As I’ve moved through my first year sober, I’ve started to view sobriety as a practice, as an ever-unfolding complex web of daily negotiations, rather than as a binary ON or OFF switch. To me, a sobriety tool kit is not just a list of things we can turn to when times get tough, but it’s a collection of habits, resources, and skills that we can incorporate in our lives to live better and more holistically. Having a tool kit handy can help you make it through early day’s cravings, and later, can help move you forward in a positive sober mindset. These tools range from very simple and delightful things, like eating ice cream to ease cravings, to more complex issues such as working on core beliefs that led to drinking in the first place or slowly repairing tattered boundaries with others.
If I had to name the four tools that have been the most important to my staying sober, in a very broad sense, those tools are connections, distractions, energy outlets, and perspective. Self-care should be in here too but if I’m being honest, in my first months of sobriety, building a routine of practicing genuine self-care still tends to take a back burner to self-indulgence. The key for right now is to stay sober today, even if that means an icecream and Net Flix binge wins out over yoga or meditation.
When I was drinking I refused to see how bad it had become because I had a roof over my head, a job, and I hadn’t lost all of my contacts. I thought that I am a strong woman (true) and that means I can’t fall to an addiction (so false!). It was exhausting lying to myself every step of the way, every blackout, every hangover…always having an excuse for drinking, or cutting off bits of my life that exposed my habit, such as hobbies, certain friendships, calling my mom after 7 pm when my words would slur; I started to chop my life down to cater to drinking. I’m relieved that I have admitted defeat and accepted that I can’t drink.
I am tempted to drink when I feel sorry for myself or fixate on things I cannot change. I’m tempted to drink when I tell myself the story about me being the black sheep of the family, or the story about losing love, opportunity, failing at things. There’s always something to fixate that energy on – always a story of loss, heartache, injustice. I’ve been thinking about it, and I think that the main thing that has worked for me in staying sober this time around has been to put my blinders on and just block certain thinking patterns.
I hope someday to have the strength to face more situations head-on, but maybe that too is drink-think. Maybe confrontation has always lead to drinking/drinking always leads to confrontation and there is some other third way of doing things. Maybe I won’t need blinders if I start looking at things differently, it will become more natural and my focus will shift.
But how do you get from point A, a desire to stop drinking, to point B, moving through days and weeks sober and gaining sober momentum? You need some tools that work. A sobriety tool kit that does the job. This is what is working for me.
My Sobriety Tool Kit –
I. Community Support for Sobriety and Connection
It’s vital to be witnessed, heard, celebrated, and even called-out on your BS. We are social beings, and breaking an addiction, going alcohol-free, and staying sober is a HUGE process, so naturally, we need others to help us grow and shift into our sober lives.
In my opinion, sobriety is not a solitary activity. A key element in my sobriety tool kit are the people, and communities, who support me, and the people who I, in turn, support. I have some wonderfully supportive friends and a few solid family members, but these are not always the people I turn to in sobriety.
Sobriety support can be a bit different. These are the people who are there throughout the challenges of sobriety, who encourage us to approach things a bit differently, and with whom we can really be honest about our experiences with substance abuse, perhaps for the first time. These are the people who help us discover normalcy in the rollercoaster ride which is early sobriety– the people who “get it”. Or maybe someone who makes you laugh reminds you of your inner child or encourages you to engage in self-care. Maybe this is a child or dependent, or a pet! Or the friendly neighbor who waves to you on your morning run, or someone who relies on you at work.
I have this online community, BOOM Rethink the Drink, tucked away snuggly in my tool kit, as well as a dear friend who is very passionate about alternative health, and who is over the moon that I have stopped pouring ethanol in my veins these days. I have a WhatsApp group of some lovely sober ladies who make me laugh and think all day long, and I have connected with a friend of a friend who is sober, and we now have a tender & honest friendship that I would have never expected. I would also add my therapist to this list. Talking about sobriety on Boom, new sober friends who are an absolute lifeline these days, firmer boundaries within existing relationships to protect my energy, reconnecting gently with some people I’ve drifted from over a few years of choosing the booze over friendship/family. For me, connection is a deeply important component to the tool kit: knowing that people are there helps me to feel more held and supported. And reaching back and helping others not only feels great, but it helps strengthen my voice and authority in sobriety.
II. DISTRACTIONS –
Most of us drink alcohol as a way to self soothe. Wine o’clock is like the blanket of calm that we learn to wrap ourselves in at the end of a day. Opening a bottle becomes the signal to your brain that the work of the day is over and the calm of evening has begun. But for many of us, that warm blanket of calm leads to drinking more than we intended. When the desire to feel soothed becomes a compulsion to drink or a feeling of needing alcohol, anxiety and depression can replace the peace that the alcohol promised, and it can take a bit of time alcohol-free to rewire your brain. While that process naturally occurs as you live each day alcohol-free, it is important to remember that quite simply – Drinking is an activity.
When you first stop drinking filling the empty space that you may feel as emotional or physical hunger, can begin by quite simply adding different activities at the time you used to drink. If you take the possibility of drinking out of the picture you will find alternatives. But sometimes that can be a struggle.
Change your routine-
The art of using free time has developed new importance to me in sobriety. Films, TV, hobbies, walks, music, baths, Duolingo, work, science pre-req courses, ice cream sundaes, daydreaming like it’s my job, etc! These are the things that I can turn to when I’m not feeling good, need a distraction, or even in the earliest of days when I was still drinking, got me to get out of my head and to begin to think differently. I wrote these on a paper and have it posted it on my bathroom mirror (where I always eventually go to look at myself menacingly when I’m having a bad day haha). It felt silly to do that, but really, I forget so easily to do something in the name of self-care.
Sometimes when you are changing a routine that has become entrenched as an addiction, it’s helpful to have written reminders of the distractions that work for you.
III. ENERGY OUTLETS
This is not the same stuff I do to soothe or comfort – this is physical, creative, intellectual. This is about using my body and mind in an active way and letting stuff OUT! These are activities that help me imagine what life can beeee without alcohol to dampen and compete for my energy and time. Cycling far & fast, therapy, learning to swim, language learning, creating things, working towards a big and scary career change.
Swimming is a new way to embrace my physical abilities and satisfy a personal desire to grow into myself in a new way(s). I also love the metaphorical value of learning to swim not sink these days. I’m loving exploring the freedom from the exhausting cycle of drunk/hungover. Sober I’m finding joy in my body. It feels sort of spiritual to care for and listen to my body in sobriety.
I have broad shoulders and long, long arms and I feel somewhat amphibious 🐸I love being in water, but I never properly learned how to swim. So recently I decided to take lessons (I only managed to attend few classes before they were canceled re: COVID). I think I could love swimming laps regularly.
I’ve been doing CBT because my anxiety in sobriety has been absurd, and my ability to cope is minimal. It’s been helpful to have a practical approach and to do things like map my days and my moods. It’s funny because I feel so wobbly in sobriety…I’d been living without structure and in chaos for so long that I really don’t have some pretty basic skills.
For me, therapy, even something like CBT, has been a big help.
2020 has been a relentless year of stress for most of us. It has been a year that puts the importance of “adulting” into perspective. While drinking to relieve stress is commonly considered to be part of “adulting” there is nothing that beats a calm sober head.
In November I was visiting Vienna. There was a mass shooting and subsequent lockdown in the area of the city where I was staying (I would have been out if I were still drinking!). This year there was also seemingly never-ending US election drama; rising cases and a reinstatement of COVID lockdowns around the world; EU border regulations shifting, and the finalization of Brexit. There was extraordinary political turmoil, personal suffering, violence, and civil unrest this past year. 2020 has been a year that will go down in history as one of the most stressful ever and it was a year that I spent mostly sober.
I was thinking about it, and the more stressed I become lately, the less enticing drinking is. External stress and needing to show up for others during stressful events now encourages my sobriety. I don’t know how I used to do this stuff drunk, honestly. The glaring pain of a hangover AND having to process X, Y, and Z? I can’t do it. The perspective that I need in my sobriety toolbox is a list of the things that I gain in sobriety, and lose in drunk-land. Things that could be life or death, or the line between wellness and suffering. I’ve written these down and keep the list for reference. These are the things that put the decision to drink into perspective, and remind me of how important it is to fight really, really, really hard for sobriety.
This is my sober me vs drunk me list. Writing this down makes it personal. My list keeps me from slipping back into a mindset that trivializes what drinking is to me. This list is my playing it forward.
- Sober I’m safer. Sober I’m avoiding actively putting myself or others in danger: Sober I’m not drinking and driving (twice: I am so grateful that I stopped before this became a habit), Sober I’m not jumping on the subway tracks to retrieve my skateboard that had rolled off of the platform (this happened), Sober I’m not climbing down the vines on the side of a 4 story parking garage (this happened), Sober I’m not drinking roofies (twice), I’m not jaywalking drunk on rainy nights (countless), Sober I’m not taking mystery drugs from strangers (yikes), Sober I’m not falling off things and breaking my body/dying (seriously amazed this hasn’t happened), Sober I’m not going home with strangers while totally out of it (ugh).
- Sober I have control in the moment to act to get out of a dangerous situation (sexual assault, most commonly/statistically likely), to help others (in the case of a disaster or just in general to be helpful and observant). Also, just the ability to operate a vehicle if needed is HUGELY important.
- Sober I am present to help others
- Sober I have health and physical ability (longevity if I’m lucky, but more immediate quality of life) Also fitness, re: ability to escape settings/be helpful to others
- Sober I have the ability to self-regulate strategize, and to communicate with myself and with others (emotional, mental, physical well-being, advancement in my work and life, supporting others)
- Sober I have the ability to say no & advocate for boundaries with others
I used to feel rage at any notion of ‘perspective’ being the most important thing, sometimes circumstance really does eclipse perspective, but in my relatively privileged case..it kinda is all about perspective. I’m trying to look around at what I have – amazing friends who’ve really stepped in as family in a lot of ways, a mom that may not always understand me, but trusts and respects me to make the right decisions for my life, my health, safety, my memories, and my future. I have connection, beauty, and hope in my life, and it has always been there, I just chose to focus on the things that justified my drinking.
Sobriety is not a one size fits all kinda thing. The work of staying sober is unique to each person and seems to require real focused sifting and attention to the complex grid of what makes us unique as individuals.
If you are preparing to go sober in 2021, whether for a short challenge or long term, I’d start by reading a book that does a good job of covering the science of addiction, how alcohol works on your brain, and also the basic misconceptions about the necessity of drinking to live life fully. Annie Grace’s This Naked Mind is a good choice, or you can read the first 5 chapters of William Porter’s book Alcohol Explained here on his website today and for free. That is a great place to start. There are more ideas here about working through those first few days alcohol-free Demystifying Sober – Survival Guide From My First 10 Days Alcohol-Free.
But there is a lot more to stopping drinking and staying sober than you can find in one book or even from one source. Staying sober, beyond the initial understanding of how to deal with HALT and FAB, beyond knowing that you need to play the tape forward, is about figuring out you. That is why so many people call recovery discovery – or speak of staying sober as a journey, rather than a destination.
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