Demystifying Sober for the Sober Curious
I’m nothing short of stunned by the dramatic changes that have occurred in my life over the course of the past 5 weeks since I decided to commit to 3 months of sobriety. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to describe my experience to someone else in the early stages– someone, perhaps who can’t quite bring themselves to give up drinking for any significant period of time, even though they know they need to. Someone, in other words, exactly like me, as I was 6 weeks ago. I want to try to isolate what changed for me, and what the first month of sobriety can look like. This is probably going to be a chapter-length post, so get comfy! 😉 I’ve included sub-headings for anyone who wants to skip to a relevant section, and highlighted the major points in bold.
Why I chose to get sober (can you relate)?
Many people with a drinking problem feel as though drinking is the best thing in their lives– the one, needful, non-negotiable thing. And they’re right to think so because this is what it has become. But it has not become the best and most important thing in your life on its own merit (i.e. because drinking really is that wonderful). It has become the most important thing in your life by eating away– diminishing, destroying– all the other important things in your life until alcohol is the one pleasure left. When I say this, I don’t mean that your life has necessarily fallen down around you, that you’ve lost everything. The problem hasn’t necessarily progressed that far. What I mean is that things that used to be pleasurable, inspiring, fulfilling (before you had a drinking problem) have lost their glow, their inherent beauty.
This is how it was for me. Exercise was a purgatorial struggle as I was constantly physically weak, sleep-deprived, hungover or lethargic. Friends were interesting only if alcohol was involved. I barely saw my surroundings, the small, incandescent moments of beauty in life– there was a noxious, alcoholic fog hanging between myself and the outside world. I had no interest in any activity that took place during the day, or in the absence of alcohol. Before I developed a drinking problem, I had had seemingly bottomless reserves of restless, frenetic intellectual and physical energy. I had filled each day with as much as I could: things for the senses (farmers markets laden with ripe fruits of every colour, visiting art exhibitions, walks in the woods), the mind (meaningful conversation over giant mugs of chai, reading, writing and filling margins with notes, questioning everything), the body and soul (sketching for hours, intensive ballet classes, where I would emerge, an hour later, soaking with sweat, high on the beauty of the dance, the music, my own sense of accomplishment at having managed a near-perfect arabesque en pointe).
Over the first year or two of heavy drinking, all of that disappeared. I was living in a coma, a series of grey days that seemed to bleed into one another like a charcoal sketch left in the rain. The outlines and contours of my character, my personality, were disappearing. I was constantly apathetic, unengaged and depressed. I had almost entirely lost my passion (and ability) for a stimulating, intellectually-challenging career. My relationship was tense and distant, as I spent a great deal of time absorbed in my own private drinking world. And the most dangerous part of all of this? I thought this was how things really were. I believed, at 32 years old, that this was reality, this was simply what my life had become, that my best years were over. I knew my drinking was a problem, but I had no idea that every single one of the problems listed above were caused, either directly or indirectly, by alcohol.
Alcohol was the one great, needful, pleasurable thing in my life only because it had reduced my enjoyment of just about everything else. Like an abusive, jealous boyfriend, it had gone about sabotaging every other pleasure, every other relationship I had until I genuinely believed that it was the only– the best– thing I had left. I’m convinced that this is why so many of us feel, in the beginning, that giving up drinking would be the end of the world– because, in many cases, it has become the only thing we truly value anymore. Everything else in life has ceased to be pleasurable in any significant sense. No experience can be fully enjoyed for its own sake– it needs alcohol to make it worth anything at all.
If you had told me, only 6 weeks ago, that the first month of sobriety would be anything other than a miserable, white-knuckled exercise in deprivation, I would have written you off as delusional or brainwashed by self-help books. I would have assumed that you didn’t know me, didn’t understand my life, or had simply forgotten how wonderful drinking really was. I would have been wrong.
Changes in the first month:
I was terrified, when I quit, that I had really lost everything– my joy, my passion, my intellect, my abilities, my health, and that either I might never find these things again, or that it would take months, years before I saw any hint of them, before I got my life back. How wrong I was. In the first month alone, these are some of the changes I’ve experienced:
with my husband, my friends, my colleagues, myself, my life. All of these things were not gone, and my relationship with them was not destroyed. Alcohol had simply put an unmanageable distance between me and all of the important connections in my life. I no longer saw them, I stood at a perpetual distance from everything and everyone. That distance is disappearing with every sober day that passes. I look into people’s eyes again, I listen, I’m present, I genuinely enjoy their company. And they see it.
2. Physical changes:
There are the ‘vanity’ changes (rapid weight loss, glowing skin, no puffiness or bags under the eyes), and then the deeper physical changes. I don’t get out of breath or exhausted anymore, I power walk in the woods for an hour and a half with my dog every day and enjoy it. I fall asleep before midnight and sleep a deep, uninterrupted sleep every night, and wake up refreshed at 8am. That electric, buzzing energy? It’s back.
3. Focus, clarity, ability, drive, intellect:
Drinking was dumbing me down– quite literally. I felt I was losing my IQ (I was) and my ability to perform complex, intellectually rigorous work. I was uninterested and uninteresting. I had no drive to do much of anything besides drinking and “having fun”– and most of the time, nothing was fun anyway, even with alcohol present. I’m now enjoying my work for the first time since I started drinking. I look forward to my research hours. The fog is clearing and my focus and clarity are returning. I thought it would take months, years, before these things began to return (if they returned at all). Not so, as it turns out. Yes, it’s a process, but that process begins far sooner than you think.
4. The “little” things:
When I was still drinking, I heard so many newly sober people talk about enjoying the “little” things again, and inwardly scoffed. Of course you’d have to enjoy the “little” things- – the “big” pleasures of life– alcohol and alcohol-related activities– were gone. That would never be enough for me, I thought, I’m an extremist, I need the big, wild, passionate pleasures in life. Fuck a pretty sunset, or a cup of fucking tea. What a load of horseshit. For starters, if we’re really honest with ourselves, alcohol is not a “big” pleasure– it’s a compulsion, and more often than not, it’s profoundly disappointing. You know that feeling, when the first warm buzz begins to wear off, and you try to recapture it by drinking more, and more… but it doesn’t come back, you just get increasingly drunk? Yeah, that. It’s all downhill from there, ladies and gents, and it will be everytime.
The thing about the “little” things is that they are only “little” to a drinker, because we think– erroneously, as it turns out– that every pleasure in life pales in comparison to drinking. The other thing is that all of those “little” things– real, unintoxicated laughter, noticing the beauty of scenery, intimacy, dog kisses, mental clarity, a warm cup of spicy chai on a chilly overcast afternoon, a moment of genuine understanding with another person, etc– are necessary, crucial pieces of the puzzle. Combined, they are joie de vivre, they are happiness. They are what it means to be alive. And you cannot experience them fully while in the grip of an alcohol addiction. That’s the hard truth.
5. Real happiness, real peace of mind, genuine confidence:
I can now stand behind anything I say, because whatever comes out of my mouth is issuing from me, and not a bottle and a half of sauvignon blanc. Every heavy drinker is familiar with that hideous, gnawing anxiety, that profound sense of shame and embarrassment that arises from having said or done things we cringe to think about sober: casual lies, promises made, run-of-the-mill stupidity, aggressiveness, inappropriate behaviour, whatever. Over time, that constant sense of shame, that constant attempt to control the damage we’ve done eats away at our self confidence. We become pitifully insecure, which of course leads to more drinking. Imagine never feeling that again. Imagine never needing to apologise, to feel shame or insecurity over something you’ve said or done while completely out of control ever again. We don’t realise the immense burden of anxiety and shame we’re carrying until it’s taken away. And once it is, you can begin to assert yourself once more. And I’ve begun to realise that I cannot control other people’s reactions or opinions, only my own. There is a surprising amount of comfort in that.
Of course, confidence and happiness return gradually, and at a different rate for every person. But they begin to regenerate far, far sooner than you might think. I’ve realised, too, that a lot– though not all– of the negative emotions I had come to accept as part of my personality, part of my daily life, were purely a product of my addiction. The weight loss you experience when you get sober is not only physical– it’s mental and emotional too. Personally, I feel about 50 kilos lighter
There are so many more advantages to quitting, so many more unexpected, positive changes that I’ve experienced in only the first month, but they’ll have to wait for another post– onto the important stuff…
Tips for the first month, or HOW to quit:
The following is a list of things that have worked for me. I don’t know whether they will work for everyone, but I do feel that I’ve learned one or two helpful things about the psychological and practical adjustments that need to be made during the early stages of sobriety. I really hope they might be of use to someone else. I might not get through all of them here (this post is already incredibly long…), but I’ll try to get through the more important ones.
1. Attitude and Outlook:
The reasons why you choose not to drink, and the attitude you bring to this decision are absolutely crucial.
My past, repeatedly failed attempts to quit all had one thing in common: I quit for a “negative” reason. Quitting for a negative reason means that you quit in order to get rid of something, you quit in an attempt to rid yourself of the unwanted effects alcohol is having on your life. For instance, you quit to escape hangovers, or, anxiety, or to stop the drama, or to lose weight. Of course, this is one component of everyone’s reason to quit, but I really feel it’s not useful as a main focus. The reason why this “negative” approach so often fails is because we focus on subtracting something from our lives, but not on adding anything. Our sobriety is only about not drinking. Noone can survive on that alone. We need to focus on what we’re building, what we’re gaining by quitting.
The reason why things worked for me this time is that I suddenly got a glimpse of what my life could be, what I was actively missing out on. It was actually astoundingly simple: on day 3 I found myself on my bed with my husband and dog at 9pm (when I’d usually be drinking), laughing so hard I nearly cried. I was present, and I was happy– genuinely happy, and in such a simple way– for the first time in forever. I wanted more. I flipped that FOMO (fear of missing out), which usually applies to our fear of what we might be missing out on by not drinking, on its head. In short, I wanted more than a drinking life could offer me. I wanted a fulfilling, exciting love life; I wanted to be sharp, intelligent, successful, driven; I wanted the best parts of my personality; I wanted my creativity (not the wishywashy, mediocre, emotional, alcohol-induced version of “creativity”) ; I wanted genuine fun; I wanted the most attractive version of me; I wanted to be happy and present and calm and fulfilled; I wanted my “sexy” back; I wanted to look people in the eye with confidence. And I wanted these things more than I wanted to drink.
I wanted life.
Perhaps you can’t in all honesty say that you do want these things more than you want to drink. But try. Envision what you want your life to look like. Envision the experiences you could have: travel, writing that novel, getting your degree, finding that incredible person who changes your life, whatever it is, really know that you have to be sober to have that. So many of us ‘play’ with our addiction for years, trying to convince ourselves that we can have our cake (or drink) and eat it too: in other words, that if we try hard enough, try different approaches, we will find a way to drink and get what we want in life. But if you have an addiction, you won’t. Especially not right now. It’s that simple. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you can get what you want.
What could your life look like if you weren’t constantly sunk in a second-rate existence, in the purgatorial rinse-and-repeat cycle of heavy drinking? It might sound trite, but dare to dream a little, and if necessary, fake it till you make it.
Do not focus on the “negative” reasons to quit. Quit for a positive reason: because you demand more and know you can have it (you can).
2. Do not think of your sobriety as an attempt to “replace alcohol” with other things:
Alcohol is what has brought you to this terrible juncture. It doesn’t need to be replaced, it needs to get the fuck out of your life. It’s not giving you anything of worth, even if you are convinced that it is. This is sort of an extension of point 1, in that it concerns the attitude we bring to sobriety. Do not think of it as “replacing” alcohol, try to think of it instead as an entirely new life, an entirely new experience. All of those things you didn’t get to do because you were lethargic, hungover, apathetic, uninterested, busy drinking, or planning for your next drinking occasion? Do those things. Fill your days.
In the first couple of weeks you’ll probably feel like resting, taking it easy, sticking close to home, or a safe atmosphere. So find some great movies, buy some books, fill your cupboards with a host of new drinks (for me it was really good, spicy teas, organic, locally-brewed ginger ale, mineral water with this, that or the other, healthy smoothies, and hot chocolate) and indulgences and take it easy. As you gain confidence, and begin to feel more comfortable going out, start going to the cinema, visiting art galleries or the library, theater, concerts (not the drink and drug-fueled kind) or poetry readings, going for walks on the beach, whatever floats your boat. Whatever you enjoy, whatever you were missing out on while you were drinking, do that! Fill your life to the brim with selfishly enjoyable pursuits.
3. Focus on the short term:
I am not saying that you can’t go from drinking every day, or every other day to being sober for a year– I think you can. But this is not the point. If you’re anything like me, looking ahead, in the first weeks of sobriety, and seeing 3 months, 100 days or a whole alcohol free year stretching ahead of you will seriously fuck with your head. You will begin to live in the projected future, instead of the present, and the recurrent thought will be “but what if this happens?” or “but am I really not going to drink anything for a whole year??!!” By the same token, a week of sobriety (an excellent accomplishment in the beginning!) will seem like an utterly insignificant thing, because eternity stretches infront of you.. Just don’t do it to yourself, there’s no need.
I began with the goal of a week. But here’s the crucial thing: do not actively plan to drink at the end of that week. Stay in the present, and focus on enjoying yourself and getting your life back one step at a time, each and every day. What worked for me in the beginning was to renew for another week (I’d just set a goal– one week sober, then two weeks sober, etc.) the day before the current week was due to be over. So on day 6, I’d post a goal of two weeks. At 13 days, I’d post a goal of three weeks. This meant that I was never sitting at the end of a goal wondering “will I or won’t I” (giving myself the opportunity to have “reward drinks”– a ridiculous concept). I was also never put in the position of extending my commitment for more than the immediate future. Every week ended with a sense of accomplishment and no decision to be made.
When I got close to a month, I set my goal at 3 months but I still celebrate my mini-goals. Before you know it, you’re not counting days anymore, you’re counting weeks, then months. And finally, you stop counting at all, and just live your life. I’m certainly not there yet, I need the sense of accomplishment that comes at the end of every sober week. But I can see how this stage would arrive eventually, as life without alcohol is getting better and better (and better). At this stage, I view my 3- month commitment as the most reliable weapon in my arsenal. I find comfort in it. No decision to be made for 3 months. 3 months is manageable, after all, I’ve already done a third of it. Whenever temptation crops up, I say “nope, not for 3 months”, a 90 day recovery period is the basic minimum required in order to change your relationship with alcohol. I also know that I’m gaining strength and momentum as I go along, and that by 3 months, I’ll be ready to extend it longer.
4. Relish the absence of decisions:
Part of the stress of drinking (yes, drinking is stressful), and the stress of attempting to “moderate” (for those with an addiction to alcohol) is the constant fucking decisions, the constant, anxiety-ridden “Will I or won’t I? When? How much? Where will I buy it? Perhaps if I just drink light beer, wine and soda? How will I hide it?…” etc., etc., and on and fucking on. For me, these thoughts, these decisions ate up an enormous chunk of my conscious thought processes, and a great deal of my time and energy. My mantra, during the early days was no decisions to make. Do not allow yourself to even consider it. The thoughts might come, but don’t put any energy into them, let them pass you by, just as trains pass a station. Just keep telling yourself that the only necessary decision has been made. That you can relax now and do other things. It’s difficult in the beginning, but it works. Just don’t go there. Keep it simple. You’ve chosen not to. Decision made. No room for negotiations. Believe it or not, it’s an enormous relief.
5. Social situations:
I avoided any and all for the first few weeks for one simple reason: not worth the risk. Not worth the stress either, of trying to plan how you will handle other people drinking, or how you will make conversation and “be fun” without a drink. It actually won’t be too long until you can do both of these things, but for now, keep it simple– protect yourself. Whenever I felt bad for not going to something, or felt like I was missing out, I reminded myself that I had been to plenty of alcohol-fueled social gatherings, I’d been there, done that. This newest event might seem like it’s going to be unique, new and exciting, but in fact it’s the same old stuff, and will end the same way:with me shaking, nauseous, riddled with anxiety, unable to sleep, feeling like death. Give yourself permission to be a hermit, to put yourself and your sobriety first. Make your home an oasis, a comforting, lovely place to be and stay there for as long as you need to.
When you feel strong enough, start making dates with good friends for coffee, a lunch (somewhere alcohol is not served, or with a friend you know will not drink at lunch), a film, whatever you like. Don’t angst over the fact that you aren’t as “fun” or “dynamic” as you felt you were when you were drinking– firstly because we are nowhere near as fun as we think we are drunk, but also because you’re rediscovering who you really are as a person, and that’s an incredibly positive thing. People will begin to notice that you are engaged and really listening, and you’ll gain confidence as you go along. My suggestion is to keep these dates during the daytime at first, it saves a lot of hassle and anxiety. Avoid spontaneous invites and events, particularly to unfamiliar situations, or in the evening. Routine and preparedness are the best friends of the newly sober, which brings me to my next point…
6. Be prepared:
Get lots of rest and allow your mind and body to go through whatever it needs to. If you have a strong physical dependency, consider speaking to your doctor about a prescription for Campral and/or other withdrawal medications or mild sleep agents. Do not believe people who tell you these things are a crutch, or are “replacing one substance with another”: that’s bullshit. I took Campral in the beginning and it saved me the more hideous aspects of physiological withdrawals. While many people manage without medication, you can and should get medical help if you need it. Anyone who says otherwise is uninformed or indoctrinated, and frankly they need to butt out.
Know that it’s common to get headaches, experience difficulty sleeping, feel tired a lot of the time, experience dramatic mood swings or brain fog, sugar cravings, etc., in the first couple of weeks. Explain to your partner or family that this is going to be a challenging few weeks, but that you’re making changes for the better, and ask for their help and support. Allow your body to take the time it needs to get the alcohol out of your system and recalibrate. Accept that you will have cravings from time to time, and try to distract yourself with other things. Know that cravings pass, and aren’t dangerous, just uncomfortable. Exercise helps. It’s also a good idea to keep a supply of sober literature or documentaries on hand– these help too. If you need suggestions just post and ask– I guarantee you’ll have more suggestions than you can ever get through within the hour. Most importantly, don’t think these symptoms will last forever, because they won’t. Just rest up, and indulge yourself. I watched loads of good movies, had long baths, read guilty-pleasure books and took it easy for the first two weeks.
If you experience more severe withdrawal symptoms (including tremors, shaking, etc.) see a doctor immediately, but know this is relatively uncommon.
7. Introduce other healthy habits simultaneously, don’t wait:
As soon as I was able, I started taking long walks, getting to bed early, and eating real, healthy food. I invested in a good quality multivitamin and mineral supplement and fish oil, to replenish my severely depleted reserves. I started listening to my body. While I think it’s a really bad idea for most people to try to kick multiple addictions at once (I still smoke and won’t attempt to stop until I’m more stable and confident in my sobriety), it is a good idea to pick up healthy habits as you get sober. I found that by doing this, I reaped the benefits of sobriety a hell of a lot faster, and gained added motivation to keep going. I lost 3kg in the first week alone. My skin cleared up and my energy came back. After 4 weeks my fitness levels had markedly improved. I began sleeping like a baby. All of these things help to build up a happy, fulfilling life and a sense of accomplishment that you will not want to sacrifice for the sake of a drink.
8. Accept that recovery takes time, and pace yourself:
I don’t believe in the AA philosophy of lifetime recovery, but we certainly go through a period of recovery before we enter the “new normal” of sober existence. Some say the process goes on for a couple of years. This might sound scary, but it isn’t really. Life always has ups and downs, whether you’re drinking or sober, in a good period of your life, or a more challenging one. Recovery is no different. At only 5 weeks in I know I have a very long road ahead of me, that I’ve barely scraped the surface of my recovery. But that’s ok, because my life is improving all the time, and because I’m growing stronger and more resolute for every week that passes. I know there will be challenges ahead, and I accept that, but I don’t worry about the future, I choose to live in the present. When I was drinking I was almost never present: I wallowed in the past, and worried about the future. I tend to think of it like this: the present is really the only thing that ever has been real, or ever will be– it’s all we experience. We will only ever experience what we think of as “the future” when it becomes our present. The only way to prepare for this future is to live well, cultivate productive, fulfilling habits, in the present, one day at a time. This is the key to recovery as I see it
9. If worst comes to worst:
You will have the best chance of long-term success if you refuse to drink. Full stop. If you consistently choose, in all situations, to remain sober, you will improve at a consistently faster rate. But if worst comes to worst and you do slip (and it happens to many of us) know that the slip is not nearly as important as what comes after. The days after the slip are crucial, and are the difference between a lapse, and a relapse. Don’t put yourself through the latter, you might never come out of it. Accept that you’ve slipped and refuse to do it again. The temptation is to think “well, I slipped once, might as well enjoy a few more drinking occasions before I get back on the wagon”– meanwhile the wagon is rolling further and further away from you, becoming harder and harder to get back up on. Just don’t. Trust me, I’ve been there. Just don’t.
If you’ve read this far, I really hope this post will be helpful for you, or for someone you know. Life really is too short to be wasted in the utterly bland, mediocrity that is alcohol addiction. You can have more, so go get it! xx
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