For the vast majority of us, sobriety didn’t “work” on the first attempt. Maybe it didn’t work on the second, third, fourth, or fifth either. So many of us have fallen victim to a cycle of sobriety, relapse, binge, repeat.
And it sucks.
Failing is frustrating. We start to build an identity around our failures. Drinking makes us feel like horrible people, and so does our inability to stop.
I get asked a lot how I got sober. It’s a big, heavy question. I’ve always struggled to answer it.
Because I, too, went through YEARS when I could not get it right. Not even close. I’d string together a few days here and there. Maybe even an entire week!
But then… WHACK!
That inner addict voice would start whispering sweet nothings in my ear, tormenting me like Poe’s raven. And I caved. Every single time.
But here I am now, sober for nearly three years. Something changed. But what?
The Mental Shift That Got Me Sober
As I sit here on Day 1 of my latest venture (tackling emotional eating), I realize I’m mentally back in the same place I was in December 2016 when I finally said to myself, “Okay for real this time. Enough.”
And, like then, this time I mean it.
How do I know for sure?
Because I’ve been here before and I know what it feels like.
There is an internal shift in thinking that has to occur. When people ask me how I finally quit drinking, I used to say a flip switched in my brain because I genuinely did not know what else to call it. One day, I just decided to give up the fight.
I felt it in my entire body that things needed to change. No more waiting till tomorrow, or the next day, or next week to start. It has to be now.
How Do You Get There?
So that’s all well and good, but I can’t honestly expect to tell people to keep struggling and hope one day the “switch” flips for them.
I don’t know how it works, friends, but good luck to you!
No. That’s not useful at all. So I’ve wrestled with how to put into words the emotional and mental process I went through to get to long term sobriety. And then the other night, it came to me. The big epiphany!
You ready? Here it is:
The pain of caving has to hurt more than the pain of craving.
That was the tipping point for me. And let’s be honest, both feel horrible. But you reach a point where the guilt, shame, and anguish of failing YET AGAIN hurts more than the crazy-making fixation of craving a drink, or cigarette, or pizza.
It’s easy to forget how bad the caving feels when you are in the throes of craving. So we have to remind ourselves. Constantly.
Yes right now it feels like you’re going to tear your hair out, but honestly if you cave and have that drink or eat that pint of ice cream you are going to absolutely hate yourself for it.
Why Caving Causes So Much Damage
Eventually you’re going to develop a story about who and what you are and it’s not going to be a good one. Sure, each individual cave is not a total game changer on its own, but that’s what’s so insidious about it.
Each failure makes it just a tiny bit harder to turn things around. And it doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time (unless you go overboard). It’s just one order of fries. Or one cocktail at your cousin’s wedding. It’s seems a lot more innocent than it is.
That’s because the more you cave, the easier it becomes. Eventually you stop trying to fight it.
The story in your brain is that you are useless and can’t commit to anything. The reason you believe that is because you insist on proving it. Over and over and over again.
Everything becomes about tomorrow. Today I f*cked up, but tomorrow I will get it right. Except tomorrow eventually becomes today and round and round we go.
Giving Up (In A Good Way)
Caving will hurt more than craving once you reach the point where you say, “I can’t go on like this anymore” and you mean it. You remember it, post it on the wall somewhere so that the next time you crave it’s there, protecting you from yourself.
Otherwise you will fall so miserably far who knows if you’ll get out or spend the rest of your life in a constant cycle of craving and caving.
That kind of living is painful. The kind of pain that robs you of your fullest potential and joy. Isn’t it worth a few weeks of discomfort to escape all that stuff?
That’s the key right there.
Of course, It’s easy to say this after you scratched the itch, but can you remember it when your whole body is begging for relief?
The question becomes: HOW DO YOU GET THERE?
1. Take Responsibility
A lot of people find it difficult to abandon their identity as a victim. I used to be one of them. It makes sense, honestly.
Some of us are dealing with big trauma that planted the seed early in our brains that we are somehow “less than.” We nourish that identity with every failure. The longer we try (and fail) to get our lives together, the stronger that sense of worthlessness and victimhood becomes.
I get it.
Truly. But let’s call a spade a spade. The first step to NOT being a victim is to admit that you’ve been acting like one until now.
And that means you get to start playing with the idea that you actually have agency over your life. That you have the POWER to make different choices. It took me years to believe that.
2. Get Out Of Your Feelings
I used to stew in my feelings for days on end. Getting drunk made it easier. I hated my life, was lonely, suffering crippling anxiety, no romantic prospects, job that drove me crazy – miserable!
Taking responsibility means stepping back and saying, “Time out. Something is wrong. How can I fix this?”
The opposite of taking responsibility is sitting on your couch chain smoking and slamming eight bottles of hard cider while marinating in the emotional cesspool that is your brain. Oh, and Facebook.
YOU have to intervene. You. The person that’s struggling to find air time inside that messy brain. And you really cannot do that if you spend all your time wallowing in emotions.
Leave your emotions over there in the corner to do their thing while the real you assesses what is going on.
Once you do that, you’ve taken the first step towards disassociating with your emotions and recognizing that YOU are not all these raggedy feelings any more than you are an itch on your foot.
3. Work On Understanding Yourself Better
Therapy is a fabulous way to work on the ability to step outside of your emotions in order to create new ways of dealing with them.
You need to find some support systems and teachers – counseling, books, anything really – that can help you learn to recognize when you are headed for an emotional spiral and give you the tools to reverse course.
If you want to get out of this cycle of constantly being led by your emotions, then you have to be willing to learn how and do the work.
Wanting, alone, won’t cut it. In fact, it’s another way of falling back into the same old emotional trap where your feelings dictate everything you do with your life.
I used to “want” to not feel so bad and actually love myself for real. But I couldn’t force it (though I certainly tried).
It wasn’t like I could just decide to feel better or treat myself with kindness. That “wanting” was all heart and no head. It took on a life of its own. It became another form of craving.
I didn’t take action or open myself up to somebody teaching me how to do it. So I continued to function from a place of feeling.
I WANT to be sober, but it’s not working. It’s hard. I don’t like it. I’m sad, miserable, depressed, scared every single day. That’s my entire life.
It takes time to learn how to observe your emotions and understand what drives them. And then you have to learn that feelings don’t run the show if you don’t let them.
4. Always Pay Attention
You gotta pay attention to your internal world.
I still battle with depression and anxiety after nearly three years of sobriety. Neither went away. But these days, I can treat it like I would a bad back. If I’m feeling anxious, sad, or overly emotional, I can recognize that these are abnormal.
Rather than feel sorry for myself or get swept up in how lousy I feel, I call it out.
My depression must be bad right now because I feel a lot of X,Y, and Z. I better do something about it. That’s what paying attention looks like for me.
And I don’t always get to it in time.
Pay Attention To Your Pain
Right now, I’m dealing with emotional eating.
I haven’t paid close attention to my internal world. There are clearly BIG problems that have been brewing beneath the surface and I dropped the ball. I didn’t handle them.
It’s easy to do. You catch yourself getting irritated here and there, but you let it pass. But then those moments of irritation become more frequent. You start acting out of character. You’re tired. You don’t FEEL good.
And that’s where I found myself. And rather than handle it, I tried to bury it in food.
Before I knew it, I was out of control all over again. Same as when I would drink.
I was chugging cans of soda, stuffing food into my mouth like I hadn’t eaten in days, and felt completely detached from my hunger cues.
I felt that urge again. You know the one I’m talking about.
Once I realized that I was repeating addictive behaviors with food and it was leading me down a dark path, I treated it with the seriousness it deserves. I know all too well what ignoring it will do and I’m NOT interested in falling apart.
It’s actually comical to me how similar my failure to control my eating is to how I used to drink. For sure they come from the same place.
I started negotiating, trying to moderate (I’ll only have TWO Cokes today), and all with the same predictable failure rates. Next week I’ll eat better! It’s such-and-such’s birthday, so I’ll indulge a little.
Maybe just a bite.
Then BING! Pleasure centers light up and the insatiable little monster in my brain becomes fully alert. What’s this? A bite of cake? EAT. MORE.
Caving and Craving
I realized that my depression was fueled, in part, by all the caving. (Such a vicious cycle.) The desire to stuff my face until some deeper part of me could feel full was a warning sign. Something wasn’t right.
I’m dealing with it by the way, but it’s quite personal so I won’t go into it here.
Reframing my craving as a warning sign from deep within helped me break free of it. I was able to see the impact of my eating more clearly.
Every time I caved, not only would I feel physically ill but I noticed the internal dialogue in my head was getting pretty ugly. I’d begun shutting down. Caving on food led to dropping the ball on other things – like exercising or meditating.
And it sucks.
I hate it. And the thing is, I hate it more than whatever nagging feeling I get at 3 PM when my brain is hollering for a Coke.
Once you get to the point where you clearly see that caving is contributing to your misery far more than any discomfort from craving, the next step is: “Well what are you going to do about it?”
You have to take action.
Making A Plan That Works For YOU
I’ll use my current battle with emotional eating as an example. I know that when I’m in a bad depressive or anxious cycle, decision fatigue is a killer for me.
And because anxiety has its quirks, I’m the type who will try to fix her eating by meticulously researching the optimal nutritional plan and calorie range to lose weight. And that will lead to tracking down recipes, uploading them to MyFitness Pal, weighing portions, and a whole bunch of other things that take up more mental energy than I currently possess.
So for the first month, I’m doing a meal plan delivery system. It’s not the most budget friendly, but considering the amount of food waste that comes from lacking the bandwidth to do it all, I think it will all balance out.
I’m also aware that the sugar bug has gotten hold of me so better to have meals and cooking sorted for the first few weeks until I can get into a headspace that allows me to cook strategically again.
I bossed up. I made a decision and I’m sticking to it.
Sobriety has to be the same for you.
What is going to help you the MOST right now to stay sober?
Go do that.
Pick 1-2 high-impact things you can do to support your sobriety and commit to them. You’ll add on as you go.
For me, I’m committing to the gym. Every day. Even if it’s just five minutes. And then I’m not allowed to stray from my meal plan. Don’t like the weird beet, choco muffin thing? Too bad. That’s the only snack you can have today, sister!
Once this month is finished, I’ll update my plan and decide what to change, remove, or add.
One day at a time.
Convert Your Anxiety To Excitement
Change is scary. Sobriety is a trip because on the one hand, drinking is destroying your life, but on the other, you’re really afraid of what life looks like without it.
The AA mantra of taking things “one day at a time” is one way to combat the anxiety that comes with anticipating an unknowable future.
Unknowable things frighten us drinkers.
So by focusing on today only, you can give yourself a much-needed reprieve from the dread of facing forever without a drink.
Still, thoughts about the future will pop up. Anxiety is defined as a distress and unease over an uncertain outcome or event, which is basically what life is.
We need a way to use it to our advantage.
One thing you can do when hit with anxiety-induced dread is to try converting it into excitement. Psychologically, there isn’t much difference between the two so it’s not a huge leap.
Are you feeling anxious because there’s a birthday party coming up and it’s your first time attending a function since getting sober?
What’s going on in your body? Do you have butterflies in your stomach? A sense of dread? Are you playing out a dozen different scenarios where you end up drinking again?
Take that energy and see if you can turn it on its head.
Reframe those jitters as excitement. Oh my gosh, I get to see what people are really like after they’ve had a few and then I get to wake up feeling good while they’ve all got their heads in the toilet!
Or, more big picture, I’m really excited about what sobriety will be like! It’ll be nice not blowing my entire paycheck on booze!
Take the jittery fear and see if you can convert it to giddy excitement.
For me, it’s the difference between feeling worked up because I can’t decide if I will ever drink a can of Coke again and getting amped by how good I’ll look after a couple months of eating right and consistently getting to the gym.
At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of perspective and whether or not you feel empowered to choose how you feel about your circumstances.
And then be patient with yourself…
There are still going to be rough days- days when you don’t feel as confident as you’d like. Moments when the craving feels like the worst thing in the world.
Have some patience with yourself.
Rough days don’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It means you’re a human being living a real experience.
It’s also important to remember that rough days end. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine going a week without a drink or cigarette, let alone a month or year. I truly thought the cravings and constant back-in-forth with myself would eat me alive.
I’m still here and I can’t remember the last time I gave real thought to drinking or smoking. It will be the same for you, too.
I’ll be so happy for you when it does!
Here’s to getting our shit, together.