The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This ‘wine mom’ never questioned her drinking. Then she stopped for a month.

(Asia Pietrzyk/Illustration for The Washington Post)

It all started with a news release. As a journalist, I get multiple pitches a day: “Best and Worst Cities for Healthy Dogs,” “Why the Buzz about Glutathione?” and, sit down for this one, the opportunity to talk to the founder of Parting Stone, a start-up that turns the ashes of loved ones into smooth rocks and pebbles (40 to 60 of them).

But this email, from Dry Together, really got my attention. Despite sounding like a communal bathhouse, Dry Together is an online hamlet for midlife moms who are seeking ways to cope — with work, with family, with life — that don’t involve a tumbler of alcohol. Founders and former college roommates Holly Sprague and Megan Barnes Zesati, who are both nondrinkers, were inviting women ages 35 to 60 to participate in their second annual Dry January challenge, which would include, among other avenues of support, a weekly one-hour Zoom get-together facilitated by Sprague and Barnes Zesati. “A month without alcohol is sometimes just what moms need in order to do some fine tuning in the areas where they feel stuck,” read their news release.

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Being the 56-year-old mother of a 10-year-old named Leo and having a nightly habit of a glass or two of boxed red, I met the criteria and, to some degree, the “wine mom” stereotype. I do own a pair of socks that read “My Favorite Salad is Wine.” I once considered bringing a colossal wine glass — a gag gift capable of holding an entire bottle — to my book club. And I texted friends the link to that “Saturday Night Live” sketch where Aidy Bryant unwraps her birthday gifts, a series of increasingly barbed wooden signs reading, for example, “I like you better when I’m effed up.” (Scary Mommy wrote a piece entitled “ ‘SNL’ Wine Skit Is Hilarious Because It’s True.”)

The fact that I was a stereotype gave me pause. Perhaps it was time for me to take a break and, as suggested by Dry Together’s promotional email, consider my relationship with alcohol. I also had recently lost 30 pounds gained in a covid stress haze and had been talking to my husband, Karl, about wanting to get healthier. January, after all, is a time for new beginnings.

I hadn’t gone cold turkey since I was pregnant. But in less time than it takes to say Beaujolais, I paid the $39 monthly fee and awaited instructions.

According to a recent study, while Americans drank 14 percent more compared with before the pandemic, women increased their alcohol intake by 41 percent. I saw this play out in real time, not only in my own uptick (think three glasses of wine on “Bachelor” nights), but also in the renewed habit of a dear friend, an empty nester and recovered alcoholic who had been sober for 40 years.

“Once covid hit, and I was alone in my apartment, I started drinking a glass or two of Prosecco every night — just to ease the loneliness and fear,” she told me. She assured me that she has since stopped, adding: “The precipice is deep and always close.”

Dry Together, which has 40 members, does not ask anyone to identify as an alcoholic. It doesn’t even ask its members to quit drinking — during the month or forever. Abstinence is a choice and, as I learn the first night, a few of the women present were already planning to go back to drinking come February, while others weren’t sure what they would do. It’s a delicate dance, this come-here-go-back dalliance with booze.

As we went around the Zoom room, the 15 women — hailing from places including New York City, Marfa, Tex., and Birmingham, Ala. — talked about their drinking and, in Barnes Zesati’s words, “What our why is.” I’d never thought about the reason behind the wine. But after hearing other participants share their own whys — the social aspect; an opportunity to bond or celebrate; a need to be numb to endure — I began to see myself reflected in their stories.

Throughout the hour, I never once thought, “Well, at least I’m not that bad.” I thought instead, “I could be any one of these women.” And they could be me.

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“Women carry the load so much,” said Sprague, 47, when we Zoomed later in the week with Barnes Zesati, who is also 47. The mother of two teenagers with a full-time job in PR, Sprague, who lives in Boulder, Colo., quit drinking three years ago. “I kept thinking something had to give.”

Sprague and Barnes Zesati, a therapist who will mark five years as a nondrinker in April, remained close after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin. Then came a pivotal conversation. “We were in friend mode, just talking about being alcohol-free and how glad we were that we weren’t drinking to just ‘get through’ the day,” recalled Barnes Zesati, who is the mother of teenage twins and still lives in Austin.

They decided other women might want to join the discussion, so they launched Dry Together in 2021, offering their first Dry January for 12 women with more dry months throughout the year. Going alcohol-free is often “a choice that keeps reinforcing itself,” Barnes Zesati said.

By midmonth, the Dry Together ladies had traded recipes for mocktails, shared tips about where to find shrubs (which are not clippings from actual shrubbery, as I first thought, but flavored drinking vinegar), and agreed on the best place to find alcohol-free white wine (Whole Foods). But, as a group so far, we hadn’t really gone deeper. For example, we hadn’t discussed grieving for our former lives: mourning the loss of the party girl, missing the crutch a highball provides, longing for a nightcap with our partners.

One evening, Karl sat down with some bourbon, mercifully poured into an opaque mug so I couldn’t see how many fingers. “Tea that tastes like bourbon,” I typed into Google and opened the floodgates.

Pretty soon, I had ordered and sampled the full offering of mocktail teas from Adagio — peach Bellini, fuzzy naval, piña colada and, yes, Kentucky bourbon. Not one tasted remotely like its name.

Luckily, there was a lot more from which to choose. Thanks to the sober-curious movement, nonalcoholic beverage sales reached $331 million in 2021, up 33 percent from the year before. I stocked up on some NA IPAs from Athletic Brewing Co., because my cousin, a beer connoisseur in Maine, told me that’s what all her sober friends drank. Taking my first sip of Athletic’s Hazy IPA, I thought, “Now what am I going to do with all that tea?”

After limiting myself to one can, my next thought was: “Well, what if I had two? Or three?” Would pounding a six-pack of fake beer also signal a problem? It was hard to shake the guilt, and the worry that I was trading one habit for another — albeit a healthier and less caloric one.

I phoned Katie Witkiewitz, director of the Addictive Behaviors and Quantitative Research Lab at the University of New Mexico and a former president of the Society of Addiction Psychology. “Would you feel guilty pounding club soda?” asked Witkiewitz, who doesn’t see my worries as concerning. “We don’t need anymore shame or guilt in our lives.”

We move on to discussing how I might view things come February. “Look at your initial intention for Dry January,” she suggested, ticking off reasons such as sleeping better, waking up clearer, having more energy. “And reconnect with that initial intention.”

D.C.-based therapist Susan Berlin went a step further. Sober now for 33 years, Berlin strongly believes that taking a month off from drinking doesn’t really address what’s going on underneath and that, in general, Dry Januarys just peel away the outer layer of the onion. “Initially, you only know the ‘whys’ of drinking,” she explained, reminding me of the question we discussed at the first Zoom meeting. Deep down, Berlin said, resides the true reason we turn to alcohol.

I come away wondering what’s at the center of my own onion. Whatever it is — Berlin gently suggested it’s an attachment disorder, because “how we learn to self-soothe comes out of our attachments” — I know it will take longer than a single January to locate.

And that’s okay. We are all works in progress, after all. Giving up a few boozy “Bachelor” nights and comforting fingers of bourbon has led to insights that will take me far beyond this month. I got more out of Dry January than I ever expected.

At our last Dry Together meeting, we go around the Zoom room and voice our gratitude along with our goodbyes; we’re thankful for the experience, for the camaraderie and for creating a safe place where we all could land. I’m rooting for these women, many of whom no longer seem to be overwhelmed but instead seem to have found a state of grace.

Yes, it was an ending. But it was also a beginning.

Cathy Alter is a writer in D.C. Find her at cathyalter.com.

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