Let’s set some expectations about sobriety.
It’s not the end-all-be-all solution to your life. Neither is it the magic bullet solution that will straighten out your problems.
I thought maybe it could be, once upon a time. If I just stop drinking alcohol, my life will turn around. Done. Finito. Everything’s good.
But that’s not how it works, and that heavy realization has been known to spark a relapse or two among the newly recovered, myself included.
When you first quit drinking, it feels like the hardest thing you’ll ever do in life, like attempting to run a marathon without training first. Hitting those milestones – one week, one month, six months, one year – feel like small miracles (because they are).
Everyone’s sober journey is different, but the general consensus among the millions who suffer from this disease is that it’s a mixed bag.
There are good days, PHENOMENAL days. Life affirming, I-can-do-anything days.
And there are days that make you contemplate shoving a fist through the wall. Days that leave you paralyzed. Hair-tearing days that make you question the value of sobriety.
And then, of course, everything in between.
Sobriety is not the WHAT. It’s the HOW.
I used to believe that sobriety was the ultimate goal. That was my personal Kilimanjaro. If I could get sober, I would effectively eliminate 90% of the problems in my life and shut down the internal war that had been waging in my brain.
Depression? Gone. Anxiety? Banished.
But that’s not the case at all.
Sobriety isn’t the goal. Happiness, success, peace of mind, family, stability – these are the goals. For those of us who abuse alcohol, sobriety is the only vehicle by which we can achieve any of these things.
But a good, sober life is NOT automatic (or guaranteed).
There are a lot of things that happen naturally when you quit drinking alcohol. You feel better (at least you SHOULD) because you’re not hungover and laying at death’s door every other morning.
Your brain eventually gets sharper. Your ability to remember things improves and the fogginess of drinking starts to dissipate.
Eventually (though there are times it doesn’t feel like it), your neurochemistry readjusts. It returns to something resembling balance.
And those are the conditions under which you can start the real work.
Wait, are you saying sobriety isn’t real work?
No! Sobriety is one of the hardest things ever.
But I am saying that the work does not end with sobriety. In fact, it begins with it.
And this is why so many people with years of recovery under their belt also participate in a recovery program of some sort, talk therapy, faith-based counseling, health and fitness programs, or some combination of these. (And no, AA is not the only option, though it has worked quite well for many.)
For those of you who are in the early stages of sobriety or interested in sobriety, the question is: What are you going to do to protect your sobriety from here on out?
Because if you don’t do anything and think that once you hit a month or two of sobriety, you’re free and clear, I’ve got news for you, my friend.
It ain’t that simple.
And better you should hear that now.
Here are some problems sobriety can generally fix on its own:
- Hangovers (because, duh)
- Leaving your wallet at the bar and having to come back the next day, half dead, only to discover that you have a $347 tab waiting for you
- Regrettable hookups you can’t remember because you got blackout drunk
- Silly spills down stairs or high ledges that leave you with unnecessary injuries (unless you’re a total klutz, which…I can relate).
- Getting shit faced and saying mean things you can’t take back (unless you’re naturally an asshole, then… well…)
- Absurdly high credit card debt from drunk impulse buys on Amazon
All FANTASTIC things to no longer be doing. But you’ll need to do more if you want to live a good life and turn things around in a significant way.
Because here’s what sobriety alone cannot fix for you:
- Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues
- Baggage you’re holding onto from previous trauma
- Regret, grief, feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, anger, despair – and any other number of things we drank to hide from
- Poor diet and fitness
- Lack of motivation
- A shitty job that makes you miserable
- Failure to set and meet goals
- A lack of direction or purpose for your life
- Damaged relationships
- Broken family bonds
And THOSE are the things that will drag you back down if you let them.
Which is not to say that if you never address those issues head on, you’ll definitely go back to drinking. There are plenty of people who slowly trudge through the remainder of their lives fueled by cigarettes, sugar, and grievance.
But if you’re going to bother with getting sober, shouldn’t you at least create a life that merits the effort?
You have to be relentless.
What is going to help you feel better? Get back that spark?
For a lot of people struggling with alcohol abuse and addiction (myself included), the answer to those questions might not be obvious. THAT IS OKAY.
But you need to relentlessly pursue the answers. To go out every day and say, “I have no idea how to be happy, healthy, or healed, but I’m going to try to find a way that suits me.”
You also need to keep an open mind.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but in the past, I based my interests in large part on whether or not it would put me in the path of “cool” people and/or love interests. Shallow, I know. And very high school.
Honestly, I believe this closed mindedness is a big contributor to previously failed sobriety attempts. I wanted to be happy, social, have more meaningful relationships, but I was not willing to branch out or try anything new.
It’s very liberating to let that go.
It is common for a newly sober person to say, “I’m really bored now. I have no idea what to do with my time.”
The reply to that is generally, “Well what do you like to do?”
If you have no idea, that question can be really trying. For me, it was such a reminder that I was aimless and that made me want to drink even more.
Once I decided that I was really really done with drinking, I also made the choice to be more open minded about how I spent my time.
What a blessing.
I learned that having a group of friends over for pizza and board games was perfectly fine for me and actually much more fun than getting drunk and sloppy at some club. Even when they all drank I didn’t care because that wasn’t the focus on the gathering and nobody got drunk.
I couldn’t tell you the last time I wore a pair of heels.
You know what I love doing for exercise? Playing pickleball. Got any retired grandparents in Florida? They’re definitely into it. (Google it.)
I went from technophobe to someone committed to learning how to start, build, and design her own website and voila. Here we are.
And THAT led me to realize that hey, I enjoy graphic design a little bit.
For my anxiety? I’ve tried every manner of meditation, including some pretty wacky Kundalini videos on YouTube that were oddly effective.
I’ve also done a bunch of other stuff that didn’t work for me like: running, doing a boot camp, going to ladies night, hanging with old drinking buddies sober (turns out we didn’t have much in common), 90 minute yoga classes, and more.
It doesn’t matter what, but you have to believe that there is something out there that can fuel your sober life in a meaningful way and actually care about finding it.
The opposite of that is stewing a cesspool of thinking.
If you’re not out there doing, you’re overanalyzing and that is dangerous territory for most of us.
Instead of trying to have an open mind and actively do things that might turn out to be great, we project our fears and worries onto every idea that gets suggested to us.
You don’t sign up for that fitness class because you’ve thought about it and people in there will probably talk about you, you don’t have anything to wear, and you’ll hate every second.
So you quit before you even start. You’ve mulled it over so much that it FEELS like you really DID attend a class and had the worst experience of your life.
In reality, you didn’t leave the couch. But no matter. The damage is done and the seed was planted.
Or maybe you can’t bring yourself to consider any options at all. Nothing inspires you. Nothing is fun. You have no interests. Woe unto you, special one, for whom there are no workable solutions to your problems!
(I used to be that girl.)
You have to commit to your transformation every day or it ain’t happening.
After I got a few sober months under my belt, it occurred to me that I didn’t know myself. Like at all. I’d spent the past twenty years trying to fit an image of who I THOUGHT I wanted to be and then drank myself stupid when I failed to live up to it.
Caroline Knapp so eloquently wrote in her book Drinking: A Love Story:
After a while you don’t know even the most basic things about yourself – what you’re afraid of, what feels good and bad, what you need in order to feel comforted and calm – because you’ve never given yourself a chance, a clear, sober chance, to find out.
She talks about how once we start drinking alcoholically, we stop growing.
In many ways, I felt entirely stunted in this weird early 20’s “who am I really?” phase despite being a married, pregnant woman in her mid-thirties who should’ve grown up by now.
Sobriety doesn’t fill in the blanks, but it offers you two choices: you can wallow in the discomfort of being a stranger to yourself, or you can find out who you really are.
And that process takes time.
And usually some counseling/therapy/group sessions, etc. For those of us with more challenging mental health issues, maybe it includes a treatment plan to help you cut through the fog.
I’m three years sober and still figuring it out.
But I work really hard at it. I’m constantly moving (and failing) forward. I don’t always succeed. I have bad weeks where I slip into zombie like routines, eat too much sugary foods, and generally feel bad about myself.
But I’m always invested in getting back on track.
I have to because if I don’t, my mental health will take a plunge and that’s when the negative, scary thoughts start to pipe up.
Our brains crave novelty. We weren’t meant to be complacent or sedentary.
For me, that looks like reading every single day and getting enough exercise. (Lifting weights and going head to head with retirees on the pickleball court.)
I’ve recently started a new business after moving back to States and I’m frequently scared shitless by it, but I keep on trucking along and putting myself out there, even if it means I make a mistake (which I probably will).
And the more I DO, the less time I have to think, which means I don’t have to attend the pity party inside my brain as often.
I still doubt myself constantly.
In the past, I drank myself stupid because the anxiety in my brain was overbearing. I “worst case scenario’d” every single thought inside my head.
I quit EVERYTHING shortly after starting because I’d think up a dozen different ways I was going to probably screw it up and let it get me down.
Everything was negative self-talk. And if I came up against a challenge, I caved. That way of living made me miserable. So I drank to bury that misery.
I wish I could say that because I no longer drink, I don’t do the monkey mind, worst-case-scenario thing anymore, but I do.
The difference is that sobriety allows me the mental space to say, “Stop entertaining ideas of failure and get out there and actually do something with your life. You’ll figure it out as you go.”
Drinking me would’ve NEVER had the chutzpah.
Eventually, you start loving the process.
If you’re at a place in your sobriety where you can’t possibly fathom leading a happy, fulfilling life, know that a lot of us have felt that way at one point or another.
You don’t have to know how to get there. But you have to want to.
That sounds weird to say. I mean, who wouldn’t WANT to be happy? But you’d be surprised how many of us get comfortable with our own misery.
It’s familiar, at least.
Happiness? Not so much.
We don’t know what it looks like, and that makes us nervous. Or we still believe, deep down, that we don’t deserve it. Maybe you were a proper jackass in the past and you think you need to punish yourself for the rest of your life for it.
There are a lot of reasons people struggle to break free of their own misery, which (again) is why support systems and programs are often so critical to addiction recovery.
But it’s not insurmountable.
You figure it out. Light starts breaking through the cracks. Your goals become clearer and you start finding ways to be happy again.
It doesn’t happen overnight. Major transformations can take years.
And that’s fine.
You’re not going to look like a jacked fitness model after a month of eating well and going to the gym. And you’re not going to be transformed into a happy, mentally fit super human just because you stopped drinking alcohol for a few months.
But you HAVE significantly improved the odds that you get there eventually. You’re building the foundation brick by brick.
And that’s a helluva thing.
Now, keep going!