Into the long grass: Relationships, self-worth and self-esteem in early sobriety

girl dancing in grass

Yesterday, I read a post written by a cyber friend of mine. I admire this young woman. She stopped drinking, walked away from an abusive relationship, packed her dog in her car and set off across America in search of a new and more fulfilling life. She has had her ups and downs, but in the two+ years that she has been sober, she has achieved so much that her words sparkle with a stability and contentment that I’m sure she does not always recognise. She has become the person she was born to be.

In her post, she spoke of the continuing effect of low self-worth and low self-esteem on her love life. She seemed baffled that despite all of the changes in her life, she had still chosen a ‘love interest’ who was in no way her match or her equal. The difference from her past is that she was able to see this person for who he really was and had the strength to kick him into the long grass. I am so proud of her as she has taken a massive step towards zipping up her new skin. She is able to differentiate between the reality of the situation and the fantasy of wishful thinking: her self-worth and self-esteem muscles are growing and will soon be Popeye-esque in stature.

Recently, my thoughts have been much taken up with love, self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth. Not so long ago, I came out of a relationship that only lasted as long as it did because my fear, driven by low esteem and worth, would not allow me to let go.

I got to thinking about the chicken and the egg and which came first: was my alcohol abuse caused by low self-esteem or did alcohol cause my low self-esteem? I don’t rightly know so I came to the conclusion that I don’t give a flying fuck because, at the end of the day, the real problem is the fact that I think I have a problem.

Single people who try to build a love relationship once they have stopped drinking often find that they seek out well-camouflaged versions of past relationships. They are fooled by the outward niceities and more civilised aspects displayed by partners, but essentially, the evidence around sobriety blogs seems to point to the idea that the newly sober are so battered by the shame, fear and the control/lack of control dynamic (caused by the unsafe behaviour that they indulged in when drinking) that they fall unwittingly for the same sort of person that they were drawn to whilst they were drinking, just a more acceptable version: the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Somewhere in the back of their minds lurks the thought that they do not deserve to have the sort of good, healthy attention that they long for. Therefore they settle for the sort of attention that they are used to, but this time dressed up in a form which is harder to detect. Being loved bombed and treated with apparent respect to start with is not a true reflection of the person within. Knowing what a person is truly like only comes with time and experience. Alcohol causes severe damage to our bullshit meters so we are seduced by outward appearance and the ‘spark’ rather than true worth that is only revealed with time and trust.

Is it our history as addicts and the shame of that description that leads us initially to settle for less than we are worth? Why do we beat ourselves up and blame ourselves for not being good enough when, in fact, we have had the bravery, the true grit to kick a destructive habit? Good enough for what? Is my question.

I have a little theory about this that I may check out with my friend the neuroscientist. I am coming round to thinking that when we deprive old monkey brain of the pleasure of alcohol, it does not lay down and go to sleep quietly, it simply looks around for another addiction to feed off but in a more subtle way. It finds rich pickings and plenty of fodder in feelings of self-worth, self-esteem, self-confidence, or more precisely in the lack of them.

Using myself as an example, my monkey brain fed off the energy and drama provided by my ex’s poor behaviour. Talking about his behaviour gave it a buzz and lit up that place that lay starving through lack of alcohol. It filled monkey brain up enabling it once again to sparkle and twinkle like Christmas lights. The more damaged and hurt I felt by the ex’s behaviour, the more monkey brain shone. Until finally I realised that I am addicted to feeling unappreciated. And that is my script. My need to be loved by the object of my affections led me to become addicted to my own feelings of not being deserving, good enough or worth it. I am addicted to being a love-victim which needs to stop now. And it can and will stop because feelings are only feelings. They come and go at my behest. I am fully in control of them if I chose to be.

Now there’s a thought worth having.

When I finish writing this, I am going to rummage in my chest of drawers to find my big girl sobriety pants. I will put them on as they are a bit like Batman’s cape and mask: they transform an ordinary me into the Knickered Crusader. I will identify my triggers and use all of my tools to Zap! Bash! Boff! Arrrrgh!Pow! Kay-o! myself out of this insidious addiction which has deeply affected my life. To start with I will fake it until I make it. The knickers will look a bit grey, baggy and unprepossessing, but in time, as I grow used to them, they will feel pinker, prettier, sleeker, silkier inside and out.

Sure, there will be bad days when I will ponder the causes of my addiction, but as time goes by they will be fewer and further between. I will be buoyed by the fact that today, I behaved with dignity, today I did not people please, today I did not do something that went against my better nature thus causing sadness and resentment. Today I held my head high and demanded to be treated with respect because I am worth it.

In demanding that my unique ‘me-ness’ is allowed to connect positively, respectfully and equally with your ‘you-ness’ and the ‘us’ becomes the whole human interaction.

I am me because I am me, and if I can’t appreciate and be proud of that where does that leave me?

Recently, I have been moved to say more and more that I believe facets of the AA philosophy to be correct. The problem comes with the wording and interpretation.

AA recommends that addicts should not form love associations with other people until they have a good year of sobriety under their belt ( a friend has just pointed out to me that this is not in the AA literature, but probably comes from the rules of rehab facilities and unofficially made its way into AA lore). This edict seems unbelievably unfair to single people. After all people in partnerships have their SO to support them, who does the single person have? People in recovery need some form of distraction and falling in love or looking for a sexual partner is as good as any I know for taking one’s mind off those difficult early months and years.

I don’t think that this tenet is actually about a partnership. I now think it is about allowing the fragile ‘selfs’ ( esteem, confidence and worth) to strengthen and grow after the battering that they have taken through the years of drinking and early recovery. I hated being alone in early sobriety, but I can see quite clearly that only having myself and my behaviour to worry about was in my best interests.

Time to sum up this meandering post:

Low self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth are a construct. Just because you have been made to feel bad in the past does not me that you have to continue to feel bad in the future. Rip the label off your forehead and start acting in the way that you want to be treated not in the way that you think makes you acceptable.

Just because you once drank more than was good for you does not mean that you have to keep on carrying the shame around with you.

Recognise this one simple fact: You are amazing because you recognised the problem, owned it, took responsibility and sorted it out. That is one hell of a thing to be proud of, one that most people don’t come anywhere near achieving.

Take my friends’ example and follow it: kick the bad feelings you harbour about yourself into the long grass: they do not serve you well.

This post is by MrsP. You can find more of MrsP’s writing Here in Boozemusings 

If you’re drinking too much too often and are feeling trapped come talk to us. Rewrite your story one day at a time. Sobriety is Clarity, Creativity, Freedom

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You Can Do the Hard Things

Guide to your First Month of Sobriety : Why and How to Quit

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