The first few months of sobriety can serve up a whirlwind of emotions. At first, you may feel tremendously vulnerable and uncertain. You might be working to push past a “sticking point,” to fend off the strongest initial cravings and find something to do with all this free time. You may not have decided whether sobriety is something you want to maintain permanently, and worry that if you go too far, you won’t be able to return to drinking with the same blithe and carefree attitude. Concerns about commitment certainly troubled me, but I told myself this decision wasn’t necessarily forever. It was just something I needed to do for the foreseeable future (whatever that meant – I kept it vague).
Whatever challenges your initial experience presents, what comes next emotionally for many who have transitioned from heavy drinking to sobriety is referred to as the “pink cloud.” This is an early phase familiar to many in recovery that can last for days or even weeks. All the emotions you’ve been systematically suppressing with alcohol come flooding back – most noticeably, the positive ones. Your brain starts to observe the world more clearly, to digest and respond to its stimuli with only its natural neurochemicals. It begins to heal itself, overactive in its firing of new neural connections. You feel almost manic, filled with youthful energy and high on life, like you can do anything. There just isn’t enough time to get it all done, and what’s worse, you’ve been wasting all these years steeped in alcohol.
When I was in the steamy center of the pink cloud, it was as clear as daylight that alcohol was the root of my problems, rejecting it the one thing I needed to do all along. I was blind, but then I saw. Sometimes I would have a moment of powerful clarity, as if I was experiencing something the way I would have as a child. I barreled my free time into the creative pursuits I was passionate about long before alcohol came into my life, like music and writing. I felt like I was pushing toward some sense of long-lost purpose, uncertain of what that purpose was – which made it all the more compelling.
I had all the agency, elation, and sentimentality in the world, and just had to figure out what to do with it. Weird emotions arose. I felt like I saw the tragic beauty of the human condition – how we are trained to bury our sorrows in alcohol, which fueled our tremendous ecstasies and our dark delusion. I felt high and mighty, and wise.
The pink cloud is essentially a manic state, with heightened emotion and arousal. Though it starts off with a rush of positive emotions, it can lead to things like overconfidence, denial, arrogance, impulsiveness, unrealistic commitments, and idealistic expectations about the sober life. But it feels really, really good – especially when it arrives at the end of a period of depression and dependence.
When my pink cloud passed, I got bored and frustrated. The idea that sobriety was always going to feel so good was an illusion. Now that this brief high was over, I started to question my decision to stop drinking, wondering if I would ever have the same amount of fun, euphoria, and social connection I felt with alcohol. I felt disappointed, and for a while there, a bit depressed.
Coming down from the artificial peak of the pink cloud threw a serious wrench in my once-clear path of sobriety. What helped me get past this lull was listening to audiobooks about the psychology behind drinking and the benefits of quitting. Understanding the complex and deeply ingrained role alcohol played in my life clarified how I needed to be patient with the neural makeover going on in my head. I came to accept that this was good for me, that I was worthy of happiness and healing. So I stopped questioning my decision to quit, and waited it out. Lo and behold, there were brighter days ahead. I found emotional equilibrium not all that much farther down the road.
I was lucky to push past the lull and see the greater things to come. For many, the manic nature of the pink cloud leads to overconfidence – to developing an inflated sense of agency around all things in their life, including drinking behavior. This is the point when a lot of people return to alcohol. They may feel they’ve recovered enough from their dysfunctional drinking patterns to reward themselves with just one drink. It’s also a time when many stop attending care or recovery groups, thinking they must not need those, feeling as good as they do. But counseling and support networks are critical at this point to help manage cravings and the triggers and temptations that surround us every day.
If this happens when you’re trying to stay sober, you don’t have to think about drinking again as a “relapse” – it’s often just a “lapse”. What matters is not the amount of time you’ve stayed sober, but the accumulated insights you’ve gleaned from your combined efforts to become sober. You don’t lose that wisdom just because you have a few more drinks than you intended for a night, or several nights. You can pick up where you left off – and many people learn something about themselves they wouldn’t have otherwise.
It’s not always easy to focus on self-compassion longer term growth. We are socialized to think of sobriety as this huge commitment that’s only for people who have a “real problem” and are completely out of control. So lapsing on your sobriety can make you feel like a huge failure. But part of learning is slipping up a few times. We accept that readily in other parts of our lives, but are hard on ourselves (and other people) when it comes to drinking and sobriety. It takes time, effort, and often a few slip-ups – lapses, not relapses.
There are a number of things you can do to help prepare for the passing of the pink cloud, even in the midst of enjoying its benefits. You can work on mindfulness and appreciating balance – not relying solely on emotional highs to feel good. Rekindle interests you may have lost. Music and poetry helped fill my time and channel my energy. Perhaps reading, journaling, sports, or travel would benefit you. It helps to stay active, change up your daily routine, and avoid triggers. That might include avoiding old drinking spots, conflict, poor eating habits, stress, or staying up late. Triggers differ for everyone. You may not need or want to give up your friends who drink, but you can also foster new friendships with people who don’t drink to find encouragement, advice, and acceptance.
Long after the pink cloud parted ways with me, and I adjusted to the reality of life’s ups and downs with a more humble spirit, I became aware of the shifting nature of elation. My joys today are not the same as that feeling when everyone has had a few drinks – a euphoric connection, a heady interpersonal bond, immediate pleasure and relief from anxiety. Now, they’re a slower build. They arise from quality time and dedication spent in creative pursuits, overcoming anxieties by pushing myself, and taking in the beauty (and even the ugly) of the world with a clear mind.
I wouldn’t say the things that now give me emotional and intellectual “highs” were foreign to me before giving up alcohol. But it feels like I’m fostering the more gratifying, hard-working pleasures in life. If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I feel like I’m cultivating the upper levels more than I ever have. I’m developing more enriching social bonds, my self-esteem has largely repaired itself, and I’m building creative habits that I believe will serve me well in the long term.
Many feelings situated in that hierarchy are not easier – especially at first, and especially in the social realm. I am literally missing out on certain activities with old friends. I don’t go out with them to bars and parties nearly as often. But I have found my way to be present and engaged when I do attend. Your sense of social identity may become muddled when you give up alcohol, but there are countless ways to adapt, the topic of a later post. The joys I experience today feel so much better and are worth the challenge of getting here. And they don’t give me a hangover.