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Book Review: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober

“The first time I got drunk, I’d felt like I finally unzipped my wrong skin and slipped into a slinky new one, “writes Catherine Gray.

In her new book, The Unexpected Joy Of Being Sober, Gray describes her journey from fake friends, hungover mornings, and failed moderation attempts to finally finding her way to sobriety and the many joys that come with it.

Yet early on Gray is unconvinced. She writes, “Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want to not drink. My day did not look like that. But I didn’t want to drink either.

The world in sobriety is much brighter, louder, rawer, and scarier that Gray imagines. She writes, “Withdrawal is gnarly. It can be actually painful. Physically addicted alcoholics, like I was, can expect nausea, a total loss of appetite, burning skin, screaming nerves, a piston-pounding headache and absolute constant panic,” writes Gray

Seeing an addiction counselor early on, Gray was forced to meet her denial head on. “When I showed up for my first session, I was so angry with the world, and by extension him, that I was practically waving a gun in his face,” writes Gray.

For Gray, exercise soon became a relief. She writes, “In a way, dedicated drinkers have many of the same qualities as athletes. A tolerance for physical pain, a monolithic stubbornness, an all-or-nothing leaning towards the extreme.”

Yet Gray also discovers something interesting: Her happiness is her own responsibility. This becomes poignantly clear to her after a day of oversleeping, not exercising, and not feeling her best. She writes, “When I look to other people to fill me up as if I’m some kind of empty vessel, I make myself helpless. Sitting there, waiting for other people to gift me with happiness, such a waste.”

However, what often sabotages her happiness is her own addictive voice that opines, Have another drink, nobody has ever told you he loves you in sobriety, the only cure for this panic is alcohol.

“A game changer for me was separating this tyrannical voice out. Realizing that this voice was the wannabe architect of my destruction. Understanding that this voice was not me. It was my addiction talking,” writes Gray.

As Gray embarks on her journey to stop hating herself and start liking herself, she learns the importance of appreciating the moment, saying, “I down some coffee and go for a run at sunrise, watching a steamship chug happily beneath a steel bridge so monstrously huge it makes the ship look like a toy boat.”

While drinking offered many shortcuts — and laid out a fast track from painfully shy to party girl — Gray also realizes that it was in drinking that she became lost herself. She writes, “When I was a drinking, being alone meant the self-loathing set in. I had wanted the distraction of other people because I didn’t like myself. Sober, I started to love being alone.”

Gray also began to notice how the world around her changes from the animals in it and their responses to her to her perception of it. In her first month sober, she joined a gratitude group and soon realizes the power — and fleeting nature — of gratitude. She writes, “Some days are pregnant with things to be grateful for. They’re easy days. On others, you have to grope around to find the slivers of beauty on an otherwise shitty day.”

On gratitude, Gray lays out the science with the following caveat from neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression: “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place”

By finding gratitude for her own life and accomplishments, Gray is much more able to appreciate others. “I’m now genuinely happy for other people when good stuff happens to them,” she writes.

On dating, Gray reminds us that no partner is a panacea and there is nothing outside of ourselves that can bring a true sense of peace. She writes, “As my self-esteem has risen, so have my standards, while my propensity to date men who aren’t good enough has fallen. I’m attracted to them, but I bail out quickly now rather than clinging to the life raft with my fingernails.”

Learning to incorporate nature, spending time with children, and reminding herself that her sky can be blue if she simply stops paying attention to the black clouds that represent her malevolent moods, Gray stumbles her way into sobriety, debunking myths as she goes. Sober people don’t feel constantly deprived, boozehounds are not just pleasure-seeking party goers.

Witty, lighthearted and enlightening, Gray has delivered a masterpiece that argues for sobriety to have its rightful place in society — as a glorious and wonderful thing.

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober

Aster, December 2018

Paperback, 272 pages

Book Review: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober

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Claire Nana

Claire Nana is a regular contributor and book reviewer for Psych Central.

APA Reference
Nana, C. (2019). Book Review: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Mar 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Mar 2019
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