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Taking Up Space in Sobriety: Who Do We Keep Ourselves Small?

Contributed by Trish Stirling

When I was a kid, I wanted to be either Madonna, David Bowie or Pippi Longstocking. To me, these were people who smashed social constructs, owned their eccentricities, and knew how to take up space. Me, I was shy, and was only comfortable when I remembered to be small, because that was how I had successfully gotten through life thus far. Another childhood hero of mine was Punky Brewster. If you weren’t around in the 80’s, Punky was a 9-year-old orphan who spoke loudly, wore colorful clothing, and wasn’t afraid of anything. She took up space and I envied how, when a new kid showed up at her school, she would walk straight up to them and introduce herself or when a boy kissed her without her consent, she socked him in the eye. I was nothing like Punky, and I wanted more than anything to be exactly like her.  

On a bus to summer camp, I was sitting in a row alone, and there was a person behind me also sitting in a row alone. A counselor walked by and said, “You’re both sitting alone! You should become friends!” In this circumstance I thought Punky Brewster would not be shy. She would turn in her seat and introduce herself. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Shrinking myself had worked for me my entire life and I wasn’t about to risk my comfort for the mere possibility of a friend, although having a friend would have been nice.  

Photo by Rebecca Drieling

When I started drinking, I felt for the first time like my shrunken little soul could fill up my entire being. For a while, it was wonderful: I could make people laugh! I was larger than life! Sure, sometimes I blacked out.  Yes, some mornings I had to apologize for things I’d done or said that I couldn’t even remember. But, this was a small price to pay for the way it felt to finally take up space in the world. I started wearing combat boots, and with each heavy step felt my roots growing into the earth.  

Time passed. I hadn’t done any work on whatever it was that had made me stay quiet and small as a child. When I wasn’t drinking, I was still shy. Rather than nurture myself, I wanted to shine other people’s light back on them, and I got pretty good at doing that. I could hold space for anyone, and I could make them feel valued and loved. But I still couldn’t give myself a break.  When my husband got mad at me, I shrank, and then I drank. I drank to get through the bad days,  the mean people, the negative self-talk. With every drink I took, I made myself incrementally small.  

It took me a long time to realize that this was a pattern: I thought the alcohol was  protecting me, but really it was where I hid myself in moments of conflict. Instead of  confrontation, I’d ran to the bottle, and inside of the bottle was where I hid.  

I realized this pattern of protecting myself with alcohol and hiding behind moments of conflict. I hid inside the bottle in times of confrontation.When I finally stopped drinking, my voice was shaky and thin from lack of use. My self-esteem was shot. But I laced up my combat boots, started meditating, and began the practice of  looking at myself in the mirror and saying kind things. I started working on being sweet to my body. My roots began to grow back into the earth, only this time they were made up of confidence instead of shame. My voice got louder. Sometimes it still shakes, but I am finally speaking up. When I meditate, I imagine myself a giant tree with strong roots and many limbs. A common meditation tip: Anchor yourself deep into the earth and then pull up energy and send it to the tips of your being. This is the vision of how I want to take up space in society — organically, with intention, grace, and groundedness. 


In sobriety I’ve noticed that many of us still tend to shy away from our power. This shouldn’t come as a shock: Our society celebrates alcohol, alcohol makes people loud, and the stigma persists that being sober is shameful. 

As comedian Tony Baker observes on Comics Unleashed with Byron Allen, “Whenever you tell people you don’t drink, they want an explanation. They always want to know, ‘Was it a problem; was (sic) beating your kids; did you ruin marriages; did you kill somebody with a vehicle; like, what happened? We can’t believe you don’t drink poison!’”  

Some people even get offended when you tell them you don’t drink. This happened to me when I was newly pregnant with my first child. I was staying at a friend’s parents’ cabin during my first trimester, and at the time hadn’t told anyone about the pregnancy yet. My friend’s Dad was not happy when I turned down a beer as if my declining implied I was somehow superior. After much hectoring from him, I finally told him the news of my yet-undisclosed pregnancy just to get him off my back.  

Fortunately, more people are embracing the alcohol-free lifestyle these days. Sobriety can be a rebellious choice, as Ruby Warrington points out in her book Sober Curious. While the  patriarchy wants us to stay numb and quiet, passing on alcohol can be a means of re-sensitizing  ourselves to the world. So, why do we continue to silence ourselves?  

I believe it’s because many of us aren’t used to taking up space. We were told early on that we were too big for our britches: too sensitive, too weird, too much. To be told we’re “too” anything remains a shameful. But just as we’ve learned to flex our sober muscles, so too can we learn to exercise self-possession and lay claim to the space we need to thrive.  

CLEAN Cause recently posted an article to their blog called “Five Ways to Politely (and not so politely) Decline a Drink.” My favorite tactic is the simplest: “I am sober.” Word! I believe  everyone should recover in whatever way feels natural and comfortable to them, but I also want  to encourage folks to shout their sobriety from the rooftops, if they’re so inclined!  

As an organization built on embracing the idea of taking pride in sobriety, founder Wes Hurt, a recovering drug and alcohol addict, wants to give back. According to Forbes, “Hurt says he wanted to build something sustainable — founded in purpose to make a difference — through healthy drinks and great design.” CLEAN Cause gives 50% of their net profit* to support individuals in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.

Most importantly, I think every individual deserves to feel supported. It’s likely we drank  because we weren’t, but the fact that we made the choice to turn away from alcohol to pursue a better life for ourselves is incredibly powerful. Once we truly understand this, we can begin to take up the space we deserve with enough room to twirl and dance, sing at the tops of our lungs, and let our booze-free flags fly.  


*or 5% of net revenue, whichever is greater.

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