OCTOBER 16, 2020
THE SOBER LUSH is not an essay collection about addiction and recovery; at its core, it’s a guide to a new perspective on what life can be without alcohol. Co-authors Amanda Ward and Jardine Libaire introduce their sobriety story by stating unequivocally that this memoir isn’t a “step program,” nor is it by any means meant to guilt those who drink into becoming sober. Rather, it is written in the interest of showing readers what these two newly sober friends have learned in the process of ditching alcohol: essentially, how they’ve come to live their best lives. The authors invite readers to join this journey, free of judgment or expectation or even an intention of becoming sober. Instead, it showcases the unique perspectives of two strong women who have come out on the other side of drinking and found fulfillment and joy and “wild nights,” even in the absence of alcohol.
The introduction poses questions about how one can live wildly and with abandon without the assistance of alcohol: “What happens when you decide to live sober — for a month or a lifetime — but still yearn for danger and chaos, still hope for a secret path to joy?” Readers are introduced first to Amanda, who wakes up after a New Year’s Eve party in her bed next to one of her sons and can’t remember how she got there. She doesn’t let herself off the hook, and she writes with honesty and transparency, as both authors do throughout the book. We learn that Amanda’s father was an alcoholic, that she often “overdid it” during parties, and how hard it was for her to stop; how she still yearned for just one more glass of Chardonnay. This first essay ends in a beautiful moment of Amanda going for a run with her eldest son at 8:00 p.m., when she’d normally be three glasses deep. Her joy in this moment is palpable:
All the fear of the first sober months, the exhaustion of searching for another way to be, the confusion of finding a new tribe in the middle of a life, the nights I wanted just one sip or a whole bottle of Chardonnay. The cans and cans of seltzer. Tears on Jardine’s couch. The moon emerged overhead and I knew: it was for this.
We then move into Jardine’s story, which artfully crosses time and experience. Her decade of drinking was linked to feeling on the “outside.” She presents herself as a seven-year-old, then at 15, then at 23 — carefree, young, innocent, and finding joy in things like the turquoise ocean, a blue-sky day, and jazz bands. She then cuts to 30 at her first publication party, and it is then she expresses the feelings of loneliness:
[A]t some point in the past decade, I fused liquor and chemicals into my recipe for what makes me feel ecstatic. Various substances, too much and too often. And they do, they do heat up my blood, they make diamonds in my mind, they heighten life, for a minute. There’s wildness — wait — now it’s gone. And in the mornings, I’m deader than ever before. And alone.
She continues with these quick-jump timelines, and finishes at 46, sober for seven years, sitting in a pitch meeting. Readers clearly understand what Jardine’s path to sobriety meant for her:
While the discussion evolves, I can’t help gazing over the panoramic landscape, a zillion pale buildings, the palm trees, mountain in the distance, clouds that don’t move. It’s frightening to be up here, suspended in an unknown place. This is exactly when I feel that electricity, the wildness, the freedom. This is when I remember in the cells of my body what it was to be a girl on the foaming falling sparkling crest of a wave, to be part of the ocean — not at all fearless, not sure of anything, just rapturously alive.
Libaire and Ward come together to create this book, tackling sobriety as a means to feel more alive, constantly searching for something more, finding more joy in love and imperfections and adventure than alcohol could ever provide. The book is divided into 12 different sections: “Divine Transgressions,” “Parties,” “Eating,” “Coping,” “Consciousness Experiments,” “Playing,” “In Your Glass,” “Love,” “Tiny Magic Connections,” “Slowing Down,” “Creating,” and “Roaming.” Ward and Libaire take us through these sections by detailing how they felt and what they experienced after eliminating alcohol from their lives, structuring the collection by alternating between the two women, each writing in third person, providing a bit of distance and an opportunity for creative storytelling. Just by presenting the readers with these 12 titles, we’re able to understand a holistic sense of what this book offers. I knew immediately which sections I would connect to, understanding my own complex relationship with alcohol and the need for it to create, fit in at parties, and find connection with other humans — the story, at its core, of “liquid courage.”
Jardine and Amanda were introduced to each other in Austin, Texas, because they were both sober writers. When they met, they both realized they had the same questions: “[H]ow to thrive sober?” The section “Divine Transgressions” takes us through the ways in which the two women shift their points of view from during-alcohol to post-alcohol — how they can view sunrise as an opportunity rather than feeling a sense of impending guilt and dread as the end of a heavy night of binge-drinking comes to a close. They attempt to let go of things and strip them down — this, in truth, is their guide to ultimate happiness. By no means do they present a life without alcohol as easy, taking us through each struggle with simple, everyday tasks that surface and make them want to drink: a bad day; a fight among Amanda’s children; some minor irritation. Rather than crack open that bottle of Chardonnay or bottle of beer, the pair create their own “adult snow day” as a break — a nonalcoholic means of escaping a problem. They recommend we “play hooky in a snow globe of our own.” They take time for themselves by turning off phones, sleeping in, reading trashy magazines, watching House Hunters, putting on face masks, or spending an entire day eating a bag of chocolate chips.
The memoir never comes across as “preachy,” or as if the writers have an alternate agenda or are interested in converting readers to a life of sobriety; they’re genuinely sharing their own experiences in sobriety in hopes that others feeling like they may want to quit — those Googling “am I an alcoholic?” (something I’ve certainly done many times at 28 years old); those trying to find something else (substance, activity, behavior) apart from drinking that brings them joy and relief; or those looking to stop drinking for a little while — will find in their stories both solace and understanding that they’re not alone. They correlate costume parties as a masquerade of a different kind to drinking: hiding behind some other facade to avoid reality. They discuss the difficult moment of “the toast,” and the urge to just sip, until they realize that the toast never needed to include alcohol at all — that it was symbolic for a celebratory moment and “the meaning doesn’t reside in alcohol.” So, when the man at a dinner party told Jardine not to toast her water because it was unlucky, she raised her glass to him, a clear sign of her new version of celebration and an act of defiance, sober lush style.
As I sipped my own wine while reading this collection, I had the strong urge to put it down and never pick up a glass again, in part because I never felt judged. Ward and Libaire have mastered the delicate alchemy of instilling knowledge, understanding struggles, and conveying complete honesty all at once. Their words are powerful not because they demand change, but because they offer visionary wisdom about life after alcohol.
In the section “Parties,” the authors show readers how they navigated different celebratory situations, some proving more challenging than others. As I read their perspective and new-coined term “The Vanish,” I mentally went back to every scenario where I could have vanished instead of ordering another drink, as Amanda and Jardine learned to do, ending their evenings in a much happier state. For Jardine, it’s continuously difficult to let go of big concerts, SXSW, and other festivals without alcohol, but she acknowledges that “[t]here’s dignity in surrender.” For Amanda, she realizes that during every Fourth of July she’s been so drunk that the color of fireworks were literally dulled, and sober, she finally sees them in all their spectacular beauty. Both writers show us that yes, you can choose to instead find the joy in movie nights without sharing one (or two) bottles of wine, or in trick-or-treating with the children instead of staying with the adults and drinking. One of the many epiphanies each has about drinking comes when they notice someone stumbling out of a barbecue, completely trashed and unable to walk herself to an Uber. They end the section with a poignant message: “We think of you with a giant massive ton of kindness, dear drunken girl at the BBQ, even though you don’t know we exist.” They don’t know her and the don’t judge her, but they see her.
Predicting that readers wonder how the two handle wine tastings, nights out for dinner, and other occasions that revolve around drinking or where drinking plays an essential part, they explore alternatives to alcohol with food and beverages. Ward and Libaire assume that food tastings will prove difficult to attend, and then delve into the joy of connecting with the chef and pairing food with nonalcoholic drinks. Wine is assumed to be the cornerstone of the world, they admit. Instead, why not focus on bread and baking? Amanda and Jardine enjoy picnics, viewing food as an aphrodisiac instead of relying on alcohol. They find joy in preparing and planning for meals during a period of time they might normally spend hungover. Instead of drinking hard liquor, they might add a flower to a drink in order to dress it up and make it more exciting. Why not try different teas, juices, nonalcoholic Bloody Marys, drinks that are also enjoyable in a different way than alcohol, and choose to live in the moment, present, and remember it all?
The inevitable question that bubbles beneath the surface for so many: how can one make it through a first date without a drink? Libaire and Ward address this in “Love,” one of the most powerful sections, as they navigate the awkwardness of a first date, and what relationships without alcohol look and feel like. They remember what it was like to have a crush on someone as a teenager, a pure crush uninhibited by the mask of substances, and this transports them back to childhood and a tingling, magical sensation of meeting someone for the first time without being impaired by alcohol. Removing the booze forces a new vulnerability on the first date, and takes out the easy escape to hide. They ask, “What are you afraid of?” This question forces them to undress and have sex sober, to be fully present. It forces them to realize that they’re worthy of love, even when they’re not seeing double from too many margaritas.
There’s a reason why adults associate innocence and purity with children, and why so many of us search for ways to make sense of that time in our lives; we search for the innate joy and happiness that existed before the outside world ruined it or labeled it bad and wrong. I’ve worked with children in my adult life, and it’s true that they are prime examples that humans can be carefree and adventurous, creative and complicated, wild and free, without booze. Amanda and Jardine revisit their youth, their playful side when they become sober. Whether it’s Amanda rediscovering the fun in roller-skating or tackling a sober night of karaoke; or Jardine trusting someone enough to go skinny-dipping; or both of them going to carnivals, rock-climbing, doing puzzles, dancing without a drink in their hands, they ultimately discover what it means to genuinely be carefree again — something neither thought was possible.
The two authors provide readers with alternate opportunities — traveling, appreciating small moments, living presently, and slowing down more meaningful milestones without the duplicity of alcohol. In boredom, find creativity and opportunity, something I’ve taken to heart especially in these unprecedented times of a worldwide pandemic. To slow down, do yoga and focus on breathing, stop to smell flowers on a walk, appreciate silence, and improve sleep.
Amanda and Jardine figured out quickly — if not painlessly — how to find lasting joy, and discovered they will “always always [be] forever exploring.” This book isn’t a guide to finding sobriety, quitting alcohol, or attending an AA meeting; it’s not even about recovery, but more about discovery. The co-authors claim the collection isn’t intended as a step program, but I would argue they’ve created just that: a step program on how to confront and appreciate life. The two find ultimate happiness with an unclouded mind, and they invite readers to do the same: to finally remember — and fully enjoy — every moment of a day or an evening, every detail of a life.
Annemarie Hauser holds an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. She is the audience and events manager for the Los Angeles Times and assisted in programming the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books for two consecutive years.