The early work of sobriety is not drinking. It feels like all you do, who you are, what you read and listen to, and why you are awake and trying again. The physical part can be pretty easy for some but for others its a real bear. The good news is that physical changes are fairly quick to show – eyes brighten and lose the yellow tinge and redness, faces deflate from bloat, and better sleep looks good on everyone.
So you did it. You got your first 30 or 60 or 90 days, maybe triple digits. That’s incredible and worthy of celebration! At some point after the early days of hanging in there, drinking endless sparkling waters, and reading quit lit until you can quote Annie Grace at parties, you realize…you are still you. Whatever it is that you drank to avoid or join or mitigate is probably still there. Hopefully, without alcohol as a factor a lot of things have settled down, but stressful jobs, troubled family members, low self-esteem, and awkward social situations are still there. Not to scare you, but this is when the work begins.
“Recovering is uncovering.”
Have you read Sharon Salzberg’s book Real Change. I’m thinking about the ways my life has changed for the better since I became alcohol-free. I’m thinking about what I’ve recovered.
“We bring alive a vision by taking that crucial first step toward making it real—sometimes out of inspiration, sometimes out of outrage, sometimes faltering, and sometimes with resolve.” (Sharon Salzberg, Real Change)
What comes to your mind when you hear the word “recovery”? Many people working to overcome addiction embrace it, but others aren’t so sure. After all, recovery is something that’s supposed to happen after an illness, and some of us reject the illness model of addiction, just as we reject the word “alcoholic” to describe our relationships with booze.
And words matter. If you were ever shamed or verbally abused by people you loved, you know how bad it felt when they called you names. And if you’ve ever whispered to yourself, “You’re nothing but a loser,” or “You’re stupid,” or “You can’t do anything right,” or “You’re worthless,” how much worse it feels when you realize that you internalized some of the language they used to demean and belittle you. These insidious messages can be hard to shake, but you have to try and flip the script if you want to take back your power. Pioneering psychologist Albert Ellis coined the term “stinking thinking” to describe how negative self-talk can get in the way of healing, and he helped develop cognitive behavior therapy as a way to move past it.
“To step forward toward a life of caring and engagement, we challenge our conditioning, the fear, the believing of ourselves or others as unworthy, the incorporating of limiting stories we have been told about ourselves and about life. We take on what is holding us back.” (Salzberg, Real Change)
As a lifelong language nerd, I’m pretty fond of the word “recovery.” Here’s what it means in its most basic sense, according to the Oxford dictionary:
1. a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.
2. the action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.
I love both these definitions because they describe so much of my journey toward healing from the self-inflicted injuries of alcohol misuse.
I wasn’t necessarily sick, but I was wounded.
I wasn’t healthy.
I wasn’t sane (which is really just another word for healthy).
I wasn’t strong.
I wasn’t happy.
But two and a half years after putting down my last drink, I’m recovering my health, sanity, strength, and happiness. Trust me, it hasn’t been easy. But it’s probably been the most important thing I’ve ever done, for myself and also for the people I love.
–By deciding once and for all to stop abusing alcohol, I recovered my ability to make hard choices.
–By accepting that I wasn’t capable of drinking casually, or moderately, or socially, I recovered my ability to be honest with myself.
–By committing to staying alcohol-free one day at a time, I recovered my will power.
–By joining (and participating in) an online community where I could be honest about my struggles in the company of warm, supportive people who encourage me and cheer me on, I recovered my humility, my ability to trust, and my sense of humor.
–By slowly, slowly learning to believe that against the odds I could change my life for the better, I recovered my strength.
–By remaining alcohol-free for almost two and a half years, I recovered my mental and physical health.
My blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels have dropped, and I’ve even been able to cut back on some medications I took for years.
My weight dropped by a few pounds I was thrilled to say goodbye to.
Because I have more energy and self-discipline, I’m exercising regularly.
About two weeks after I stopped drinking, the paralyzing anxiety I carried for most of my life began to melt away, leaving me calmer, more present, and more serene than I’ve ever felt.
After 18 or 19 months, though, because I was no longer self-medicating, I began to recover (almost like an archeologist on a dig) quite a lot of buried trauma I suffered as the parentified oldest child in a poor, unstable, and chaotic family.
At first this felt terrible. Sometimes I was tempted to say “F**k it” and crawl back down into the familiar numbing haze of my wine bottle. Instead, I got myself back into therapy with someone I really like and trust, and I’m finally starting to heal from wounds I carried all my life.
This recovery won’t happen overnight. But because I’m gratefully alcohol-free, I’m more patient than I’ve ever been, with myself and with the process. So I can wait, and sit with what I’m learning. I feel tender and vulnerable, and that’s okay.
I’m finally coming home to myself. I’m recovering.
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