As each year post-giving up alcohol passes, it feels less… worthy of celebration. Yes, I’m glad to have made it this far. But I don’t think it’s much of an accomplishment, compared to year one or year two. Sobriety is much easier for me now. Day-to-day avoidance of alcohol is my “norm.” I rarely think about booze or my decision to relinquish something once so compelling.
That doesn’t mean life, as a whole, is easy – I’m still grappling with work, health, happiness, and you name it, like everyone else.
I hesitate to post about sober-versaries because they feel a bit self-congratulatory. They could also discourage people who haven’t had an easy time with sober-continuity. I don’t want to imply that my way is the only way. Plenty of people move in and out of alcohol sobriety, never actually want to quit in the first place (and instead just cut back), or otherwise vary on the spectrum of drinking less. Just because I needed to stop completely doesn’t mean I should go on bragging about the fact I’ve kept up with it. Frankly, it’s boring.
Anyway, here we are… at four years. I’m sharing this, after all, because I do think (or at least hope) it might inspire some who are in the consideration phase of cutting back or quitting. Throughout my 20s, I knew I had a problem but wasn’t ready to do anything about it. I was stuck in limbo, worried that sobriety would kill my social life and leave me in a depressive rut with no path to rebuild my self-esteem.
At some point, a few loose acquaintances started to announce their sobriety on social media. Some of them were people I never realized had a problem. But now, they seemed to be doing great, as if they’d discovered new life. When I read their honest, brave, and stigma-flouting words about their past experiences, I recognized unhealthy patterns in myself. I knew that one day, I, too needed to stop. The only question was when.
When I finally decided to cut ties with the beast, I was shocked by how many realizations struck me, particularly during my “pink cloud” – a distinctive and powerful high that occurs in the first few months after quitting. Being a writer, I was compelled to document my new awareness. And I’m still in tune with most of those early insights.
It’s a writer-friendly fact that sobriety remains a part of your everyday consciousness for the first couple of years after quitting, giving purchase to both creativity and catharsis. But at some point, even the writer starts to lose momentum. Sobriety drifts into the recesses of your brain, and the rest of your life – good and bad – moves to the front.
My everyday stresses and anxieties are perhaps a little louder now that I’ve stepped off the pink cloud… but I’ve honed better tools than alcohol for dealing with them. And I have my peaks of happiness and joie de vivre, as well. Things are good. They’re normal. Sober is just a fact of life.
I’ve been sharing my experiences less here and less via poetry, my other lover. I’m very busy. Or so I say. The unflattering truth is that Netflix is just more compelling than the pen after a long day of work. And maybe I’m more relaxed now in my sobriety, so the realizations are coming less, my mind moving on.
Whatever it is, I simply don’t feel as compelled as I once was to devote my free time to writing. That said, it’s been bugging me for quite a while that I haven’t shared anything new. I haven’t “checked in,” as they say in Smart Recovery.
A friend who is trying out sobriety for a few months told me, “It’s nice to wake up without worrying that you might have said or done something horribly offensive.” A clear head, a clear conscience, and no hangover. It’s a wonderful feeling for someone who has seen the other side. What’s more, to get off the couch on the weekend and go outside before nightfall – and I don’t mean just for Gatorade. How radical!
It makes me sad to think how many days I lost to miserable hangovers – to my heart thumping and stomach twisting, feeling ashamed and worthless due to murkily memorable behavior, wanting to collapse in on myself like a star stuck in the night, finally calling it quits, burning out.
Around people who’ve never had a problem drinking (of which there are several in my life), I feel like I missed out on a great deal of learning and lived experience from which they benefited, developmentally speaking. Hours of conscious attention to detail, of staring into the brilliant eyes of the world as it is. I’m also sure I killed off a few brain cells and will never live up to my full potential. Yes, I know that’s not exactly how it works. The brain and the body are marvelously malleable. But feelings aren’t rational.
I’ll always hold some sadness in my heart about these perceived losses, let alone the ugly things alcohol kindled and the pretty things it suffocated in me. The way it dined on my insecurities, my need to please… my hunger for attention and validation… the poisoned fruits of my social upbringing as a woman. Then fed off its own carcasses, compelling me to act out on my insecurities, wallow in shame, and then drown that shame repeatedly in its liquid chokehold. Even today, I preserve a self-protective anger about the whole mean-spirited relationship, the hideous feedback loop that was so difficult to escape.
They say it’s possible to let go, to forgive ourselves, but I fear shame is a life sentence. Identity is a possessive beast. She doesn’t let go easily. “Who am I?” and “what have I done?” keep holding hands, in private.
On Stress and Anxiety
Now, at least, I feel like I have a few things to be proud of. Not sobriety itself, so much, but the things I’ve been able to do now that I’m not so frequently wracked with guilt, shame, and acetaldehyde (the hangover chemical). I have learned to breathe, even when I’m stressed and anxious.
That has enabled me to step into new communities, share my writing, and speak up in areas where I once remained quiet. I’ve resuscitated passions that were dormant for years. I’ve awakened a childlike attention to everyday beauty, enchanted as the wind streams through my hair. (Okay, that last one is aspirational. But I have hopped on the occasional bicycle, so the wind part is there.)
Best of all, my anxiety has a maximum volume that’s perfectly reasonable (hint: it doesn’t go to 11). That certainly wasn’t the case before. I still get anxious, but I’m cognizant when it’s excessive and can put things back into perspective without downing a bottle of wine (or two) and losing a day (or two). Which, in the end – shockingly – never seemed to provide resolution.
Perhaps I’m just not as worried about the outcome of my failures. I’ve already been to rock bottom, in my eyes. Maybe this blithe attitude is partly an outcome of aging. Whatever the case may be, I can plug along in everyday life, through distress and worry, without alcohol – which I’d never thought possible.
And Still I Write
Four years is no joke, and I know that. (Knock, knock. Who’s there? Four years. Four years who? Four years of sobriety.) See? Boring. Sobriety checkpoints aren’t that interesting. It’s the same dull material with every passing year.
But with some context, and more detail on the complexity of the experience, sobriety checkpoints can become interesting… or at least informative. Four years has been enough time to have significant, transformative realizations about myself and about my life, past and present. The future remains to be realized.
The good thing about introspection and writing about oneself is that these realizations keep coming. And evolving, as we tend to do. There is always something to write about when I’m in the mood to reflect on sobriety and turn off the TV. These things don’t coincide quite as often now, but when they do, it’s very satisfying. Because of that, and because I think it’s important to share the full, multi-faceted picture of sobriety – not just the landmarks and benefits – I continue to write.
Journaling in public is more fun, more gratifying, and more challenging than journaling in the dark. Knowing someone will read my words makes me select them more carefully. It also makes this whole sobriety thing feel more purposeful. Trust me, there’s plenty of purpose in avoiding alcohol’s rotten breath in my life without this blog – but still, it’s a little extra something.
I Just Want You to Like Me
Also, that writer-born and woman-bred drive to please and be validated… let’s be honest, it’s still there. But I’m no longer letting it derail my life by soaking my brain in booze. I’m channeling it.
So while I hope these words offer occasional help and hope to others – whether they’re reading for encouragement, out of boredom or sober-curiosity, or even to judge my self-disclosure – I mostly just hope (like me) that they’re good enough. Along with the poetry book I’ve been trying to tie up for years and will eventually share with you, if I ever manage to stop editing it. I’m shooting for fall.
In this sense, don’t be like me. But if you are, consider joining me in a pact to care less about how we come across. We can keep doing our best, but do it for ourselves – because it makes us feel our best. Also, whether your next year is sober, boozy, or somewhere in between, let’s focus more on how we’re doing on the inside. Let’s check in. Breathe through the anxiety, pay attention to everyday beauty, and feel the wind in our hair. That’s what I’ll be working on, until next time.