The First 30 Days of Sobriety
On December 19, 2016, I promised myself that I was finished playing around. No more relapses. No more bi-monthly binge.
I was going to take my sobriety seriously and go all in. The thirty days that followed were a roller coaster filled with lessons and insights.
Sobriety, as with most things, is uniquely personal. I don’t purport to speak for the entire sober community or to suggest that my experience is “normal”, but I do hope that my insights may prove helpful to folks who read this blog like I’ve done with so many other writers, and say “me too.”
Week One of Sobriety
The first week of sobriety was a mixed bag, mostly because I had Christmas to contend with.
The initial high of making that definitive choice drove me forward. I wasn’t drinking or smoking. I was going to the gym, writing, getting some traffic to my site, and feeling inspired.
Look at me! Killing this whole sobriety thing, baby!
And then Christmas hit me like a ton of bricks.
There were so many moments when I flirted with the idea that the end of 2016 was fast approaching and since it had been somewhat of a shit year, one last boozy hurrah seemed only fair.
This back and forth between feeling determined and wanting to drink just one (more) last time haunted me for the bulk of that first week. There were days that felt like the only thing I accomplished was driving myself mad with the internal back and forth.
The Critical Inner Voice
Or, as I like to refer to her, my inner asshole.
We all have an inner voice that makes life significantly more difficult than it has to be. You know the one I’m talking about.
She’s the one telling you to stay for one more round and she’s the one telling you what a horrible, worthless person you are the next day for doing so.
When you are addicted – whether it’s cigarettes, alcohol, or something else – that inner voice is LOUD. Chances are you’ve been doing battle with that voice for awhile now.
It’s why you’re agonizing over your drinking and how to feel better.
In the first week of sobriety, it’s important to note that this inner voice is hanging on for dear life. She is not you, nor does she have your best interest at heart.
The more you can detach from that voice, the better off you’ll be.
Physical and Emotional Symptoms in Week One of Sobriety
Mostly, the first week was about finding my feet and trying to stay focused on sobriety as the big goal.
For some, you may experience heavier withdrawal symptoms, especially in the first 48 hours. These include, sweatiness, shaking, tremors, and feeling like you are miserably hungover.
It’s also not uncommon for people to feel depressed in that first week.
When you eliminate alcohol, you are allowing yourself to feel things that you’ve been blocking out.
You’ve also stopped giving your brain its primary source of dopamine, and because what goes up must come down, you may be feeling a little down and out this week.
Everyone’s first week varies. Some get lulled into a false sense of complacency. They ride that adrenaline high and somehow get it in their head that sobriety is “easy.” (I’m looking at you, pink cloud!)
For others, it feels like the worst decision they ever made. Their resolve is shaken. Is it even worth it?
You’ll probably have a mix of both, which sucks, I know.
Week Two of Sobriety
New Year’s Eve!
The angel and demon routine playing out in my brain during the first week finished with a (barely) sober New Year’s Eve in which I opted to binge watch Jane the Virgin with my husband while pounding Diet Pepsi and chain-smoking cigarettes.
On the one hand, I was happy with myself for getting through the holiday season sober. On the other, why was I smoking cigarettes again?
Smoking Cigarettes in the First 30 Days of Sobriety
For many smokers, drinking and cigarettes go hand-in-hand. It was certainly the peanut butter to my jelly. I rarely did one without the other.
Smoking made me feel like shit and so did drinking. I wanted to quit both but in moments of tear-my-hair out weakness, it overwhelmed me.
So I made a choice.
Willpower is a finite resource. In the first thirty days of sobriety, you are likely relying on a lot of willpower to stay away from alcohol. Trying to tack on a second addiction may be too much.
If you are a drinker and smoker a week or two in and feel like you’re going to go insane, consider focusing on one addiction at a time.
Which one, though?
Start with alcohol.
Some people advise you to start with whichever addiction is worse, but my personal opinion (this is in no way medical advice) is to get rid of the alcohol first.
The reason is that alcohol affects your judgment. It is harder to commit to not smoking when you’re three pints in. There is no way that drunk me was not going to pop on down to the store and grab a pack of smokes.
Smoking is serious and it is damaging your health in significant ways, but it may be a battle you wait a couple weeks or months to take on.
Get a little more solid in your sobriety and then take on the next thing.
Mental Battles of Week Two of Sobriety
Although the majority of physical symptoms clear up by the first week, the second week can be full of psychological battles.
People report experiencing anxiety, anger, aggression, depression, nightmares, difficulty sleeping, and decreased libido.
If this is you right now, it is completely normal and in no way permanent.
I know that’s not comforting, but some days just knowing that what you’re going through is temporary is enough to get you to the next day.
I read a wonderful piece of advice about quitting smoking recently:
It gets better. Not soon. But eventually.
And that’s true of sobriety as well. Here’s why that advice is so incredibly powerful.
The Stockdale Paradox
Let’s get a little wonky with some psychology, shall we?
The Stockdale Paradox is named after James Stockdale who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years. During that time he experienced physical and psychological torture that you and I can only imagine.
But he survived.
By accepting the harsh reality of his present circumstance without giving up hope that one day it will be over.
When asked about which prisoners who didn’t make it, Stockdale said, “The optimists.” These are the soldiers who would keep their spirits up by saying, “We’ll make it out by Christmas.”
When that didn’t happen, they said, “Okay, by Easter! We’ll be rescued by Easter.” And when that didn’t happen, they set a new deadline. And the cycle repeated itself until they became crushed by it.
“They died of broken hearts,” he said.
Stockdale survived by accepting his current situation, making plans to survive it AND keeping faith that one day, he would make it out. The paradoxical thinking here is to balance the reality of difficult situations with optimism.
Stockdale Paradox & Sobriety
Whereas we are certainly not being tortured in this moment, it can feel that way. The early days can be full of mental anguish and nobody knows for certain when that part ends.
We can ball park it for you, but let’s remember the Stockdale Paradox for a minute.
If I tell you I felt great after one month, you may think to yourself, “Okay, I just have to hang on for one month.”
What happens when one month arrives and you still don’t feel great?
You run the risk of ditching sobriety because you tried like hell for a month and you still don’t feel strong in your sobriety, so it must be you. Perhaps you can’t do this. (Of course you can.)
So just as James Stockdale didn’t know when he was getting out of the “Hanoi Hilton,” you don’t exactly know when the shitty parts of sobriety will stop.
The pessimists will take this uncertainty and become so dragged down by it that they convince themselves the answer is “never” and quit. The optimists will place unrealistic expectations on this process and crumble when reality fails to live up to it.
The trick, then, is so accept that right now things are tough.
Make plans for navigating water rough waters you’re in right now. And then keep faith that one day, and you don’t know when, but one day, you will come out the other side a happier, healthier human being.
The Pink Cloud of Sobriety
Here’s the flip side of that coin.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “What is she talking about? I feel great!”
First, that is amazing! I hope you continue to feel fantastic for as long as possible. There’s just one thing.
Beware the pink cloud.
Pink Cloud Syndrome is a very unscientific term used to described the initial excitement and exuberance people experience in early sobriety.
What’s wrong with the pink cloud in sobriety?
Nothing, but it won’t last forever. It can’t.
Life doesn’t work that way. There will come a time when sobriety smacks you square in the face.
If you’re caught up in pink cloud bliss and avoiding the more difficult emotional work of sobriety, you may find yourself ill-equipped to handle the hard parts.
It’s a bizarre honeymoon phase. You quit drinking and you feel AMAZING. Fixed, even! Unfortunately this is the point where a lot of people relapse.
The pink cloud can give you the illusion that you are “all better” now (whatever that means to you) and can drink like a normal person. Unless you are a statistical anomaly (you’re not), that’s not going to end well for you.
Soak up the good vibes, but tread lightly and continue to do the work.
Week Three of Sobriety
The first week of the new year and I was on top of the world, baby! I was writing and exercising, riding the resolution high, feeling invincible. Pink cloud central!
At least, that’s what I thought.
Remember! Beware the trappings of the initial buzz that comes with all shiny new things. It’s easy to come crashing down. Towards the end of the third week, an old familiar friend re-emerged.
I started feeling agitated and off balance.
The giddy feeling had dissipated and I found myself wrestling with apathy. I couldn’t write. I stopped bothering with the gym, and at night I was having to take Xanax just to get settled enough to sleep.
Honestly, I was in the throes of depression and not managing it well.
Because I’ve been dealing with mental health issues for a while, I hoped that I could white knuckle it and watch it pass after a few days.
A part of me wanted to drink, but settled instead for several packs of smokes and diet soda. Every day was a minute-by-minute struggle.
Which is why you need to make a plan.
What’s the saying? A failure to plan is a plan to fail.
I did not make a plan. That made it a much more difficult first thirty days of sobriety than was necessary. None of us needs to suffer in silence.
There is an entire community of people who have been through the same thing. Reach out to them at this point!
Whether it’s attending AA or other recovery program, joining a support group, or counseling – this is the time to start doubling down on your commitment to sobriety by getting help.
I tried to tough it out and very nearly relapsed by that third week. Not because it was so excruciatingly difficult, but because I was lost. Going it alone. I had no idea what I was doing, other than resisting with every fiber in my being the urge to drink.
(Horrible way to do it, by the way. Do not recommend.)
Week Four of Sobriety
All that anxiety and depression from the third week? It didn’t pass.
By the fourth week, I was unrecognizable to myself. My mood swung back and forth between depressed and despondent to apathetic.
I began mimicking old alcoholic behavior, sitting outside on the balcony with my husband binge drinking Diet Pepsi and chain-smoking. I did this every night, as soon as I got home from work, much like I did with alcohol.
Obviously booze wasn’t the only problem.
I had these little rituals I knew were bad for me, but continued to indulge, even in the absence of alcohol.
In my drinking days, when I felt overwhelmed, I would abandon social commitments, cooking, and fitness for the mindless satisfaction of the binge.
There I was, doing it again. The only difference is that I exchanged copious amounts of booze with copious amounts of diet soda.
It’s not uncommon for people in early recovery to substitute alcohol with sugar, which is what I was doing with the diet soda.
My brain was craving activity in the pleasure receptors again. The diet soda was my solution.
This was a red flag, and should be for you as well if you’re experiencing something similar. If you’re feeling lost, miserable, and considering giving up, it’s time to ramp up your sobriety game and find a recovery tribe to get help.
Hop online and reach out. Which is what I ended up doing.
Mental Health In The First Month Of Sobriety
I woke up on a Tuesday morning gripped by an anxiety attack that made me feel like my heart was going to explode.
At that point, I knew that I was going to have to do something, lest I spend the next four months wallowing in depression and abandoning all responsibilities (and my lungs) to the balcony.
After careful consideration, I realized that I was going to need more long term care and made an appointment with my psychiatrist to go back on daily medication to manage my anxiety.
From there, it was a slow but steadfast crawl out of that little black hole. But, in retrospect, I’m proud of myself because I did what had to be done.
Anytime you reach out for help, you’re doing it from a place of power.
There is absolutely NO SHAME in seeking the help of a therapist. If you’re showing signs of depression or anxiety, and have the ability to get counseling, make an appointment.
You cannot white knuckle your way out of addiction or mental health problems.
If you’re feeling lousy or hopeless, please know that this is normal, you are on the right path, and it is going to get better.
Not soon, but eventually.
Recovery Beyond The First 30 Days Of Sobriety
The first thirty days of sobriety were challenging for me, to say the least.
It was harder than the first thirty days of any other period in my life when I managed to successfully stay away from alcohol and cigarettes a few months or more.
When you’re wrestling with mental health issues alongside addiction, it is not always easy to predict what you’re going to get.
It just so happens that my anxiety and depression decided to make a strong guest appearance on this go ‘round and I had to take additional steps to make sure my sobriety and wellbeing stayed in check (more on this in a minute).
Remember: get help if you feel like you’re not managing things well.
I didn’t think I would ever go back to regular smoking, yet there I was running through a pack or two a day. There are going to be ups and downs with no way of knowing which is coming when.
Make a plan, take it day by day, and have faith that it will get better.
Please note that a version of this post was originally published in January 2017. Below, are my thoughts after my first thirty days of sobriety.
It’s been eye-opening going back after a couple years of sobriety to see my thoughts and struggles from those first thirty days.
Huge surprise, though!
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was newly pregnant.
It’s no wonder my mental health took a major downward spiral. Pregnancy hormones mixed with early sobriety emotions? Yikes!
So in that regard, my first month was a probably a bit atypical (whatever that means).
But I survived it and got the added motivation I needed to quit smoking as soon as I saw those two little lines on the pregnancy test.
It’s been a couple years now but I think that I was definitely at high risk for a relapse by the end of those four weeks, especially since I was living in a country with little to no access to addiction support.
In many ways, my daughter saved me.
Related posts for handling early sobriety:
What To Expect The First Thirty Days Of Sobriety
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, here are some resources to help get you through.
- In the USA https://www.alcohol.org/
- In Canada http://www.ccdus.ca/Eng/Pages/Addictions-Treatment-Helplines-Canada.aspx
- In the UK https://www.adfam.org.uk/help-for-families/finding-support/call-a-helpline
- In Australia http://www.recoveroz.com.au/how-to-find-help/help-lines.html
- In NZ https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/helplines