‘Drinking Games’ author Sarah Levy talks drinking, recovery and sobriety

After graduating from Brown University, Sarah Levy moved to New York City in 2012 and began socializing with high-achieving millennials like herself – accomplished, fit, smart, popular people who curated seemingly perfect lives on social media.

“Yes, we were at the top of our classes and industries,” writes Levy in her new memoir, “Drinking Games.” “But we wouldn’t be caught dead showing how much we cared, how exhausted we were, how hard we tried. We were taught to make it look easy; to succeed without bragging.”

“Effortless perfection” – a term coined on the Duke University campus in 2013 – is a front that can have detrimental effects, especially on the mental health of young women.

Just ask Levy, 33, who did plenty of partying to be liked and appear confident and happy. She drank to get drunk because that dulled her social anxiety. While Levy frequently blacked out, she was able to function the next day, so in her mind, she didn’t have a problem.

Until she did.

When the consequences became so negative and potentially dangerous, she finally re-evaluated her life and motives for drinking. Levy, who moved to Los Angeles in early 2020, will talk about her book and road to recovery at 7 p.m., January 18, at Skylight Books. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q. What do you hope readers take away from your memoir? 

When I was struggling with my relationship with alcohol, I didn’t see anyone going through the same thing or anyone who was sober. I hope that anyone struggling with their own drinking, or really anything that isn’t serving them in their life, learns that they’re not alone and that there is hope on the other side of recovery. 

Q. Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, you felt academic pressure. After struggling on the SAT, you went to your first house party, where you write that an old boyfriend demoralized you in front of his friends. You took your first shot of vodka and later got drunk. How quickly did drinking morph into a coping mechanism?

It was always that for me. I remember hearing from someone when I first got sober that their drinking started out as magic and then became medicine. I went back and forth between those two – from “I feel lighter” and “I’m having fun” to “I need this because I want to feel that way and I’m not.” Eventually, it just became harder and harder to control. 

Q. You only drank socially and held down a job. Then one day, you woke up next to your boss’s best friend with no memory of how you got there. How did this push you to seek help? 

It wasn’t my worst night. I had mornings where I woke up in the hospital. It was just that when I woke up in that room, I couldn’t believe it happened. I really respected my boss at the time, and I really wanted him to like me. And I felt crushed that he had seen me in that way. In the past, I had made excuses like, I didn’t eat a big dinner or everyone was really drunk. But the voice in my head told me I was out of excuses. The desperation to not feel that way again prompted me to seek help.

Q. You embraced a 12-step program rooted in Christianity. What do you say to people critical of 12-step programs with their emphasis on admitting powerlessness and leaning on a higher power?

That is what kept me away from 12-step programs for years. I was raised Jewish and I just didn’t relate to it. But I was so desperate for help and I found that it was much more inclusive than what my preconceived notion of it had been. I could bring in my own conceptions of God and spirituality; the community could be a higher power because that’s something that’s greater than you on your own.

In terms of powerlessness, I definitely struggled with that language and that narrative because it felt very at odds with the way that I had been raised. Like, I’m powerful and a feminist. I’m strong. I can do anything. But the truth was that once I started to drink, I didn’t really have control over what was going to happen. 

Q. What parts of your life make it most difficult to stay sober?

In the beginning, it was definitely challenging to go to parties and weddings in particular. Now that I’ve been sober a little over five years, I truly don’t think about drinking anymore, which is amazing, because that seemed impossible to me when I first considered getting sober. 

Q. Alcohol is a part of so many people’s lives. What is your advice to someone who is having a hard time socializing with friends without drinking?

There are so many activities you can do that don’t revolve around drinking. When you’re invited to a party, bring a nonalcholic beverage or make mocktails and if people want to add alcohol to theirs, let them. Remind yourself that not everyone is thinking about your decision not to drink and that you’re there to experience the event, whether it’s a birthday or a holiday party.

Q. Did social media make it more difficult for you to change your life?

There is good [on social media], but there is a lot about it that can be really, really hard to navigate. 

It’s really an interesting alternate reality that we can live in online. I was single and dating and a lot of dating apps were connected with Instagram profiles. So a potential date could go and see, “What does she do for fun?” “Where was she last weekend?” I felt getting sober would negatively impact my social and dating life, and that felt very scary. 

I have to be very intentional with setting boundaries around my social media usage because I can still go into that rabbit hole where I’m comparing myself to whatever everyone else is doing. 

 Q. How did becoming sober affect your friendships?

I was scared that my friends wouldn’t like me as much when I stopped drinking. The truth is, most of them weren’t drinking the way I did, and they worried about me. They would have to help me get home and saw that I was struggling. They’ve been really supportive. A lot of them say,  “We like you better now.”

Q. What have you discovered about yourself as a sober woman? 

I am more introverted than I realized. I was always going out and surrounding myself with people because I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t really like myself. But now that I’ve gotten to know myself, I really enjoy being home reading books and watching movies and having quiet nights. I also realize that I don’t know a lot and now I have the space to be curious and learn more.

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