In 20 days, I will be 2 years sober! It was the fastest and slowest 2 years of my life. I wanted to challenge myself to come up with 20 amazing things that have changed in my life since I got sober on Oct 30th, 2016. It was easier than I thought. If you have been in recovery for a while, I encourage you to try making your own list. If you are newly sober, or considering sobriety, I hope this list encourages you.
I am no longer afraid of alcohol.
I am afraid of the space that alcohol used to fill.
I fear the thoughts that alcohol numbed so reliably.
I am scared of the anger bubbling below the surface.
But I am not afraid of alcohol.
I rarely have a moment where I wish for a drink. But I know those moments where I would have drunk. Those moments where relief would have been one sip away. Where just pulling the cork out of the bottle would have felt like a deep meditative breath. They happened almost every day. So I stay vigilant.
At almost 2 years sober, it’s hard to remember what alcohol tasted like. I certainly know the smell as it seems to be in the air whenever I leave my house. I don’t like to be too close to an open drink – especially wine. “Don’t tease your disease” is an old AA saying. As a sober person, I am surprised at how much and how often other people drink. I take other people’s inventory constantly. A no-no but almost impossible. Why the hell does anyone need to drink at a funeral brunch anyways? Is she an alcoholic? Will she open a bottle when she gets home from this dinner or are these 3 drinks it? Is she like me? I still compare.
I’m starting to realize that just about everyone who drinks uses alcohol as a drug. On some level. Once the alcohol starts flowing, the smiles come out. Even amongst people my parents age. You can see the relief, the softening of the body when the alcohol comes out. At least in my circles. Alcohol is not self care but it gets confused for it. Alcohol melts away the edges, softens things, dissolves the day. At least that’s what it did for me. We claim we do it for the taste, the complexity, for the cultural appreciation. There are clubs, groups and trips organized around it. When you get sober it can be hard to not get resentful of others who get to indulge in those beautiful myths. It can be hard to not beat yourself up that you couldn’t keep up that illusion for yourself. If you loved it so much, how come you couldn’t protect it? How come you had to overdo it to the point of annihilating it? Questions swirl in your mind for years.
I must think more about alcohol in recovery than I did in active addiction. Or do I just forget how bad it was? I remember the obsession. When, where, how much? How many minutes between each drink? Did I look drunk or did I pass? For god’s sake, did I text or call anyone? Recovery can become it’s own obsession. There were the mornings where I regretted the drinks of the night before, and I said that I would take the day off (I never said quit) and that made me feel better as I started my day. By noon, I was feeling even better and started to think that a glass of wine might feel nice after work. “Feel nice.” That is actually what I told myself. So light, so easy, as if I didn’t have night terrors every day at 4am. By 5pm, it was a certainty that I was driving to the Wine & Spirits to “choose” a nice bottle of red to pair with dinner. Choose. That’s a funny word in addiction. I may choose sobriety but I didn’t choose addiction. I didn’t choose to go down a path in which the solution to every normative life problem was a glass of wine.
I no longer “choose” alcohol. I choose recovery.
I am not afraid of alcohol but it is my enemy. A mortal enemy that would just love to take me down. An enemy that knows all my weaknesses, all my triggers, and has an easy solution to all my problems. I stay on guard with abstinence. I know for me one drink and I would become subservient again.
I work on that space that exists without alcohol. Those feelings, thoughts and behaviors that I can no longer numb. The anger that needs an outlet through truth, speaking, writing, reading and meditating.
I choose truth even when I know others are taking my inventory. Even when I know people are comparing themselves to me to feel better about their own drinking. That was a habit of mine in addiction. I know it well. It causes pain but the pain is nothing compared to the decade of broken promises ,lies to myself and shame. And the fear of what alcohol was doing to me.
I am no longer afraid of alcohol.
I am almost 2 years sober. 23 months to the day. It’s hard to believe I made it 23 months when there was a time when I counted hours, then days, then weeks. Stringing time together, wishing time away, yet feeling better. Healing. Scared. Bored. Restless. Numb. That’s pretty much how my first few months, maybe even full year went. Slowly things started to fill in and I didn’t think about my sobriety every second of the day. I worked, I filled my days, but at night time passed in slow motion. Agonizingly slow motion. I found TV shows with 25 episode seasons and watched them in weeks. So many hours to be gotten through just to get to the next day. I smoked a lot of cigarettes.
Me, Sept 2018
Those nighttime hours were so long. I didn’t suffer much from cravings, at least not after the first few months but I missed the numbing. I missed my trusty friend that made the stress of the day melt away so easily. That liquid that interrupted time and my thoughts and brought a softening and an ease to the evening. Now it took much more effort to melt the day away. In those early days, I lie on my couch reading and watching hours of TV at night. Just passing time and allowing my body to heal, to rest. It happens really quickly and really slowly at the same time. The body bounces back but there is this residue, this memory, this feeling like your body is shedding skin like a snake, while you lie there waiting. For what? I had no idea.
Some days, I was elated. Everything I did totally sober was incredible. I was enjoying the silliest things. Like, “It’s so cool to go to bed totally sober!” To wake up without a trace of a hangover, to eat food that tasted so good without numbed taste buds, to remember the entire movie. Other days, I wanted to scream because life was so freaking boring, the same, each day. Or I was so angry, on edge, mad at the world. I was pretty sure that I had some type of mood disorder that caused these up and downs. Sometimes these weren’t different days, they were different hours of the same day. Most days I was able to remember that all of this was so much better than an average day in my drinking life. Thank God for that grace which kept me going. I sometimes wonder if it’s just time we’re trying to kill with alcohol. And, so many thoughts.
When we’re drunk, time and thoughts don’t really travel at the same speed.
I was readjusting to human time.
Eventually I made it to one year sober and I grew to appreciate and even enjoy that time on the couch. These weird nights without the wine and with a clear mind. Stacks of books to read and movies to watch. I started to remember, really remember that during the worst of my drinking, I felt like the walls were always closing in on me. There was only so much time to get everything done before I had too much to drink. There was no leaving the house after I opened my bottle of wine because I was a “responsible drinker”. There was this short, productive window of time in the evening (until about the end of the 2nd glass) to get anything done. After that, the desire to get anything done was replaced by the relief of that numb feeling erasing the day’s anxiety. I didn’t need to get anything done after that. I was dismissed of my worries and my duties.
Now at almost 2 years, what’s changed most is how I see this time now. I’ve reframed my relaxing nights as self-care. I wake up ready to take on the day in a way that I was not capable of in active addiction- no matter how much effort I made, and I made a huge effort back then. I burned that candle dangerously down at both ends. I now know that giving your best requires incredible self-care – which is not a luxury but an absolute rule if you want to be a healthy human being and a sober one. That time that used to make me feel strange is now one of my most precious resources. I’m extremely protective of that time – whether it be an hour at night or three – when I read, watch TV, write, take a bath, work out, or whatever my body needs to do in order to recover both from my addiction and from my day. I love giving my all and then recovering. I love acknowledging my humanness with limits and boundaries. This is also known as self-respect. I still remember that this is a million times better than my best day in active addiction.
I grew up believing that alcoholics would never get help until they reached rock bottom. Like many alcoholics, I waged war inside my heart, head and body for years. Was I an alcoholic? Was I just neurotic? Was I like everyone else? Was I nothing like anyone else? An absolute anomaly? Something that scientists would delight in studying? Something so different, special, horrifying all at the same time. And, if I was an alcoholic, was I fated to dig right to the bottom before being able to stop? My dad hit a rock bottom of sorts. Was addiction an unstoppable force? Did I have any free will? I now know that these questions are more common than, well, we all want to believe.
You reach rock bottom when you stop digging. That is all. When you decide, I am not going to go any lower. This will be my last drink. My last hangover. My last drunken regret. Rock bottom is just where you stop digging.
What I’ve realized now is that many of our stories are the same. A LOT of close calls and risks – especially when we’re young. Sometimes we settle into “safer” drinking when we get a little older. By safer I mean, we hide behind closed doors. No cars to drive, no random people. It becomes a more solitary thing. This is progression of addiction. Lots of shame, lies, overcompensating. Making and breaking the same promise to ourselves, day after day, sometimes for years. I won’t drink today. Followed by walking that back later in the day, when the hangover from the night before starts to fade, when the addiction starts calling us back. Vacillating between the feeling that we’re going mad and feeling like we’re making it all up. That is addiction. I guess wherever you stop is rock bottom. I didn’t stop until I had finally had enough. When the anxiety inside me started screaming louder than my addiction. When all of the so-called benefits weren’t enough anymore. It took decades to get there. When I finally stopped digging.
My story is different than so many I read yet I’m sure there are many others just like me. I didn’t relapse or have years of on and off sobriety. It took me years to get to a day 2. A lot of years. Ok a decade. Hard to believe that one can worry about their drinking while continuing to drink for a full decade. Alas, that is my addiction story. I worried, I counted drinks, I counted minutes between drinks, I moderated in every way one can moderate while completely failing at moderation. I woke up in the cold sweat of fear and terror at 4am (most nights), but I didn’t have a day 2. I rarely skipped a day. I had light days, I had days where I only had time for a glass or two of wine, but I almost inevitably never took more than a day off. I am amazed at my own veracity to continue for all those year never skipping a beat while tormented by it at the same time. When I finally decided I couldn’t do it anymore, after doing it for a decade, I called a rehab facility, told my family and my boss and off I was packing my bag. I don’t think I could have done it any other way.
For me, I had to remove myself from my own life to stop. It wasn’t the amount that I drank, usually a bottle of red wine a night, but the fact that I did it every night that made quitting on my own impossible. Withdrawal was actually not that bad. A few restless nights and some extreme fear (not sure that was withdrawal or just reality sinking in) but not the symptoms I feared most. I was pretty much detoxed when I got to the rehab facility 3 days later. They still gave me detox meds so I can’t say for sure that I it wouldnt have gotten worse.
I had lots of emotional withdrawal. I cried daily, I got numb with no warning. I was all over the place. I felt disconnected to my body. At other moments, I felt great hope. I laughed and was surprised that I could laugh sober. Really deep belly laughs with other people doing what I was doing. It felt alive.
The hardest part for me was day 2. When I got there and then to day 3 something told me I would never drink again. I could not go another decade trying to get to that point. I knew that would be my future if I didn’t stay stopped. That flash decision to call a rehab and actually follow through, that was a FREAKING MIRACLE and I was not gonna take that for granted. I was not gonna count on another one being sent my way anytime soon. This miracle was not to be squandered.
I’m now at day 686. That miracle has lasted for 686 days and it’s fucking mind blowing to me still. Maybe my veracity to do something enthusiastically for a full decade of every single day can actually work to my benefit. I am nothing if not determined.
This post is inspired by the essay Permission in Kristi Coulter’s book Nothing Good Can Come From This. This is what I wish I knew when I first got sober. It’s an exercise I would encourage you to try.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO get off the couch.
You don’t have to go to the gym.
You don’t have to eat healthy.
You don’t have to go to a meeting every day.
You don’t have to hang out with anyone. Or answer their calls.
You don’t have to stop playing video games or looking at Facebook.
You don’t have to turn off the TV and do something productive.
You don’t have to have a good day.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO go to the party and pretend to be having fun.
You don’t have to watch your friends drink.
You don’t have to do holidays.
You don’t have to listen to your not sober friends confess that they’re worried about their drinking after having a few at the bowling hall. You don’t have to go to the bowling hall no matter who’s birthday it is.
You don’t have to go to the goddamn wedding reception. You don’t have to stay after dinner if you do.
You don’t have to prove to anyone that you’re ok, that you’re cool with watching them drink, that you can still hang.
You don’t have to dance around the subject.
You don’t have to make others feel comfortable.
You don’t have to answer their questions.
You don’t have to prove to yourself that you can go to the restaurant, tolerate the party, the BBQ, their incessant drinking jokes, whatever.
You don’t have to tell anyone why.
You don’t have to feel good now.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO moderate anymore, measure, substitute, watch the clock, time your drinks, water it down, switch to something you don’t like as much hoping it will help when it never does, have a backup bottle, choose the highest ABV, remember when the wine store closes.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO “just this once please don’t overdo it”, try to look together, keep your fucking eyes open, splash your face with water, walk straight, try to be like everyone fucking else even though you suspect they might not be doing so well themselves.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO wake at 4am, look at your phone, please let me not have done or said anything stupid or embarrassing, piece the night together, try to figure out how much you drank, how you got home, to bed, more regrets, night terrors, anxiety crushing you, hating yourself, mouth parched, run to the bathroom, sleep it off, wake up, make promises, break promises, slowly shift into denial, make peace with it, find an excuse, do it again, for years on end.
YOU DON’T HAVE TO feel happy right now.
YOU JUST HAVE TO NOT DRINK TODAY.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget, especially on Labor Day Weekend when the world is partying and it feels like I am the only person not participating. Of course that’s not true. Many of the younger women in my sobriety groups are having a much harder time than I am. I don’t miss the parties. They were pretty boring anyway and, for me at least, more about the booze than the company. It’s amazing how much smaller your circle gets when you are not motivated to hang out with them based on their drinking habits.
I remember knowing people who were sober and happy. Sort of dreaming about being one of them. This elusive club of those who aren’t hung over every weekend. Who haven’t been disillusioned by life to the point that they “deserved” to get drunk on the weekends, to indulge in happy hour just for making it through the soul crushing day. Who didn’t need to drink to numb all of the disappointments in life. I always wanted to be one of them. I wasn’t sure I would ever make it. I made it.
This quote by Laura McKowen.
This is the truest thing I have ever read. After almost 2 years of sobriety, it was like a punch in the gut. A cutting reminder of where I was 22 months ago. Pouring gasoline on all my anxieties, my fear, my depression. The terrifying fears. Night terrors. The 4am wake ups, gasping for breath and feeling-like-I-was-going-to-die anxiety. I knew I had anxiety about my drinking. I had no idea that drinking alcohol was the rip roaring cause of my anxiety. When I read this simple quote, I realize what could have been. I am so lucky. I really think I could have eventually become so anxious, so depressed that I may have become suicidal. My despair, my fears, the acuity of my anxiety was so real, such a threatening force.
I decided to stop drinking after a day where I had such anxiety that I said to myself “It would be better if I drove right into that tree.” I didn’t do it. Thank god. But I thought it. I may have even said it out loud. It scared the shit out of me. Within days, I was done. It was really not about the alcohol at that point but the fact that I would try anything to escape the anxiety, to alleviate the pain I was feeling, the box I felt trapped in.
Life has changed in ways I could never have imagined. I still have anxiety. I still have bad days. All of it. Just lesser. So much lesser.
I read a good book over the last few days called “Sober Ever After” by Jackie Elliot. I had been listening to her blog Sober Sassy Life for a while. It’s part memoir and part self-help and for me, I whole lot of relating. It’s so helpful for me to read books and listen to stories about other women’s recovery and other women’s drinking. I’ve been reading them since before I ever actually got sober when I was as Jackie says “flirting with sobriety.” I flirted with sobriety for a long time, inching closer then pulling back.
I was still looking for reasons why my drinking didn’t put me into that “alcoholic” category.
I was looking for a way out of the craziness that wasn’t sobriety.
I was hoping to read/listen/learn my way into normal drinking.
I was looking for clues that I wasn’t like them. (She drinks 2 bottles a night. Well, I only go through one).
It’s almost funny now. The things we will do to try and hold on to the thing we love (need). The wrestling with it all yet refusing to deal with the problem. The mental energy expended. I just wanted to be a normal drinker (throws self on floor in a 3 year old tantrum).
It’s so nice now reading recovery memoirs, listening to podcasts and being on the other side. Getting to be one of the sober ones. I always fantasized about being one of those thriving, sober women even when I was way too scared to consider sobriety. I admired these women for their courage, I imagined being one of them, long before I ever got real about quitting. Thank god for that spark of hope even though it seemed so far off. It kept something alive in me. I knew there was an alternative out there. It felt so very far away, like on another planet but it existed.
It hasn’t been easy over the last 22 months but it’s been so worth it. Most days are amazing. But some really suck. Especially the nights when I’ve tried to have a “normal” social life, i.e. hang out with people drinking. It can be lonely. I have felt like I was exiled on a different planet. These books, podcast, these women in recovery, have become my friends, my comfort, my reminder that it’s possible to thrive in recovery. There’s a lot of time when it’s bliss. When I am high on recovery. On top of the world. I look better than ever, my body feels better, my mind so clear. I am reliable. Responsible. Creative. I feel really, really good. Sometimes it’s boring. I’ve learned to embrace boring. Mundane. No drama. Lots of TV. And that’s recovery.
I listen constantly to sobriety & recovery podcasts, read all the books (especially memoirs written by women), took a class, but I still feel fear when speaking or writing about my own recovery. Partly because of my job(s), partly because of the black & white thinking that dominates the discussion around drinking. You are either a fall-down drunk or you are a fun, casual drinker. Nothing in between. I’ve already had people say to me “well how much did you drink? what happened?” Of course, I want to answer “about as much as you do” to certain people. So it’s been hard for me to open up and be vulnerable. Fear. Not wanting to be judged. Anxiety about the whole thing. Yet, I also don’t want to be ashamed or hide the fact that I am sober. Because I’m not ashamed. I’m actually really proud of the transformation I’ve gone through. It hasn’t been an easy 22 months but it’s been the most incredible 22 months I can ever remember.