Rolling With the Waves is the Only Way to Face Sobriety

Up until very recently over the past two decades my constant nightly companion came in the shape of a green bottle holding some form of crisp, dry white wine. After I cleared the bare minimal obligations from my day, I took the bottle from the fridge, grabbed my favorite large glass, and poured myself the first of many glasses which usually led to the entire bottle, sometimes more. Over the years my consumption stayed the same, and I rarely switched to red wine or any other kind of drink.

Wine had become the most important part of my existence. Day in and day out, the elephant in the room, the cause of so much underlying anxiety and stress, and stops and starts in my life. The cause of indecision and bad decisions. Achingly low self-esteem. Impatience, intolerance, cynicism, even mild misanthropy. To feel positive about anything seemed false. I trudged through the days. The only time I stopped completely was when I was pregnant. Thankfully, even though I was still in denial at that point, my addiction could be tamed when I was with child. But within months after giving birth and when breastfeeding ceased, my habit returned.

Nearly twenty years later, I am finally facing up to my addiction. I am trying to get at the why. Every day is a struggle, but among the low points there are many signs that my brain and body are recovering, and along with finding a sober community online, I am finding hope. Writing helps to uncover the causes of addiction, and why it’s taken me this long to own up to it. Not just in a journal for my own eyes, but here, where I hope to share with others who can relate to this experience. 

My new level of certainty is understanding that change is inevitable in all things. I am taking this principle and applying it to the way I approach recovery. It’s up to me to roll with the waves, to decide how to navigate through them. I own this.

I strongly believe that no one navigation style fits all; for example, AA may be the only way for many people in recovery, but I have decided that other approaches may suit me better. So far, I have worked through my own plan which is based on a mix of common sense, scientific research, and learning from others in recovery through books, blogs, and podcasts. While this topic will come up occasionally, I am not here to dispute recovery methods nor judge those who have found AA or anything else that I may not agree with or adhere to, but may work perfectly well for them.

Additionally, I do not want to get into the all or nothing debate. I have witnessed people who have successfully overcome their excessive alcohol consumption, say, by a 90% reduction, and their lives have turned around. The effort to change and the support required to do so—whether you need to quit altogether or step back and drastically moderate—are similar.

I see addiction as a spectrum. One size does not fit all. The main thing is that we support and applaud each other, no matter what flavor or style or method of recovery you stand behind. Our goal is the same: To move on from the past, be the best we can be, and live in the light. 

(This is a revised post from April 2019).

The End of Boozy Summers

The beautiful summer weather is here, along with cracking thunderstorms, bugs, and way, way too many opportunities to find some event outside where drink is involved. In the upper Midwest when it finally gets warm people tend to go a little nuts as we learn that the sun still exists and it has not forsaken us. Between street festivals, outdoor concerts, craft markets, sports events, food trucks, restaurant patios, open brewery halls and ubiquitous home barbecues, the presence of alcohol IS EVERYWHERE.

Nearly four months sober I tread lightly in this world of warm weather celebration, where it’s assumed that everyone wants a drink to accompany whatever cool thing they are doing. Why yes, I would like a nice frosty IPA while I move from venue to venue at the art fair. A cool, crisp glass of white wine is the perfect thing to sip on the Italian restaurant patio (while waiting for the 1300 calorie pasta dish). And let’s face it, what good is a lazy swing on backyard hammock without a gin and tonic in hand?

Unless I want to white-knuckle through while everyone else drinks, where does this leave me? Sitting at home watching Netflix, or, at last I can dive into that collection of Chekhov stories, while the warm sunlight dances over the boozy crowds?

To walk among the drinkers and not drink is one of the hardest things about sobriety.

How I Get Through Breezy Summer Nights without Booze

Tonight I am meeting up with my usual group of friends for a backyard barbeque. The host has a cooler the size of a bathtub in which he fills to the brim a variety of beers and wine. Everyone who goes to these gatherings drinks, a lot. I used to be one of them.

Now I have to figure out how to get through the night without drinking. I will drink spring water and try my best to talk along with the rest of them, hearing the same old stories, jokes, and laughter about things that are only mildly funny. Since I decided to stop drinking, this is my first time “out” with everyone. To be able to get through the night without anyone pointing out the fact that I am not drinking is impossible. I want to have my mind made up as to how I will answer, but I really don’t know what to say. The stigma of sobriety still hangs heavy over me. Unlike some bloggers who wear it loud and proud, I am still dipping my toe in regarding how to deal with being sober in these drink-laden social events.

I realize that I can’t control how other people think or feel and I need to be true to myself and my sobriety goals. Most of all, I realize too that what other people think about usually rarely has anything to do with me. I will get there, and I am trying. It would be more self-defeating of me to simply avoid the situation altogether, which would be easy to do. But they are my friends, and I can’t simply cut them out of my life because they drink and I do not. I can control how often I see them, maybe, and try to build new relationships with other people who are sober. It’s a long road, and I’m only on the first stretch.

How do you manage your social life now that you are sober?

What Mornings Are Like Now That I Am Not Drinking

Much to my surprise, people, I am a MORNING PERSON. Now that I sleep better all the way through the night, I wake up feeling great. You know those pharmaceutical commercials where they show the actor smiling, leaping out of bed after a night where said effects of the drug clearly worked? The dramatic sweep of the fresh sheets, usually some sort of cute puppy bouncing around, and the incredibly bright, sunny rays glowing all around? That’s not me exactly, but close. When I compare to how I used to lay there and dread the day before me after a night of restless, stiff, head-achy “sleep,” now I wake up with a clear head, muscles that want to move, and I am eager to get going on my day.

I am still going to the same job for which I am overqualified and don’t love, but my attitude has changed towards it, and I deal with the ups and downs in a different way. When I chose this job I was still governed by the negative effects and underlying causes of my addiction. Too lazy and foggy to do the work to find a better match, and lacking in the confidence to seek out a more challenging role.

The good thing is while the work itself requires minimal brain power, I can use what’s left over to work on recovery. This means writing in the mornings very early before anyone else (including the cats) are up, and also during lunchtime, as my employer provides plenty of private spaces for employees, and I can do this without interruption. I am grateful for the physical and mental space to start writing again.

Early mornings also mean eating better, wearing clothes that actually look somewhat thought-out, and avoiding the worst of rush hour. Some days I even find a decent podcast or audiobook to play for inspiration or laughs, while I drink my coffee and get in the mindset for a busy day.

This is a huge contrast to when I would drag myself out the door in a bad mood, often emotional and always anxious, working through a hangover. One of the strongest incentives to stay away from my old routine of nightly drinking is to visualize me getting up fresh-faced and ready for the day, vs. the sad, bloated, and irritable person I once was. Not going back there.

What’s your favorite part of the day now that you are sober?

Walking Through and Rising Above the Triggers to Drink

Learning to identify the triggers that make me want to drink is an ongoing process, and if I am going to keep up sobriety I need to figure out how to deal with them. I am not referring to the everyday visuals and subliminal messaging of advertising or other media, or how even driving past a liquor store can induce a sweaty upper lip.

The routine journey through my average day can be a minefield of triggers: The rude driver who cut me off. The millennials at the coffee shop who talk way, way too loud, complete with vocal fry and “like” in every other word. The guy at work who calls me the “marketing lady.” My husband’s friend, who I will call John, is a person I once got along with when I drank, but now when sober I see how his opinionated stance is littered with sexist and racist undertones. The hoarding nature of my husband, whose basement studio is cluttered with music gear, miles of electrical cords, and layers of dust he is somehow able to unsee.

If only I could practice what I preach to my daughter when she experiences bouts of anxiety. I tell her, “Rise above it, breathe.” If I could remove my self-centered position from these triggers, and remind myself: This is not about you. The driver doesn’t know me from Adam, and he will do the same thing to 30 other drivers in one day. The millenials’ way of speaking and communicating is probably (keyword: probably) just as annoying as my boomer/cusp GenX cohort sounded to the generation before me; nothing new there. The guy at work is 67 years-old and grew up in a culture where most of the women in the workplace were secretaries. At least he knows what I do! I can’t change John’s mindset or opinions, and he will always be in our lives. Most of all, who am I to say that my husband can’t have his beloved music gear?

Rise above it. Breathe.

Besides understanding that I need to remove the personal from these triggers, I can choose to see what’s underneath them. My reaction to the rude driver is also a sign that I hate my commute to a job that most days doesn’t challenge me or bring out my best. The twentysomethings’ youth and confidence makes me regret how at that age I was relatively introverted and painfully lacking in assertiveness. The “marketing lady” comment isn’t so much about sexism, but about how I don’t really love my job. My awareness of John’s offensiveness raises questions about some of my existing relationships, and whether or not I can keep them now that I am sober, and trying hard to be true to myself. Finally, the dusty, cluttered music gear in the basement symbolizes an aspect of my husband’s life that I can’t really share with him. He pursues his art freely, openly, and has an entire group of friends he shares it with. I am jealous.

Walking through and understanding the triggers that make me want to drink is an ongoing, sometimes painful process. I believe it is at the root of the successful recovery process and it takes practice and patience.

Opening Up to a Sober Social Life

Yesterday I listened to the Soberful podcast for the first time. In one of the episodes the hosts discussed how when you become sober, the world opens up. You start to see and feel things you couldn’t while drinking. In the process of drinking not only do the negative emotions and feelings you can’t face get pushed back, but the blinders and fog of alcohol also shield you from the good things: the beauty of the sky, the trees, a thoughtful conversation.

Now that I’ve quit drinking, my senses are opening up and I am taking the time to fully absorb what is around me. I am less anxious to move on and more patient in the moment. The exception is at gatherings where other people are drinking. When sober I find myself knowing the difference between an actual witty, thought-provoking conversation and a stale, bullshit rant, the flavor of which I’ve heard dozens of times before.

Now that the promise of warmer weather feels real after a horrible winter, I know there will be plenty of barbeques and microbrew patio opportunities, and my husband will want to go to every one. If I am being true to myself and honoring my wish to be sober I would rather do something else than sit around with people who are drinking, laughing at the same anecdotes, complaining about the same things, and quite often just staring into their phones anyway, not really engaging with one another at all.

Saying no gives the impression that I am anti-social or a snob, so I lean towards going along with the flow and putting myself in that awkward, stressful situation. I don’t really care if people notice that I’m not drinking. Most people just care about themselves and won’t really notice or care what I am doing, whether it’s drinking or playing Scrabble on my phone. When drinking, people lose their sense of awareness anyway. By the time they’re three or four drinks in they will have forgotten what you just said, let alone what type of drink may be in your glass. What stresses me out is that I will be bored. That I am wasting my time. I would rather be hiking, reading, painting, cooking, or writing. So, where does that leave me socially?

I want keep my old friends, but my relationship with them is changing. Did I mostly get along with them because we shared the drinking habit?

It’s time to find new friends and expand my network. When drinking I was good at keeping to myself, and I still am, but I was also partially afraid to step out and take chances. Not confident enough to seek out like-minded people who also write and paint, who read books and talk about ideas, who understand what it means to live a sober, or moderate-drinking life.

It’s Better to Bloom Late Than Never

Instead of going to art school like I should have, my father wanted me to be a secretary or a hairdresser, the sort of roles outside of motherhood women of his generation settled for. I came very close to being both, until I flew off to England to live an entirely different life altogether (which is a story for other posts). For years, no matter where I lived or how I earned my living, I carried around the desire to pursue the life of the artist, but I held a deep belief that I wasn’t good enough to claim that role.

I buried the desire, never practiced drawing or painting regularly, and convinced myself that writing was my thing instead. I had the mindset that I had to choose one thing and be really, really good at that one thing. Dive in and know everything about it, know all the people who are really good at it, have a network, expose yourself. Well, of course I never applied myself fully to writing, either. Writing and art lay low for years, until now.

When I spent my evenings drinking I was like a tightly-closed bud, waiting for the right moment to open. Waiting some more. And more. The lack of clarity and confidence, the inability to see things positively because of the constant filter of cynicism and self-doubt, held me down and closed-up.

Fueled by my daily wine habit, I maintained this negative environment in my head, where nothing truly productive ever happened. Somehow, I got by, but I wasn’t being true to myself: the artist and writer within. As I grew older, any vision of myself as an artist faded by the day. I convinced myself that my time had passed, I missed my chance, and to bother with it now would be futile. I told myself It’s a young person’s world these days, you are a fool if you think you can compete and dive in now. This constant hammering of negativity wore me down to the point where I convinced myself it was true.

Three months into sobriety I realize now that all of that is bullshit.

The only thing stopping myself from painting, drawing, writing is me. Putting down the drink means lifting up other parts of myself: the art of seeing, of believing, of doing.