I’m now reaching the five-month mark in my sobriety (and, EEK, pregnancy) and there is one benefit that I am luxuriating in right now: reclaiming my formerly pickled brain.
Even in the thick of pregnancy brain fog, I still find myself in awe of just how much room there is inside this dome that had been previously clouded by a booze, hangover, anxiety cocktail.
Towards the end of my drinking days, I noticed that I had difficulty thinking clearly. I was no longer able to tap into my “zone” and produce interesting content when I sat down to write (which was almost never at that point), nor did I possess any motivation to try.
I no longer got lost inside complex thoughts. In fact, I was actually starting to forget things regularly. I would have to write everything down because I was incapable of remembering something in the short term for longer than a few minutes.
We often laugh about moments when we walk into a room and have no idea why we came in there, but that was becoming my normal. It didn’t scare me necessarily, at least, not as much as it should have. Instead, it just made me more depressed. Whoever “I” was, whatever construct of self I held previously, was slowly vanishing.
What The Experts Say
It’s common knowledge (or at least, it should be) that when we’re drinking alcohol, our brains become impaired. We slur, we slow down, we forget things, we black out, or we make bad decisions.
For heavy drinkers, though, the lasting impact is more severe. According to the American Addiction Centers, alcohol can impact our brain’s hard-wiring and produce cognitive problems that may persist even in sobriety. Heavy drinkers are at risk of impaired intellectual functioning and diminished brain size.
“In addition, there are numerous brain disorders associated with chronic alcohol abuse. For example, research supports that up to 80 percent of chronic alcohol users have a thiamine deficiency, and some in this group will progress to a serious brain disorder known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS). Symptoms of WKS include confusion, paralysis of eye nerves, impaired muscle coordination, and persistent problems with memory and learning ability.”
Fortunately, many of these effects can be reversed, but only in sobriety.
My Own Impairments
My brain was so fermented in alcohol and anxiety that I lacked the capacity for anything beyond going to work (a struggle in of itself) and coming home. There was no space for personal development or socializing. It was the saddest mode of autopilot I have ever operated under.
I would soldier through the day, expelling all my energy on my teaching, and then race home to post up on the balcony, hop on social media or YouTube, and zone out in between sips of whiskey and drags of Marlboro’s.
My husband and I would occasionally engage in banter, but it always devolved into the pair of us sitting outside, drinking, smoking, taking up space, fully engaged on our smart phones, but not each other – not in any authentic way. Every day was the same.
What Happens To Your Brain in Early Sobriety
The first couple of months of sobriety were peppered with emotional ups and downs. I had peak energy days and total, depressive crashes. I was not stable, and with the additional hormones and pregnancy complications wreaking havoc on my body, it was no wonder.
This is normal. Alcohol creates a rush of dopamine in the brain. After extended, heavy use, the brain gets used to that rush and even craves it. When you first take away that source, you experience a state called anhedonia which is a pretty way of saying you feel like life will never be pleasurable or happy again. Nice.
It is still hard for me to know what was anxiety and what was hormonal. Although it’s very unscientific to say as much, I felt like my entire brain and body was trying reboot. Some days I felt good, but many days I did not.
I wasn’t drinking, but I was so wrecked from all the changes in my internal world that I often came home and retreated to my couch and would remain there until I went to sleep. I had a new balcony, and a new autopilot.
In my lower moments, I began to wonder if this was it. I’d eliminated the hangovers, but was this exhausted, unmotivated woman crashed out on the couch my new, real self? I was depressed all over again. This was my anhedonia and I was afraid it would last forever.
And then slowly, things got better.
The Mental Road to Recovery
In the recent weeks, I’ve noticed marked improvement, even on days when I’m feeling otherwise stressed or frazzled. My hormones are still all over the place. I cry VERY easily. My head aches every day and I still can’t wake up and function properly without special medication to keep from vomiting (I’m in my second trimester but nobody told my morning sickness that). Still, something is BETTER.
Despite everything making me feel exhausted, driving me to bed before 9 PM, I am still able to read for at least thirty minutes a day, usually more. I’m writing almost every single day. I’m backing away from my smart phone little by little, reducing time on social media. I’m craving real information, not just mindless entertainment, and outlets for expression again.
Books are exciting me. Ideas are catching fire and I feel better than I ever have, EVEN though I’m nauseous 60% of my day and have ceaseless headaches and pregnancy eczema that makes wearing clothes feel like a small torture.
Whatever damage I had done, was starting to reverse itself. In fact, the vast majority of heavy drinkers will be able to retain a large amount of their brain functioning within just two weeks. That’s good news!
Research has also found that all those brain cells you’ve been killing off can be reborn. After the first week of sobriety, the cell growth in the hippocampus increases two-fold. Between the first week and first month, increases in gray brain matter and white brain matter start to appear.
I was worried that I’d lost my mojo, but it steadily started coming back. I feel like a functioning person again.
When I first stopped drinking, my mind still craved the mindless escape and there were plenty of ways to find it, usually via the world of Netflix or HGTV. But the most curious little flip has switched for me once again.
I’m not interested in checking out like I was before. I want to DO things (ironic, considering I am restricted in what I can do physically and want to go to bed by 7:30 most nights). I’m not content to just go to work, come home, and exist for a few hours before going to bed. I’m craving knowledge and projects and insight.
That’s the beautiful thing about sobriety. Even though in the early days it can feel like nothing will be good again, hearing other people tell their stories, learning about this disease, gives us hope. It will get better. I promise.