My old drinking buddy got sober about 2 years before me. He gave me some insight into the process.
A lot of what he told me was things that I could reason would happen. Or, at the very least, they were things I’d heard other people talk about happening. I anticipated that socializing sober would be different. I knew that a large part of getting sober was taking things one day at a time. This stuff was not surprising to me.
One of the things he talked about was something I’d never read about or considered. I was warned to expect that when I stopped drinking, I would “feel everything.” I didn’t understand what this meant. At the time, I figured it meant I wouldn’t be able to drink after something terrible happened —like a breakup or a death. I didn’t do this intentionally, but when alcohol is an option, and your emotional state is volatile, whether you meant to drink your troubles away is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it happens.
Not drinking away your problems is part of it, but alcohol has a subtler effect on your emotions. It is similar to the effect that sunglasses have on vision.
When you wear sunglasses, you can still see well enough. However, the light is dim, and you can never experience the full color and vibrancy of the world. If you wear the sunglasses long enough, you forget the actual colors of things like the grass or the sky.
The things that were once familiar to you become nothing more than memories you can approximate. Because memories can be unreliable, you may even start to believe that the sky is pink and the grass is black. You can no longer tell what’s correct because you’ve been wearing the sunglasses for so long.
Alcohol ruins your ability to deal with your emotional states correctly.
It is the sunglasses that filter your emotional experience. Perhaps there are times when it is appropriate to use sunglasses. Maybe the emotion is too intense, and you need some time to cope. This is fine. The problem arises when you always rely on alcohol as opposed to a temporary coping mechanism.
The only time I’ve ever cried as an adult, other than when my father died, was while I was drunk. I could not cope with basic emotions like loneliness or boredom for a long time because I never learned how to. Instead, I would just drink with people and call it a “bonding activity.”
Novacaine and laughing gas
When you use a substance like alcohol to cope with emotional discomfort, you do yourself a great disservice in many aspects. Many people look at alcohol like Novocaine at the dentist when it’s really more like laughing gas.
Novocain is the agent that blocks your experience of pain, but it has to be injected. It’s often used in the mouth, and many people are afraid of getting needles in their mouths. To ease the anxiety, laughing gas is sometimes administered to make them not care and disoriented before the injection.
Laughing gas doesn’t make the pain go away. Alcohol doesn’t make the pain go away either.
If I felt socially awkward in a place, I’d just keep a drink in my hand constantly refilled so I didn’t have to feel out of place. The drink in my hand was like a security blanket. It gave me an easy social out if I felt out of place.
I could convince myself that it didn’t matter because I only wanted to drink. If I hit on a girl and she rejected me, I was drinking, so it didn’t matter. These are just negative emotions, and the effect does not end here.
For a while, I had no idea how to celebrate good things other than with a drink. Got a raise at work? Let’s have a drink! It’s my birthday? Let’s get plastered! I just won a fight!? Oh, I have to get fucked up. Alcohol prevented me from truly feeling the joyous things in my life.
A social or familial get-together was more about the alcohol selection than how I would catch up with everyone involved. There was a period of over 2 years where I didn’t go on a single date sober, purposely making sure I got there early to get a few drinks. With alcohol no longer an option, I am forced to deal with all of these emotions—good and bad. Like taking off the sunglasses, there was pain, but the world became much more clear.
This is another aspect of “feeling everything.”
There are times when I am wracked with immense guilt and regret over my behavior and decisions while under the influence of alcohol. Feelings I should have had about things while drinking suddenly make their presence felt at the oddest times.
The longer I go without drinking, the less intense and farther apart these episodes are. However, they are still remarkably powerful. I cannot drink them away. I can only deal with them.