I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Early sobriety is tough.
Everyone who’s tried to get sober or managed to put together some time knows how freaking hard it is to stay sober, especially in the beginning. I’m not talking so much about dealing with the desire to drink, which is an animal in its own right, but more about all the other stuff that goes on in early recovery (and throughout our entire sobriety). You know – the whole “stayed for my thinking” thing, also known as the massive tidal wave of new and unexpected feelings, coupled with the non-stop obsessive, negative thinking.
The worst part of all this, in my opinion, was the surprise factor. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea what was in store for me when I put down the drink. And it wasn’t like someone was waiting on the other side to explain it all to me either. Don’t get me wrong, I was met with a tremendous amount of help, which I’m grateful for, but I wish someone could have broken down exactly WTF was going on and what I could do about it. Like a “First Year of Sobriety for Dummies,” or something. I consider myself lucky because I stuck it out. However, I’ve seen way too many people go back to their substance of choice or switch addictions because they just couldn’t take it.
While in no way, shape, or form do I claim to be an expert, I have put together a few Cliff’s Notes for anyone out there wondering WTF is going on. As with anything in recovery, take what you like and leave the rest.
Recovery: A Return to a Normal State of Health
Meaning you aren’t there yet. Hello! You just hit ROCK BOTTOM. You are recovering from an illness! People don’t think about New Year’s plans or their future husband in the surgical recovery room. And those patients aren’t recovering from an illness that’s gone on for however long we drank and used. In my first 90 days, I wrote a list of things I must accomplish by the time I had one year of sobriety, including publish a book and meet my future husband. My ambition was amazing, but I didn’t take into consideration that I was in recovery. You know what I accomplished in my first year of sobriety? I stayed sober. The goal of getting sober is to get sober, and there is plenty of time later on to date, change careers, go back to school, etc.
ISM = Insanely Short Memory
Speaking of rock bottom, early recovery is NOT the opportune time to start prepping for marathon, or look for a new job or spouse, or move across the country. We all get the itch to boomerang our lives back together in early sobriety. Whether you know it or not, that itch is just a fun combo of feelings all alcoholics and addicts experience: restlessness, irritability, and discontentment. Learning to sit with ourselves and our feelings is a super important part of early recovery. The urge to move, marry, create or change is just our way of trying to RID ourselves of the feelings. I didn’t do a damn thing for the almost 29 years before I got sober, so chilling out and recovering for a year didn’t really make that big of a difference in the grand scheme of things.
The Hot Sauce IS Hot
This one is for my fellow 12-steppers. A group of sobers go out to dinner. The waitress drops an appetizer on the table and says “this is the spiciest thing you will ever eat.” How many sobers pick of their forks and take a huge bite immediately? All of them. Why? Because we think we’re different or the rules don’t apply to us, and we can’t take anyone’s word for it. No matter how hard we try to be different, or think we’re the exception to the rule, we are not. My head worked overtime to convince me that I was unique or that certain things didn’t apply to me. They did. All 100% of them without fail. The hot sauce rule is important for two reasons.
- It means the solution will work for you, and so will the suggestions. It might seem that the solution or the suggestions won’t work, or that they won’t address your specific problem, but they will.
- You will not be the exception to the rule, meaning you will not be the first person in the history of humanity that will crack the code and somehow supersede what thousands have tried before.
Yes… It IS Your Addiction
As soon as the novelty of physical sobriety wore off, I was hit with a ton of anxiety, fear, and negative thinking. It was so bad that I found it difficult to do much of anything. Despite the reassurance from my sponsor, I spent much of my first year trying to figure out what was wrong with me, when all along it was just my alcoholism. If you can relate, you’re most likely just experiencing the symptoms of addiction that alcohol and drugs treated. For the most part, a significant increase in fear and anxiety is normal in early sobriety, and not an indication that something else is wrong. Once I learned how to actually be sober and feel my feelings, the intensity lessened and became much more manageable.
The BIG Problem
I don’t know about you, but I felt like a 10th grader when I first got sober. I remember wondering how I was allowed to live on my own – in New York City for that matter. If you identify with Tom Hanks’ character in Big, you are not alone. The time we spent drinking and using was like a time warp, and you do very little maturing in a time warp. Simple things like paying the bills, looking for a job, or talking to girls may seem incredibly foreign to you. It’s ok. You can and will learn how to do everything you need to do. And until you do, ask for help!
The Days of our Lives
The world didn’t stop rotating just because I got sober. Not many people outside of your recovery group understand what addiction is all about, so you’re not going to get much sympathy from normies in early recovery. You need to rely on other sober folks for support. We get it. At one point, we all had one day sober! Not drinking was about all I could handle in early recovery, but the day came when I had to get a job and reenter the human race without anyone knowing I was in the fight of my life. The only place I felt (and still do feel) solace was in a room full of alcoholics and addicts. Rely on your sober network! Spend as much time with them as possible.
Feelings Aren’t Facts
One of the best things I’ve ever heard in my life is:
“Judge your life on what you’re doing, not on how you feel.”
I wasn’t used to feeling my feelings. They were super magnified and intense at first, but that has passed it is much easier to feel now. The only way to get better at feeling your feelings is to feel them. That’s especially bad news for us since we’ve spent our lives avoiding feelings. The best thing you can do – until you’ve established your sobriety – is to limit the amount of feeling you do. I know this may sound contradictory to the whole point of sobriety.
You ever hear the saying “move a muscle, change a thought?” The answer, in early recovery, is not to go down the rabbit hole of our feelings. Call someone, go to a meeting, go to the gym, read a magazine, watch a movie, etc. The reason 12-step programs reiterate the idea of “getting out of your head” is because you’re not helping yourself by spending all day there yet. That’s why your sponsor or counsellor keeps telling you to take action. They’re basically telling you to STOP THINKING.
Switching Seats on the Titanic
Having said all that about distraction, there is one minor stipulation. The distraction needs to at least be a lateral move, meaning it’s best to avoid picking up other addictions to avoid your feelings. This includes stuff like dating, shopping, eating, gambling, sex, etc. I like to call these things my second drug of choice. Why? IT DOESN’T WORK. If drinking didn’t solve my problems. Why would food or shopping suddenly work? I didn’t figure all this out by virtue, either. I am here to tell you that I’ve tried many different things to avoid my feelings, but in the end, the consequences were worse than just not feeling great for a couple of hours.
I hope my insight and tips have helped you. In the end, just do the best you can. Not picking up a day at a time is still the most important thing, and the only thing, anyone needs to do to survive early recovery.
If you would have told me seven years ago that I’d be sober and writing a recovery blog, I would have laughed in your face. Yes, this former chug-wine-in-the-shower drinker is now an author, speaker, coach, and advocate for alcoholism and addiction. Through my own transformation, I hope to help others get sober, stay sober, and have a happy sobriety. To read more about my story, check out my book, Yellow Tale, available on Amazon. For help, resources, or a good laugh, check out my blog tiffanygoik.com.
15 responses to “What Makes Early Sobriety So Difficult? – Staying Sober the First Year”
one of the best articles about the first year ever!
This is absolutely fantastic. I got to 5 months and relapsed and have been up and down ever since. Thank you so much for sharing this.
For a “normie” this provided great insigt. Well written. I loved the article and I hope to experience more.
This is a GREAT article! Thanks for sharing.
Association is hudge. Helping others, essential. 1St tradition.
I thought the article was great too! I have one year of sobriety as of this past August and I had many struggles in the first year. Congratulations to you!
Wow, this article is amazing! Collected my 1 month chip today, really useful info and so well written!
Thank You for all the input I am just a beginner I have my 3 month chip and am having a hard time at it but taking it one day at the time.
This article was very helpful to me, I am sober two and a half months and couldn’t understand why I feel so bad. This piece has given me strength and hope, thank you
Wow.I can’t tell you how much this article has clarified what’s going on with me.I have been drinking most of my adult life.I am attempting to sober up now and I could not figure out why I have been in so much emmotional pain and feeling like I am loosing my mind.This was a tremendous help!!!
Thank you for posting this article. It is hard to overcome an addiction. Good for you and all who get to the other side.
I am recovering from alcohol addiction, and I have been sober for 19 months. I am grateful that I literally did not die from the medical complications associated with detoxification from alcohol…up to and including carrying out suicide, because suicide was quite tempting at the time. I’m serious… Anyways, the following are some suggestions that I have received in the first year of staying sober, both online and the various kinds of support groups I have attended.
1) Love and accept the new you…even if you believe that you are a stranger to yourself.
2) Avoid watching news channels and reading what is in the papers. 99% of it will not have anything whatsoever to do with one who just quit drinking.
3) Just a reminder: Recovery from alcohol addiction is an extremely slow process…particularly from mental and emotional standpoints. Honestly, I truly wish it is faster…but it’s not. As such, the first few months (Yes. Months. It wasn’t days and weeks….) was my first real test on practicing patience…and it was neither easy nor fun. But that’s okay…because I have been learning about the true meaning of acceptance in the process. I have been also learning about the true meanings of various concepts; that I also discovered I had profound misunderstandings about.
4) Let anything and everything outside of yourself happen as it will without your interference. Guess why? One never has; does not; and never will have the ability to control or change people places and things.outside of oneself. Wow! What a relief! 😀 When I allow anything and everything that is outside of myself to happen without my interference…and look at and acknowledge all that is happening or has happened honestly and squarely in the face as the reality/truth that it is…positive consequences invariably follow. It takes daily practice though…but hey, you’re sober. I am proud of you. 🙂 Enjoy yourself as often as possible, and make decisions that take positive care of your body mind and spirit as often as possible too. Again, all the above takes daily throughout the day practice….while waiting months for the first fruits of your labor in that regard. But that’s okay too… :-).
6) Cease and desist from all negative self-talk and self-criticism. For every one self-criticism and self-condemning thought that pops in your head; give yourself two self-love and self-respecting ones. Again, the above suggestion takes practice over the course of, what was for me, a real long time.
7) Have a willingness to learn about yourself, to truly learn about yourself…independent of what is happening outside of and around you. Remember: One can;t control or change other people places and things outside of oneself. NO exceptions…including for oneself.
8) I have learned a great deal about the concept ‘boundaries’ and what a boundary truly means, since being sober. . Learn as much as one can about the limits and boundaries of one’s relation with self…along with one’s relations with other people. I lived a life of excess…and I really didn’t have an understanding of what my limits truly were, even stepping on other people’s toes without realizing it. As such, observe and learn about the social and communication dynamics between people and with you in the context of boundaries. One of my favorites about being sober is I finally understood that I may create boundaries for myself that actually are positive for me. For example, I mentioned the suggestion given to me to not watch the news when in the first year in recovery. In my opinion, I am exposing myself to negativity when I watch the news. In other words, I am allowing the TV news to violate my boundary by allowing myself to watch it. Pretty cool huh 🙂 Over time, I have noticed that I am able to do this in many more areas of my life…with the TV being just one example.
9) It’s better for me to be by myself than to be with people who treat me negatively. 🙂 That’s okay too.
10) I need to stay alcohol-free no matter what I am feeling thinking or doing…or what is happening outside of myself. Extremely difficult to near impossible, I understand. However, it’s necessary because I do not ever want to drink alcohol ever again.
Thank you all for reading what I wrote. 🙂 I wish everyone who is in their first year of not drinking alcohol all the best. You;re worth it. ALL of you are worth it.
That’s really inspiring! Are you still off the drink?
How do you feel now?
I am two months off, and its still very, very hard..
Lack of motivation, obsessive and negative thoughts, anxiety..
But I still believe that’s its going to get better,
I hope it will.
I know it will.
Ii loved this article because it’s so true that we don’t know where to begin in recovery. You made many excellent points, particularly the part about how we almost become teenagers again because we stopped growing when we were drinking alcoholicly. Very few people realize or even understand this concept. I drank alcoholicly from the age of 16 and stopped in my thirties. I was so green to the duties and responsibilities of life. It took me atleast 5 or 6 years of sobriety to catch up. Thank you for giving the newcomers a compass to navigate into a healthy, happy life.
Brilliant article, thank you! I am now on my third attempt in 2 years to try get sober, just 20 days in – and this is all making so much sense to me. I managed 6 months without alcohol previously and then started again, thinking I could handle it – but clearly not! Reading this makes me feel sooo much better and like I’m not alone in how my early sobriety has felt previously, and is feeling right now. Looking to the online sober community this time around for support and contemplating going to meetings although they terrify me!