So far, so sober
It feels like not very many years ago that hackathons, free beer and drunken nights out with startups were, for a brief moment in time, cool.
Perhaps it was even normal.
It was in this environment that I came of age, so to speak, in my work. It was therefore no surprise to anybody that I soon developed a drinking problem. Like many in my industry.
I pursued the drinking with the fervor of a person who also threw themselves into the work. Work hard, play hard. All of that. I learned the ins and outs of whisky the way I learned to manage products. I collected the certifications and classes for my outsized interest in alcohol the way I also worked on my tech skills. Many of my friends left the tech industry to distribute or sell alcohol. When I went home briefly to Singapore, people sent me so much alcohol that it lined the walls of the tiny hotel room I was in.
I did not drink much of it.
By then, I was starting to examine why I drank.
I drank, because it was routine.
I drank, because it was expected of me, for a time. To get along with the boys in tech, I should drink as many IPAs as they do.
As I got older, my body could not metabolize the alcohol. Hangovers felt worse. I felt sluggish. Even though the peats of whisky and the hops of craft beer are still things that I love, the drinking lifestyle is completely over for me.
After I moved to San Francisco, I found that the party was over. The San Francisco of free beers at work and boozy networking events that I saw and loved when I first visited in 2012 was not the San Francisco of tamer stuff, the one that I know and love today. Maybe the party moved to Miami. Maybe we all got older and collectively decided to do something else with our lives. Maybe returning as an adult in my 30s with a wife and family made me see that there was more to life than black-out stupor every weekend.
I was also tired of being sick.
A decade plus of round the clock hustle. Startup myths floating through every part of my brain and my soul. Fueled by a lot of craft beer and gin and Scotch. Coffee the rest of the day. At some point, that party had to stop.
I was very sick for a very long time. Not specifically because of alcohol, but it can’t have helped. Autoimmune disease hit me like a truck. I had all of the things: I was a woman, I was getting older, I didn’t sleep much (because hustle culture says to sleep only when you’re dead), every city in the world from Singapore to San Francisco to Seoul was starting to meld together. Every city felt the same. My life was the same. Work. Alcohol. Raise funds. Build things. Do it all over again, thinking you’re a baller, but something had to give.
I was tired of being sick.
It took me almost eight years to get my body back to where I was, before hustle culture and autoimmune disease killed it. In March of 2021, I put my running shoes back on and went for a run. Running had been such a big part of my younger life. It was different then: it was a different hustle. It was also a competition. It was about winning.
I didn’t feel like a winner in 2021. Almost nine years after the day I was sent to the emergency room with my heart rate through the roof, my body mass dropping at an astonishing speed (I was 5 kilos lighter in the evening compared to what I weighed before dinner), I resumed running again. I was slow. But I was happy. I was happy to be able to run at all.
The autoimmune disease wrecked my body for years until I could no longer stand or reliably support my body weight. I would be walking in the streets and then I would fall and not be able to get up. I was not able to feel my legs. Everywhere, from Singapore to Jakarta to Seattle. At first it came in short bursts: a minute at a time. I got up, I resumed my life. Then it came and it stayed for half an hour. Then an hour. It was like I was black out drunk, but I was not. I was fully conscious, but I could not move from the waist up.
Lucky for me, there was a way out of it. It required me to fully change my life. I voluntarily swallowed a pill that had been made at a nuclear plant, blasted my thyroid gland with the full force of radiation, and watched my body and my mind struggle through mania to sluggish slowness. From hyperactivity at 4 in the morning to being unable to move from bed. I watched my weight yo-yo between extremes, as my now-defunct thyroid gland struggled to establish itself in my new body, one without the ability to make its own hormones.
It would be 2 and a half years from that moment when I was able to run with any regularity.
And when I did, I didn’t want anything to hold me back. There was nothing to win. There was just the running, the freedom of being on my feet again. There was the Golden Gate Bridge that I ran towards daily as a symbol of the life that I have found for myself here. There was the weekend bikecamping trips I’d go on with friends: stubbornly and barely pedaling uphill at first, through the hills of Marin county’s many hills, eventually finding my pace. There was the 4-day Yosemite backpacking trip I went on in September 2021, where I surprised myself by climbing nearly ten thousand feet two days in a row. Where I hauled myself over the cables of Half Dome and thought to myself, life is pretty great, I never want to do anything that will stop me from living my best life again.
Gradually the dopamine hits from the alcohol turned to the daily dopamine hits from the exercise. From hitting my goals. From walking twenty thousand steps a day. From going on long walks with my little dog. From running ten miles a week. Then fifteen. Then twenty. Then more. Suddenly, I didn’t want the booze anymore. (Around the same time, I also started talking to people about ADHD. I started recognizing that the impulse I had to drink was indistinguishable from my ADHD need for constant refills of excitement. I worked with an ADHD peer group on goal-setting behavioral change that I wanted to practice so as to improve my life. I started with, ‘well maybe I won’t drink any alcohol other than wine’. But soon I found that I didn’t even want that at all.)
There’s still bits of that lifestyle I miss. It feels shockingly difficult to find a place to meet people and sit down in the evenings without substantial amounts of alcohol. But that’s changing. As I began to document my non-alcoholic journey, I found that I could still go to the places that I enjoyed, I simply had to ask for the non-alcoholic version. I explored the world of non-alcoholic craft beer, and de-alcoholized wine. I turn to those, at times, for what they call in India, ‘time pass’. It’s habit to nurse a drink and do something somewhere; but I do substantially less of it too. They are simply anchors into a past life that help me feel like I haven’t gone ultra cold turkey, because the feeling that I can’t do something also makes me want to do it. After six months though, I simply don’t want to do it at all. But I’m glad the non-alcoholic options exist. Because I truly despise soda.
The last couple of years have been a period of long introspection and learning for me. From learning to work with my neuro-diversity, to picking up new skills (I am currently learning the saxophone!) and more, my life has truly turned around since I gave up the hustle and settled down. It’s hard to overstate the importance of how my supportive and stable marriage helps me grow as a person. In Sabrena, I have a life partner who doesn’t shy away from the hard questions: why do you drink? Instead of saying ‘stop drinking’, she had me question the impulse behind my need. I sought the tools out myself, but I was able to share my progress and growth as a person and in every endeavor, no matter how small, with her. She is my biggest cheerleader.
Just like that, I’m six months sober. I’m running twenty miles a week, going on thirty. I’m planning to backpack and bikecamp. I walk endlessly with my little dog, who also seems to have found a new lease on life here in San Francisco where she is far more active and alert compared to humid, balmy Singapore or KL. We walk for hours. We climb hills. We look at the many, varied views.
I’m present for all of it.