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What I Learned From 'Sober October'

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The tenth month of the year has a cornucopia of reasons for excitement: beautiful fall in New York; the fun of picking a Halloween costume; pumpkin-flavored booze and all the drinking; sports season and all the drinking; Oktoberfest and all the drinking; dress-up parties and all the drinking.... But October isn't an alcohol-drenched month for everyone. Thirty-one days ago, my girlfriend Brooke and I decided to take part in "Sober October."

The idea came to us from her best friend from college, who had already done it twice and was surprisingly excited as she got ready for her third year. Brooke suggested we participate as well and, after hesitating for a minute (or 20), I figured it could be nice to exercise my will power, spare my liver and engage with my sweetheart in a behavioral project of sorts.

I am a drinker. Before "Sober October," I had trouble recalling the last day I passed on a glass of wine or a cocktail. Also, my tolerance had gotten fairly high, and I could easily drink an entire tax return in one summer. So, as one can imagine, the expectation was for a difficult month.

Halfway into the process, Brooke came across Caren Gerszberg's post about her experience of a month without alcohol. From her list of learnings, the first is certainly the most surprising: It wasn't hard. After a full day of work and school, I expected to have an intense craving for a soothing glass of wine or a slightly dirty martini, but -- especially after the second week -- there was none. Good job, brain.

Gerszberg's blog post got us wondering and sharing our own epiphanies. As we sipped our glass of sparkling water, we discussed the differences and challenges we had noticed so far. I certainly craved sugar in the very beginning, but it didn't last long. In fact, we both lost a few pounds, and I finally fit into my last year's jeans. We had different experiences when it came to interacting with drinkers, but we absolutely agreed that having someone with you for the ride makes a huge difference -- it is much easier to toast with seltzer if with a sober companion.

There were plenty of aspects to talk about, but it was my girlfriend's observation on contemporary social customs that compelled me to write. To her, the most relevant of the changes was the fact that she had not been socializing with her friends nearly as much since the beginning of our sobriety project. If you usually meet your friends to "grab a drink," what are you supposed to do if there's no drink involved?

Her observation made me think back to one day early last winter when a friend's initially unappealing invite turned into epiphany. "You know," she started, "I've had so much going on that my apartment is a mess; how about you come over with your computer and edit some photos while I do some cleaning and organizing?" What? My immediate thought was "that's crazy talk; why can't we just go to brunch like everybody else?" I wanted to sit down and be served a delicious Bloody Mary; plus, she had just said her apartment was a mess -- isn't that a reason to not want anyone over? But I didn't say any of that. Instead, after the almost awkward silence that followed her invitation, I said yes. I packed my computer, picked up bagels and coffee along the way and there I went.

We ate and chatted for a bit and moved on to some productive coexisting -- I worked on some photos, she swept the bedroom floors. I followed her around with my computer and even sat in the bathroom while she cleaned her bathtub. While we mechanically performed such brainless activities, we told stories, posed questions and shared some of the things that made us tick.

It seemed inevitable to talk about the personal things of her apartment -- the pictures she had on the walls, stories that took place in one room or another and even her favorite toiletries. The best part came as she started organizing what she called her "Pandora drawer." We looked at old photos and talked about her childhood and her family, laughed at hairstyles from the '90s and clothes from the '80s. There it was: We were doing life together. It was a silly part of life, perhaps, the nostalgic Sunday cleaning, but it made me feel the closest I had ever been to my dear friend.

We, as a society, do not do this enough. The contemporary way of building relationships is by going out for drinks. We set up a time, show up at a noisy restaurant or bar, then sit and talk over loud music until the waiter drops the check. It's a phenomenon I began calling "relationships by appointment." Especially in New York City, where we don't have time for anything and our apartments are very small, we find many excuses. They are all shenanigans, as excuses often are. Coming into someone's home and seeing how they really nest -- which is different than how they dress their apartment up for a gathering -- makes them more humanly real to us and we can feel much, much closer.

By intersecting this phenomenon of "relationships by appointment" with the common discomfort around our vulnerabilities, we are dooming the sharing of humanness and the exercising of empathy -- two very (if not most) important aspects of being human.

Agapi Stassinopoulos just recently wrote a post explaining the value of intimacy and the meaning of what her mother used to call "human communion." The idea of being fully present and undistracted as we exercise empathy and care for someone could take place anywhere, including a restaurant or a bar, but there's something to be said about her mother's conversations at their kitchen table. I want to promote Agapi's voice that says a shift needs to happen in our culture.

There is nothing wrong with going out for drinks with friends. The issue is when that becomes the only method to socialize. This time, we didn't quite have a specific cause or compelling reason to sober our October. Next year, we could do it again, maybe to create awareness and promote the idea of coexisting and getting closer to loved ones. We'll think about this later though, because tonight -- our first night post-Sober October -- we're going out drinking with friends.