“She sinks. She sinks in holy sadness. Like an Ophelia in tears she sinks”
― Georges Rodenbach
My brother, who works with addicts in a hospital, told me that the average number of times it takes to really quit drinking and stay sober is five. So, four practice runs and then finally on the 5th one, sobriety sticks. However, he said that he often sees people who just get stuck in serious depressions and give up after hospitalization number two or three, and some deliberately drink themselves to death. He had just lost someone a few weeks prior in this way, and he said, “a super nice guy, loved talking to him.”
The idea that we need to practice quitting drinking before sobriety sticks is no surprise. I tried to quit smoking several times before I finally pulled it off. I got better at it, I knew what to expect. I quit and have not had a cigarette in decades and do not fondly think of them at all anymore. At almost two years sober, I’m not there yet with alcohol. But I do expect this quitting thing, this sobriety thing takes practice. It takes attention. That’s why we speak of our sober muscles in this community. What seems notable though is that if we don’t build those sober muscles, if we don’t keep trying, if we stop doing the work, we can literally be washed away in a sea of our own alcohol. Bitter, angry, and needlessly lost and sad.
“When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indued
Unto that element: but long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death.
― William Shakespeare, Hamlet
I wish we lived in a world where we could talk openly about alcohol addiction. A world where simply admitting to becoming addicted to this drug that everyone uses wasn’t so shameful. I wish we lived in a world where I could reach out openly to friends and family that I see in trouble and share all of my resources and all my love. I wish that we could embrace this challenge of the ever-increasing numbers of addicted people and talk openly as communities and families and friends without it seeming confrontational, controlling, or judgmental. This sober journey would be much easier and much more successful if it were traveled in communities with tons of love and support. Where there was no question that drinking dangerously is never a laughing matter. Never to be encouraged or ignored. This journey would be much easier and much more successful for everyone who is courageous enough to take it if they had tons of love and support.
I occasionally listen to The Dopey podcast, not too often as it’s a little too badass for me, but I had it plugged into my headphones last weekend while I took my new pup for a long jaunt through the woods. And one of the guests was Amy Dresner (My Fair Junkie). She and the host were talking about the syndrome in which many of us who are overly reliant on substances to get through our days believe we are ‘terminally unique’. We are not. But our ‘terminal uniqueness’ gives us an excuse as to why we must drink/use/etc. This thought resonates with me. For sure I often feel disconnected from others, I feel too shy, too different, too XXXX to be in the skin I’m in. Drinking built a fabulous protective shield around me. It also gave me something to do when I was alone and too XXX to do anything else.
But, as I gain more sober time I think letting go of some of that terminal uniqueness has been extremely comforting. I trust myself to lean into others a bit more. I actually share my feelings as opposed to assuming they are plastered onto my head like some neon sign for everyone to read. And most often I find, there are at least a few other people who are having the same feelings. I also find that most/many people are willing to be supportive, generous, and kind if you give them half a chance to know what to do. This, in turn, generates a nice little love energy that gives you a bit of a positive buzz to give back. I kind of love that about my sober life now.
Sober I am calmer, I can breathe deeply before responding. I have powerful feelings, but they die down into something more manageable almost instantly so I don’t need to be afraid of them. Sober I can TAKE NEGATIVE FEEDBACK! I am shouting this because sometimes we need a little negative feedback and hearing it can help us figure out a) if we need to adjust our own behavior b) help us understand the universe the other person is operating in. I’m 53 years old. Being able to take negative feedback without totally shutting down, freaking out, running away, etc. feels huge. Maybe I’m finally a damned grown-up.
Living one’s life alcohol-free provides a quiet steadiness and strength. In sobriety, I may not sleep problem-free, but the anger and bitterness of my drinking days have faded. Sober I am no longer the victim in the tragedy of my own making, and for that, I am deeply thankful. So today I am going to carry with me a message of love for those who are struggling – myself included on certain days. This fight to stop drinking and stay sober takes practice, it takes love, and it takes an active community.
When I was coming to the end of my first year sober I was finding it hard to keep up what felt like constant resolve. My life is a whirlwind of stress that I could not simply shut down to protect my sobriety. Somehow I needed to continue to find a way forward. To not hit the wall. To not feel that the cravings can build up to this unbearable point where I say F-it!’
Here are the things that worked for me to help me stay sober.
#1 Slow down – like seriously. You do not need to work out every day even if it makes you happy.
#2 Spend Sunday afternoon on the couch with your family and pets nearby for the duration of Winter – now through May here :). This is called SELF CARE ….do it!
#3 Hug every member of your little family every day that you see them, even though the sixteen year old son will squirm and say ‘Seriously Mom???!’
#4 Drink one cup of tea at least three nights a week – why you ask – you hate tea? Because tea is hot. You have to drink it slow or you burn yourself. It forces you to slow down.
#5 Remind yourself you do not need to complete the seventy tasks that came in over the weekend for work by Monday at 12:00. Remember doing less really well is going to be more satisfying. Value your work and your time and others will too.
#6 Remind yourself that you grade yourself too hard. No one can live up to those standards and it’s not helping you by setting them so high. Get rid of those crazy assed standards – learn something from Big Lebowski.
#7 When you see the love of your life sitting in front of the fire with a lovely glass of wine and he invites you to join him, and you are dead from exhaustion and stress – walk straight upstairs and promptly jump into the bathtub! With clothes on if need be. Then brush your teeth! Then go back downstairs.
In my second year of sobriety, I’ve also managed to go off anti-anxiety meds for the first time in 15 years. The last time I tried this I was still drinking, ended up trying to commit suicide, and wound up in the ER for several days. So, yeah, it was a big deal to try to wean myself off of these suckers five years later. It took several months, and there were several weeks of itchy scratchy time this summer where it felt like I slept five minutes a night and the only thing that held my brain and body together were long cold swims in the lake. And I think I was probably a horrible impatient obsessive bore to many people around me….but…..I haven’t had any anti-anxiety med now since early July.
The big news about this is that I actually, for the first time in my life – feel better. I sleep – I could never sleep, even as a kid I couldn’t sleep. I was too anxious.
In short, going off anti-anxiety meds (something I could never do if not sober) has allowed me to cautiously, and then now with enthusiasm, introduce myself to my feelings again. And guess what – they aren’t so horrible. I don’t need to drink them away, eat them away, or swim them away. And, at 9 at night, I can go up to my bed, read a book for two minutes and then GO TO SLEEP. I get up with my 5:00 am alarm with enthusiasm.
Lest one feels like this messianic zeal is too much and reading it makes you kind of want to barf, 🙂 know that I surprise myself by still thinking about how awesome a bottle of white wine or two would taste on Friday nights. My parents are in terrible shape, and no longer know who I am because I cannot visit them, and I am helpless to make their situation better. It makes me weep every time I think about it. And Covid has amped up the stress at the office to heights heretofore unseen. But today, my glass is more than half full and I am happy for that.
This sobriety is a miracle. Like….seriously…..miraculous awesome shit!
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