 2017, I hosted my first event at Midnight Sun in the Castro (4067 18th St.), “A Post-Pride Juicy Peach,” I called it. The bar paid me $50, and I remember 12 free drink tokens. This was a windfall, because, as a financially struggling socialite on the town, booze expenses added up quickly. The drinks were meant for others, but I probably consumed five, and these weren’t vodka cranberries. I asked the bar to mix a special rainbow martini, which had vodka, gin, rum and blue Curacao in it. There are pockets of the night I don’t remember; a friend said we made out. Another friend packed up my car and drove it home with me in it. That was one lucky instance in a sea of unfortunate ones: In subsequent years hosting events there, I sometimes drove home under the influence. I am grateful no one got hurt and that my car permanently broke, preventing me from doing it again.
Other problems arose, but I did not view them as such. My friend and I laughed recently about trips we took to Mexico. We both blacked out in one and I woke up outdoors, my sequin suit blazer and phone missing, and five hotel staffers looking over me with concern. I found my way to the room and dreamed about coughing in the bathroom; my friend woke up to find vomit in the sink. The following year, he got so drunk and threw up all over our room floor. Talking about it to him, I said they were charming brunch anecdotes, but in reality they were serious problems: We both could have easily died choking on our own vomit, and something could have happened to me while I slept outside in a foreign country.
“But I feel I’m not as bad as others,” my friend told me, along with another thing I say and hear: “And I don’t ever drink alone.” Here I see a habit that many people I know partake in: Picking worse offenders as their friends and then congratulating themselves for a job well done for being better. I did it. My friend asked me when substance use becomes a problem; I say, “It is in your hands to decide when it is one for you.”
I never thought I had a problem. I gave up alcohol in 2019 because it felt like an especially popular year to do a New Year’s-resolution sober January. I missed that window, but I did one in February because I felt it’s never too early to cut calories for Pride; also, because I was writing my first book, and I wanted my head to be clear. March came and I started sipping some bubbles at dinner. As a small buzz started to fill my night, I began wondering what really I was getting out of this. I was perfectly happy without the drink, I thought. So I put it down and never went back.
Story’s over! I lived happily ever after.
Just kidding. I also don’t take mood stabilizers, anti-anxiety pills or other behavioral medications. I’ve never snorted cocaine, taken Molly, ecstasy, ketamine, mushrooms, fentanyl, LSD or GHB, done crystal meth or heroin, or even smoked a joint or consumed any marijuana. My life is nearly substance-free, and in that way, the world became excessively harsh without booze.
Three months in, I began remembering issues I struggled with in undergrad: anxiety and depression mainly, but also a litany of self-conscious feelings and paranoid thoughts about what others were saying. Every day became another one I couldn’t ease with a cocktail. I wanted to go back so many times but didn’t, and to my own surprise, it wasn’t the buzz I missed most — it was the flavor of the drink and the ritual of consuming it. I didn’t go back, though, because the haze that followed, the regrets from the night before, and the time it took recuperating in the days that followed became too much to bear.
Social changes likewise abound sans booze: Friends cheered me on, but many no longer invited me out. “We were going to a bar, so we didn’t think you’d want to go,” is something I still often hear. Others order drinks at brunch and wonder if the smell of mimosa will make me relapse. Underneath that, though, is their worry I’m judging them.
Before I stopped drinking, I regularly ran events on substance use and sex practices and invited experts to speak. The first one I titled “Substance Abuse and Unsafe Sex,” prompting many I knew to take a defensive approach and school me on harm reduction models. They called me harsh, judgmental and questioned openly how I could pick a platform on something I’ve never experienced. The gossip spread like wildfire that year, and I lost many friends. Several hardcore nightlife goers still talk, sometimes specifically about my stance on substances, but in other instances about how I’m somehow simply a destructive force to their local community. Now it wasn’t about alcohol or drugs, I was opinionated, fake, duplicitous.
My experiences with alcohol and substances came up recently when I met my editor at San Francisco Examiner. After more than a year and a half, we had never seen each other face-to-face. While sipping coffee and tea at the Westin St. Francis, she asked, “How did you get a cocktail column when you don’t drink?”
“You tell me, your paper gave it to me,” I said with a laugh and a bit of an evil grin. No, I clarified. I had been pitching a former iteration of a mixology series to her bosses probably since 2012. By the time the then-editor-in-chief asked I write a “spirits column” in 2019, I was just so excited we settled on something after years of negotiation, I casually left out the part where I’d stopped drinking.
In the local and national LGBTQ community, I have a combined following of about 10,000 user accounts and email addresses; I do not know who among The Examiner audience knows my drinking status, but my personal audience is well aware. They are happy and proud of my journey but also entertained, and they sometimes ask similarly how I write about cocktails when I don’t drink them.
I do still drink cocktails; I occasionally take tiny sips. Sometimes I don’t, although since thinking about this article, I’ve begun doing it more again for professional purposes of recommending drinks. Bartenders and mixologists have never done me dirty insofar as amazing concoctions, and I consider myself an amateur expert on such things after years parading around town as a professional drinker. It is weird, though. Liquor vendors barrage me with free samples. Bars offer me top-shelf recipes thinking it secures them a positive review, then look at me with confusion when I take photos of the drink and offer it to someone else.
I don’t know that I’ll stop drinking forever. The issue for me is the destructive cycle: one great drink leads to another, then another, then a buzzy haze followed by questionable decisions. The biggest problem is the day after, living in a sleepy fog, eating copious amounts of greasy food and chasing the very next time I plan to drink again and forget it all. If I can reach a point in life where I can enjoy a drink without falling down that rabbit hole, I’d love to have a cocktail again.
I end today with a cucumber mocktail made by Derek Kronin at Top of the Mark. I visited this bar for the first time on the same day I met Leslie Katz, my editor at The Examiner. I dropped by after our tea at St. Francis hotel after I’d matched with the bar manager on Tinder. Kronin commented: “That sounds like such a San Francisco day.”
Top of the Mark, InterContinental Mark Hopkins, 999 California St., S.F., sfmarkhopkins.com/top-of-the-mark
Virgin Cucumber Mint Collins
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 ounce simple syrup
3 slices of cucumber
Pinch of mint
Directions: In a tall glass, muddle the mint and cucumber, then add simple syrup, lemon juice, and ice. Fill with soda water, stir and serve.
Saul Sugarman is a San Francisco-based writer, event producer and apparel designer; visit him at saulsugarman.com. He is a guest columnist and his opinions are not necessarily that of the Examiner.