How My Dog Helps Me Stay Sober
Brie reminds me that my sobriety is so much bigger than myself.
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In the days after my husband and I brought our dog, Brie, home, I wondered if we had made a mistake. For the record, I am madly in love with Brie, a Schnauzer / Poodle mix who likes to sprawl across my body and demand belly rubs while I read. But in our early weeks together, we experienced some growing pains.
Before Brie, I had spent the past three years focused solely on myself. After over a decade of vodka sodas, blackouts, and hangovers, I got sober at 28 and began the process of rebuilding my life without alcohol. At times, this was uncomfortable, like when I attended work happy hours at breweries or watched friends take tequila shots at birthday parties. But as I implemented new practices — recovery meetings, therapy, meditation, and exercise — my sobriety became a steadier force in my life.
I had the luxury of being selfish: In early sobriety, I was single, but I eventually married a supportive partner who encouraged me to prioritize my mental health and wellbeing. I put my sobriety before everything else, and it worked.
A Rough Start
As anyone who has ever had a puppy will tell you, it is an exercise in consistently caring for something (or someone) before yourself. I had grand plans for seamlessly integrating a dog into my routine; Brie would laze around the house while I worked, nap while I meditated, and join me for brisk hikes.
Brie, naturally, had other ideas. She was all energy: She peed constantly, barked until we played with her, chased us in circles, cried in her crate, and needed nonstop supervision as she ambled around our apartment inspecting our carpets and couches. Walking half a block with her took 30 minutes, as she painstakingly sniffed every square inch of her new world. My own self-care practices took a backseat, and although Brie was perhaps the cutest dog to have ever lived, I often became frustrated with her.
“I feel like I have puppy postpartum depression,” I joked to my friends, but it wasn’t really funny. It was shameful to admit, but I resented this five-pound dog who was suddenly demanding all of our attention and energy. I missed my quiet routine, my tidy apartment, and sleeping in.
My husband and I enlisted a trainer who helped us with basic commands and leash training. She suggested we spend at least 20 minutes a day practicing these commands with Brie to reinforce the work we did together in our sessions. Equipped with a pocketful of treats, I repeated the same daily cycle — sit, stay, come — and praised her when she listened. In these moments, I felt our bond strengthening. As I watched her brain latch onto the familiar words, I recognized that she was trying her best. We both were.
When Brie had been with us for a few months, I lost my grandfather — my first experience with grief in sobriety — and Brie seemed to intuitively know exactly what I needed. Her brown orbs watched me as I cried, and she carefully curled up next to me, her sweet face inches from my own. The moment cracked something open in me. I had been putting so much pressure on Brie to fit perfectly into my old life. But I couldn’t control her any more than I could any other variable. Rather, I needed to make space for her, exactly as she was.
As Brie continued to grow, I was consistently reminded of my own path to progress in sobriety. When I first stopped drinking, I needed to develop new coping mechanisms and adjust old routines. There were challenging moments; recovery required patience, consistency, and, often, a sense of humor. Similarly, one day at a time, Brie continued to develop into her adult self. She stumbled at times — going on hunger strikes when she tired of her food, having the occasional accident in the house — but eventually grew into a mellow, curious, gentle dog. Even better, she stopped waking us up at 6 a.m.
Recovering — Together
Two years later, Brie has become an integral part of my sobriety. I eventually became less rigid in the ways I thought about self-care, and we created a new routine together. She lays in my lap while I attend virtual recovery meetings, and I meditate while she runs around the dog park. Instead of my vigorous solo workouts, Brie and I take leisurely strolls around the neighborhood; she pauses to smell all the flowers, which reminds me to do the same. She even sleeps in with us on weekends, stretching languidly when we wake her. It’s surreal to remember a time when I resented her presence; now, when I have to go out of town, — or even just out to dinner — I miss her. (Evidently, the feeling is mutual: In a true display of pandemic-puppy-codependence, she cries whenever my husband and I leave the house. We’re working on it.)
Ultimately, I didn’t get sober for my days to revolve around myself. I gave up alcohol so I could show up for my loved ones and be a present participant in life in all its unpredictable turns. I may have lost sight of it along the way, but I’m forever grateful to my sweet Brie for reminding me.
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Sarah Levy is the author of Drinking Games, a memoir in essays. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Cut, and Vogue, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their dog, Brie.