I stopped drinking on February 7, 2017, with the idea of taking a break for a little bit before getting back to a life filled with boozy brunches and happy hours. But after putting together around 30 days alcohol-free, I began to feel good. I was sleeping better, I had more energy and a cheerier mood, and my skin looked brighter. If you’re looking to take a break from alcohol (for a week, a month, or longer), here are some books that can help keep you company on that journey. Their genres are different, but a thread of honesty, transparency, and desire connects them all. Hopefully, they’ll provide some guidance for stepping back from alcohol and reasoning for why it’s a good idea or maybe make you feel the way they made me feel — like I was, finally, not alone.
If you find yourself pouring another glass of wine, even though you know you don’t need one, This Naked Mind can help. Annie Grace clearly presents the psychological and neurological components of alcohol use based on the latest science, and reveals the cultural, social, and industry factors that support alcohol dependence in all of us. Packed with surprising insight into the reasons we drink, this book has helped thousands of people forever change their relationship with alcohol.
If you’ve already loved This Naked Mind and are looking for more concrete advice, try Annie Grace’s second book, The Alcohol Experiment, where she walks you through a 30-day alcohol-free challenge. Annie’s action plan lacks judgment and the rules are simple: Abstain from drinking for 30 days and see how you feel. Annie arms her readers with the science-backed information to address the cultural and emotional conditioning we experience around alcohol. The result is a mindful approach that puts you back in control and permanently stops cravings.
When Caroline Knapp describes falling in love with drinking (“It was love at first sight. The beads of moisture on a chilled bottle. The way the glasses clinked and the conversation flowed. Then it became obsession.”), it was as if she was reading my own mind. This candid memoir chronicles Knapp’s twenty-year love affair with alcohol from her first drink at 14 to her eventual double life trying to hide her alcohol consumption as her relationship with booze turned sour.
Interested in learning more about addiction? Carl Erik Fisher’s The Urge is an authoritative, illuminating, and deeply humane history of addiction—a phenomenon that remains baffling and deeply misunderstood despite having touched countless lives. Fisher is an addiction psychiatrist and an alcoholic in recovery, who is striving to understand himself and the numerous patients he’s helped treat over the years. His look back into the history of addiction shows that humans have struggled to define, treat, and control addictive behavior for most of recorded history, including well before the advent of modern science and medicine. His findings? Only by reckoning with our history of addiction, he argues—our successes and our failures—can we light the way forward for those whose lives remain threatened by its hold.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to love someone battling addiction, pick up this scorching memoir. “The disease he has is addiction,” Nina Renata Aron writes of her boyfriend, K. “The disease I have is loving him.” Their love affair is passionate, but soon after they get together, K relapses. Even as his addiction deepens, Nina stays, convinced she can get him sober. This memoir weaves together personal reckoning with psychology and history to understand the nature of addiction, codependency, and our appetite for obsessive love.
Sometimes when it feels like your alcohol- or drug use is spinning out of control, there become people you feel like you can drink and use in front of and other people from who you hide everything. This was Tiffany Jenkins’ story. She details her double life in her memoir, High Achiever, and reveals how most of the people in her life knew her as the successful, outgoing cheerleading captain — people who were shocked to find out when she was incarcerated that she was an opioid addict who had committed over 20 felonies. The best part of this memoir is Tiffany’s recovery journey. She is funny and honest about her time in prison and the way she turned her life around to becoming a hugely successful blogger and helping other people find their own way to recovery.
There’s no question that trauma begets trauma. Oftentimes, when people grow up in traumatic situations — like alcoholic or abusive homes — the trauma literally reshapes both body and brain, compromising sufferers’ capacities for pleasure, engagement, self-control, and trust. This is Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s hypothesis in his 2014 book, The Body Keeps the Score. After working with trauma survivors for over 30 years, Dr. van der Kolk posits that alcohol abuse is more prevalent in trauma survivors but through activating the brain’s natural neuroplasticity, trauma sufferers can find new paths to recovery.
If you’re looking for more memoirs to get some perspective on your own life, look no further. Cupcake Brown was born in the heart of the San Diego ghetto. Orphaned by the death of her mother and left in the hands of a sadistic foster parent, young Cupcake learned to survive by turning tricks, downing hard liquor, and ingesting every drug she could find while hitchhiking up and down the California coast. She stumbled into drug dealing, hustling, prostitution, theft, and, eventually, the best scam of all: a series of 9-to-5 jobs. She went on to graduate from law school in 2001, practice at one of the nation’s largest law firms, and became a motivational speaker. This memoir will shake you to your core and remind you just how much amazing change one lifetime can hold.
When I was contemplating taking a break from alcohol, my biggest stumbling block was ignoring my brain when it was telling me to pick up something it wanted—no, desperately needed! Retraining my brain felt impossible, like restarting my own motherboard without a user’s manual, but neuropsychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen’s book offers effective “brain prescriptions” that can help heal your brain and change your life. From quelling anxiety, depression, and angry outbursts, to focusing better, remembering more, and yes, talking yourself out of that glass of sauvignon blanc, Dr. Amen’s advice proves that you’re not stuck with the brain you’re born with.
If you’re looking for the perfect companion during your sober curious period, go for a little walk with Cheryl Strayed. At the opening of her memoir, Wild, Strayed is reeling from the death of her mother and the dissolution of her marriage. She’s also using heroin every single day. Her walk along the Pacific Crest Trail was Cheryl’s version of recovery, and the metaphor is apt: alone, she put one foot in front of the other and made progress every day, despite it not looking very pretty from the outside. Wild is such a wonderful story of the different ways it’s possible to adopt change in your life.
Even though I’ve been sober for five years, I still fantasize about the ultimate break/nap—a total oblivion that will truly restore me to good health. I didn’t drink to get a buzz on; I drank for the restoration that I thought a deep blackout would give me. Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator seems to share that drive — and this novel is a languid, intoxicating, and extraordinarily vivid account of what it might look like to hunt for (and capture) the perfect year-long nap.
They say, “tackle your addictions in the order in which they’ll kill you,” so I first put down the booze, but a year later, I knew the time had come to give up cigarettes. The two went hand-in-hand for me and while I leaned more heavily on nicotine as I was getting sober, my tobacco use started to feel like it didn’t fit into my new, healthy lifestyle. Enter the aforementioned Annie Grace and William Porter, who use their science-based, habit-breaking systems to help readers vanquish their nicotine addictions.
Before I stopped drinking, life felt like a carousel of disguises — a different mask for every event. Reichl’s memoir of her life as a New York Times food critic, which invited the use of fake names and complex disguises, and which I read before I got sober, felt like the perfect book; I could relate to her need to hide, while at the same time remembering, through her sensuous descriptions of food and her life, what it might be like to just be able to be alive in this world.
Recent research has shown that women suffer the health consequences of alcohol — liver disease, heart disease, and cancer — more quickly than men, even at lower levels of consumption. Holly Whitaker is the founder of the first female-focused recovery program and, in Quit Like a Woman, she offers a groundbreaking look at drinking culture and a road map to cutting out alcohol in order to live better lives without the crutch of intoxication. I loved this book for Holly’s witty, honest voice — it felt like a friend coaching me through a big life change.
Better than any “do you think you might be an alcoholic?” questionnaire is this novel by the LA-based writer behind So Sad Today (both the Twitter amount and the essay collection). I put off reading it because I didn’t see how her fiction could be as entrancing as her nonfiction but, it IS. This is the single best description of the logic of addiction I’ve ever read. The protagonist Lucy’s actions — like dragging a merman onto shore and carting him home in a wagon to have sex with him in her apartment after drugging her dog — made total sense to this lifelong addict. Plus the prose is perfect.
I feel crass equating the loss of a person to the loss of alcohol, but when I stopped drinking, the grief floored me. I grieved for the person I had wanted to be, the person I thought alcohol had turned me into and the future casual drinker I had to say goodbye to. Didion’s memoir of the aftermath of her husband’s death is the perfect articulation of the peculiar mechanics of grief. If you’re not drinking and sad about it, this book is the perfect filter through which to remind yourself that sorrow isn’t logical, but it does change.
Part of the reason why it took me so long to give up drinking was because I was afraid — afraid that life wouldn’t be as sparkly without champagne or dinner wouldn’t taste as good without wine. Luvvie Ajayi Jones’s hilarious and transformational book teaches readers that in order to do the things that will truly, meaningfully change their lives, they have to not let fear talk them out of the things they need to do to live free. If I’d known just how good life was going to get after I left booze behind, I’d have quit years ago.
A crime, a distanced narrator, a compressed marriage, and a sense of airlessness are everywhere in this novel about a nanny who murders her charges. The plot points might make it seem sensationalistic, but the real heart of the novel, to me, was in the constant drumbeat of marital antagonism and conflicting emotions. It’s ideally distracting but it’s also relentless — a perfect companion for those confused winter nights where you’re like, “wait, what’s happening, why am I sober?”
Before I got sober, I saw Abramovic’s “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim. Maybe the most famous piece was called “Lips of Thomas,” a seven-hour series of violences of various kinds that Abramovic undertook — lying on an ice-cold block after slicing into her lower abdomen; eating honey; singing the Yugoslavian anthem. I was so dissociated from myself and my emotional life that I needed to see someone else be present in her body in order to see that another life might be possible. A few years later I saw her at an art opening: glamorous, air-kissing collectors. Abramovic is a true artist, one whose life seems still private even though she performs such indelible intimacies. This memoir is a chance to actually see who she is — or, at least, just another layer of who she wants us to see.
Sometimes, I find myself thinking that I could have just one drink. And then I think about this memoir and it reminds me of the strong clutches that alcohol can have. Three years after giving up drinking, Jowita Bydlowska found herself throwing back a glass of champagne like it was ginger ale. It was a special occasion: a party celebrating the birth of her first child. It also marked Bydlowska’s immediate, full-blown return to crippling alcoholism, the subsequent blackouts, and her fight toward recovery as a young mother.
The second story, about a mother and a daughter, slayed me, as they say. But really, this whole short story collection — great for anyone with a reduced concentration span (when I stopped drinking, I just couldn’t hold a whole novel in my head) — offers a vividly fictional lens (a Cyclops on a dating app, a literally vanishing mother) through which life’s most intense emotions can be processed. This book reminds me of one of the reasons for fiction: to compress and distill and re-cast the elements that make up our daily lives in new and imaginative form so that we can see ourselves more clearly.
Since I got sober, I’ve been trying to add healthy things back into my life. One of those is meditation, but I always felt like I wasn’t very good at it. I found that this 6 Phase Meditation was easy to tackle, no matter how busy or ADHD I was feeling. In it, author Vishen Lakhiani distills thousands of years of psycho-spiritual wisdom to create The 6 Phase Meditation Method, a magic-making, joy-creating, productivity-inducing protocol that empowers you to get focused, find peace, and manifest your goals. Delivered with humor, it makes me feel like I don’t suck at meditation, which, frankly, is good enough to keep me coming back to it again and again.
Fisher’s death was a tragic reminder that alcoholism, no matter how much we think we might have a handle on it, can be stronger than even our most ardent wish for recovery. I recommend this book not to be reminded of what happened after, but because of the opposite — the vibrant aliveness that you feel with every sentence, the way in which Fisher lived right up on the edges of her experience for every second. It’s that intimacy with my own life that led me to drink, and a desire to return to myself that compelled me to stop. Fisher’s life — and work — reminds me that I’m only here because of grace, and that I’m going to try and value every gift of a second.
I may have put down alcohol, but I’m not free of addiction. I always have my phone in my hand, and if I’m not mindlessly scrolling on that, I’m usually looking at a computer or TV screen — or trying, and failing, to do all three at once. I’m not alone in my behavioral addiction, though. Half of the American population is addicted to at least one behavior — emails, Instagram, Facebook, streaming TV episodes, or YouTube videos. Adam Alter, a professor of psychology and marketing at NYU, tracks the rise of behavioral addiction, and explains why so many of today’s products are irresistible — then offers ways we can create boundaries and structure for our usage.