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, one that I am still on, but filled with lessons and insights I will take to help me get through the next thirty.
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 deciding I was going off the sauce for good was a mixed bag, mostly because I had Christmas to contend with. The initial high of making that definitive choice was driving me forward. I wasn’t drinking. I wasn’t smoking. I was going to the gym, writing, getting some traffic to my site, and feeling inspired.
Christmas was a little tough, which I wrote about in a previous article. I had a lot of 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 renewed and wanting to mess with it one last time toyed with me for the bulk of that first week in ways that made me want to climb up walls, but I fought through it and came out unscathed (and sober).
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’re miserably hungover.
It’s 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. Keep going!
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?
The sober community has its fair share of smokers, and I realize now that I used that as an excuse to dive back down a rabbit hole I knew would trap me just as viciously as alcohol. It was just one night though, so no harm no foul. Right?
Although the majority of physical symptoms are cleared up by the first week, the second week begins the psychological battle. 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.
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. At least, that’s what I thought.
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. 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.
Week Four of Sobriety
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, one right after the other. I did this every night, as soon as I got home, much like I did with alcohol, and it occurred to me that booze wasn’t the only problem.
I had these little rituals I knew were bad for me that continued to play themselves out, even in the absence of alcohol. Escape tactics. In my drinking days, during periods when I felt overwhelmed by the chemical imbalance waging war inside my brain, 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.
I woke up on a Tuesday morning gripped by an anxiety attack that made me feel like my heart was going to explode and I knew at that point 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. Since then, it’s been a slow, but steadfast crawl out of the black hole.
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.
Looking Ahead in Recovery
The first thirty days of sobriety were challenging for me, to say the least. It’s been harder than the first thirty days of any other period in my life when I managed to successfully stay away from alcohol and cigarettes for 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.
There’s no shame in getting 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.
Thankfully, I’ve managed to stop again but I realized that the things that drove me to drink and chain smoke every night are still there. They don’t disappear with the booze. To believe otherwise is to set yourself up for a fall.
When you first stop drinking, it is entirely possible that old demons are going to pop back up to test your will. The thing that got me through was remembering that booze never helped make any of it better. In fact, it made a lot of it worse. The solution is not to go back to drinking, but to seek help to handle whatever underlying issues drove you to drink alcoholically in the first place.
That’s where my journey into the next thirty days is leading me. I’m working on healing the internal chaos that threw me back onto that balcony for a week. Even though it has not been a smooth month for me, I’m still grateful for the experience and the fact that I came out of it with my sobriety intact.
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