Change is hard. Like, real earth-moving, deep down in your bones change is hard. That should seem like an obvious statement, but for me, for years, it really wasn’t. I was being flanked on all sides by industry professionals telling me that change was easy. I just had to genuinely want it. If I devoted all my mental energy to wanting this change, the Universe was going to intervene and say, “I got you, girlfriend!” and all was going to be right. If it wasn’t, it was my fault for not wanting it badly enough.
I once read a book where the author said she was battling alcohol and cocaine addiction, a real party chick, and was wrecking her life. Then one fateful day she woke up and heard a voice say, “if you get clean, you’ll have everything you ever dreamed of” and that was it for her. She got clean that very day and everything (seemingly) was sunshine and rainbows from then on (at least on the not using front).
I don’t know about you, but no such voice ever intervened in my life. No magical switch ever flipped in my brain and made all my pain and struggles go away. The nameless author I mentioned above isn’t the only one who has pedaled the “one day I just decided enough was enough and I never looked back” narrative. There are many others. I don’t mean to suggest that this wasn’t their experience. Maybe it was. But for me, and I imagine many like me, this isn’t realistic or helpful. In fact, it can add an additional layer of “something must be wrong with me” because no matter how many nights I literally dropped to my knees begging for some intervention to help me out of my own shit, I would still wake up trapped. Matter of fact, read any sobriety memoir and you will see a universal theme: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Perhaps it’s just that these authors leave out the gory details of what happens after you decide to get it together. I don’t know. I just know I couldn’t replicate the little miracles I kept reading about in my own life and it was making me depressed.
So what is the real deal with change? Sometimes people ask me how I managed to get sober or they tell me that they can relate to a lot of things I went through, but don’t see how they can stop. I understand both sentiments perfectly and my response is usually the same: you have to be ready for it to work and you’ll know when that time comes. Also it probably won’t be instantaneous.
No magical switch ever flipped in my brain and made all my pain and struggles go away.
I firmly believe that it is important to be honest, so honestly, it took me six years to get to the place I am at right now. I invested nearly three or four years reading the entire Self Help aisle looking for answers, solutions, strategies, anything really that could help me get on the right track. I would have a good month or two of no drinking or smoking, eating right, meditating, convincing friends that this was the new me and basking in the glory of my newfound freedom. I was going to be health coach. I was going to change lives even though I had barely scratched the surface on fixing my own. And then the inevitable backslide. Something would happen: I would start dating somebody who wanted to go for drinks, or I would stop dating somebody and be devastated, or my job would get to me, or I would feel too good and think that I was all better. Before I knew it, I was back to running to the bar after work each day and hanging my head awkwardly out of my living room window, puffing away while inhaling bottles of Angry Orchard. It just wouldn’t stick for me.
How many potential a-ha moments did I let slip by?
I remember one time getting shitfaced at a friend’s party. I didn’t want the good vibes to end so I drunkenly forced my way into an afterparty hangout with my friend’s sister’s boyfriend (you read that right) and his friends – none of whom I knew before that night. We meandered to someone’s apartment. They were a close knit group who had known each other since college and I was about 8 years older and barely coherent. We went up on the roof and somebody tried to make small talk with me about what I did. I slurred my way through an explanation of being a teacher but training to be a health coach and all I was going to do with that. She took a look at my smokes and my overall sloppiness and asked, “Shouldn’t you be healthy?” Shortly afterwards I was told that they wanted to hang out with each other and catch up so maybe I should go home. I stumbled my way off the roof and towards my own block. That embarrassing night and interaction perfectly encapsulated the grand delusion of my life at that time.
This would’ve been a great point for me to realize that the problem was bigger than what the Self Help aisle could offer by way of solutions and that professional help was going to be needed. How many potential a-ha moments did I let slip by?
I tried to do therapy, but was unable to find somebody who was a good fit. One therapist refused to treat me unless I started attending AA and that rubbed me the wrong way. I didn’t want to do AA. Another dropped me because I struggled sometimes to keep our 7:30 AM appointments because of work and she said she didn’t think I was taking her time seriously. She may have been right. I don’t think I was a good patient. Perhaps a better move would’ve been to leave New York altogether and enter a proper rehab facility, but I didn’t fit the profile of who I thought needed rehab and was too chicken shit to drop my crappy, yet familiar, existence to take such a big leap. Besides, how would I pay for that kind of thing? It was out of the question. (Excuses, excuses, excuses)
That stubbornness is exactly why it took me six years to get it together instead of two or three. I try to not do the thing where I look back and say, “what if…”, but not getting help sooner and not recognizing just how bad things had gotten for me are some of the biggest regrets of my life. I don’t dwell on it too much, but I can say with utmost confidence that my life would be greatly improved had I done more sooner. Conversely, my life would be total shit had I never done anything at all, so I take both lessons at face value and try to move positively forward from there.
I realize in this looking back, however, that no matter how much I was begging God, or whomever, for some intervention, that I was not mentally prepared to make the change. Had I gotten proper help and care, I could’ve gotten there faster, but I didn’t. You have to be mentally prepared for change. Maybe you wake up one day and realize you can’t do it anymore and it actually leads to the rest of your sober days, but more than likely it will not be the first or even one hundredth time you’ve woken up to say, “I just can’t anymore.” The thing is that at some point, you will say that, and it will be 100% true and you’ll finally do what you should’ve done a million times before to get on the right path. Chances are, though, it won’t happen on the first try. (Kudos to you if it does! I’m 100% here for that. It just wasn’t my experience.)
Change is not some momentary flash that shocks your brain and overrides your previous self.
There’s often a catalyst that superchargers sobriety. It usually isn’t enough to wake up one day and say, “I can’t do this.” Don’t we make that joke with our friends? How many times have we all woken up with a horrible hangover, feeling absolutely wrecked, professing to friends that we’re never drinking again only to go out that very night and do it again? We have great laughs over these times. These are not the moments that save you.
The moments that save you are one last horrible, drunk mistake that finally knocks some sense into you. It’s getting really sick and being off booze or smokes for a couple weeks because you couldn’t have indulged in either if you’d wanted to and realizing that maybe you can actually do this. For me, during one of my longest abstaining periods, it was getting my wisdom teeth out which gave me enough distraction via mouth pain and an all liquid diet to get past the initial hump of those first couple of weeks. Or maybe it’s seeing two little lines on a pregnancy test and realizing your bullshit has to stop. It’s going to be something, an event, a moment, or a realization that flips a more realistic switch in your brain and produces a moment of clarity where you know you REALLY can’t keep doing what you’re doing and you’re finally ready to get the help you need. It is not a magic bullet moment that makes everything okay.
It doesn’t end there. There are some hard days ahead and work to be done, but once that more realistic flip switches it’s a little easier to navigate the rough waters of sobriety. Be advised though, flipping a switch does not guarantee a peaceful journey. Expect that it will be challenging and filled with uncertainty and temptations to relapse (which you might even do). None of us actually know if we’ve made the change for good. That’s why they tell you to take it one day at a time. I won’t pretend that I’m all better and I’ll never pick up a drink again. I hope I don’t, but who can say for sure? I can tell you that today I’m not drinking and for the rest of my pregnancy I can see no circumstance that would lead me to do such a thing, but once this little girl is out in the world, a whole new set of pressures are going to come down on me and it will be back to one day at a time, just as before.
Change is not some momentary flash that shocks your brain and overrides your previous self. I call bullshit on anyone who suggests otherwise. It is slow and painstaking and full of false starts, but it’s infinitely possible and if you can’t seem to get that flip to switch on its own, find the courage to throw your hands up and admit that you need help. By questioning and agonizing over how to change, you’re already started on the path. It’s the shitty part of the path, but you’re on it. You’re not going to quit drinking overnight and when you do stop, it’s going to be a bumpy road. Once you accept that and still feel motivated to try, you’re ready and things will start to happen for you. That’s when the good stuff begins.