Sobriety Made Me a Better Cook, and Cooking Keeps Me Sober

(Image credit: HelloRF Zcool/Shutterstock)

At the beginning of 2013, my dad and stepmom were both diagnosed with stage-three cancer. I quit my job, moved back home, and started white-knuckling my way through daily panic attacks. I will never forget sitting with my stepmom during a blood draw while my dad received chemotherapy that was so strong, he could barely walk for four months. No one should have to take both parents to the oncology clinic at the same time. I was barely 23 and, instead of seeking out a therapist, I turned to the bottle. I drank and I drank for three-and-a-half years until I could no longer outdrink my fear.

On August 7, 2016, I woke up with the worst hangover of my life. At this point, I was drinking six to eight drinks every single day, and more on the weekends; the day before, my drink total was somewhere in the double digits. That day, the only position that didn’t cause me to start dry-heaving was lying stomach-down on the couch, my face turned to watch hours of Mariska Hargitay being her charming Hungarian self on Law and Order: SVU. I slowly shoveled takeout pizza drizzled with ranch into my mouth while thinking, I can’t do this anymore.

I haven’t had a drink since then, and I proudly call myself a sober alcoholic.

For my first few weeks of sobriety, I maintained a myopic focus on simply avoiding the bottle. I’d lie awake at night staring at the ceiling, choked with the fear that I’d stop breathing the second my eyes fell closed.

I was eventually diagnosed with agoraphobia and panic disorder, which is an anxiety disorder that leads to avoiding certain places for the fear of panicking and feeling trapped. For me, my triggers included grocery shopping, driving on the freeway, taking elevators, and standing in line. It turns out, my penchant for drinking wasn’t unrelated to this condition; approximately eight million Americans aged 18 and older suffer from both a mental health disorder and an addiction, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Now, with a few years of sobriety and hundreds of hours of therapy under my belt, I no longer have to avoid those triggers, and I only deal with about one panic attack a month.

The now-sober author. (Image credit: Bonnie Horgos)

As I slowly learned to breathe again, I fell in love with one of the greatest acts of self-love: cooking. Since getting sober, I actually care about myself, thus, I care about what I eat. I’ve always loved food; it’s just that when I drank, I loved booze more. For some people, a glass of wine elevates a meal. For me, it was a distraction; all I could think about was when I could pour my next glass. Plus, when I drank, I was simply a bad (and dangerous) cook, even though I tenaciously held on to romanticized visions of sipping wine and slowly caramelizing onions while crooning along to Frank Sinatra. In reality, I was squeezing the last few drops of wine out of a bag ripped from a box and eating scrambled eggs for dinner. Not glamorous.

My consumption of alcohol and care for cooking were inversely proportional; after a few cocktails, I convinced myself that, yes, two eggs would suffice for dinner. Sometimes I’d chop up an apple, throw a chunk of salami on a plate, and post up on the couch as though this were acceptable nourishment. Those were the safer evenings; don’t even get me started on the amount of times I almost accidentally dismembered myself while chopping carrots with one eye open. And anyone who’s had a few too many while cooking knows the dangers of leaving the oven on overnight.

Once, I came home from a party and threw frozen ravioli into a nonstick pan, as I’d drunkenly forgotten that I had to boil the pasta, not fry it. My liver wasn’t the only thing in imminent danger; my fingers and my house were also on the chopping block.

I’m not saying that I got sober and the next day I was all like Julie and Julia. It was a slow progression over the course of a few years. But once you learn to take care of your body, cooking transcends just filling the tank. I live in Minnesota, and I used to have an excuse for drinking any time of year; in the winter, I’d tell myself that drinking to stay warm was normal. Now when the temperatures dip below zero, I slowly roast a butternut squash and turn it into soup. I rely on bone broth. And there’s nothing like a pot roast to get you through a particularly arctic chill. These warming recipes took the place of bourbon, and they taste a hell of a lot better.

In the summer, I used to gulp down vodka tonics. Now I rely on salads bursting with local produce to keep me cool. Warmer temperatures call for as little oven time as possible; living in a 551-square-foot condo, even roasting vegetables for 25 minutes will cause me to start sweating profusely. Summer means simple, and a prosciutto-draped wedge of melon is irreplaceable. My partner grows tomatoes every year, and the pleasure of the plant’s oils saturating my skin as I pick sun-ripe fruit thrills me more than any tepid can of beer could.

When I drank, I couldn’t tell you what I did for enjoyment. These days, I don’t have enough time for my hobbies. I read 50 books a year, meditate, practice yoga, knit, write, do jigsaw puzzles, play guitar, and take my dog on countless walks. Now that I no longer struggle with agoraphobia, I even enjoy perusing my local grocery store. And of course I cook. All of these activities are synergistic; I do them because I’m sober, and these activities keep me sober. Now that I’m a teetotaler, I can actually caramelize onions while listening to Frank Sinatra, instead of getting distracted and letting the once-fragrant bulb burn to a crisp that resembles my liver.

As someone who grew up in a house where family dinners occurred nightly at 6 p.m., I’ve reclaimed my love of home cooking. I’m far from perfect in the kitchen (see: my failed experiment living off of beans), but sobriety isn’t about perfection. It’s about waking up each day and hoping that I treat myself and others with respect. One of the best ways to do that is by sharing a meal you lovingly made, even if your plating technique is far from Rene Redzepi’s.

Plus, I still get to listen to Frank.