A wise man and a friend of mine used to say “If you’ve got a problem with alcohol, I have a solution for you. Stop drinking. If your problem is with alcohol then when you stop, it will go away. But if you have what I have, a disease called ALCOHOLISM, when you stop drinking, the problem really begins.”
Confused? I was too. But I kept coming back and it slowly, day after day, started to make sense. The beginning is hard. For me, it was the hardest time frame of my sobriety so far. See, withdrawal isn’t confined to physical symptoms and as we lift the “fog” that is alcohol from our lives, we are often surprised by the wreckage beneath. Don’t quit before the miracle happens.
Letting Go Of My Lifeline
The first time I got sober I couldn’t imagine a life without alcohol. How could I ever have any fun? If I was truly powerless over alcohol than I couldn’t even go to parties or bars or restaurants or places where anyone was drinking. Everywhere that matters, right? I remember vacillating between jealousy of people who could drink normally and hatred for the lot. If I convinced myself that I hated the lifestyle, maybe the idea of quitting wouldn’t hurt so bad.
Hindsight begins to make things clearer. I didn’t really want to hate the lifestyle. I just wanted to know that if I couldn’t ever drink again, I wouldn’t be missing out on anything. While working with a sponsor in those early days she asked me, “Are you willing to do whatever it takes to get sober?” I answered as honestly I possibly could: “Only if you can guarantee me that my life will be better. If you can’t GUARANTEE me that then I might as well keep drinking.”
Any addict can see how after some time the drug becomes a lifeline. Somewhere in between the things in life that made me want to drink and suicide, was a kind of treatment for my disease that gave me self-acceptance, belonging, relief. I drank every day not because I had to, but because my will to go on living depended on it. In the rooms, I often hear people talk about arriving at a place where they didn’t want to die, but didn’t want to keep living the way they were. That was also true for me. My disease was slowly claiming me sip by sip, glass by glass, bottle by bottle. Ironically my life was really good at the time I arrived at that place. The answer to the question “What do I have to lose” had to become “everything” before I was ready to quit drinking. Can you believe my sponsor replied to me by saying, “I guarantee you your life will be better.” Bold, huh? She didn’t even know me…and yet somehow she did.
I Thought It Was Supposed to Get Better
For me letting go of alcohol was like letting go of my life vest. I found myself treading water. Initially stopping meant some physical challenges. Insomnia, lack of concentration, cravings, drinking dreams, mood swings, triggers. Soon after that came the problems my friend talked about. Suddenly my life was unrecognizable. It didn’t resemble what it was before but it also didn’t resemble anything that I had envisioned when I asked if my life would be “better.” Suddenly I lost interest in socializing, cooking, parenting, reading, writing, being a wife, basically anything that I had been interested in before alcohol became my priority. I was irritable, I argued with people I didn’t know, I stopped looking forward to things. Everything was harder. I was present in a 12-step program and wondered which would come first: the miracle or the relapse.
During this first bit, it was difficult to keep my mind from veering off the goal of sobriety. The other things that were going on in my life became very intense. In my head, I had been divorced, I ran away from my family, had to give up my children, I committed myself to a mental institution and consciously considered suicide on several occasions. There were many times when my sponsor had to remind me how well I was distracting myself from sobriety. That couldn’t be right. I would know if I was trying to distract myself because I’d be trying to distract myself. Duh.
Letting it Fester and Heal Wounds.
As it turned out, festering up from within me, and emerging from the alcoholic fog was some serious mental illness. I had been treated in the past for several diagnoses but I thought that maybe it was just a phase that seems to drift away. I think what actually happened is I used alcohol to quell the symptoms. It wasn’t until about 1 year of sobriety that I was ready to admit that I was powerless over my depression and PTSD. I saw a doctor as a recommendation by both my therapist and my sponsor and I started medication immediately and avoided hospitalization for Acute Major Depression.
Ever have the sweats after a good night on the bottle? Imagine that, except the sweat represents all the emotion you ever buried during your time of using. In my case, this was about 16 years of repression. That’s a lot of junk that had nowhere to go when I quit drinking. To make matters harder, I also had no coping mechanism left in order to deal with those emotions. A big part of my recovery was learning how to let the emotion come and put it in its place. With the help of a good therapist and a committed sponsor, I was able to learn exactly that. Before this, I thought people were just born with the skills to manage their lives and I somehow wasn’t.
A Life I Never Knew I Wanted; Second to None!
My wise friend also says that if you work your program, you’ll have “a life second to none!”
As the depression and anxiety lifted while taking medication and working the steps, I was able to deepen my recovery. I was able to resume progress in therapy and do some serious growing in my program. At times I still clutched to my old coping strategies but I was able to recognize when the behaviors that lead me to drink started to surface. Those instances became merely growing pains and learning opportunities. I started to believe that I deserved to recover. That I could forgive myself for the past and that working on my recovery would lead to a better life for me and the people around me who loved me:
I often say that I never had a true friendship until I got sober.
There were walls I built around me. Some of them were protective; all were built because I feared the world. I barely knew myself and I’m not sure how anyone else did. I slowly started to care about the people I knew. I asked questions about them. I remembered important things happening in their lives. I started to feel for them – you know that thing called empathy? Like real empathy. Not just “playing the part” (because addicts are pretty good at facades). What a beautiful thing to experience! And not scary at all, like I had thought before.
My marriage was saved by sobriety.
At the bottom, we had drifted apart and I think we were both unknowingly engaged in self-preservation. I am incredibly grateful that when I sobered up we still wanted to spend the rest of our lives together. Many couples don’t. My husband had the patience to withstand my worst days WITH and WITHOUT alcohol. I honestly believe he had every reason to leave me and only a few reasons to stay. I credit my Higher Power for having kept us together through this ride. In sobriety, I have found my match and I am able to believe that we can do almost anything together mainly, enjoy life.
I found my family.
The family I grew up with and the family I created as I grew up in the program. By “found” I mean, I was able to see them for what they really were. I was able to love them based on my ability to give love and not their ability to meet my needs. I realized I had more people in my life who cared about me than I ever knew. I saw my children in a way I had not before. They became less of things I had to “manage” and more the little persons they were born to be. And man, they are incredible just the way they are.
I didn’t know how much I loved things.
I love to dance. I love to read and write and sing. I love to take walks and paint and do yoga. I love myself (the me before sobriety and after sobriety). I love people: learning about them, engaging in discussions with them, helping them. I have a huge appreciation for food and discovered in sobriety that I can still enjoy cooking without a glass of wine on the counter. In fact, I enjoy it more because I am present. I never imagined that such things in life could bring so much satisfaction without the numbing effects (and extra work) of drinking.
The gift of being present.
Without alcohol, I feel all the things. This means that I am connected TO and WITH all the things. Have something to tell me? I’ll be listening instead of thinking about that next drink. Want to take a walk? I’ll appreciate the wandering without wondering why we are wasting time while we could be at the bar. When I commit to something, I’m usually there because I’m not hungover again. When I feel down, I take care of myself. Because I’m not too drunk to realize that what I really need is a chat and hug from a friend. And although some of those pictures are still out there (a friend sent me one just the other day), I don’t worry so much anymore who is going to see my dirty deeds on social media in the morning when I wake up (who was the girl I was grinding on the dance floor with anyway? Anyone?)
Relief of nagging resentments.
Those dudes certainly knew alcoholics well enough when they wrote the steps to know that resentments are our one-way ticket to oblivion. So when I finally had a non-judgmental, non-aggressive thought about a person I previously took issues with, I knew the miracle was happening for me.
In sobriety, I have a constant awareness that I did not drink like other people. THIS I am eternally grateful for. It comes in the form of advertisements for alcohol (or lawyers offering their services to people with legal problems because of their drinking), driving by jails and police stations (and not being locked up), cleaning the house (and finding yet another hidden bottle opener), or even enjoying a meal at a restaurant and noticing that someone at the table next to me left half a glass of wine (and they tell me I’m the one with the drinking problem, pffst). Alcoholism tried to convince me that I didn’t have a problem. Recovery makes sure that I don’t forget it.
Why is this a life I never knew I wanted? Because when I was in active addiction, I didn’t enjoy many things. All of my energy was spent trying to regulate (or suppress) my emotions and the rest of the time keep well-numbed. So I didn’t know what kind of life I wanted. I just knew I didn’t want the life that I had. And the miracle persists. I feel it all around me and deep within me as I continue my journey through a life, while sober, looks pretty damn good.