A magazine article I read today put forth the idea that stress is basically the tension between your expectations and reality. For example, if you expect your presentation to go well and it goes poorly, the tension between what you thought would happen and what actually did happen will cause you to feel stress. As soon as I read that, I thought of my life when I was drinking heavily. I felt so much stress all the time. Self medicating with alcohol was my solution to the stress but it was the way that I used alcohol that was creating the tension between my expectations and reality.
When I was drinking, my life didn’t look anything like I thought it should. When I thought about what I wanted my life to look like, I was there for my son, I was happy in my job, I was able to manage my life and get things done. I had good relationships with those around me. Sadly, my reality looked nothing like that, and it was all because I could not stop self medicating with alcohol.
One of the worst things about that time in my life is that alcohol promised me that it would fix the problem. It promised me that if I had a drink, I’d feel that tension release just a little bit. But alcohol lied to me. Every time I picked up a drink, it led to another drink. More often than not, it led to another, and another, and another, and another, and another, on and on and on until I passed out. Every time I picked up a drink, I missed an opportunity to be there for my son. I felt ill and foggy and was unproductive at work. I couldn’t seem to get anything done. My relationships fell apart a little more.
One of the reasons it took me sooooo long to stop drinking after I knew I had a problem, was that I had learned that nightly drinking to de-stress was a normal part of adult life. The more stress in one’s life the more justification there was to drink it away at the end of the day. Self-medicating with alcohol seemed the staus quo. .
I was a heavy drinker since forever, but I started drinking daily to self medicate my way through a high-stress job that I stayed in for YEARS longer than I should have. I left that job a broken, defeated, drunken shell of my former self a couple of years ago. I’ve tried a few different jobs since then, trying to find something better, but the pattern has remained the same in each.
I am an overachieving people pleaser. In every job I’ve ever had, even before I teetered over the edge of the alcohol cliff, I end up taking on WAY more than I should. I say, “Yes, absolutely, I can do that,” when I should decline. I seek out additional responsibility, no matter how full my plate is, in order to impress higher-ups, to make myself “invaluable.”
After my 2-3 binges each week became heavy daily drinking, I would pile on stress and self medicate with alcohol, pile on and drink, pile on and drink, until my stress level was so high that I’d snap and either quit the job outright or just stop showing up. Then I would drown myself in guilt and alcohol for a while, find a new job, and do the exact same thing.
Quitting my last job was the catalyst to the two-week bender that was the catalyst to my current sobriety.
I regret a great deal about that time of my life.
The thing is, regret is an inevitable part of this journey. None of us would be here if we hadn’t done things we regretted while drunk, or just plain regretted the way we were drinking. The same applies to shame, remorse, humiliation, fear, anger, and a whole host of other very strong and difficult emotions. That’s why getting (and staying) sober, if you are in the routine of self medicating with alcohol, is so hard.
It would be one thing if you could say, “I quit alcohol,” spend a week dealing with feeling physically crappy, and then step into the sunshine singing with your arms flung wide like Julie Andrews, but it doesn’t work that way. Instead, you put the booze down and are faced with picking up the emotions that are piled in front of you, blocking the way to that pretty hillside you imagined you’d be standing on. You have to hold them, turning them around to look at every side. You have to feel their weight. You have to care for them and treat them kindly. Then you have to let them go.
Each time I do this, each time I go through this process, that pile of emotions gets a little bit smaller, I know myself a little bit better, and I get a little bit closer to that sunny hillside.
I choose to hold those emotions close enough to examine them, to learn what they are and why I have them, to understand what they have to teach me, to soothe them and tell them that it’s all going to be okay, and to let them go.
In stopping self medicating stress with alcohol, I now no longer NEED to self mediacte stress with alcohol. Today, at the end of day 239 Alcohol Free, that tension is gone. And I mean G.O.N.E. It’s been gone for a long time now. I mean, obviously I still feel stress from time to time, but it’s nothing like that tension between what I wanted my life to look like and the gigantic mess that alcohol had turned my life into. I don’t miss it.
Not one little bit.
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