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There comes a point in sobriety where you have to force yourself to confront difficult emotions without any crutches. These are not easy moments, nor are they completely unfamiliar to you. In fact, these are the same thoughts and memories that would, in another life, drive you to open the bottle and get blasted. But now that you’re sober, there’s a new, naked vulnerability invading your inner world and it’s going to get harder before it gets easier.
This work can be extra challenging when adding long term anxiety and depression into the mix. Anxiety is a particularly cruel mistress because she will exacerbate the process of coming to grips with what you’ve done in the past. Those mistakes, embarrassing moments, character flaws, and bad choices thrive inside an anxious mind. They pop up in unlikely places. You could be enjoying a perfectly lovely meal with equally lovely company only to be interrupted by a reminder of something awful and unrelated from the past. Where the hell did this come from? You try to shrug it off, but now it’s there insisting on your thoughts and distracting you from your meal. Your mood has shifted. It’s got you.
In the past, the go-to solution was always to have some drinks and check out, even though you knew that you were merely delaying the inevitable, that at any moment the drink could crank the thoughts back up to ten and you would be “that girl” emotionally unloading on your unsuspecting friends or social media. Or maybe you would be spared until the morning, when the sun would bring physical jitters and a racing mind that cannot be stopped. Everything you tried to hide from is now rattling around in your brain and body. Good luck getting to work on time, sister.
After you get over those first initial hurdles in sobriety the time comes where you’ve got to face some of the demons you’ve been avoiding. This took a while for me. My depression and anxiety had become so intense during my heavy drinking days that the only thing I could even worry about for the first few weeks of sobriety was getting a handle on my mental health. Everything else would have to wait. But now that I’ve gotten myself into a more stable place, I’m slowly coming to grips with some larger issues that need tending, and believe me there are MANY.
I was reading an article on Ashwood Recovery’s website and a section on emotional sobriety really stood out to me. It’s short, so I will share here:
“One of the biggest challenges in early recovery is re-learning how to have appropriate emotional responses to everyday life. Staying on as even a keel as possible and regulating excessively high and low feelings is known as “emotional sobriety”, and is as much a lifetime project as staying sober. In fact, learning to regulate too-strong emotions is a key to avoiding relapse.
Overly-powerful emotions, especially negative ones, can lead to related feelings of guilt, shame, pain, regret, or discomfort, and in the addicted mind – and in the recently-addicted mind – these negative feelings have habitually been dealt with by masking the pain with drugs or alcohol.
Since the goal of recovery is abstinence, the individual has to cultivate new skills for dealing with the almost-unpredictable emotional spectrum caused by a brain that is trying to regulate itself, as well as the trials and travails of everyday life.”
Sobriety can sometimes feel like you’re an emotional toddler and there are days when it majorly sucks. I find myself getting red in the face or my chest tightening over the most asinine things. My husband left an empty bottle in the bathroom for the millionth time. Annoying? Sure. But why do I feel like crying about it?!
If you’re newly sober and starting to dive into what’s really going on inside your emotional world, do not be discouraged if you feel like you’re learning to ride a bike all over again. Yes, you’re going to take some spills and seeing other people riding around effortlessly without training wheels or helmets can be infuriating, but you’ll get there too with some time and practice.
Some things that I have found useful when trying to wrestle with these inner demons:
- Meditation. I’m going to do a separate piece on this, but I will briefly state that few things have done more good for me then learning how to focus on my breath in order to calm the storm raging around my brain.
- Keep it simple. Overthinking is one of the biggest threats to sobriety. I have moments when I’m suddenly blindsided by memories of times I’ve done truly embarrassing things, or got into a fight with someone, or said something horrible/stupid/regrettable. These moments can feel overwhelming. Don’t fall down a rabbit hole. Name it, claim it, and keep it moving. I’ll give an example: I often get struck with negative thoughts about friendships I’ve lost or screwed up. I own it. Yah, I’ve been a shitty friend in the past. I didn’t listen to others. I was flakey. I wasn’t a good support for them. I can’t change the past. I can apologize and try to make amends or I can move forward with my life and hope the best for them, but what I can’t do is go to a dark place and wallow. I can only change how I treat others moving forward.
- Find a creative outlet. For me, it’s this blog and sometimes journaling or poetry. Some folks use art to let out feelings they don’t have words for, or crafting, or remodeling, or any other number of projects that help feel meaningful and productive. Perhaps it’s partly distraction, but it’s a positive thing you can do to let out feelings you’re not accustomed to handling with a sober mind while keeping busy.
- Talk therapy. I’m not utilizing this tool now because I don’t live in a place where I have access covered by insurance, but I have in the past. It’s good to unload some of these things with a professional who can help you process your emotions in a healthy manner and give you the tools to manage better in your day to day life. Some people scoff at therapy, and it certainly is a matter of finding the right person, but it’s worth a shot. It’s certainly more effective than seeking advice from the bartender or drunk dialing a friend in the middle of the night to manage your personal crises.
If our problems could magically vanish once we put down the bottle, sobriety would be such an easier journey. Unfortunately for us, it’s not that simple. The bad memories, troubling thoughts, and old familiar pains are going to pop back up. It’s inevitable. But alcohol has never solved a single problem in your life or mine. So that’s the thing that has to keep us all moving forward, even on days we feel bat shit crazy and alone. This work is hard, but it gets better and that’s the thing to remember. It’s going to get better. The past does not have to define us.