I used to get irritated by the word journey in relation to stopping drinking: it sounded trite to me as I felt it was overused. The sober journey. But after years of going through the roller coaster of becoming sober, relapsing and eventually maintaining sobriety, I realised it really is a journey. My Journey.
My journey took me from Grief to Shame to Knowledge to Freedom. I am free now! Alcohol-Free. My journey is not over by any means but with continued work, I know that I have left alcohol behind.
For anyone who is just starting out on this sober journey, be patient. Read, educate yourself, be kind to yourself and know that you are far from alone and no matter how bad (or not) you think your problem is, I guarantee you there is someone here that knows exactly how you are feeling.
But First there was the Grief :
My journey was like the cycle of grief as giving up drinking can feel like a loss of love. I had a relationship with alcohol. An intimate relationship. And stopping drinking has been a journey traveled in learning how to live without it in my life. Losing something that I thought helped me when I was happy, sad, traumatised, not sleeping, socially anxious and on and on.
I have been trying to give up alcohol for the last four or five years. I’ve had some rewarding successes, but also periods where I didn’t want to stop. The Joy of Complete Sobriety alluded me so I tried moderating my drinking many times, or bargained with myself about drinking ‘just on special occasions’.
When I first realised I had a problem and tried to stop drinking I had no understanding of addiction. I joined a wonderful website community and formed a fantastic network of online friends (a few of who I have been lucky enough to meet in three different countries!) In that community, the other members provided endless support and educational resources. It was a real team. But the concepts, expressions and language I read about when I first started to give up drinking didn’t sink in. I needed to experience everything myself, the ‘pink mist’, ‘urge surfing/riding the wave’ and ‘PAWS’, over the years before I started to understand what these things meant.
It took time.
I was impatient, and tried like crazy to educate myself but that can be overwhelming. Also, what works for one person doesn’t work for another, so I spent a lot of time reading blogs and books and thoughts from my online community, and working out what resonated with me and what didn’t.
And the there was the Shame :
One of the hardest things about giving up alcohol I had to battle was the guilt and self-loathing that came with my drinking. Saying stupid things, not being emotionally available for my children, embarrassing myself and my family, worrying people and on it goes
No one in my world understood why I was trying to stop drinking completely. My issues with alcohol were darkly secret. In the early days, when I went out, I had to think of excuses for why I wasn’t drinking. I’d say that I was taking medication, had an early start the next day etc. because if you don’t drink, people assume you have a problem and they judge you as weak or impulsive. The impact of culture, TV and advertising is an endless rant for another day.
After succeeding at some lengthy periods of sobriety interspersed with many, many slips, I realised that I was on an emotional roller coaster from hell. I became increasingly depressed and anxious.
Why wasn’t I progressing as well as others?
I did a written exercise with a good and a bad column for alcohol. Surprisingly there were things in the good column. Blacking out pain appealed to me and I enjoyed going out eating and drinking wine. Then I filled out the bad column, and by the time I got to the bottom of the page I just stopped. The shame overwhelmed me. I thought to myself, ‘I am a rational person’. Why couldn’t I see the devastation that alcohol has and is still causing me.
So I went to alcohol rehab.
Those 21 days, three weeks in a bubble of information, routine, meals cooked for me, no housework, a gym, and dietician was a great way to start detoxing and get specialised addiction counselling and education. That was the easy part. Applying it all when I got home was the hard part. I would for a while, then I’d get too confident and question whether I could have a few drinks now and again, then before I knew it it, I was back to daily drinking.
The average number of re-admissions for treatment was 11 for the alcohol rehab I first went to. It’s a scary number, but it does show that we are not alone in struggling to stay sober. It shows how powerful alcohol addiction is, and how long it can take to work out how to stop drinking and stay stopped.
What I did find helpful each time I went to rehab, was the lack of judgment. None. And this was complemented by the equally non-judgemental support that I got from my online community.
I Began to Drink in Knowledge to dispel the Shame:
What happens when we are triggered now, is our midbrain (fight or flight) takes over and we go to the first thing that will ease our pain. Our rational brain is compromised. This will take commitment and time to repair our damaged brains, and it’s fascinating to look at this process through MRI studies.
I learned about the power of language. A world renowned addiction specialist used to provide a two hour lecture every Friday at the rehab. In the first lecture I attended, we did an exercise where we used all the words people used to describe people with an addiction. Drunks, addicts, alcoholics, junkies, druggos, stoners, and on it went. He then showed us how easily it is to slip into addiction and MRI’s of the brain changing over time; also pointing out that no one starts out wanting to become addicted to a substance.
Changing the language we use is one of his major focuses now. Hopefully his work will make it more socially acceptable for people to seek treatment by taking away the shame and stigma associated with addiction. Even the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) has now included language such as alcohol misuse disorder (i.e. not alcoholic).
There is mixed progress on the use of less prerogative language in the scientific world, in part due to AA being the primary referral option for people addicted to alcohol and the constant use of the word ‘alcoholic’. This can be a major deterrent in getting help – it was for me. This is in no way intended to denigrate AA – whatever works, works! But we need other options too for people where AA is not a good fit (like SMART Recovery).
One of the hardest things about giving up alcohol I had to battle was the guilt and self-loathing that came with my drinking. Saying stupid things, not being emotionally available for my children, embarrassing myself and my family, worrying people and on it goes. We were always taught in rehab to be kind to ourselves and to realise that addiction is incredibly complex and not just a lack of self-control. That self-hatred is generally a trigger to drink more. Yes, we should show remorse for what we’ve done and guilt can be a good starting point to give up drinking, but then it becomes nothing but destructive.
Starting to forgive myself was next to impossible until I began to understand the neuroscience of addiction. Put simply, our ability to think rationally has been taken over by our midbrain. This has taken years of rewiring neural pathways. What happens when we are triggered now, is our midbrain (fight or flight) takes over and we go to the first thing that will ease our pain. Our rational brain is compromised. This will take commitment and time to repair our damaged brains, and it’s fascinating to look at this process through MRI studies.
I had felt such guilt but began to learn that my addiction wasn’t all my fault. My genes played a big part, our culture played a big part, and as in so many of us, trauma plays a huge role. I imagine that many people with alcohol issues have that trifecta. That doesn’t mean we can’t beat it.
Having a plan is essential. Identifying triggers (there can be so many!), educating ourselves, staying connected and being able to reach out for support are so important. More recently, exploring the use of medication for people who really struggle has been surprisingly effective for me.
I don’t want this to be too long, so I’d like to offer a few take-outs from what I learned at rehab. Some are cheesy and are hard to do (but help with rewiring the brain):
The Three D’s I Learned in Alcohol Rehab:
Delay -Distract – Decide
It’s part of ‘surfing the wave’ (which apparently only lasts 10-15 minutes – the craving). The first step is a willingness to try the 3 D’s. Try deferring one minute. During that time choose something distracting to do. I watch something on Netflix. When the distraction wears off, try a little more delaying, or make a conscious choice. Just by delaying you’ve started the process of weaning yourself off alcohol. It’s a small success but take the win.
If you are triggered by something significant, grab an ice pack (if you can) or cold water, and put it on your face, as it has a scientific effect on your thought processes. You’re only thinking of your physical discomfort. It’s a delay tactic in essence.
Write a list of triggers from 1 – 10 and be ready to handle each of those as they come up. Be prepared.
Also, I recently watched a TED talk that suggested waking up every morning and saying you are a good person, struggling with a disease and you are trying hard. Say it enough times and you might start believing it.
For anyone who is just starting out on this sober journey, be patient. Read, educate yourself, be kind to yourself and know that you are far from alone and no matter how bad (or not) you think your problem is, I guarantee you there is someone here that knows exactly how you are feeling. It takes a lot of energy to hide bottles, plan for extra alcohol before/during/after social events, find time to dispose of empty bottles, blackouts, bad LFT’s. It’s exhausting and all consuming. Then somehow you have to fit life into all that whether it’s work/family/etc.
If you haven’t experienced it for a while, it will possibly be hard to comprehend, but there is so much freedom in not drinking. Reach for it and hold on with all the strength you can muster and ask for help!
If you’re looking for support to stop drinking or stay sober come hang out with us for a while and we’ll think it through together . We are BOOM Rethink the Drink, a Private, Anonymous, Community Forum, open to anyone hoping to take a break from drinking.
Once inside the community if you’d like to start talking it through you may find these questions and answers interesting
- Boozemusings is a lifestyle blog and the BOOM Community is a peer support group. We are NOT trained addiction counselors but simply a community of people who have overcome or are overcoming alcohol issues. We do not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor does anything on this website create a physician/patient relationship. If you require medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, please consult your physician.