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What Does it Take to Stay Sober – Grabbing Ahold after Slips, Slides and Relapse
My aunt told me she once asked a coworker what it took for him to get sober and his answer was, “It took every drink it took.” I think about that a lot. In my previous attempts to let go of alcohol, I’ve gotten stuck in the “one size fits all” idea of recovery. The “this is what you have to do and if you don’t do it you WILL relapse,” stuff. I did it all and relapsed anyway (more than once) because I never felt like the process I was going through was the right fit. It didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t feel connected to it. This time around I’m clearing my own path, finding what works and what doesn’t, just for me.
I lost both of my parents to alcoholism and addiction between my late teens and early 20’s. It has taken me a long, long time to learn to love myself in a way that silences that ghost. It has also taken me a long time to find a way to stay sober.
I’ve known for some time just how much of myself I lost during my drinking “career,” I am now starting to really see it for the first time. I have to learn how to be myself all over again. I have to learn how to take care of myself all over again, though I’m wondering if I ever really did learn how to do that before alcohol got in the way.
Sobriety, for me, is slowing down a few times a day. It is getting up early and having quiet time for yoga, meditation, and tea long before anyone else wakes up. It is the sunset walk I take with my son when we count how many bunnies are out in the neighborhood (our all-time record is 61) and talk about the big stuff, the little stuff, and the silly stuff. It is my nighttime restorative yoga flow and skincare routine, followed by 30-45 minutes of a movie with my son before lights out. Basically, it is remembering to hold the small moments close and to appreciate being present within them.
My son came up to me this afternoon and said, “Hey mom? I’m really glad I can talk to you now. Before it was just me and the cats and my thoughts.”
I’m glad, too. I missed too much time with him. I can’t get it back, but I can make sure we have plenty going forward. That is, by far, the greatest reward sobriety has to offer.
Today is a big day for me. I am 56 days sober! My longest sober stretch in the last 10 years is 55 1/2 days. I don’t feel compelled to drink today, but I didn’t feel compelled to drink the morning of my last Day 56 either, which was in April of 2019. That slip led to a year and four months of drinking. At that time, I was driving for a rideshare company and loving it. I was sober on my own. No AA meetings, no 12 steps, no online community, or sober app. I was sober and not really giving it a lot of thought. I was done with booze, at least in my mind. I wasn’t struggling with cravings or having a particularly difficult time. Life was good and I was in control.
I was out driving on a Saturday morning, which also happened to be my birthday. It had been a pretty normal Saturday morning, shuttling people to work and hungover people back to their cars. I was stuck in downtown gridlock hell, on my way to get a passenger, when a massive delivery truck backed into me. I watched them flip on their reverse lights, there was the beep beep beep of them backing up. I laid on the horn, but they didn’t notice. There was a car behind me so I couldn’t reverse. I was powerless as I sat there and watched them slowly screeunch up the front end of my car.
The driver looked out his window at what had happened. He pulled forward, off my car. The light turned green. He drove away.
I pulled into a parking lot, and I was shaking. Rage, adrenaline, and panic all flooded my body. I was SO ANGRY about what had just happened. How could that asshole just drive away like that!?!?!? I was full of fight or flight adrenaline from the incident itself. Of COURSE this had to happen on my freaking birthday, of all days. I started to panic because I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to drive again until the car was fixed, and I had no idea what insurance would cover, etc. The incident was not a high priority for the police (no surprises there), and since the car was running fine, just totally mangled cosmetically, they sent me on my way home.
I drove around aimlessly for a while with all that emotion surging through my body and brain. I remember stopping at a 7-11 for some nicotine. My vape pen had run out and they didn’t have my brand of refills, so I bought some cigarettes. I smoked and drove around some more.
I finally managed to point myself toward home. It was a 30-minute drive since I decided not to take the car and/or my emotionally charged self on the highway. Sitting at a stoplight about 5 minutes from my house, I spotted a liquor store, and I remember thinking, “You know what? Fuck this. I need a drink.” I had $3 left in my pocket, so I bought 2 cans of Bud Ice with plans to drink one and save the other.
I sat down and drank them both in less than an hour. I felt absolutely disgusting physically. I thought about how much more I used to drink on a nightly basis and was amazed that I ever liked the feeling of being drunk. I chalked that up as a Win, then went and took a nap because I just wanted that feeling to go away.
That evening, I went out for my birthday dinner with my family at my favorite Mexican restaurant. I ordered a margarita.
Within two weeks, I was back to getting drunk every night and had given up on the rideshare job, even though the car was fixed.
Within 6 months, I was back to drinking all day on weekends and having occasional blackouts.
It took me 16 months of a day here, a couple of weeks there, and A LOT of negativity and self-loathing to finally walk away from the alcohol again and start getting sober, and it was HARD. I knew I was done with drinking. I knew I didn’t want to drink anymore. I hated everything about drinking and got to a place where I often felt like I was forcing myself to drink, but I still couldn’t stop. I was afraid that I would never be able to get sober again. Luckily, I was wrong.
This time around, I have that whole experience to help support my sobriety. I understand now that I need to put sobriety first, and I need to work at it to keep it alive. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if I pick up another drink, I will pick up another, and another, and another. I know that I will end up right back in the same place of negativity and self-loathing. I know that I may not be able to stop again. I know that a slip will become a slide will become a relapse.
I’ve caught my brain trying to plan a relapse a few times in the last few days. I listen to it, let the voice lay out its plan, and kindly but firmly dismiss it. The last time, I even laughed at it a little. Just a chuckle at my habitual mind.
My therapist once told me to think of habitual thoughts as a network of superhighways that the brain has created. We get used to traveling on these same highways, and that is why it can be so difficult to change our habits.
My brain is struggling with the new and bumpy terrain I’m driving on. It is frustrated with the slow progress, and it keeps trying to give me directions to an on-ramp to get back on the highway where it’s all high speed and smooth sailing. Unfortunately (for it, anyway) I’ve always liked four-wheeling.
The rough terrain is challenging, but I’m glad to meet that challenge. There’s fear, but overcoming it is thrilling. There are moments of doubt, but new strategies are born from them. I have had enough of the superhighway. My brain is just going to have to learn to enjoy the ride.
Staying sober can be hard. There are times when I miss the ritual of drinking. The sitting down in anticipation, the feeling of a cold beer in my hand, the hiss as I open it, the bubbly bitterness of the first sip. But as I play the tape forward, that is all I miss. I miss the part of drinking that isn’t ACTUALLY drinking. I don’t miss pounding beer after beer even though I want to stop. I don’t miss the person drinking makes me. I don’t miss the physical and mental anguish that comes with it.
Ritual is an important part of the human psyche, and many problem drinkers have a ritual around alcohol. It is important, at least for me, to distinguish between missing my ritual and missing the alcohol itself. In sobriety, I can create new rituals to look forward to that don’t ruin my life. Staying sober isn’t easy and it takes time, but I’ll get there.
I always wanted to be the kind of mom that makes breakfast in the morning. Now I am! I used to drink days away, guilt-ridden about not spending time with my son, about not being the mother I wanted to be. I breathe so much easier (and more joyfully) now that we spend time together doing little things. It’s a much better life.
For me slips and relapse have made staying sober both harder and easier. On the one hand, I cannot slip and come right back to day one. It always turns into a months-long slide. Mentally letting go and actually STOPPING drinking if I start has become extremely difficult, and that is one of the reasons I work so hard to protect my quit. I honestly don’t know if I’ll be able to stop if I start again. On the flip side, my previous attempts at sobriety have taught me some coping mechanisms, and also allowed me to learn what I enjoy doing besides drinking, so I’m not totally lost or afraid of “what comes next.”
Those slips and slides and relapse have taught me how seductive and sneaky that alcohol voice is, and that’s why I am so adamant about never allowing it to gain any traction whatsoever. Alcohol has done enough harm in my life and is no longer allowed to take up space in my head. No matter what I will stay sober.
Are you trying to stop drinking? Did you slip and you’re trying to get back to sober?
YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
You are not alone in your fear. You are not alone in your frustration. You are not alone in your anger, desperation, depression, or anxiety. You are not alone in your struggle.
So many good people like you have been where you are. Some are there with you right now.
I don’t care how many times you fall off the wagon. I don’t care if you swan dive off the gosh darn thing. Keep trying. Get back up as many times as you need to until you can stay on your feet.
Come talk to us.
Being caught in an addictive spiral with booze is a scary place to be. But you do not have to be there alone.
On this Day 56, I will protect my quit. I will not drink today, no matter what.
I know that as time goes on and I stay sober, an outline will form. Shapes will become more defined. I will recognize myself in those shapes, and even though that self will be different, I will be so glad to see that woman. She gets more and more real with every Alcohol-Free day that passes.
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