The one year rule, Part 1

I’ve been itching to write this post for over a year! At long last, and with a huge sigh of relief, here it is. 

We’ll start with the obvious question: What’s “the one year rule“? Fair question. It’s a guidepost that advises against doing three things within the first year of addiction recovery: 

1. Starting a new romantic relationship
2. Moving a long distance 
3. Changing your job

Though I explored the Rule’s romantic guidance in an earlier post, I want to cover all aspects here – in depth and after two more years of life change and reflection.

Photo by Tolga Ulkan on Unsplash

And now, the less obvious question: Why did I wait a year to write this? 

Because I’ve been too busy “breaking” every part of this rule, in a manner of speaking. Two years ago, I started dating someone (yes, we’re one of those pandemic couples). And about a year ago, I moved to another continent… to Santiago, Chile. What’s more, I just left my job and am considering how I’ll get the next one while living abroad.

Here we are – between jobs, across hemispheres, and a bit anxious in the “space between” – but very in love.

At four and a half years into recovery, I’m not really breaking the rule. I’m supposedly in the clear now when it comes to stability and resilience. But I know that recovery and mental health require lifelong attention, and that doing all these things at once is a risk. No matter how many sober years are under my belt.

Photo by Kid Circus on Unsplash

Rules are meant to be broken 

I recall learning about the one year rule during a Smart Recovery meeting a few months after I quit drinking. At that stage, the advice seemed clear and reasonable. I had wobbly legs in the world of sobriety. Thankfully, I was focused inward – working through feelings of shame and regret; finding new activities to fill my time; forgiving, reconstructing, and finally, loving myself. What’s more, I was cushioned by the heady and fruitful pink cloud. Writing, exploring my city, learning guitar. I was busy. I was eager. I was full.

I had no intention of looking for new work or moving anywhere. I was fortunate – my positions on the map and on the job front were stable. So I could, with what little confidence I had, check off two boxes under the rule. But there was a glitch.

Romance. That’s where I had a hard time. After just a few months of sobriety (nowhere close to a year), my attention was caught red-handed by potential love interests. I shot my shot. I was rejected. And oh, I wallowed in that rejection. My heart was as raw, as ill-fated as an open flesh wound in a school of sharks. I’d been rebuffed plenty of times, but never had it been so painful… well, at least not since middle school. And who would willingly return to that misery?

Luckily, I had poetry.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

I poured my heartache and hunger into poems. The compulsive act of writing allowed me to channel my overactive emotions and the zealous wanderings of my mind into something productive and worthwhile. In contrast, alcohol, the sloppy salve of my past, almost always caused a nasty infection.

Doing the dirty work with ourselves

The one year rule exists because we are vulnerable in our first year of sobriety. Assuming we gave up alcohol because we recognized a problem with self-control, and not some other reason like general health or saving money, we’ve just acknowledged an essential fault in our character. We’re still in the process of admitting this weakness to ourselves and finding ways to communicate it (or not) in our social circles. We’re the weird one, the outsider. It’s distressing. It’s awkward.

Thanks to stigma surrounding challenges with alcohol and mental health, many people – often including ourselves – see sobriety as an admission of failure. We were weak. We couldn’t tough it out, couldn’t keep our head above water while the rest of the pack kept swimming in our alcohol-steeped society. Everyone gets too drunk sometimes… why did we have to be so dramatic and quit? We must have really had a problem. And now that we’re sober, we’re no longer fun.

Photo by Marco Bianchetti on Unsplash

Even if we tear through the binds of stigma and accept that this is a drastic but necessary step to turn things around, we know – and so do they – that we’re still new at this. As we adjust to a very different lifestyle, we must navigate what this means for our friendships and relationships.

Our energies are spent repairing the damage that we, under the heavy hand of alcohol, did to our minds and bodies. We are hyper-alert to omnipresent marketing messages from the alcohol industry, defending ourselves against cravings and urges while the circuitry of our minds ignites with new and long-unused connections. There’s a lot going on.

What’s more, we’re developing new coping mechanisms for stress, anxiety, anger, and more. We aren’t yet fluent in using those tools. The memory of how alcohol felt washing away tough emotions is still fresh. Haste and impulse are more likely to prevail.

Photo by 兆航 樊 on Unsplash

Going the distance

Why are relationships, employment, and relocation called out under the one year rule? These are three of the most disruptive changes people have in their lives and can have a profound impact on our sense of stability, identity, and self-worth. Sure, the end results can be tremendously positive – but it typically takes a while to get to that destination. 

In forming romantic relationships, we are connecting with someone new, which means exposing our imperfections and sometimes talking about “the hard stuff,” like our past. Particularly in the first few weeks of feeling things out, where the odds are against us, we expose ourselves to the likelihood of rejection or perhaps facing guilt over our own disinterest and desire to end things. 

When we move, we’re tasked with searching for local pastimes, finding new comforts, and clambering for friends. This can be tremendously lonely at first. As we finally gain footing on the new map, we may miss our former home and our distant friends and relations – feeling conflicted even as we adapt to our new haunt.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In changing jobs, we must find footing in a fresh and confusing environment filled with unfamiliar coworkers, which shines light on our weaknesses, knowledge gaps, and apprehension. It can take months to learn the ropes and form connections with our colleagues. In the meantime, pressure and stress can rise in proportion to the expectations of our supervisors. 

All three of these situations can be stressful, and the adjustments can take much longer than we expect. Year One typically represents the most challenging period in recovery. We can make this restless, dynamic time a lot more serene and fruitful if we pause and take time to do our internal work first. Powerful external factors can complicate, impede, or completely overturn that work.

Read Part 2 >

–Dana G

Photo by Kelly Common on Unsplash

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