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Re-entering a world that drinks

The world is changing, yet again – and as always. In the U.S., people are getting vaccinated, infection rates are dropping, and most of us are now able to visit the friends and family we haven’t seen in 3D in what feels like ages. It’s a strange sensation, this whole in-person socializing thing, and sometimes a bit awkward.

For many, the past month or so has seen a surge of social activity, and an adjustment (some might see it as more of a threat) to the new routines they developed and came to rely on for comfort and a sense of normalcy during the pandemic. For both drinkers and non-drinkers, the shift can feel like a loss of control, causing anxiety over the rate of change around us.

black and white image of woman with hands over her eyes, with man standing in foreground
Photo by The Humantra on Unsplash

Sobriety and introversion

Giving up alcohol changes the nature of social companionship, causing most of us to spend less time in settings centered around alcohol and more time in groups where drinking isn’t the focus, such as those based around common activities or creative interests. Quitting can also lead to spending more time alone, in more introverted pastimes.

For me, that adjustment happened well before the pandemic. Though I’d joined a few writing groups that met regularly, I was spending a lot more time alone writing and editing, practicing guitar, and doing other activities to re-engage my mind as it worked on recovering synaptic connections that had been somewhat sluggish in the years prior.

This made the transition to prolonged isolation at the beginning of the pandemic rather easy for me compared to how I imagine it felt for people who’d been more accustomed to frequent social time in the months leading up to it. I was in my sober comfort zone, spending hours upon days upon weeks in my apartment – reading, writing, working, and watching TV. I had one needed “escape” from the indoors, which consisted of long bike rides through the city, but even that was something I did alone.

woman laying on a couch reading a book
Photo by Matias North on Unsplash

It must have been nine or ten months after the world shut down that I really started itching to get “out there.” It took another five months for most of the world around me to get vaccinated. In that time, I began dating someone and spending loads of time with them. Needless to say, my routines changed dramatically. Together, we built new ones – though they were still, out of necessity, rather insulated (which was fine with us!).

Social gatherings in the opening world

For me, the last few weeks have felt more like a slingshot than a gradual, comfortable transition back to social activity. We went from near-total isolation (and with it, total control over our daily and nightly routines) to seemingly constant pressure to catch up with everyone we haven’t seen in a year and a half. We’re making frequent plans and spending fewer evenings in the ways in which we’d become so comfortable. Mostly, the change is refreshing and welcome. But it’s also quite fast, and quite consuming.

Humans are creatures of comfort. Whether someone is sober or drinks, routines have a calming effect and reassure us when we experience anxiety, emotional triggers, or painful memories. Each time those routines are shaken up, it takes us time to adjust. That happened for the entire world during the pandemic, and it happened for me again with my new relationship. Now, the norm is shifting rapidly yet again, from one of isolation and virtual communication to one with increasingly frequent in-person hangouts.

reunion of people holding hands on a beach at sunset
Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

It may seem odd, but I’ve struggled to elicit, feel, and express excitement recently when invited to social outings. My first emotion is often irritation at the consistent chipping away of my free time – mixed with guilt for having that reaction to the prospect of seeing people I care about. It can take me hours to rally enthusiasm about doing something and then accept an invitation. The vast majority of the time, I’m quite happy to be there once I go, though I’m even happier when the gathering doesn’t last more than a few hours. Something about giving up my independence and me-time has been quite difficult.

What’s more, a lot of these reunions and social gatherings involve quite a bit of drinking, taking place in the heat of summer. During the pandemic, I was spoiled with not having to feel like the “odd woman out.” I’d had a nice, long break from navigating the emotional and social complexities of sobriety in party environments. And I’d forgotten what a challenge those can be – especially, as in my situation, when you’re meeting a lot of new people (friends of a significant other) and hoping to make a good impression.

There’s also the challenge of being surrounded at restaurants, bars, or parties by enticing alcoholic drinks that activate our sensory pathways. After over a year of evading that pressure within the confines of our homes, the reminder that we have to resist these delicious, exciting things can create a fresh hell.

group of people at an outdoor social event with a bar
Photo by Antenna on Unsplash

I find myself questioning more often why I’m doing this. Is it a personal choice or a necessity? Am I the same person I was three years ago when I quit drinking? Or might I have the willpower now to have a drink or two, but adhere to a limit? How long would it take me to push that limit? In truth, I know that both my psyche and my relationship with alcohol are more complicated than that. So I make the decision over and over to reflect on what I’ve gained and maintain my sobriety rather than test my limits and backtrack on personal progress.

Fear and projection surrounding control

Despite these sources of anxiety, I usually feel like I’m in the driver’s seat with my emotions and reactions in drinking environments. But in the past month, a few situations have taught me about something that causes me significant distress and can force me out of that driver’s seat. When I see someone I care about drinking past their threshold, I can turn into a ball of angst – knowing first-hand where that can lead, worried they’re heading there. I project onto them my fears about losing control of oneself, and one’s life.

I know that we’re all responsible for our own behavior and its outcomes. And I’m consciously aware that it’s quite normal and okay for people to drink a little more heavily at times. But when I see it happening, I can’t help but imagine the worst and feel the need to step in and protect. If I can’t communicate effectively in the moment – whether it’s due to the person’s drinking, the presence of others, or my own lack of clarity about what the “problem” is – I can become exasperated and feel disconnected.

woman holding her head in frustration
Photo by Uday Mittal on Unsplash

I hope to come to a better understanding of myself and my place in the “drinking world,” which is, for better or worse, the only one that exists. I’ve learned that I need to be calmer and more cognizant of what causes these negative reactions to other people’s alcohol intake. Is there a real threat, or are my fears triggered by my own past mistakes and traumas, like how scary it felt to lose control and have no memory of what happened the next day? I’m starting to realize the latter is often the case. Perhaps this is a residual symptom of some form of PTSD.

Getting back out there

I’ve learned that I don’t have to say “yes” to every invitation that comes my way – particularlyif it’s a gathering that’s likely to involve more than a little drinking. Like anyone, I don’t want to miss out on the fun, but there’s nothing wrong with occasionally staying home.

Nevertheless, so far I’ve lived my sober life with the belief that it’s better to put myself in somewhat uncomfortable situations because they help me learn and grow. Comfort zones can be very restrictive, and my approach is more like “exposure therapy” – with the goal of empowering me to handle anything that comes my way. That might not work for everyone, but it has worked for me so far.

person standing on balcony with see-through glass floor
Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

We can’t (and probably shouldn’t) live life attempting to completely shed anxiety. It’s rooted in past experience, and it’s adaptive. We need it in order to detect real danger and prepare to cope with our environment. So I have to continually deal with it, assessing where it’s coming from and how I can better manage it.

Like everyone else, I’m just starting to figure out how to be back in the social universe after a world-changing pandemic – in my case, as someone who doesn’t drink and is in a new relationship. Though we sober folks had a bit of a reprieve during the pandemic from steering our awkward course through drinking environments, the reality is that we’re back to it now.

The world keeps spinning, and it certainly keeps drinking. If we want to remain a part of it, and stay sober within it, we must pay attention to what’s spinning in our heads. And then we need to adjust, becoming our best selves to the friends, family, and loved ones who give us purpose.

group of people sitting at a table outside at night under strung lights
Photo by Valiant Made on Unsplash

Grief over lost time and potential

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused people to experience grief in varied and layered ways. Most of us feel like we’re missing out – losing our ability to go places, have new and exciting experiences, spend time with those we love, or reach and celebrate life’s milestones. Many have lost opportunities and livelihoods, jobs and homes. Infants and young people at formative ages are missing out on critical social interactions and in-person learning experiences. College students have had to forego scholarships and foundational coming of age interactions. Many people are deeply lonely, isolated from family, and struggling to form or maintain romantic and friendship bonds. And, of course, some have experienced the ultimate loss, the death of loved ones.

This is related to a feeling of grief that many undergo after they quit drinking – usually after the initial high of the pink cloud subsides and we return to a more regular emotional rhythm. It’s a sense of having lost time and opportunities in the important years of our life due to heavy drinking. We may feel that we’ve completely missed out, burned some bridges, or gotten behind on reaching our personal goals and life’s milestones. Maybe we expected to be married by now, with kids or grandkids. Maybe we didn’t pursue a track of study or work that we were once passionate about.

image of a woman shot from the back with a train rushing by in the foreground
Photo by Fabrizio Verrecchia on Unsplash

The amount of time, and the opportunities that feel lost, vary greatly among those who’ve cut back or given up on alcohol. Regardless, this sense of grief can be tremendously painful – and it can feel impossible to make up for those losses.

Many sober people who once drank heavily go on to do amazing and impressive things with their lives, like winning marathons or publishing novels. When we hear those kinds of stories, we may compare ourselves to those individuals and wonder why we can’t make similar strides in our own lives. What about the perfectly average among us? Even though we may improve our lives in considerable ways and be more stable and resilient, we sometimes feel like we’re not living up to our potential.

light coming through a large industrial door
Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

My own grief during the pandemic

A few months into lockdown, I started experiencing this sense of grief myself. I’ve become increasingly aware of what I lost – or didn’t build – during the years I was drinking heavily. The feeling was worsened by the isolating effects of the pandemic. I also don’t feel that I’m making as much progress with passion projects as I was before all this started. I’d been prolific with writing poetry, excited about learning guitar, and fulfilled as I got to travel for work and vacation. My eyes had been opened to a world of possibilities brought on by my sobriety.

But all of that growth got turned on its head on March 12, 2020, when my office shifted to full telework. Along with the rest of the world, I had to shut my doors to face-to-face interactions, travel, in-person poetry workshops, guitar lessons… all of the things that had been making me feel alive and whole for the first time in years.

soccer ball outside of a black iron gate
Photo by Bruno Kelzer on Unsplash

Sure, a lot of these activities can be continued or replicated in the virtual environment, and I’m taking advantage of that. But just like everyone else, I quickly burned out on video calls and other virtual hangouts. And I’ve lost my internal fire for a lot of my hobbies. I feel more scattered and less focused, with a general sense of malaise.

Though my sobriety at first made me feel more secure and resilient during the pandemic, recently it’s begun to hover a magnifying glass over my life, homing in on what’s meaningful and what’s not. This has forced me to question my identity, my purpose, my career track, my relationships, and even the value of my new passions. It’s made me wonder whether I should (or could) go back to school and pursue a career in something that interests me at a deeper level. But then I worry that it’s too late, that I’d be too far behind – or maybe it wouldn’t feel quite right, or that I still wouldn’t feel fulfilled in that area of my life.

signpost pointing in various directions against a pink and blue sunset
Photo by Javier Allegue Barros on Unsplash

I’ve also become more aware of holes in my knowledge, such as history and geopolitics, which can feel embarrassing and painful. I begin to criticize myself, thinking that perhaps I wouldn’t have those gaps if I hadn’t been so absorbed in meaningless activities that involved drinking. If only I’d been focused on finding the right career path and enriching myself intellectually. I know that I’m still fairly young and curious enough to fill many of these gaps, and that everyone has knowledge gaps – we don’t need to be ashamed of them. But I still stress over this awareness, and knowing that our minds are substantially less elastic after our 20s adds to my frustration.

With all this uncertainty and reflection comes a lot of pressure, a sense of only having one life to live and wondering if I’m doing enough with it. Am I even capable of making some large change, and if so, what would it be? I worry about both my capabilities and my purpose, unsure of what I really want out of life. I wonder if this is drinking’s legacy or just one step in sobriety?

image of a woman from behind with her hands and face pressed against a small window
Photo by Mario Azzi on Unsplash

When it comes to finding answers to these questions, I know I’m not there yet and should go easy on myself. At a high level, I’m aware that these aren’t unusual things to ask yourself in your early 30s, often a transitional time in life. In fact, it’s typical to compare ourselves to our peers throughout our lives, questioning whether we’ve made the right choices. I also recognize that this is a newer feeling that must be due in part to the pandemic. It’s probably temporary. It may also be something I need to experience to have some significant realization of a change that’s needed in my life. Or perhaps incremental changes will add up to transformation over time. I don’t think I can know any of this yet.

In the meantime, when I let my emotions overtake reason (and I recognize that’s normal and okay sometimes), what I experience is uncomfortable and demoralizing. It’s grief. For my own well-being, I must acknowledge that what hurts is to know that I might be in a different place – fully content, more successful, and thriving – if I hadn’t handed over many of my formative years to drinking. Or, it may have had less to do with drinking, and more to do with other decisions I made at pivotal times in my life.

image of a flat, calm ocean with blue sky
Photo by Dimitri Houtteman on Unsplash

In truth, I can’t disentangle how much of this uncertainty is related to having had problems with alcohol in the past, and how much of it’s related to other factors like my age, the pandemic, my personality and other psychological factors, or things outside of my understanding. I can only be patient with these unknowns, and hope that a path forward will become clear eventually. Most likely, that will be after the pandemic finally ends. And that’s a good reason to avoid making rash life changes right now, knowing that this is such an unusual time.

It’s not about “fixing it

A work acquaintance recently told me she’d just found out her husband of 26 years was having an affair. It was the first thing she said on our call, with tremendous pain in her voice. Though it wasn’t the most professional way to kick off a work call, it was evident she just needed someone to recognize that the situation entirely sucked – that nothing could hurt more than this did right now. The last thing I wanted to do was tell her it would get better. Instead, all I said is that the situation was completely awful, and that I was so sorry she was going through this on top of all the other challenges the pandemic has brought.

turquoise chair against a wall with peeling wallpaper
Photo by Julius Drost on Unsplash

I’m no expert on grief counseling, and in fact struggled with how to respond in the moment. But I know it can be counterproductive to succumb to the knee-jerk response of telling people things will get better. During the pandemic, we’ve grown desensitized (even annoyed) by empty, optimistic clichés like “we’re all in this together” or “hope you’re okay during this trying time.” They either fall flat or run directly against our lived experience. Though our human instinct is to want to alleviate pain and make things easier for one another, that’s not always the next step for someone in an early stage of grief. So the goal of our social interactions can’t always be to fix things for one another.

Our pains – and their impacts upon us – are diverse. Some of us are struggling with a sense grief due to missing out and experiencing loss due to COVID-19. Others, like me, feel they’ve lost opportunities and time in the wake of a long period of heavy drinking. Perhaps you’re struggling with grief due to something else, like my work acquaintance. Regardless, the simple acknowledgement of pain (not to mention, counseling or therapy) can go a long way. I think that may be all we can do, for ourselves and for each other, right now. Recognize loss, acknowledge pain, and let the answers come in their own time.

–Dana G

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Free will and free fall: Alcohol myopia

What happens to our sense of free will – or control over our choices – along the journey of a troubled relationship with alcohol?

For many who have misused alcohol, like me, it’s free will that lights our first spark of intrigue for the stuff. Alcohol is part of our coming of age. In adolescence or early adulthood, we’re drawn to the first real experience of autonomy, or ownership of our bodies and minds, that drinking creates. That feeling presents a stark contrast to what we’re used to and what we may have come to resent, a sense of being “owned” by our parents or guardians, and by a society that has set so many inflexible rules throughout our lives.

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Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

But alcohol can prey upon that thrilling sense of free will, causing us to develop myopia, or a limited capacity to perceive and react to things in our environment. It urges us to behave without inhibition, with sometimes grisly effects on our physical and emotional well-being. In the long term, our self-image can take a blow. We may lose confidence and respect for ourselves, as well as the very sense of autonomy that alcohol excited in us in the first place. These losses can cause us to drink more often and more heavily in a desperate attempt to self-medicate, numbing our emotional pain and discomfort, mourning the shrinking of our once-expansive identity.

What is alcohol myopia?

In this post, I’ll explore a fascinating theory of alcohol’s effects that helps to explain this dramatic change in so many drinkers. Reading about it brought up some unpleasant memories for me, but has also been illuminating, prompting me to reflect on exactly how alcohol impacted my mental faculties and drinking behavior. 

The theory of alcohol myopia suggests that alcohol narrows the range of what we’re able to perceive. When we drink, we zoom in on prominent environmental cues, paying less attention to subtle ones. You can think of it like tunnel vision, or nearsightedness, where we focus on things, people, words, and other stimuli in our immediate environment, but pay little attention to factors like context, the feelings of others, or how we’re being perceived. 

close-up of a brown eye
Photo by Swapnil Potdar on Unsplash

Alcohol also impairs our emotions, judgment, and decision-making. We’re less able to regulate our reactions or to think through the potential consequences of our behavior. For instance, we may partake in risky sexual behavior because we’re more tuned into the quest for passion or pleasure than the less immediate presence of health risks or emotional impacts. Or we may initiate a physical or verbal fight with a stranger, hyper-focused on a single remark that triggered an emotional response rather than the full scope of what was said. We’ve all seen situations where a drunk person just can’t listen to reason, unable to drop some small frustration, letting things escalate and becoming more and more belligerent.

Myopia has three major effects on our cognitive processes, or how we think. First, it causes self-inflation. When we’re drunk, we ignore our flaws and have a heightened self-image, bordering on narcissism. This can lead us to act with a dangerous level of confidence and in ways we would not when sober. Second, alcohol creates a sense of relief from stress and anxiety. Though that feels great and benefits us to a degree, a certain amount of stress and anxiety is adaptive. When we drink too heavily, we lose the capacity to pay attention to things that might otherwise worry us, including present risks.

Photo by Simon Boxus on Unsplash

Finally, myopia leads to excessive behavior. Our brain’s frontal cortex isn’t working as it should to regulate urges that are normally considered socially unacceptable. For some people, these urges lead to aggressive responses like rage, physical destruction, or sexual assault. Other drinkers simply become more talkative, flirtatious, or adventurous – though at some level, even these behaviors can become problematic.

Myopia and free will

For a time, we may process our excessive drunken behaviors as acts of free will and empowerment. I certainly had a feeling of boundless autonomy as I stomped around my college campus and the bars, parties, and concerts I attended after graduating. I felt I was in control (or could be most of the time), ignoring my wake of destruction. That sense of autonomy was driven by my inflated self-image (which often plummeted the next day) and was given free rein due the relaxed boundaries created by my relief from stress and anxiety.

face in the dark covered in splattered glow paint
Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash

A big ego feels great when you’re drunk. I thought I was extremely funny, magnetic, and unique. In reality, I was often loud, careless, and rude. Alcohol’s myopic tunnel-vision effect made it difficult to recognize the difference. I was observing and responding to a limited range of things in my environment, overlooking other factors that were not as evident but were often more important.

My Hyde

Over a period of more years than I’d like to admit, I came to recognize that I was stuck in a pattern of alcohol use that caused me to tumble out of control every few months. My drunken sense of free will would mask my true identity, like Hyde overtaking Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story. The warm and wonderful feeling of independence that initially prompted me to drink turned into a distinct, tunnel-visioned, destructive force that disembodied itself and acted on its own behalf, often without my knowing. What started as a shallow expression of free will eventually stole my deeper, inner strength and self-determination.

figure of a person pushing on a glass wall
Photo by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash

At times, I caused emotional pain to close friends and family, offended people, or degraded myself. If I couldn’t remember how things got out of control, I’d reconstruct the events using snippets of others’ recollections, text messages, and other piecemeal evidence. I longed for a linear cause-and-effect understanding, an excuse, vindication. It wasn’t there.

I wouldn’t wish the shame and remorse I felt on anyone. These feelings compounded over time into one giant shame-monster that took a lot of time and therapy to defeat. It got to the point where I didn’t care about myself or think I deserved anything different, and I was afraid to look in the figurative “mirror.” At times, I was utterly disgusted with who I’d become.

overhead image of a woman holding herself in the dark
Photo by Jairo Alzate on Unsplash

That may have been a distorted and melodramatic reaction to my mistakes, which weren’t that horrible in the grand scheme of things or compared to the difficulties others have faced. But these negative experiences are subjective and deeply personal. This is how the mind reacts to repeated abuse and injury, thanks to our complicated psychologies. We all have unique anxieties, traumas, and things we’re stuck on from our developmental years that make the shame beast uniquely challenging for each of us.

The guilt and self-loathing I experienced also created a vicious cycle that had me drinking more because I had low self-esteem – alcohol’s ultimate coup. I wanted to drown out my very sense of self, right along with the painful memories – to give in.

Reviving the will

I’m happy to report that it’s possible to escape this dreadful game of tug-of-war in emotion and behavior, and that the feelings of shame and damage are reversible. There’s a way out of this dark tunnel of myopia, and once we’re outside of it, we recover the ability to see the things that alcohol obscured.

Scrabble letters on a slate that read "SHIFT HAPPENS"
Photo by SOULSANA on Unsplash

For some, freedom comes from quitting alcohol entirely. For others, moderation may work. Either way, when we take control, we regain that sense of excitement and empowerment we had when we seized independence in our formative years. We gradually rebuild trust in ourselves as we continue along this new path, redeveloping a sense of dignity and self-respect. 

Eventually we recognize that we are, in fact, empowered by the new tools we’ve worked to find and hone. These can include anything from a recovery program to introspection, therapy, meditation and mindfulness, new hobbies, creative pursuits, or the outdoors. 

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Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

Our tools may even rekindle passions from before we first drank, bringing us in tune with the person we were meant to become and strengthening our newly reclaimed sense of free will. For me, that meant writing for pleasure and learning a new musical instrument. I had largely given up on these pursuits after college, and it wasn’t until I quit drinking that I was able to invest enough time and mental energy to pick them back up again and take them seriously. I can’t thank my sobriety enough for the sense of empowerment these tools have restored in me. 

I rarely feel tempted by alcohol these days. I’m confident that the only way for me to truly stay in control, and to experience genuine free will, is to reject it. Instead, I must hang onto and refine these tools of healing, which have restored the much-loved, reclaimed and refitted vestiges of my past.

–Dana G

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Photo by Berlian Khatulistiwa on Unsplash

Dating without drinking, Part 1

The one-year rule

I’ve wanted to write this post for quite some time but didn’t feel I’d accumulated the experience to do so. Perhaps I still haven’t, but seeing as I’ve recently gotten back into the dating scene (carefully, and outdoors), I felt inspired to go ahead and write it. Dating during the COVID-19 pandemic is an important topic with its own set of challenges and concerns, which I’ll only briefly address in context. This post is focused on the alcohol piece of dating sober. Or, I should say, the no alcohol piece.

This is written in two parts because most recovery communities recommend two phases of return to the dating world after someone quits drinking. The first part covers why it’s generally advised not to date in your first year of sobriety, and the second part addresses what dating can look like once we’re ready for it.

empty bench in a sunset fog
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Shore yourself up first

In first year of sobriety, our minds are racing to reform connections, find their footing, and establish meaning and hope in a lifestyle that is much changed. As we adapt, we’re vulnerable. Sometimes we react more emotionally to small triggers than we might otherwise. We can experience significant ups and downs in our mood and self-image, which not only feels terrible but can lead to relapse.

During this time, it’s generally advised that people avoid major life changes such as entering romantic relationships, changing jobs, and moving long distances. You may have heard of similar recommendations for the period following a divorce or the loss of a spouse. In both cases, it’s often called the one-year rule.

Woman sitting on a set of concrete stairs
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Dating can place us in situations that are new, exciting, uncomfortable, and anxiety-provoking. In the past, we may have relied on alcohol to modulate these extremes and maintain a feeling of confidence. But when dating sober, we don’t have that crutch – and we’re around someone who may be unfamiliar with our challenges and uncertain how to navigate them.

What’s more, both alcohol and relationships play on our sense of self-worth. Rejection can hurt that much more when we’re newly sober, even if it’s from someone we’re just getting to know who has no standing to judge us. We’re likely to attribute a failed relationship to some fault of our own, though the cause may be something we’re not tuned into on the other person’s end.

My own experience is a prime example. Overconfident in my new resilience, I ignored the one-year rule and pursued a few short-lived romances in my first year of sobriety that didn’t work out. I built up fantasies in my head even when there were signs my interest level wasn’t matched. The reality hurt and put a few dents in my healing self-confidence. But it also reignited my emotional range and creative energy. I channeled my frustrations into writing poetry, which was both cathartic and invigorating, reigniting a former passion that continues to grow.

book opened up and laying on spine
Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

What is it about dating?

So, why do we still go after new relationships during this first year? Why did I? There’s something about love – we love love. It’s novel, it’s exciting, it’s affirming, and it demands our attention. Love inhibits our frontal lobe, which controls judgement and logic. Oddly, the emotional fluctuations of a budding romance look a lot like drug use. When it’s good, it’s really, really good. As with alcohol, we impulsively seek the highs of a relationship but forget about the lows.

When you’re interested in someone and waiting for a text, that ding on your phone can feel like a “hit.” But waiting for it is torture. When (and if) it comes, the text gives you short-term relief after agonizing over what you sent or why you haven’t gotten a response. The cycle can become addictive – complete with anticipation, obsession, and let-downs. 

hands holding a smartphone
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Because we’re susceptible to these emotional extremes, when we seek out love in our first year without alcohol, we willingly enter situations where a comment or rejection could destabilize our entire sense of self-worth. Many of us – myself, included – do it anyway.

Heeding the rule, but late

I waited until my second year of sobriety to settle into singleness and repair my primary relationship, with myself. I spent the year nurturing my more introverted interests – writing poetry, reading about niche things that fascinate me, doing little home improvement projects, practicing guitar (which I’m still pretty terrible at), and biking all over the city where I live. I also joined creative communities of local writers and made new friendships, tapping into a delightful network of people and learning about opportunities for aspiring poets (check me out at danagittings.com).

Ironically, part of what made it “easy” to be single was maintaining a platonic friendship with someone I was still romantically interested in. Although that didn’t work out, and certainly wasn’t easy, it forced me to focus on the person I was as a friend and an intellectual equal – without the complications of physical and emotional intimacy.

two people sitting outside under a tree in the sunset
Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

For lack of better phrasing, the experience could be summed up as “figuring out who I could be alongside a man who could have been a romantic partner but wasn’t.” And it was something I hadn’t realized I badly needed. This friendship, and a few other platonic friendships with men that were based around mutual interests, shared pursuits, support, and respect, served as profound learning experiences for which I’m very grateful.

Though I want to acknowledge how devastating the global pandemic has been, it has helped me maintain my single life. It simply hasn’t been a great idea to go on dates with various strangers, as much as I feel like it would be nice to have a fellow homebody by my side. Instead, like so many others, I’ve been spending inordinate amounts of time by myself – with the blessing and the curse of working remotely, absorbing all the media my little brain can take in, and enriching myself with creative pursuits and learning experiences (when I can muster the motivation to do so).

Read part 2 >

–Dana G

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Photo by Haley Powers on Unsplash

Dating without drinking, Part 2

Finally, the dating

I’m about two and a half years into my sobriety, and it wasn’t until few months ago that I saddled back into my Hinge dating app. I was a little reluctant, and uncertain whether I was actually interested in meeting people, given the pandemic and how busy I felt with other things. But like many right now, I sometimes feel lonely. I was also simply curious what this experience of trying to date sober would be like.

So I gave it a go, changing the wine glass icon on my profile to show, “doesn’t drink” and making it visible to potential partners. Though this icon a great feature for those of us who’ve given up alcohol (and certainly other apps have similar features – there are even dating apps specifically for non-drinkers), I’ve noticed that no one really pays attention to it.

Almost everyone I chat with ends up making a comment about grabbing drinks. There’s the simple, “Wanna grab drinks?” and the “Great weather for a winery tour!” and recently, after the 2020 presidential election, “So, drinks to celebrate?”

“Sure, but I’ll have a seltzer.”

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Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

This becomes my opportunity to mention that I don’t drink. I don’t want to waste my time or have to deal with an awkward reaction in person. If my not-drinking is going to make a moderate-to-heavy drinker uncomfortable, I’d rather know that up front and move on.

I’m still new to this and have a lot to learn. But the first few months of chatting and going on physically distanced outdoor dates have been fascinating. Most people ask me at some point during the first date why I don’t drink. I’m usually honest about it, without getting into too many details – and I try to add some humor. I’m a pretty open book, and they can take it or leave it.

That approach doesn’t work for everyone. Many people are more private and need to get to know others before revealing personal challenges and truths. The person on the other side of the equation probably has things they aren’t ready to open up about, either. We all have “stuff” going on.

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The said and the unsaid

Assuming things are going well, at some point in the progression of seeing someone, the subject of why we quit drinking is going to come up. It may seem intimidating, but we can build courage by making ourselves vulnerable and talking about it. Though awkward at first, just like anything else (except for guitar, apparently), practice makes it easier and improves our skills. That’s assuming we’ve allowed ourselves the time to shore up inner strength and resilience first.

Like a lot of social interactions without alcohol, dating requires more mental energy. I feel like part of my job is to make the other person feel untroubled by my not-drinking – to make it less of “a thing.” I have to demonstrate that I’m generally happy and fulfilled, confident in my decision to not drink, and comfortable if they want to have a drink or two. All of that is true, but it’s a lot of new information to work into a conversation without seeming forced.

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

We have to weigh how much we want someone to know about us. For me, it’s easier to lay it all out. If things don’t move forward, I’ll probably never see the person again anyway.  If they do, there will be no secrets. I won’t have to work as hard to remember what I decided to share and what I didn’t.

Keeping the conversation going without the lubricant of alcohol also looks a bit different. Thankfully, after having worked on myself this year, I feel like I have plenty to talk about in terms of my interests. And I’ve become better at drawing others out by asking questions and listening to answers. But it’s still a novel experience compared to sitting at a bar and letting alcohol do the talking. For me, conversations without alcohol have actually felt more natural, even with total strangers.

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What happens on non-drinking dates?

Personally, I’m comfortable if my date wants to have a drink or two, and I usually mention that in appropriate contexts – but I wouldn’t be comfortable if they drank a lot regularly. For obvious reasons, I’m happier going on dates with people who don’t judge me for avoiding alcohol, and who drink minimally or moderately themselves. That just makes things easier. It’s also more comfortable for everyone if they aren’t holding back a desire to drink. I wouldn’t judge someone who wants to drink more than a little – I did it myself for years. I just prefer not to date that person now.

Lately, all of my dates have been outdoors – going on walks or sitting at a park. I don’t think I’d be comfortable (regardless of COVID) having a first date at a bar. That’s another reason I like to establish that I don’t drink before meeting people. If they’re content with that fact and still want to meet, they’re unlikely (I hope) to suggest a bar. I often bring my own non-alcoholic beverage, like I do at parties, to establish that I’m in control of my own needs and comforts.

Two individuals reading a book while laughing on a picnic blanket
Photo by Karina Thomson on Unsplash

In normal times, restaurants would still be in the cards. I’ve gone on a few dates seated outside at restaurants, but with COVID spiking (and the cold), I decided to cut back on those.

There are copious lists of “sober date ideas” you can search online – like this, this and this. Hopefully we’re not too many months off from being able to get out there and try some of these! When it’s safe to do so, I find that activities around shared interests can make for more fulfilling dates and room to grow together. So whatever they may be, communicating those interests is particularly important on the first couple of dates.

Though my first year of sobriety happened before the pandemic – the year I should’ve held off on dating – I spent some of it enjoying dates that included everything from hiking to sharing music, going to art museums and poetry workshops, and playing ping pong, board games, and other competitive activities. The list of intersections that are possible with a near-stranger is endless – which is what makes it so enriching to find a shared interest and pursue it together.

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The easy and the not-so-easy

Regardless of what you “do” on dates (during or after the pandemic), dating after the first year of sobriety has certain benefits. I’ve found I get to know people more quickly because alcohol isn’t fogging up our conversations or my memory, or causing me to make impulsive decisions due to a desire for emotional intimacy. I have better judgment into whether there’s a connection. If there isn’t, I’m more resilient in the aftermath. I enjoy spending time with myself, so I’m not crestfallen when I’m presented with more time to do so.

Dating sober can also be more challenging. I always have to discuss, to some degree, why I don’t drink, and must work to appear content and confident. I often question whether the person I’m with is truly fine with my sobriety or resents any pressure they may feel to drink less around me.

two sets of hands holding coffee drinks
Photo by Jonathan J. Castellon on Unsplash

Also, a certain awkwardness is inevitable at first because of widespread stigma about those who don’t drink. That forces me to revisit a feeling that I should be ashamed of the past, which is a state of mind I’ve worked hard to overcome. It reminds me that if I don’t look secure enough, others may assume I’ll never be fulfilled and that there’s a real chance I’ll start drinking again. Even though I feel that’s unlikely, the awareness of stigma is a constant pressure. Thankfully, I’ve become much more resilient in handling these challenges.

I don’t know exactly what I want out of a relationship, but it’s only natural for humans to seek intimacy – and dating sober has been a great learning experience. As the world slowly gets back to normal, I hope to continue to grow as a person while meeting new people – cautiously and well-distanced, as antithetical to “intimacy” as that may sound. The world is a strange place, and so are the times. Hopefully dating won’t be. But if it is, I hope it will at least be interesting.

–Dana G

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Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

Refocusing the narrative of memory

As we progress through alcohol sobriety and work to improve other areas of our lives and ourselves, adjusting what we choose to focus on from the past can be healthy. It can also be difficult, as we’re conditioned to think that anyone who gets sober after a history of heavy drinking must have a serious personal problem and a sordid past full of regretful behavior. Some recovery groups encourage making amends with those we have “wronged.” Sure, many who drink too much have wronged or offended plenty of people – and apologies can have great benefits all around. But we don’t need to beat ourselves up forever.

Because we stigmatize alcohol problems so deeply in this society, shame can be a powerful, but often unproductive part of the recovery process. Focusing exclusively on bad memories related to alcohol can be unhealthy and lead to toxic shame. A certain degree of repressing positive drinking memories may be healthy and protective up front, but eventually, it can be more useful to put bad memories in context by recalling good memories as well.

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The bad stuff

Sometimes I focus far too much on the negative aspects of my drinking days – on things I regret having done or just feel uncomfortable about. I know this is partly protective, a way for me to feel secure in my decision to quit drinking. It keeps me from dwelling on what I’m missing out on. It also makes me more committed to improving myself and pursuing meaningful change.

But it can also expose feelings of residual shame when they should no longer have a place, causing me to feel generally uncomfortable in my own skin and unable to move forward in my life. A sense of toxic shame, or negative self-judgment to the point that it becomes “a paralyzing global assessment of oneself as a person,” can creep up on me. Having these feelings arise when I’m not expecting it – usually when I’m anxious or frustrated about other life challenges – prevents me from developing the self-esteem and confidence I know I ought to have.

When left unchecked, shame can lead to harmful beliefs such as perceiving yourself as a failure, a bad person, or unlovable, and that you don’t deserve to be happy. It can cause “feelings of deep inadequacy, lack of worth and the need to hide,” and over time can contribute to the development of depression, other mental health issues, and substance abuse.

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I’m a strong believer that reflection and introspection are imperative to understanding our own psychologies. But scrutinizing our past behavior so much that we punish our prior selves is not productive. My heaviest drinking took place in my late teens and early twenties – a time when most people are still developing their sense of identity and leap at immediate rewards, disregarding risks and long-term consequences. They have a uniquely strong need for social connection and validation, as well as a sense of invincibility.

With alcohol being a flawed catalyst in this process of coming-of-age, these developmental factors can mix one volatile cocktail. There was nothing all that unique in the way I drank during and after college, and there’s no reason for me to feel ashamed of it long after stopping. Only distress can come from atoning forever in my now-sober mind.

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The good stuff

By over-focusing on negative experiences with alcohol, we may also be fooling ourselves. For most of us, there were good times, too. Those positive experiences played a part in the development of who we are today. If we ignore them, knowing we aren’t being completely honest with ourselves, we might become doubtful and disillusioned by our decision to give up alcohol. That can put us at a greater risk of lapsing back into drinking.

I occasionally find myself feeling deeply reminiscent of alcohol’s original pull – the sense of euphoria and connection it brought, and a fiery (yet often destructive) way of feeling alive that is utterly remote now. That nostalgia can come on with surprising vividness, as if I’m experiencing it all again. In a way, it’s invigorating, like seeing an old friend or having a childhood memory come back clearly.

But in another way, it’s tremendously painful – like the hallucinatory shimmer of a mirage that I know will fade in the dry desert heat. I’m reminded of a sense of excitement and abandon that I’m not sure I’ll ever experience to the same degree. For better or for worse, the feeling passes quickly.

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Nostalgia is natural in the recovery process, but “euphoric recall” or selective memory can be dangerous, causing us to forget the negative effects that once weighed heavily on us. It’s absolutely something to be cautious about. For my own healing, however, I think it’s important for me to allow certain positive feelings and associations with alcohol to exist – to recall that not everything alcohol brought me was terrible. I’d rather not delude myself, for I’ll know I’m doing so and eventually resent myself for it. I can only put my history in context with who I am now by letting all of it – the yin and the yang – simply be.

Negative experiences with alcohol have imprinted on my memory and contributed to my decision to undergo a massive change and healing process. A certain healthy level of shame and regret made that possible. At the same time, many elements of my personality, my humor, and my outgoing nature were fostered in the hands of alcohol. By remembering that, I don’t have to feel so remorseful of years “wasted” drinking. Those years were part of my life, too. And I can’t change them. So I might as well acknowledge what good they brought me.

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The full circle

When it comes to alcohol, the negative ended up outweighing the positive for me. But I can’t discount the fact that I had a lot of good experiences, spending a large chunk of my formative and most exciting years under the influence of alcohol. I’ve come to understand that it’s perfectly healthy to grieve the loss of some once-cherished parts of my life and my identity that involved alcohol. And, contrary to popular opinion, I can do that while recognizing that the other side of alcohol’s capricious coin caused me significant distress. It resulted in my decision to quit drinking and catalyzed the development of the fuller and more conscious person I am now.

Though doing so can help in the initial months or even years after quitting, putting any good memories and thoughts about alcohol off limits forever can feel disingenuous and build temptation. In order to openly reflect on positive alcohol-related memories, one has to be at a certain point beyond strong cravings, wary of the dangers of letting the positives outshine the negatives. But if it becomes possible for you to do so safely, reflecting on the good can be rewarding, healing, and help you to create a fuller picture of how you became who you are today.

–Dana G

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Feeling powerless

One day after the next, we continue to push through life in a time that makes many feel powerless – especially if you’re in the U.S., a nation so divided that even public health is political. We’re witnessing unconscionable negligence from the powers that be in both reopening society and ignoring systemic problems in areas such as policing and criminal justice. It’s easy to feel that our voices are unheard, ignored, or trapped in echo chambers. And even small victories seem few and far between.

On top of this, the strain of long-term isolation and anxiety about the future affects each of us personally. People are stressed, lonely, and if they live with others, may be dealing with household and relationship conflict. Parents are worried about balancing their children’s needs with work responsibilities, many of them preparing for a dangerous school environment and inconsistent educational methods. We’re struggling with the challenges of remote work or unsafe in-person work environments, with unemployment, and with financial stress. Some of us are worried about or grieving those who’ve fallen ill or suffered the ultimate fate at the hands of COVID-19.

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Other factors could be causing stress and anxiety as well. Maybe you’re stuck in an urban environment with no way to experience nature or breathe fresh air. Maybe you miss life as you once knew it, and the ability to visit friends without masks, or deep anxiety about spreading a deadly virus. Maybe you’re recognizing personal habits that are bigger or uglier than they once seemed.

What can you do when you feel powerless?

First, know that you aren’t suffering alone. You’ve probably expressed the cliché yourself: “we’re all in this together.”

That phrase has a dual meaning when it comes to social progress. There are things we absolutely can’t fix on our own – global political battles, societal rifts, the economy, and the minds of stubborn adversaries. But we can take steps and celebrate small wins, gaining a measure of control. That could include becoming better informed, donating, having hard conversations with friends and relatives, or making calls to members of Congress. Taking initiative, even screwing up and learning from it, allows us to develop an internal locus of control. That can instill a sense of empowerment as we make a measure of difference.

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Maybe what’s creating a feeling of powerlessness is household dynamics, interpersonal conflicts, or behaviors that have gotten out of control – such as drinking, overeating, scrolling through social media, or gaming. Many of our habits have come under the spotlight during isolation. Everyone needs a little me-time and escapism. But if you only have one or two coping mechanisms that function as escape, they probably aren’t sustainable and won’t make things easier. If you know there’s something you could be doing differently, it can only help to try.

If you don’t know where to start or just aren’t ready, try simply contemplating a change. Journal about how it would look. Read about or talk to other people who’ve successfully done it. You can learn about others’ experiences by searching podcasts, TED talks, or YouTube. If you have the resources, I recommend trying virtual counseling. Learning and starting with small steps can help you feel energized, supported, and encouraged to make a plan.

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Alcohol consumption during a global pandemic

I’m not here to say that all drinking is bad. The human relationship with alcohol is far more complicated than that. I’m a big proponent of recognizing good and bad qualities in all things, and the continuum between the two. Alcohol is no exception, though I regard it as a primarily negative influence in my own life.

Despite harmful consequences for many, alcohol has been a catalyst of communion throughout history. In the present moment, virtual social drinking is helping people to stay connected and entertained, find a sense of discovery even in our confinement, and deal with disappointment about the world’s most stubborn problems. We might also be using alcohol to cope with stress and loss – not just lives lost, but as Dr. Argie Allen Wilson puts it, “the loss of the lives that we once knew. Loss of the engagement that we came to enjoy so much.”

close-up of an eye with a tear in it
Photo by Aliyah Jamous on Unsplash

Unfortunately, however, the pandemic is causing some people to drink more than ever, justifying doing so with the need for relaxation and distraction during prolonged isolation. They could be under pressure from friends or those they live with to drink, or perhaps feel the need to isolate from those they live with through alcohol. Some are drinking more because they’re alone, succumbing to a daily routine and separated from those who typically witness or judge their behavior. There’s also a greater risk now for sober people to lapse back into alcohol use.

Whatever the causes may be, many people are recognizing that they don’t have as much control over alcohol as they once thought. They may see effects and behaviors they didn’t notice before, and even have deep regrets. Many are convinced each morning that they’ll change but feel powerless once evening rolls around.

It’s summertime in the northern hemisphere. With the heat and our longing for the excitement that summer typically brings, more people are drinking in large groups despite the pandemic. In addition to lowering inhibitions, alcohol causes us to become myopic, or short-sighted – we give in to the pressures and enjoyment of the moment, less aware of events that seem distant. So in addition to the usual risks of alcohol, we become less focused on the impacts of congregating in large groups and slip up on things like mask usage and 6-foot spacing.

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Moderating or eliminating alcohol consumption

Plenty of people are able to mindfully moderate their alcohol consumption. And even those who can’t moderate may try doing so before making a sweeping decision to give up alcohol altogether. If you feel out of control and want to limit your drinking, now might be a good time to put it under the microscope and take some notes.

Pay attention to what triggers your consumption, and how alcohol affects your mood and reactions. If you could use some outside perspective, ask a trusted friend or relative what they see. When a trigger arises, mix in other responses so that alcohol isn’t the only thing helping you to adjust or escape. Try a different treat or activity like a favorite food or a form of exercise you enjoy, boosting your dopamine level in more sustainable ways and giving yourself a broader self-management toolkit.

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Photo by Agence Olloweb on Unsplash

You can also place alcohol out of sight so it’s not so top-of-mind when you need release. When you are drinking, pace yourself. Alternate between alcohol and water. Consume plenty of food. Space out your drinks and count them – determine and heed your limit. Furthermore, educate yourself about the signs of Alcohol Use Disorder so you’re cognizant of any patterns that might arise in your drinking or that of loved ones.

Some of us are good at putting boundaries in place. I was not. Despite wanting to control my alcohol intake, I’d continue to let myself finish the wine bottle, waking up feeling sick, empty, and helpless, and going through the daily motions until I could settle into the comfort of the next night’s bottle of wine. I may not have had a single “rock bottom” moment but did several things over the years that wounded my sense of pride and self-worth.

It took me several years to realize I was incapable of moderation and couldn’t drink “normally.” I first tried using a calendar to reward myself with stickers on nights when I didn’t drink or only had a couple glasses of wine. Some weeks were more successful than others, but by and large, there weren’t that many stickers.

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Gaining power from theories of behavior change

Becoming familiar with some of the many theories on behavior change helped me to better understand and respond to my behavioral motivations. It might help you, too. This article provides a great overview of some of these theories; below, I’ll share what is really a cursory overview of how I applied them to becoming sober. Though the article focuses on challenges with food consumption and exercise, there’s a good deal of overlap between overeating and excessive drinking. And there are several more theories that I don’t have space to address here.

For me, self-determination theory, which revolves around “intrinsic motivation,” was key to successfully giving up alcohol. “Intrinsic motivation does not rely on external pressure, like rewards/approval or punishment/disapproval from peers or health professionals. It exists within the individual… [who] must believe the behaviour is enjoyable or compatible with their ‘sense of self’, values and life goals.” By examining my thoughts and feelings, and adopting new hobbies, my sobriety became something desirable – not just something I had to do.

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Photo by Tyssul Patel on Unsplash

In addition, the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy were built into my experiences in counseling and a recovery group. They helped me to challenge dysfunctional thoughts, assumptions, and coping mechanisms while I developed accountability through peer support.

Especially now, almost out of necessity, technological resources are worthy of exploration – whether that’s an app, an SMS (short message service) that sends motivational messages, or telemental health, such as video counseling. These interventions can be affordable, convenient, and less stigmatizing because they’re private – all factors that were integral in my decision to use video counseling in my first few months of sobriety.

Reading about theories of behavior change and related tools helped me to gain greater control over the factors that impact my behavior – from the personal (beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, skills, genetics) to the social (interaction with friends, family, community) and environmental (home, workplace, economy, and more). It gave me the knowledge I needed to turn the right valves and find the confidence to make changes in my life. I hope it helps other people, too.

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Wrapping Up

Whatever might be causing you to feel powerless, I hope you’ll find the resources and motivation to begin making a change. Even small adjustments can be empowering. Yes, many things fall outside of our control. But we have more influence than we think, both in our own lives and in the world around us.

Actions – even small actions – can have compounding effects, and we can use that to our advantage. We aren’t living in a vacuum, even if physical distancing makes it feel that way at times. While you’re working towards personal or social change, don’t forget that sharing supportive words can have a massive impact on others’ sense of empowerment, prompting them to push for change in their own lives and circles.

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So, take your me-time, indulge in self-care, and dive into the escapism you need. Read that fantasy novel. Take that midday nap. If you’re someone who can drink alcohol moderately, have that glass of wine. But think of those things as hitting “refresh” rather than being the only way out. And manage each one on your terms.

It’s fine and only natural to feel overwhelmed and powerless right now. But by adopting a defeatist attitude and failing to recognize what is within our power, our lives and the world around us move from the threat of limited setbacks to certain ruin. Let’s not let that happen. An ounce of hope is all we have, and with the right tools and a measure of effort we can make that hope a reality.

–Dana G

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Reflections on a Two-Year Soberversary

Our society is at a veritable spaghetti bowl of crossroads. Among a multitude of systemic problems, we’re now at an intersection of two unprecedented situations: (1) uncertainty, distress, and often-futile debate about how to deal with a worldwide pandemic, and (2) acknowledging a history of widespread racial injustice to push for long-overdue social change. For many of us, the stress this brings is compounded by other, more personal challenges, making us feel like we’re living at the brink. Life is not simple “at this difficult time,” as they say.

In the unimportant middle of it all, and with a tinge of guilt, I’m celebrating a small victory. On Tuesday, I reached the two-year mark in my sobriety. Many are familiar with the myths surrounding sober people – that we’re socially cut off, feel healthier but can’t easily have fun, etc. For me, the picture is much more complex. In this post, I want to reflect on what has changed in the last couple of years. Not just the good stuff, but also the things that have become more difficult. 

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Getting Started

For most of the first year, I underwent a series of emotional shifts. I had to figure out how to navigate the pink cloud, which gave me an almost-manic sense of energy and excitement. I gritted my teeth as that stage passed, as my spirits dampened and I became somewhat disillusioned with my decision to give up alcohol. Then, I settled into the more periodic ups and downs of a normal emotional life without the help of alcohol. 

During that year, I benefited from the support network of therapy and a recovery group. They provided me with outlets to talk through emotions and sources of stress, and to develop healthier coping behaviors. And they kept me accountable to making change because I was checking in week-to-week.

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Photo by Edgar Chaparro on Unsplash

The second year was a lot easier. I developed more confidence and spoke with greater conviction. I didn’t think about my sobriety nearly as often, or about how new treats and activities were “replacements” for alcohol. I merely sought them out with enthusiasm and enjoyed them.

Now, I freely share my experience and don’t care as much what other people think. As I challenge myself through different scenarios like weddings and (pre-COVID-19) travel, I’m desensitized to lingering anxiety about being sober and feel more comfortable. I still find checking in with a recovery group helpful because the sober experience is rather uncommon. It helps to talk about certain things with the rather limited pool of people who are going through this – for example, navigating pervasive pressure to drink and being the lone “sober person” at parties and work events.

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Identity

When I gave up alcohol, my behavior was often at odds with a shaky and rather suppressed sense of what I valued. Sobriety allowed me to reconnect – with surprising speed – to a more childlike sense of joy and to earlier, more creative elements of my identity

At the same time, I’ve lost what had become my drinking identity. I’m not as funny or carefree (at least, not in the same way). It’s hard for me to feel as much affinity for art, music, and films that celebrate alcohol, and I don’t feel as deeply connected to environments and people associated with drinking. Some aspects of my sense of “self” have died off – and with that, there’s a mourning process. At times, I reminisce and feel tremendously sad. But then I remember how sick and depressed I felt in the depths of a terrible hangover or a shameful drinking mistake.

In many ways, I feel immensely more secure than before. My physical and mental health are more stable, and I don’t suffer from the existential panic of losing myself to cognitive blocks after heavy drinking. I’m able to work creatively and maintain focus on projects. I feel attuned and in control of when I need to relax and have fun, and when I should instead work or focus outward on being helpful to others. Dedication to creative pursuits and supporting others where I can are new parts of an identity that I almost need to cherish in order to grieve the elements I have lost, and to move on.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Fun and Feeling Good

The ways in which I find fun and reward myself look a lot different than they did two years ago. Instead of going for the feel-good, somewhat numbing comfort of a bottle of wine with Netflix – or the excitement of partying – I settle for less volatile treats and activities (often, Vital Absorbing Creative Interests) that have the added benefit of moving me towards fulfillment. Well, to be honest, the Netflix has stayed – and I do plenty of things that aren’t productive or health oriented. But they don’t put me on a long-term downward path, as far as I can tell.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I also miss how drinking and partying felt. I won’t pretend sobriety is all smiles and positivity. There are times you feel like you’re watching paint dry. After all, you relinquished a source of powerful euphoria for stability and, you hope, the steady journey to a more lasting contentment.

But in that work of relinquishment, I’ve reclaimed my time – my evenings, my weekends. I’m trying out new things, reading, learning a new musical instrument, getting around my city, immersing myself in writing projects, and participating in various interest-based communities.

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Social Interactions

Fortunately, I’m still close to my friends who drink – which is made easier by the fact that they don’t party as hard as we did at a younger age. But I no longer gravitate to doing things that revolve around drinking, like going to bars. With friends who appreciate and respect me, I don’t feel judged for skipping out, and we find ways of staying connected without alcohol. Sometimes I ignore my instinct, go anyway, and find myself counting the minutes until I can leave. Other times, I surprise myself and have a lot of fun. It’s all hard to predict. 

I prefer smaller or one-on-one hangouts, and events with an activity to stay occupied – anything from board games to axe throwing. Conversation and activities are more fulfilling to me than the overstimulation of bars and parties. I’ve also gained a network of friends of various ages and backgrounds through writing groups. Through these friendships, I feel like I’ve grown socially, learning more about perspectives outside of my own and bonding over shared interests. 

I value my alone time more than ever – and nowadays, it’s not because I’m too hungover to be around other people. As residual feelings of dislike and distrust for myself dwindle, I’ve become more secure in my own skin and grown accustomed to spending time by myself.

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Frustrations and Challenges

My sources of frustration haven’t disappeared, but have certainly changed. Before I quit drinking, I sometimes became stubborn and deceptive when denied alcohol. My drinking occasionally put a strain on interpersonal relationships, leading me to become defensive and resentful even when I was in the wrong. Moodiness came in waves with how my body and my buzz felt, and was worst when I was hungover.

Though none of that is the case anymore, I have fresh new frustrations and anxieties. Sometimes I feel unbearably stuck in social situations. I feel irritated when I don’t have enough alone time to do fulfilling things like read or write. I worry (perhaps more than I should) about a few people in my life, and get frustrated (again, more than I should) when their behavior isn’t in line with my hopes for them. 

At times, I feel lonely, and that there aren’t many people who really “get” me. I worry that I’m not as connected to friends and family who still drink. But I’ve come to realize that’s mostly in my head. When we hang out, it doesn’t feel that different from before I quit. I think this stems from a fear of losing ties to people who are important to me as my identity changes. Thankfully, it doesn’t play out in reality.

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Photo by Jean-Philippe Delberghe on Unsplash

Sometimes, I’m insecure and uncertain whether I’m working toward a sense of purpose with work and creative pursuits. I’ll take on too much because I’m still figuring out who I am. Abandoning projects can be difficult for me. 

Occasionally, I feel gut-wrenching waves of self-doubt and disgust. I believe it’s a residual feeling from years of doing things I regretted and not dealing with the aftermath. It can resurface after exposing personal topics through blogging and poetry, probably because of internalized shame due to the existence of widespread stigma towards alcohol and mental health issues. But I think writing and sharing is an important part of my healing. I imagine it will take time and repeated exposure for me to overcome this feeling.

the word "Grow" in cursive with leaves, surrounded by drawing tools
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The Future

The way I approach the world (and my writing), there’s always room for improvement. I still feel uncomfortable and uncertain about a lot of things. There are sources of selfishness and wellness-related issues I’d like to overcome. I want to get better about managing stress and anxiety; be a better listener; perhaps – one day – become a morning person, relying less on caffeine.

In the first two years without alcohol, I’ve had some opportunities to offer advice and mentorship – not just about sobriety. Though I may not be the most qualified person to do so, I’m grateful for opportunities to share my insights and to grow from the experience. I don’t know what “my calling” is, but until then, I’ll continue writing and lending support to anyone who comes to me curious about sobriety or struggling with their own alcohol intake. With an educational background in English, psychology, and health communications, I almost can’t help myself from taking an interest in these issues and writing about them.

In the next couple of years, I want to think less and less about my sobriety and focus more on who I want to be and what legacy I want to leave. I am a bit of a dabbler in social causes, but I could be learning faster and doing more. I hope you’ll see me finding greater clarity and more determination in fighting for just causes. Even amid the seeming chaos of the world today, there’s too much in life to look forward to – and to fight for. I don’t want to miss out.

colorful mural of hands embracing a blue orb
Photo by Noémi Macavei-Katócz on Unsplash

Breaking down stigma

Oddly, the easiest thing to write about right now is a topic that brings me perennial frustration. And no, I’m not talking about COVID-19, politics, or where half my socks go when I do the laundry. I’m talking about the way society treats alcohol misuse and pigeonholes sobriety, and how that prevents people from cutting back or seeking treatment.

I want to explore the stigma surrounding alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, which are grouped together into Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). Dictionary.com defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.” Well, that’s intense!

hands holding up a yellow frowny face over brick backdrop
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Widespread stigma creates a feedback loop of shame and discomfort for those suffering from AUD. Because people often assume that one would only choose to quit drinking due to a severe problem, this generates stigma towards those living a sober life. Sobriety, or even seeking help, becomes something a person feels guilty about, complicating what can otherwise be a very positive experience.

I would argue that the stigma around alcohol-related problems is associated with stigma in the U.S. and many other countries surrounding mental illness more broadly. Anything we diagnose or label suddenly becomes bad and serious, a thing to fear. But applying a label to the thing that most challenges us can help us find the appropriate methods to overcome it.

long metal bridge through a snowy forest
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

Why we drink and why we quit

Consuming alcohol – for pleasure, relief, celebration, condolence, social bonding, and pretty much any other reason under the sun – is the norm in this society. So, where does the stigma come from? And why must so many people hover uncomfortably at the tipping point between socially sanctioned heavy consumption and AUD before realizing they might be better off quitting?

I believe each of us has developmentally unique reasons for the way we drink. That’s why not everyone has a problem with alcohol, and why recovery can look a lot different among individuals who do. But we’re in a society powered by the alcohol industry that pressures many young people to drink long before their minds and bodies are fully developed. Many of us go through high school (and maybe college) with a heavy mix of drinking, blacking out, and making mistakes that can lead to accumulated regret and shame.

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Some people grow out of heavy drinking, whether it’s right after high school or college, as they age into their thirties, or later on – or after something they consider their “rock bottom.” Maybe it’s when they start a family or reach a new decade or milestone. It may be for health, mental health, interpersonal relationships, or perhaps a unique combination of personal reasons. They may seek support or assistance with maintaining sobriety through tools like counseling or recovery groups. Behavioral patterns can develop quickly, are often rooted in other ingrained problems, and can be hard to break.

Despite all its turbulence, drinking alcohol (heavily) is still the norm and quitting is frowned upon. Alcohol is embedded into everything we do and celebrate. We laugh off the development of serious drinking problems, skirting the issue with swagger and finding solidarity in alcohol memes and merchandise. Stigma is a dangerous thing – it prevents people from admitting to and addressing inner traumas or turmoil.

man with hand over face in the dark
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The history of social norms surrounding alcohol

Alcohol is part of a social contract that evolved from nomadic cultures. It was extended to strangers to demonstrate hospitality, establishing the beginning of the social relationship. And not much has changed since. Because alcohol represents and fosters human connection, to say I’m not drinking is to say “I’m not in communion with you.”

What’s more, we have a beloved antihero archetype in our culture of the heavy drinker. America loves a scoundrel. The cycle of sin and redemption excites us. Stories often deal in binaries, in good guy vs. bad guy. So we translate those labels to anyone who has admitted to having a problem, deeming any deviation from the recovery path to indicate failure while we continue to sip our own drinks.

cowboy on horseback with a beer in hand
Photo by Antonio Piña on Unsplash

The earning of “chips” or tokens in AA based on accumulated time sober plays into this, as well. When we count the days someone has stayed sober and treat returning to alcohol as a “relapse”, saying things like “why did you fall off the wagon?” or “what made you give that all away?”, we aren’t helping. First, we’re assuming the person had a major issue with alcohol, when they may have quit for less serious reasons, or reasons they want to keep private. Second, we’re making the person feel terribly ashamed and acting like anything they’ve gained from their time sober has now been lost.

It’s more accurate and productive to think of reverting to alcohol consumption after a period of sobriety as a “lapse” – not a “relapse.” Contrary to popular belief, a person doesn’t suddenly lose the wisdom they’ve gained and can often pick up where they left off. Many people lapse several times before maintaining sobriety. In doing so, they may even learn something about themselves and their relationship with alcohol, their emotional regulation and triggers.

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In addition to affecting how we treat sober people, the archetype of the alcoholic antihero allows us to allay any discomfort we have towards our own alcohol consumption by projecting it onto a character who is presented as unconventional, rugged, and dark. We’re not that dark, we tell ourselves. Perhaps we revel a little in the character’s debauchery. We know how good it feels to lean into the hedonic life, but we know when to stop and come up for air.

Our limited rhetoric for alcohol use and sobriety forces us into an “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to consumption. Because of this, quitting seems to require an irreversible commitment and confronting a huge shame-beast that most aren’t ready to tackle. Approaching sobriety with a more mellow attitude can be tremendously easier, more subtle and joyous. Also, many people can cut back and moderate their alcohol consumption. Abstinence is not the only option.

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How to combat stigma

Stigma can make weddings, work travel, dating, parties, and holidays highly unnerving for those who’ve quit drinking. From interacting with people who are walking on eggshells to thanking those who offer backhanded compliments, it becomes the sober person’s job to seem so normal that everyone forgets they aren’t drinking and is comfortable with the elephant of their sobriety.

Even the well-intended “I’m proud of you” is sometimes housed in stigma. Depending on how (and from whom) it’s delivered, it can have underlying implications that the sober person overcame what was a truly disgusting habit that must have brought them deep shame. That may or may not be true. Either way, it isn’t something of which they need to be continually reminded.

A better way to interact with a sober person is to treat them as not all that different from oneself. For instance, it isn’t “too bad” they can only drink a soda. Maybe they like soda and it’s helping them feel at ease! You can tell a sober person that their mocktail looks tasty. It’s okay to be enthusiastic and still sip on one’s own drink of choice.

glitter flowing out of a martini glass in a woman's hand
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Don’t talk to them about how hard it must feel to be surrounded by people who are drinking or make a show of protecting them from pressures or the urge to drink. That forces us into an unnecessary, awkward position of defending our comfort level, which isn’t everyone’s business and may fluctuate. Asking if they’re okay is a thoughtful gesture, but if your friend tells you they’re fine, don’t push it. Thinking that everyone is worried about you can be distressing and annoying.

A sober person can still dance, laugh, joke, and hold conversations. They may seem to introvert themselves a little at times, especially as other people become more drunk and talkative. Let them do their thing – it’s easy to get overstimulated and overwhelmed in crowded drinking environments, and sometimes sober people just need some time (or caffeine) to adjust before diving back in.

woman in the city relaxing alone on a balcony
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If you have friends who are sober, try not to exclude them. You can still invite them to events with alcohol, and they can decide whether they’re comfortable attending. You could also occasionally propose a hangout that doesn’t involve alcohol. Something creative or educational, maybe. There are a lot of ways to support sober friends without making them feel different or like you’re tiptoeing around a monster who’s about to flip. Your friend may be much more in control of their life than you think.

Stigma subverts public health and prevents people from seeking treatment options. It leads to prejudice and discrimination, threatens jobs and relationships, and pushes people into secrecy. It compounds feelings of shame and self-loathing through which people who drink heavily or have quit are already suffering.

It’s a dark entity that has no place in recovery, but it’s ubiquitous. The only thing those of us who care can do is to slowly change attitudes through the way we act, the example we set, and the words we use to empower the people around us. So, if you care, do what you can to break down stigma in your social circles.

–Dana G

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Discovering old and new passions (VACI)

It’s easy to become bored when you initially give up alcohol. Your calendar may open up with free time that can’t be spent in the same way with friends who still drink. Maybe being around alcohol causes anxiety or cravings, and you need other activities to occupy you. Boredom and uncertainty about how to fill time may be exacerbated at this strange time when we’re engaging in long-term physical distancing (I’m calling it “physical” rather than “social” because there are still ways to be social, virtually!). Fortunately, a tool known as VACI from the science- and empowerment-based recovery organization SMART Recovery can help, whether you’ve given up drinking or just cut back.

What is a VACI? 

VACI is short for “Vital Absorbing Creative Interest” and refers to any activity that not only helps fill time, but is also pleasant, healthy, and riveting. A VACI could be anything from taking up a musical instrument to painting, learning a language, or restoring a car. VACIs can help you to become more engaged, curious, inventive, and contemplative in your everyday life. They can even help you replace some of the benefits you once perceived alcohol to bring, such as euphoria, feeling funnier or smarter, and reducing social anxiety.

VACIs allow you to reflect on and revisit what you used to enjoy before you started drinking – and to explore new activities that you’ve always been curious about but lacked the time, energy, or motivation to try. Maybe you didn’t think you could try them in the past, but have developed a new sense of self-assurance and are ready to do so now.

colorful paint brushes
Photo by RhondaK Native Florida Folk Artist on Unsplash

Many of us feel just as busy despite physical distancing with things like work, cleaning, taking care of children, and keeping in touch with friends and family. This post is certainly not intended to tell people they should be just as productive or more than they would be under normal circumstances. These are not normal times, and many people are struggling and mourning.

But if you live alone or have a lot of idle time (or perhaps you’re getting tired of a single activity you tend towards such as gaming or streaming video), trying out new VACIs can broaden your go-to activity set and open you up to things that may be surprisingly fulfilling. These may also serve as welcome distractions if you have roommates or family members who live with you and are still partaking of alcohol.

Even in normal times, it’s a good idea to explore activities you enjoy doing alone, because you can’t rely on people in your circle to be available when and how you need them to be. That said, if you can find supportive friends to have one-on-one or small group hangouts to do these things (virtually, for now), that’s great. Or, you can find local and virtual communities in which to do them.

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One thing to remember when exploring VACIs is that not every activity is enjoyable for every person. It’s important to “try things on” and see how you respond. Does a new hobby feel a little awkward or uncomfortable? Does it fit just right and fill you with excitement? Are you eager to explore it further? It’s also a good idea to engage in VACIs moderately, so you aren’t replacing one addiction with another. Weigh any comorbidities you may have, such as bipolar disorder. Mood states like mania and hypomania may cause you to react differently to the development of new hobbies – especially if you’re experiencing the pink cloud.

When I was in the pink cloud, I got a little overeager trying to juggle too many new balloons. I felt like I had to do every new VACI every evening – from practicing guitar to creative writing to exercising. These things shouldn’t have been stressing me out… they should have been exciting. To overcome this, I started thinking of VACIs as a menu of activities I could decide between on any given evening, letting myself pick and choose. 

Eventually, I found myself gravitating towards some activities more than others. I joined local creative writing workshop groups and co-writing spaces, diving back into writing poetry. In addition to feeling smarter, and more creative and capable than I had in years, this helped me to overcome social anxiety toward meeting new people and sharing things I’m passionate about. I’ve developed new and enriching friendships, honed my craft, and feel more connected to a community that holds endless possibilities for engagement and growth.

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You might finally delve into a passion or hobby that excited you years or even decades ago. Or, you could fall in love with an activity you didn’t think you would – opening a door you never knew was closed. That can be tremendously empowering, helping to pull you through the difficult and sometimes isolating experience of early recovery. Eventually, the VACIs you explore can lead to bigger goals, and a more focused sense of purpose.

Not sure where to start? Here’s a long list of ideas to help. If it’s a bit overwhelming, try selecting and exploring just a handful of activities. Create a table to rate how fun and fulfilling each of them seem, both before and after you try them.

Activities that can be done during physical distancing:

Entertainment and Education

  • Read a long book series, or a number of books from a favorite author or genre
  • Take an online class in something you’ve always wanted to learn more about through a service like edX or Coursera
  • Learn a new language, or at least the basics, through an app like Duolingo
  • Virtually visit museums all over the world
  • Become an armchair expert by reading up on something like history, psychology, astronomy, dream theory, or the history of your favorite genre of American cinema
  • Take an acting or art class
  • Learn a new technical skill such as writing code, programming, graphic design, or web development
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Creative Writing

  • Write a novel, play, screenplay, memoir, short story, poetry, or stand-up comedy routine
  • Look online for writing prompts to generate ideas
  • Engage in introspection and keep a journal on a theme such as gratitude or surviving the 2020 quarantine
  • Write reviews of streaming movies or shows
  • Start a blog or podcast on something you’re passionate about – perhaps one of your other VACIs

New Artistic Skills

  • Learn a new musical instrument or pick up an old one
  • Practice singing or songwriting
  • Try a new craft such as knitting or other textiles, woodcraft, model-building, pottery, jewelry-making, book-binding, or calligraphy
  • Start a project in an art medium such as painting, drawing, sculpting, collaging, mixed media, or writing comics
  • Explore your creative “eye” with photography or videography – though for now, your subject may have to be yourself, those you live with, or your living space
  • Perfect a new skill like knitting or woodworking, and starting a side business selling your wares
person playing acoustic guitar
Photo by Ahmed Rizkhaan on Unsplash

Exercise and Movement

  • Explore new forms of exercise such as walking, jogging, running, cycling, high intensity training, bodybuilding, or yoga
  • Take a virtual martial arts class
  • Dance – learn new dancing styles, or just dance to your favorite music for fun

Other

  • Serve your community as a volunteer, mentor, or tutor
  • Try new recipes or refine a cooking skill set
  • Arrange a virtual party where you and your friends present 3-minute PowerPoint presentations on topics you’re passionate about, or have everyone present another person’s PowerPoint
  • Color or work on puzzles while binge-listening to podcasts or audiobooks
  • Garden or landscape, if you have access to a yard or outdoor space
  • Delve into strategic gaming, such as chess, video games, word games, or board games (many of which can be played virtually)
chess board
Photo by ErnAn Solozábal on Unsplash

Activities for the future:

Here are several more activities that aren’t actionable right now, but that you can look forward to trying out after this period of physical distancing:

Entertainment, Education, and New Skills

  • Take yourself to the movie theater and treat yourself to soda, popcorn, and/or candy
  • Write reviews of the movies you see
  • Go to local museums or see what classes you can take locally
  • Try your hand at live storytelling or stand-up comedy
  • Explore film photography, if you live near a public darkroom where you can rent developing and print-making equipment

Sports and Outdoors

  • Go hiking, camping, swimming, or cycling in nature
  • Go on an adventure with activities such as rock climbing, kayaking, mountain biking, or skydiving
  • Follow or play a favorite sport
  • Go on long walks or bike rides to get more familiar with the area where you live
Lake with blue sky and hiking path
Photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash

Clubs and Community

  • Join clubs or community organizations
  • Join interest-based community groups, locally or online (I’ve linked to this before and I’m sure there are similar services, but meetup.com is a great place to find these. Many group meetups are being conducted virtually right now.)

Shopping and Collecting

  • Visit and support local businesses such as restaurants, shops, music venues, and theaters
  • Browse flea markets for art, jewelry, furniture, collectibles, and unique gifts
  • Collect something that brings you joy – anything from stamps to antique decor to photo books
lamps at a market with blue background
Photo by Sujith Devanagari on Unsplash

Travel

  • Make it a goal to visit all 50 states, or all the national parks
  • Take trips with friends, family, or by yourself – and not necessarily to faraway places (perhaps you can spend your free time getting more familiar with your home state)


You can peruse hundreds more hobbies here, from Parkour to cheese-making to robot combat. You must choose your own adventure. Whatever you try and gravitate towards, VACIs can be both fun and enriching. I hope you enjoy, and maybe even discover a lifelong passion in the process!

-Dana G

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