Dry January | How To Attain Emotional Sobriety After You’ve Quit Drinking

The power of surrender for emotional sobriety

In yesterday’s post, I introduced to you the idea of emotional sobriety. Today, I really want to focus on how you get there so that you can avoid becoming the dreaded “dry drunk.”

Wait. Dry Dunk?

Yes. If you’re exhaling deeply because you think I’m making up new words at this point and sobriety feels like it comes with its own language, you would be half right.

Not to worry. I’m here to simplify it all for you as best I can.

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Okay, Remind Me Again. What Is Emotional Sobriety? 

Emotional sobriety is your ability to manage and cope with all the negative emotions you used to mask with alcohol. It means learning healthy coping strategies to deal with the various emotions of your life. It doesn’t mean life is sunshine and moonbeams or that you don’t have difficult days. It just means you know how to manage it.

The most important thing you can do to achieve this skill is admit that you have no idea HOW and would like some help learning.

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Are you stubborn?

You can tell me. I’m stubborn, but not as much as I used to be. I wallowed in a mess of my own making for years, pounding drink after drink, feeling sorry for myself, mostly because I am stubborn and a recovering know-it-all. This is probably the biggest factor that kept me from sobriety.

So it is with love when I tell you that when it comes to managing your emotions YOU. DON’T. KNOW. SHIT.

You don’t.

People who drink as a way to manage anger, stress, sadness, boredom, excitement, joy, social interaction, or whatever other emotion you’d like to add do not possess the ability to experience their feelings in a healthy manner. BUT WE CAN LEARN.

Please don’t believe the lie you tell yourself that you can pick up a book in the self-help aisle and DIY your emotional recovery. You cannot. It doesn’t matter if you are a genius. How many of us know incredibly smart assholes?

Intelligence has nothing to do with your inability to cope with your stuff.

If you want to get better, you’ll have to drop this idea you have that you can figure it out by yourself. Surrender to the idea that you actually don’t have a clue and then allow people who DO know their stuff to help you.

Let’s talk about what surrender DOES and DOES NOT look like.

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The Curse of The Dry Drunk

How to obtain emotional sobriety in recovery from alcohol
Key Mindsets For Emotional Sobriety

People who refuse to accept help and trust in whatever process they’ve decided to try often devolve into dry drunks.

The American Addiction Centers refers to the dry drunk as someone who “feel(s) overwhelmed, as though they are white-knuckling through life without their substance of choice.” The dry drunk isn’t drinking, but beyond that, hasn’t changed a bit.

The dry drunk doesn’t go to therapy because she believes that therapists don’t know what they’re talking about. The dry drunk quit AA because it’s just a bunch of weirdos and he knows it’s never going to work, so why bother?

Dry drunks walk around life pissed off and cynical. They hold onto emotional baggage from their drinking days, wallow in old grudges, and are bitter creatures. Dry drunks romanticize their drinking days and struggle to take responsibility for how they got into trouble with alcohol in the first place.

Dry drunks make excuses.

Sometimes dry drunks are people who are overwhelmed by their misery because they thought by stopping drinking, their problems would go away.

Occasionally, you become a dry drunk when you behave alcoholically with other substances. If you used to pound whiskeys every time you had a rough day, but now you just pound Diet Cokes and donuts, you’re behaving alcoholically. Transferring your emotional avoidance from one substance to another does not a sober person make.

I speak from personal experience as someone for whom diet soda has become my “alcohol.” There’s no shame in it, but you need to recognize when your alcoholic tendencies manifest in other ways so that you can handle it.

At the end of the day, you do NOT want to become a dry drunk, which is why surrender is key.

The Role of Surrender in Emotional Sobriety

Some people dig into AA literature, read about surrendering to a higher power or admitting we are powerless against alcohol and cringe. It sounds like new age bullshit, and for the atheists and agnostics, the higher power bit is a difficult pill to swallow.

That’s not QUITE what I’m talking about today (though they’re all connected).

I’m talking about control. It goes back to that whole know-it-all, stubborn thing.

Surrender, in this context, means giving up control over the solutions to this particular problem: drinking. It does not mean that you are incapable of managing other aspects of your life. There are many, many things for which you are probably an excellent problem solver. This just isn’t one of them and that is okay. It is by no means a value judgment.

I love this quote from the Recovery Ranch:

The heart of recovery depends on a willingness to recognize that you can’t control this one area of your life.  Addiction is rarely if ever overcome by sheer willpower.  You have to find a better way, and it starts with admitting that you can’t do this one thing your way. Doing it your way has repeatedly gotten you into trouble, and it will continue to do just that if you don’t trust others to show you the way.

I promise you that no matter how uncomfortable an AA meeting or a therapy session may feel initially, the minute you decide that you’re just going to go with it, a weight will lift off your shoulders. It is an incredibly liberating and transformative act.

I would also encourage you to keep an open mind with the whole higher power surrender stuff from AA. It works for non-believers as well.

Emotional Sobriety and Surrender
why giving in is the key to not giving up in sobriety

Strategies For Emotional Sobriety That In No Way Replace Your Therapy or Recovery Program Sessions

See what I did there?

I want to equip you with healthy coping strategies to manage all these up and down, wacky emotions you’ve got going on right now, but with the caveat that you still need to go to counseling or meetings.

1. Mindfulness

I’m personally a huge fan of meditation and believe everyone should do it, but I’m going to focus on a slightly different aspect.

One strategy that has helped me avoid getting swept up in emotions to the point where I can no longer make heads or tails of what I’m feeling is to be mindful at that moment. Instead of letting the feeling invade my body and brain, I take a step back and detach myself from the emotion as best I can.

This is sometimes referred to as “noticing.”

If I’m hit with a strong emotion, especially out of nowhere, I stop and pay attention to it. I observe it. I name it. This entire process helps me diffuse the power the emotion has over me. It doesn’t make it vanish, but it helps me turn the intensity down.

It looks something like this. Back to our traffic example from yesterday. Somebody has cut me off and the rage monster is rising up in my throat.

“Okay, right now I feel hot, my heart is racing, and I want to scream. There’s a lot of adrenaline in my body. I feel angry and scared. I’m also surprised because I didn’t see that guy coming. Thankfully, it’s over and no one got hurt. I’m fine. It’s okay.”

Wait. You actually talk to yourself in these moments? Isn’t that kind of crazy?

Maybe? But it seems a lot more sane than doing this:

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2. Write It Out

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m a big believer in the power of journaling and writing through your feelings and experiences. When done consistently, I know this is a powerful tool for everyone no matter your struggle.

If you’re feeling confused or overwhelmed by your feelings, try writing it out. Don’t worry if you’re making any sense, just let the words flow onto the page. It’s cathartic. Even if you don’t solve some great personal mystery about what’s at the root of your anxiety, you’ll feel better when you’re done.

I promise. If for no other reason than you’ve exhausted yourself and your attention is now on the cramp developing in your writing hand.

3. Find Something To Redirect Your Energy

Have you ever been so swept up in a emotion that you literally wanted to run? That’s your body’s fight or flight response kicking in and my suggestion to you is, if you can, to follow that instinct.

Get out your running shoes, or best equivalent, and go run. Don’t worry about distance, time, pace, how ridiculous you look – just go. Head over to a gym. Dance furiously in your living room. Do something that allows the energy to get out.

You’ll feel better.

Like a toddler who gets cranky if they don’t get to go outside and run around, you too need a healthy release for all this pent up energy and emotion. Choose your outlet and just go for it.

Journal Activity For Today

Emotions are tricky things for everyone, not just people for whom alcohol has become a problem. Healthy coping strategies are the key to living a happier, more stable life. Here are some prompts to help you with today’s information.

  • Besides drinking, how do you normally deal with difficult emotions?
  • Do you attend therapy or recovery meetings? If so, how is it going for you so far? If not, what’s holding you back? 
  • What does emotional sobriety look like for you?
  • Have you ever been a dry drunk?
  • What’s the most difficult emotion for you to handle right now? Is it stress? Boredom? Sadness? Why do you think you struggle with it? 
  • Which coping method do you most relate to? What are some strategies you’ve used to help manage tricky emotions that have worked?

Additional Resources

Here is a fantastically useful Ted Talk about emotional mastery that I highly recommend.

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Alicia is an American expat, writer living in the Middle East. She chronicles the highs and lows of early sobriety on her site www.soberish.co. To contact, please e-mail contact@soberish.co.

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