The second time I took physics in college I had a great lab partner, and the simple experiments we did (probability, gravity, refraction, polarization, momentum) fascinated me. I loved the concept of momentum, which is defined in physics as “the tendency of a moving object to keep moving.”
The first time I took the course, I dropped it after a few weeks because I felt sure I would fail. A couple of years later I nervously signed up for it again. It was hard at first, and scary, but this time I managed to earn an A-, something I would never have imagined possible. What did I learn from this? That it’s okay to start over. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s important to ask for help when we need it. And sometimes if we let ourselves try, we can succeed beyond our wildest dreams.
Recently I started reading poet Maggie Smith’s beautiful little book Keep Moving, a collection of affirmations she wrote to herself as a way of processing the pain and grief of divorce. Even though she didn’t choose divorce the way I chose to stop drinking, the wise advice she shares applies to most significant life changes. Whether we captain them ourselves or bob along in their wake, whether they thrill us or bring us grief, changes are inevitable. So we have to figure out how to move through them.
I hated what drinking did to me for 20+ years. I knew I was in danger of killing myself. So on July 30, 2019, I made a start at sobriety, and a few days later I found my way to BOOM, an online community where I could figure out how to gain sober momentum on my own terms. Looking back, I realize I was taking Smith’s advice with every step, and that BOOM has kept me moving right from the beginning. Here are a handful of passages from Smith’s book (in italics), followed by excerpts from a few of my BOOM posts from my first 6 weeks sober.
Keep Moving: Finding Momentum in Early Sobriety
Put one foot in front of the other and believe that the road will be there. Be proud: you are not only traveling a new road but making it as you go.
Day 6: “I still feel like hell, especially from about 3 pm on, but even without enough sleep, waking up clear-headed and hangover-free is such an amazing gift. And reading about other people’s experiences helps me feel less alone.”
All you have to do today is live the best you can. Even if your best doesn’t feel like much right now, your best will get better and better.
Day 7: “The Happy Hour habit is so deeply ingrained in me that I get anxious and irritable when it rolls around. So I did some breathing exercises, rode my exercise bike, drank a lot of water, and within an hour the jitters had passed and I was able to have a decent evening and a good night’s sleep.”
Start making yourself at home in your life as it is.
Day 8: “Yesterday was my best day so far. I had lots of energy and made it through my usual happy hour(s) with no anxiety or irritability, which was a first! Was able to enjoy sitting on the deck with my friend, sipping iced tea while she had a beer. I’m keeping my expectations realistic, though, and going one day at a time; every day is a new adventure! Thanks again for all the support here. It’s really helping.”
Be brave enough to ask for help when you need it. There is no merit badge for Doing All the Hard Things Alone. Reach out.
Day 21: “I need help. Yesterday I learned that my best friend is in hospice and expected to die in the next day or two. My first urge after getting the news from her daughter was to get a bottle of wine and drink the whole thing. I didn’t. I want to stay sober. How do I get through this? I’m no stranger to devastating loss (I’m nearly 70, and it comes with the years). But for at least 20 years the first thing I did when faced with it was pick up the wineglass. Today I think I can resist, but what about tomorrow? Next week? I’m not in AA. Only my husband, sister, and son know that I’m not drinking. They’re great, but they’re all moderate drinkers and aren’t on this journey with me. Please tell me how to get through this without falling back into a bottle.” And you did. The outpouring of support bowled me over and helped me stay strong through the hardest personal challenge I’ve faced since I stopped drinking.
Prioritize your own happiness, security, and wellness. You cannot care for anyone else until and unless you care for yourself. Secure your own mask first.
A few days after my friend’s death, while I was still wracked with new grief, I wrote, “I’m also dealing with a complicated mixed bag of family stuff that I don’t feel ready to share, but it’s a big enough deal that I’m feeling really raw today, like trying to regain equilibrium after a hard 1-2 punch. My plan for the day is to treat myself very gently. Tea, TV, new Denise Mina novel, nap, and no wine. Maybe a nice, big chocolate bar or a cupcake.” Taking care of myself first was never high on my priority list until I found my way here. BOOM taught me why it’s important and how to do it.
Remember that you’re playing the long game, and trust that over time, the good days will outnumber the bad. Do what you can to make this day more livable than yesterday.
Day 26: “I honestly don’t think I could have stayed sober this past week without you, BOOM. Even reading and commenting about other people’s challenges and celebrations has been so healing, a constant reminder that I’m not alone in this journey toward long-term sobriety.”
On Day 42 I ran across this poem by Mary Oliver, and I copied it into a post:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life that you could save.
Think of what you’ve achieved that didn’t seem possible last year, or five years ago, or ten; it didn’t seem possible then but you’ve proven that it was. Now imagine what might be possible in another year or five or ten. Keep moving.
That first six weeks sober taught me that if I kept putting one foot in front of the other I could save my own life. As of today, I’ve been alcohol-free for 20 months. And I’m still on the move. Thank you, BOOM community.
(All italicized passages are from SMITH, MAGGIE. KEEP MOVING: Notes on Loss, Creativity, and Change. CORSAIR, 2020.)
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