Today, I have two years of sobriety.
I’ve been thinking about what I wanted to say about this milestone, how to be helpful. Whenever someone asks me how I managed to quit drinking, I struggle a little to answer.
There wasn’t some defining moment that made me stop. I ignored a million warning signs and would-be wake up calls. For years, I allowed myself to wallow in self-pity. I was depressed, angry, and hopeless, but never to blame. There was always a finger to point.
So perhaps the first useful piece of advice I can give is this: if you’re waiting for some Hollywood, magical “a-ha” moment to come save you from yourself, give that up. It’s probably not going to happen, and even if it does, it will likely be something awful.
Your sobriety will most likely be a culmination of a series of shitty things that happened, mistakes you’ve made, and consequences you’ll have to live with forever. It’s going to come down to you.
Okay, So How Did I Stop Drinking?
For me, the beginning of the end was waking up every morning feeling like my racing heart was going to explode and not knowing why. “I feel like someone just jumped out and yelled BOO,” I would tell my husband.
It was intensifying depression and thoughts that began to scare me. It was a trusted doctor suggesting that I was suffering from anxiety and then me sobbing uncontrollably when she asked if I had any thoughts of self-harm.
It wasn’t THE moment. I continued to drink after that doctor’s visit, but it did open up something inside of me. All the old defenses began to crack. Maybe I COULD start over. Maybe things could be different. It was the beginning of seeing a therapist and taking medication to help get the anxiety under control.
After a three month stint at sobriety, followed by my feeble attempts to “moderate” (which translated into me getting trashed and chain-smoking two packs of Marlboros every couple of weeks) I realized that it was a “now or never” time in my life. My husband and I booked a three-day all-inclusive getaway to celebrate our third anniversary and drank our weight in watered-down piña coladas. The last hurrah.
When we got back from our little holiday on December 19, 2016, I told him I was done with the drinking for real this time. And I was.
Three weeks later, I discovered I was pregnant.
Lessons From Two Years of Sobriety
As I sat down to write this, I asked myself a question, “What do you wish you could say to yourself three years ago?” Here’s the best advice I could come up with.
1. Alcohol Isn’t The Real Problem
Before I go any further, please do not take this as an endorsement to start drinking again. It isn’t. What I’m saying is that alcohol itself was not the issue. Plenty of people drink alcohol moderately. You and I are not like those people.
Your job is to figure out why.
What drove you to drink excessively? What feelings were you trying to escape?
If you don’t get a handle on the answer to those questions, you will continue to play the sobriety-relapse-sobriety game. I did for years before I finally quit, largely because I was fighting the wrong enemy.
Quitting alcohol will improve your health and bless you with hangover-free days, but it cannot erase the deeper, underlying issues that drove you to abuse it in the first place. For that, you’re going to have to do some work.
The kicker is that once you do that work, the best way you can undo it is by thinking you can start drinking again. Chances are that is not going to work out for you in the long run.
2. Get A Therapist (If You Can) & Some Humility
I acknowledge that for many people, access to mental healthcare is an issue. But if you can afford to see a therapist, do that, and check your shitty attitude at the door when you do. There are even some online options available.
If you’re like me and have immersed yourself in the self-help aisle trying to DIY your mental health and alcoholic tendencies, then you’re probably under the delusion that you know more than you do. I say this with love as a recovering know-it-all.
There was a time when you could not tell me shit. Ever. About anything.
Never mind that I was a walking disaster. See, that was complicated. I’d read every book on meditation, mindset, self-improvement, depression, anxiety, you name it. I was Matt Damon in Goodwill Hunting for all things self-help and mental health.
In my mind, the problem was that none of these things worked for ME. I was SPECIAL. Yes, I already know EVERYTHING about how to manage depression. I’m just particular kind of broken, you wouldn’t understand. If someone attempted to offer me advice, I would interrupt before they could finish. I’d either heard of it before or had already decided it wouldn’t work for me.
(If you’re thinking I was an insufferable person, you are 100% correct.)
I had to learn to shut up and LISTEN to people, to allow them to help me, and actually be receptive to help. There is no point in merely going through the motions of counseling, or AA, or rehab, or even a yoga practice. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. If you’ve made up your mind before you enter a space that it isn’t going to work, you will be right.
Nothing in my life improved for me until I learned to accept help and stopped thinking I knew everything already. Nothing.
3. Sugar Cravings Are Normal
When you quit drinking, you are probably going to crave sugar. Even if you never had a sweet tooth before, your brain is going to cry out for anything to give it a little serotonin boost. Enter the cookies.
Obviously, you want to be careful that you don’t transfer all of your avoidance energy from alcohol onto the snack aisle, but don’t be hard on yourself. It’s okay to crack open a packet of Oreos in the beginning. You’ve got a lot on your plate (literally and figuratively).
As you start to work on yourself and your “stuff,” you’ll be able to cut back on the sugar and find a new normal. Just be mindful of your sugar intake. If you find yourself treating sugar like you did alcohol, then something is being neglected and you need to get on it right away.
4. Not Everyone Is Going To Forgive You Or Be Your Friend Again, And That’s Okay
Oh, the bridges I’ve burned.
I’ve done and said terrible things to people over the years. More frequently, I pushed people away with my neediness and inability to talk about anything that wasn’t a “me” problem. So many of my friendships revolved around either drinking or being “there for me” (or both).
Eventually, and rightfully so, those people broke free of me. There was a time when this felt like rejection. Everybody leaves or abandons me. I don’t have any friends that stick around. No one makes an effort.
These were the stories I told myself when I was drinking, and shortly after I stopped as well. There was a constant pity party inside my head.
If you’re feeling lonely or like people didn’t stick it out with you, put yourself in their shoes. Would you have stayed friends with you? Be honest.
When you start to get further along in your recovery, it’s normal to feel haunted by the number of relationships you screwed up over the years. There’s an instinct to reach out and say, “Hey! I’m all better. Let’s be friends again!”
Don’t force that on yourself or your former friends, please. There is a difference between apologizing and making amends for the things you did when you were drinking and forcing yourself back into someone’s life. Do the former. Forget the latter.
There are people with whom I was very close over the years who are now just faces on social media that I interact with maybe a few times a year. It’s just what it is and in no way a value judgment on me or them. I’m good. They’re good. We’re all happy.
I’ve learned to drop a lot of bitterness I’d been holding on to and it has been one of the most liberating mindset shifts I’ve experienced in sobriety. It’s also opened me up to new, closer relationships that are built on much sturdier foundations.
For the first time in my life, I feel like I genuinely have something to offer other people and it feels good.
5. You Are Never Going To Feel Completely Good About Your Past So Stop Trying
I have done so many mental gymnastics over the years to make my memories more palatable and it has only brought me more pain and anxiety.
There are some things that you did in life that you will never be able to make sense of or make right again. These are the moments that pop up in your head out of nowhere and make you cringe. I have no remedies for this.
Every day I remember something I said or did that makes me want to slap myself and when I first stopped drinking, these “Greatest Hits” haunted me 80% of my day. This is normal. There is nothing wrong with you. Everybody goes through this.
It’s just that you used to quiet this playback reel with booze. Now that you’ve stopped drinking, it’s free to run roughshod through your brain. It gets better, but it never gets “right.”
These thoughts sent me into a relapse several times before I finally got sober for good (hopefully). I had to change my relationship with them, which I was only able to do after a sustained period of sobriety.
Alcohol exacerbates anxiety, so when you first stop drinking, there is going to be a lot going on in your brain that is uncomfortable to deal with. The best way to torture yourself more is to entertain all the “oh my god I can’t believe I did that” memories that pop up. I should’ve done this! Or, I wish I never said that!
The thing is, most people have probably moved on from those incidents, and now it’s time you do too. Apologize for the big stuff. Take responsibility for it. Then accept that you will never be able to take it back or change it.
Use the mental energy to improve yourself and your life moving forward. Even if there are things people are still holding against you, all you can do is be better for them starting now. What good does it do to constantly think about something you can never take back?
Easier said than done, I know, but after you’ve been off booze for a while, you’ll start to have a clearer headspace to deal with all this stuff. Just allow yourself the time and self-compassion to get there.
The end game isn’t that you’re forgiven and all those bad things from the past stay away forever. The end game is that you’re free from the guilt and are at peace with your past.
6. If You Want To Love (Or Even Like) Yourself, Help Others
If I had a dime for every time somebody told me I had to love myself before anybody else could love me…
Even now, this sage advice makes me want to throw up a little in my mouth. But it’s really, painfully, genuinely true.
My entire know-it-all, self-absorbed, alcoholic routine was masking (poorly, I might add) the fact that I actually had terrible self-esteem. I wanted to be loved by other people so badly. Even when I first got sober, I was constantly trying to beat back thoughts that I was a failure or fundamentally unlikable.
I reached for external affirmations of my worth via social media likes or blog follows or audience growth and when I didn’t get what I wanted, I internalized it. Something is wrong with ME. Me. Me. Me.
Self-compassion is a son of a bitch. Anyone who is struggling with it, please know that I understand completely. It’s not as simple as just speaking into a mirror every day, “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And gosh darn it, people like me.”
Fake it till you make it did not work for me. So what did?
I stopped trying. I focused on helping others. How could I become a good mother? How could I be a better wife? How could I be a better friend? What can I do to help other people?
The more I gave of myself to others without expecting anything in return, the more I genuinely liked who I was becoming. If you’re struggling to think you’re worth a damn, find a way to bring value to other people. Volunteer. Mentor a young person.
Whatever you do, do it because you want to be of service to someone or something else. Don’t do it for likes on the Gram. In fact, keep it off social media altogether. The more compassion you have for others, the more you’ll start to have compassion for yourself.
It Gets Better
If you’re reading this right now thinking you could never go two years without drinking, please know that I get it. I can remember days feeling like I could never go an entire weekend without cigarettes or alcohol, let alone a week, month, or year. Two years?!?!?!?
I’m still doing a lot of work on myself and I still have moments where I choose to order unhealthy takeout food rather than deal with the fact that I’ve had a bad day…