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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 dangersof 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 inmyownlife.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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)
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
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
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!
The spread of COVID-19 has posed enormous challenges to people across the world as individuals, as communities, and as societies. While so many of us are social distancing, potentially for the long haul, our concerns vary widely across geographic locations, financial and occupational circumstances, family situations, living environments, mental health challenges, and so much more.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to tools and information for getting through this, and I’m not equipped to put myself in the shoes of every person struggling through every situation. But I’ve tried to categorize some tools based on five particularly widespread problems for those of us working to maintain sobriety during this period of isolation.
Problem #1: I’m struggling with cravings.
Avoiding temptation can be especially hard when dealing with a variety of unknowns and spending so much time at home. If you live by yourself and being alone is a trigger, it’s probably not the best time to have alcohol in the house. However, many people live with family members or roommates who drink. Though that can be tricky, the silver lining is that the presence of alcohol and the exercise of willpower to avoid it can help you to develop strategies to avoid alcohol in the future at restaurants, bars, and parties.
If alcohol is there to stay, and even if it isn’t, try to make sure you have enough of your favorite foods and non-alcoholic beverages on hand. These, along with activities and hobbies you can do in your home, can serve as a satisfying distraction from urges – holding you over until they subside. Dedicating time and energy to some other kind of pleasurable activity when cravings arise helps me satisfy what feels like it’s missing – whether the activity is on the less-healthy end, like snacking on something sugary and watching Netflix, or on the healthy end, like reading, writing, or trying a new recipe or workout video. I’ve also shared earlier posts that may be of use if you’re looking for strategies to manage cravings and treat yourself with things other than alcohol.
If you have time, reading books or blogs about sobriety can reinforce your decision to cut back or quit. A few are listed on the Resources page of this blog. I often listen to audiobooks while doing things like cleaning or working on a puzzle, which require time but not a lot of brainpower. Listening to these reminds me of how bad things can get with alcohol, and of the physical and mental health benefits of quitting. Feeling down and lonely sometimes triggers the memory that I used to drink to make those emotions subside – so for people like me, the advice in the following section is also relevant to overcoming cravings.
Problem #2: I’m feeling anxious or depressed.
This, for obvious reasons, is going to be a challenge for a lot of people in the weeks or even months of isolation ahead. If you’re suffering from negative thoughts, anxiety, or depression, but aren’t able to maintain virtual counseling services with your usual in-person or online counselor, there are many virtual services that can help. You can also check out recommendations from therapists for helpful apps and resources during this time. If you have a pressing need to talk to someone but don’t have the resources or aren’t ready to commit, some online counseling services offer a few free appointments or tiers of service.
The CDC also offers advice on managing mental health in the midst of COVID-19. This is just a sampling of the tips and resources available. I recommend searching more widely online to find resources specific to your circumstances, and reaching out to friends, family, or acquaintances who may be able to share additional advice.
Apart from counseling services, there are a lot of things you can do in daily life that might help. Try to maintain your regular sleep schedule, and practice a morning routine such as journaling, making breakfast, exercising, or getting ready for the day much like you usually would. Not everyone needs to do all of these things. I, for one, have no plans to leave pajamas until at least July. Just do what makes a difference for you and don’t be afraid to try new things.
You don’t have to be exceptionally productive just because you’re at home, but new habits can take your mind off old ones. It may help you to stay fairly busy, even indoors, with a range of activities (see the next section!). If you’re feeling stuck, identify a few things that make you love your living space, or rearrange the furniture. Meditation, mindfulness, and breathing exercises may help you manage anxiety. After a rough couple of evenings last week, I decided to start my own daily blend of exposure therapy and meditation. You can find more tips if you’re having a hard time staying occupied here.
If you’re glued to your phone, or if following social media or the news is making you feel anxious (or paranoid!), consider putting your phone across the room for a while. I’ve realized that I’m checking Instagram far more than usual. Despite the short-term relief, connection, and humor I’ve found, it can be draining. Checking our phones can become a compulsive behavior that acts on the same reward system in the brain as activities like gaming, over-eating, over-exercising, and even drinking.
It’s hard to pinpoint a “healthy amount” for behaviors that are essential to survive and feel connected to others. I’ve started leaving my phone on the kitchen counter when I realize I’m using it compulsively, and will only check to make sure I haven’t missed any urgent texts or calls if I’m getting up to do something else.
All of this said, some stress and anxiety is inevitable right now. People are dealing with changes to their routines, concerns over their own health along with that of loved ones, job and financial losses, and major uncertainty in other areas of life. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to feel okay all the time or seize the day as if there weren’t a major virus sweeping through the world’s population. Do what you can to manage your mental health challenges and feel more comfortable, but remember that everyone is having a hard time. It’s okay to worry and feel sad, and to adjust your expectations for yourself right now.
Problem #3: I’m getting extremely bored.
Another widespread concern is how to keep our minds and bodies occupied while spending so many hours at home. You don’t have to be productive all the time – as with our mental health, it’s okay to take a step back from the bustle of everyday life and settle in to what will be our new normal for some time. But if feelings of intense boredom are beginning to weigh on you, staying occupied with a range of activities may help.
You can start a puzzle, escape on an adventure through a good book, learn something new in a free online class, attend a virtual concert, or explore other opportunities for streaming art, education, entertainment, and more. You could clean or reorganize your living space, or declutter a closet that’s been grating on you. It might also be a good time to reach out virtually, and regularly, to friends and family – particularly if you live alone.
If you’re feeling creative or are up for processing emotions, you can write, journal, draw, make or listen to music, or work on other crafts. If you’re feeling restless, try to make it outside to get some fresh air or go for a walk. Just maintain your six feet of distance! If going outside right now falls outside your comfort zone, there are tons of companies and social media “influencers” offering free virtual exercise classes during COVID-19.
Of course, if you’re hooked into the streaming services, there are plenty of shows and movies to keep you entertained. I’ve been trying to limit my viewing because I know how addictive they can be for me. But some evenings, I don’t have the motivation to do much else (I plowed through Tiger King in two nights). There’s a wealth of good entertainment media out there nowadays – with just as much junk. It’s all fair game right now!
And don’t forget about others. Perhaps one of the best ways to mitigate harm, fill time, and build yourself up during this crisis is to find ways to help. Check on neighbors, friends, and family. If you can, donate to charities that are on the front lines. And look for ways to volunteer in your community. The list is likely to grow. You may find yourself dropping off food and supplies for older neighbors, or making masks for your local hospital or other essential workers. Service itself can be healing.
Problem #4: I’m feeling really lonely.
This is a tough one, especially if you live alone, like me. Loneliness is inevitable, given the fact that social distancing requires us to do the very thing that makes it worse – to physically isolate ourselves. Despite being dispersed, we can keep in touch in virtual ways. This could be as simple as a daily phone call to a friend or family member, or if you have the resources, you can conduct a video chat. There is a range of technology, much of it freely available at this time, to support virtual hangouts.
As you’re likely to have noticed, virtual happy hours and boozy brunches are growing in popularity. Joining friends – even virtually – who are drinking might not be the easiest thing to do when moderating or avoiding alcohol intake. But if you’re able to join and enjoy your coffee, selzer, or other drink of choice without struggling with temptation, this can be a good way to meet friends where they are and stay in touch. In fact, it may be a bit easier than meeting in a bar, where the smell of alcohol, not just the festive atmosphere, surrounds you.
There are also interest-based activities prompting people to gather in virtual spaces. If you’re into creative writing, something that has worked for me is joining friends on video chat to work on separate writing projects and to share feedback. Meetup.com, a platform for gathering people based on common interests, just added an option for virtual meetups. You can also play virtual video and board games or create a spreadsheet where friends can add recommendations for books, movies, streaming series, activities, and more.
Problem #5: My usual recovery meeting isn’t meeting virtually.
Some recovery groups are offering virtual meetings during the COVID-19 outbreak because physical locations are closed. If your regular group happens to be offering a phone or video meeting, attending is a good way to stay accountable to your goals and feel less isolated as we endure this. If no virtual meeting is available, you may be forced to look for alternatives.
Some recovery organizations (such as SMART Recovery) have online meetings, resources, and anonymous discussion boards. Browse the website of your recovery group of choice to see if they’re offering these. If you haven’t explored recovery groups but feel that now would be a good time to do so, you can learn more about different types of recovery groups here and here. You can also download the free Connections app for support in your recovery.
There are substantial benefits of attending virtual meetings during COVID-19, from providing a source of connection to other people who aren’t drinking to sharing strategies for coping with all the uncertainty. In another blog post, I shared some of the ways I’ve personally benefited from attending a recovery group. In addition to taking advantage of online resources and meetings, reading books and blogs to hear stories from other people who have quit or cut back can be helpful when you’re managing that process on your own.
The power of sobriety during the COVID-19 crisis
With a world of uncertainty about the future, and abrupt transformations taking place in our everyday lives, it’s quite normal to not feel “okay.” Some things will quite simply not be okay. Many people of all ages and backgrounds are getting sick and dying. We’re not only faced with discomfort and isolation right now, but also grief at very real losses. We’re dealing with financial, occupational, and family challenges that are shifting faster than we ever imagined – and faster than the world of information can keep up. Everyone is being asked to figure these things out rapidly, and at the same time, to be unnaturally patient sitting at home awaiting the latest updates to guidelines for interpersonal behavior.
When things like this happen, we are often told to “take things one day at a time.” That’s familiar territory for folks avoiding alcohol – it’s the very strategy we use to stay sober in normal situations. That training, along with the fact that we have a little practice in social distancing, can help us to stay strong and get through this.
Pandemics have hit the world many times before. And although everything around us is changing and setbacks are inevitable, we will get through this. Some semblance of normal life will resume. I’ve written here about just five out of innumerable problems for people at this time. While many face significant changes in areas like work, education, finances, and health, we can all do our part to help each other deal with challenges and losses and help ourselves in the process. Patience, and for some of us, the power of sobriety, are the vehicles that will get us there.
I am blessed (or cursed, depending on the day you ask) with a job that allows me to travel frequently to major cities in the U.S. For most of the day during these trips I’m occupied with job-related tasks, but evenings are usually free, and I often add a day onto the beginning or end of my trip to enjoy whatever city I’m in. I’ve also taken two trips internationally since giving up alcohol – to Portugal and Brazil – and nearly went to Japan a few weeks ago but canceled due to concerns over COVID–19 (coronavirus). Of course, PLEASE play your part in socially distancing to “flatten the curve” for the time being – I only hope to offer an ounce of virtual escape with this post.
I’ve also found myself in some truly challenging scenarios for a non-drinker. In Portugal, I attended a wedding at a winery in the Douro Valley and participated in the harvest, even stomping the grapes. I was in Rio for Carnival, and in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. These were all self-imposed challenges, and in some cases, big ones. I’m not recommending that everyone exploring sobriety should attend rowdy, drink-heavy celebrations when they travel. But being able to avoid alcohol at these events was deeply empowering and eye-opening for me – so I thought I would share what they felt like and how I dealt with emotions as they came up.
In some situations in life, you just have to suck it up and do things that make you a bit uncomfortable, or left out. The wedding in Portugal was only three months into my sobriety, and wine was my thing. Talk about hard – snipping grapes off the vine and macerating their squishy, yummy bodies in a two hundred-year-old stone tub – then not being able to taste it! Yes, I know – first-world problems – and perhaps the most woe-is-me, privileged-sounding sentence I’ve ever written. But obviously, that was hard in the moment.
What’s more, I was not experienced yet in talking about my sobriety. I still sounded uncertain, and the few times it came up, people looked at me oddly for turning down a glass of wine and pouring a soda. We were literally at a winery, at the source, and I was turning down the nectar of the gods. It was probably even a bit rude, as far as modern-day social dynamics go, and in the perspective of those who didn’t know about my past experiences.
But this was a family event, and our trip involved all kinds of sight-seeing up and down the coast of Western Portugal. We visited cathedrals and shorelines galore. It was worth feeling a bit of discomfort over a couple of days in order to celebrate the profound love of some of our closest family friends and experience so many of Portugal’s historical wonders.
When traveling with friends as a sober person, you have to make compromises. The reality of the modern world, at least in cultures like mine, is that most people drink. The non-drinker is the odd one out. When planning our trip to Brazil, I was most excited about going to the Amazon. I grew up on that wondrously addictive video game “The Amazon Trail”. I could probably have spent weeks in the jungle without wanting to come home, but seeing as I didn’t want to travel all by myself, I needed to weigh my own desires with what my travel companions wanted to do and see. So we went to one of the most exciting celebrations of culture and color and excess in the world – Rio’s Carnival.
We had plenty of opportunity in Rio to go sight-seeing and wander the beautiful coastline, but we also went to several wild street parties called “blocos.” I preferred the ones with music, dancers, and other welcome distractions to the fact that I wasn’t drinking, yet was surrounded by people who were – often very young, reminding me of my carefree and careless past. We never spent more than a few hours there at a time because my friends are amazing and supportive (and, thankfully, getting older like me – ready to leave parties at a “reasonable” time). My one friend often says she’ll turn into a pumpkin if she doesn’t leave a party by 10 or 11 p.m. My kind of woman.
Mardi Gras was much different, but only because I went with my mother, who also wasn’t drinking. We spent most of our time strolling up and down Royal Street – one road down from Bourbon, which we only visited once or twice. We were more focused on appreciating the history, the architecture, and the food – and, yes, the people-watching – in the French Quarter. I rarely felt a strong sense of longing to be part of the party, and maybe that’s because I was much further into my sobriety than I was on my other trips. We also did a ton of walking, rather than standing in one place, so I didn’t have a chance to get too “in my head” about what I was missing.
Now, to think a little more deeply about how I’ve felt on these trips. To be honest, in the first year of my sobriety, I had mixed feelings at major drinking celebrations. I’ll start with the negative ones. If I was stuck somewhere for long, I’d feel resentful, thinking about how I could be doing other, better things with my time like writing or reading. That’s still sometimes the case.
The intense stimuli around me can cause another wave of emotion that arrives almost as if carried on the scent of wine. I’ll miss being a “part of the party” and in the same mindset as everyone else, in that truly carefree and euphoric place. I’ll feel stuck with an energy drink or a soda that isn’t doing anything, not really – besides keeping me awake and giving me a little more energy so I can stick it out and socialize.
If I’m standing in one place, especially in a crowd, the smells and sounds of wild bars and parties can conjure vivid memories of very negative things – blacking out, being unsafe, hangovers, injuries, and more. External stimuli can cause a tug-of-war in which I’m both drawn to the things I’ve given up and repulsed by what I know was associated with them. If I’m really feeling stuck somewhere, I’ll try to make space for myself by focusing on something that distracts and interests me (the beautiful colors and costumes of a festival, people-watching, the lovely architecture) and to remind myself that I will be able to return to the safe space of my introverted “me time” soon enough. No craving, no discomfort, is forever.
Once I’m on the other side of those situations, the positive feelings start to emerge. I realize that I made it through one of the craziest parties out there without drinking. I stood there, I talked to a person or two, I often felt really good and happy – and I didn’t need alcohol to get me there. I also don’t have a hangover or any injuries or regrets to speak of (or, more likely, hide and let fester inside me). Getting through these events is a really intense kind of medicine that helps me heal, as I’ve come through the gauntlet and shown that I’m more powerful than the “pull” of alcohol. Something a former version of me couldn’t have imagined. Really, who but a masochist goes to Mardi Gras for anything but to drink?
Traveling to events such as these requires a careful balancing act that might not be wise for everyone early on the path of sobriety. I could have easily caved in Portugal or Brazil. But I know other people who’ve had similar experiences a few months into their sobriety, so it isn’t unheard of. It really depends on whether you have a desire to test your willpower, the nature of your cravings and urges, and the confidence you have in your ability to find determination from within when in uncomfortable environments. For some people, this just isn’t the best way to prove that they’re strong. They have better methods to prove that to themselves, or no interest in putting themselves in uncomfortable scenarios when it isn’t necessary.
I’ve put myself in these situations because of how empowered I feel after overcoming the social expectations and my own urges in high-pressure drinking environments. It makes me feel less like I’m missing out on the world, and that I can overcome anything. It takes a great deal of vulnerability, but that’s a prerequisite for courage and fulfilment, according to Brené Brown. I also get a chance to experience the things outside of alcohol that make these events so culturally important. The music, the community, the food, the tradition. Alcohol just happens to be one factor mixed into many cultural traditions. It’s probably there to stay, but if I can ignore it, I can appreciate the other parts of the recipe.
It’s like a vegetarian at a dinner party where chicken pot pie is the only thing being served. They can choose to eat it and pick out the chicken, but they are still going to get some chicken bits (at a drinking party, that might come in the form of wine splashed across their shirt). Still, they get some tasty carrots and potatoes. Sometimes I choose to avoid the pot pie entirely, and there are many perfectly good reasons for doing so. At other times, I don’t feel like eating alone.
If you are inclined to challenging yourself like I was or know that you might end up in drinking environments despite not planning or wanting to, here are a few pointers. You’ll probably have times where you recall fondly what you’re missing. Focus on the negative consequences you’re also missing out on. Don’t forget that you can usually opt out of attending an event if you aren’t up for it. Before you arrive, determine your travel and sightseeing priorities and make them known. There may be situations where you want to ensure you have an “out” or an opportunity for down time – or can at least balance experiences in less comfortable environments with site-seeing and non-drinking activities.
Figure out what you’ll say if others ask why you aren’t drinking. You can have more than one response ready for people who ask you in different ways. Some people may make you feel more comfortable and willing to open up than others. Having travel companions who respect your needs and who drink responsibly – or, at least, fairly responsibly – makes a big difference. Finally, determine your go-to beverages in restaurants, on airplanes, and in other environments, and get excited about them.
And don’t forget that in the end, you might save a lot of money – and feel refreshed and empowered when you return home!
“Identity is a series of reliable vectors that is you.” This is something the leader of the recovery group I attend said during a discussion about how our sense of identity shifts when we stop drinking. It immediately resonated with me. Identity includes a range of personality traits and behavioral trends that define the person we – and others – perceive ourselves to be. And while many of these are fairly stable, others can change over time. Identity is not some single thing we “are” that remains constant. We are continually perceiving, learning, changing, growing, stumbling, recovering, and healing. We are on a series of paths all at once.
Social science has tested many theories on identity, which involves self-concept – “the sum of a being’s knowledge and understanding of their self… includ[ing] physical, psychological, and social attributes, which can be influenced by the individual’s attitudes, habits, beliefs and ideas.” Our self-concept intersects with social identity, cultural identity, professional identity, gender identity, religious identity, and many other dimensions. There’s also a difference – and a dynamic balancing act – between individual identity and the collective identities (as well as social roles) we form in groups.
Identity is “an ever-evolving core within where our genetics (biology), culture, loved ones, those we cared for, people who have harmed us and people we have harmed, the deeds done (good and ill) to self and others, experiences lived, and choices made come together to form who we are at this moment.” Identity is a feeling. Identity is a sense of singularity, and a sense of belonging. Identity is how we define ourselves – what we can do, what we have, what we like, what we remember, who we are. Identity is a complex beast, and it’s different for everyone.
When people quit drinking, their identity is often dealt a blow, at least initially. Many people (certainly not all) who have an alcohol problem get wrapped up in a self-protective feeling of being likable and funny, their perspective restricted to the seemingly good qualities that emerge when alcohol relieves them of anxiety and inhibition. Their self-concept is one of a person who parties and is easygoing and fun to be around. That’s certainly how I thought of myself. This may become a role they play in their social circle, a form of identity that they, and often their peers, admire and value. Over time, it can come to dominate their sense of identity, diminishing their recognition of other factors that make them who they are.
I absolutely had a phase of identity confusion when I quit drinking. And it’s related to why I started in the first place. From mid-adolescence onward, part of me was trying to be someone different, someone cooler than the dorky middle schooler at my core who was passionate, perhaps even obsessive about things like art, music, writing, and Lord of the Rings. I had anxiety and difficulty socializing with people who I thought were cooler than me – the athletic and popular kids who I thought were “normal” and had everything together.
I drank in part to suppress that feeling, to be able to socialize with anyone and everyone, and to open up without inhibition and still feel accepted. In college, I somehow managed to balance being very into art and poetry with hard partying. I suffered from powerful feelings of loneliness, and used alcohol to join the ranks of what I thought was normal social interaction (binge drinking) to escape from that feeling. Alcohol made me feel connected to people, as well as highly energetic and attention-worthy. It validated me. After college, I lost my creative and intellectual outlets, along with the everyday proximity of my drinking buddies. I used alcohol to reward myself and relieve anxiety related to my everyday work and loneliness.
When I stopped drinking, change became inevitable. I found that I didn’t want to spend as much time at bars or drinking parties. I couldn’t be that same, easy-going, funny person – at least at first – and my identity took a hit. For many people, this can feel like a tremendous loss at first. Some of my friendships were forced to evolve, and I broke away from a couple of them. I maintained those in which the bond revolved around more than drinking. I found ways to connect with my friends through other aspects of my identity and theirs, such as shared interests. I got better at asking questions about other things in their lives, at making conversation. And for the friends that stuck with and supported me – which was, luckily, most of them – I think our friendships have grown deeper.
There is a light at the end of this tunnel. If you make the most of your sobriety, you start to renounce the building-blocks of identity that aren’t serving you – destructive activities, negative people, and self-talk (internal dialogue) that are toxic. By keeping your mind clear and letting it rewire, you’ve made the space for critical self-awareness – recognizing and challenging distorted thoughts and moving past ingrained mental obstacles. You start to distill the good from the harmful aspects of your personality and begin to develop new dimensions of identity and social roles. Rebuilding your identity can move from an undesirable, gargantuan effort to a long-term practice that brings you deep joy.
If you quit drinking, or even cut back, pieces of you that have been subdued but are truly consistent with your essence can return. I dove back into my suppressed passions – art, music, writing, and trying to help people who are hurting. I shifted from an identity of “drinker” and “partier” into one of “poet,” “supporter,” and, of late, “blogger.” These aren’t just new ways to label yourself – they are the things you do and care about, put your heart into, and spend your time thinking about. They become important, just like alcohol once was. I finally started to learn what true confidence was, and how different it felt from the very opposite, negative feelings I had let fester inside me for so long.
Though this isn’t the case for everyone, you may recognize yourself getting more introspective and open when you moderate or quit drinking. But one of the burdens of being open is that you realize many other people are not. Some people just aren’t accustomed (or driven) to being introspective, or can’t articulate it. And if you talk too much about yourself or what you’re going through, you’ll become tiresome to the disinterested. Your own openness might make you feel alone, until you find other individuals or groups where introspection and sharing are the “norm.”
Journaling and talking with others going through the same thing may help you to make sense of your emotions and new realizations. For many people, openness and sharing are critical to healing – which is why joining a recovery group can be so helpful during the transition to sobriety. Additionally, participating in activities and social groups based around common interests can reinforce other facets of the self, and even introduce new, long-lasting pursuits and values.
Rebuilding your identity is not easy. It’s not a straightforward process of continual upward growth. Just as it often is before we quit drinking, identity can be ever shifting after we stop. Life presents challenges at the most unexpected times, and our attitudes and emotions will shift accordingly. But for me, sobriety has given me a level of confidence and resilience I’d never thought possible. On an average day, I feel more complete and happier than ever. And when life gets tough, I feel certain I can make it through. Reflecting on what alcohol did to exacerbate my anxiety and negative self-image, I don’t think I could have gotten to this place without giving it up.
When I initially quit drinking, I felt really alone. It was summertime, and it was wedding season. Nearly all of my friends still drank and were going out regularly on weekends, and all social events – from parties to weddings and bachelorettes – seemed to revolve around alcohol. I still went to almost everything I was invited to, not wanting to alienate myself, but felt that I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I had these residual anti-sober-person sentiments based on stereotypes I’d absorbed over many years – that sober people are only there to kill the buzz of folks who are partying, ready to pounce on the opportunity to shame others, and get their highs out of doing so. In fact, I had never actually met a sober person who did that, but the stereotype exists and is the butt of many jokes, right there with the angry vegans. Stereotypes do a lot of harm, and apparently in more ways than I realized, with the focus now being internalized disgust. I desperately didn’t want to be “that person,” and had a lot of anxiety that others would perceive me as someone quite noxious to be around.
This might seem like an odd introduction to a post about finding community, but the feelings and fears described above were some of the most isolating I had ever felt. My very identity was shaken to the core. I was used to being the funny drunk person, lighthearted and carefree, a people-pleaser who worked to make others feel comfortable and liked. I still try to bring positive energy into my social circles, but at the time I thought I needed to be drinking like everyone else to spread that blanket of warmth and ease. My very presence as a sober person was now threatening other people’s comfort – and, I was certain, their ability to sincerely like me. Who wanted to work that hard?
Initially, I was so concerned about my abstinence impacting other people’s comfort that I ignored my own. Though my dear friends then are my dear friends now, I needed to find other communities of people in which the primary social activities that bonded the group together didn’t require alcohol consumption. I needed to find get-togethers where the focus was on shared experiences and interests. After some time overly focused on the outward impacts of my sobriety, I turned that focus inward and discovered two types of communities that have been, as cliché as it sounds, life-changing. This post is about the first of these communities. I’ll save the second community for later.
The community that guided me through the first year of sobriety was one of non-drinkers – in my case, a SMART Recovery meeting group that I’ve been attending since I quit. SMART stands for “Self-Management and Recovery Training.” I sought out this group because AA wasn’t the right option for me as someone who preferred a non-religious, flexible, social science-based approach to self-care and life. SMART Recovery focuses on approaches to recovery that addiction science has found effective. You can learn more about the SMART philosophy here.
I wanted a community that used psychology, sociology, philosophy, and other domains that resonate with (and fascinate) me to analyze and compare experiences of sobriety in this culture. I often think of going to a SMART meeting as attending “philosophy club” and am reminded of the eye-opening discussions I had in the classrooms of my liberal arts education. We talk about everything from the meaning of dreams to motivations, sociocultural influences, and developmental psychology. Everyone seems to know a little about something.
Until meeting other people in this group, I hadn’t realized how badly I needed to connect with other people who were trying out this highly unusual sobriety thing. I wasn’t the only one doing nonstop introspection, anxious about stigma and feeling very “other” – but also growing from within faster than ever and feeling really positive about my life direction for the first time in years. It was an odd, mixed bag of emotions that I wouldn’t have been able to disentangle on my own.
Even though I was lucky not to have strong cravings, there were things I needed to learn from other people going through the same things. For example, what I could do and say in social situations, what was going on with my emotions, and how to challenge irrational thoughts. Making sure I attended weekly meetings at first – and attending periodically now – keeps me accountable, helps me feel connected to others, and is endlessly fascinating.
Not everyone has the benefit of a local, in-person meeting for the recovery group that suits them best. Living downtown in a major metropolitan city gives me a lot of options. But there arevirtual meetings and discussion boards for some recovery communities, including SMART Recovery, and it doesn’t hurt to periodically attend a community that isn’t the perfect fit just to get the experience of talking to other people who aren’t drinking.
The first time I went to a SMART Recovery meeting, I was lucky – I was the only person there, besides the facilitator. Though that was intimidating at first, I had so much to get off my chest that it quickly became cathartic. I was finally able to open up to a non-judgmental person who had also suffered from compulsive drinking, who was genuinely kind and had so many helpful things to say. It was better advice than what I was getting from the counselor I’d started seeing, who didn’t specialize in alcohol use problems.
One stereotype I quickly overcame after meeting people in this community was of the person who attends recovery meetings. Not everyone who does so is an “alcoholic” in the traditional sense, drinking every day to the point of struggling financially, legally, or in some other outwardly obvious way. Some people certainly are dealing with those issues. Many, like me, just have a use or control problem. There may be interpersonal issues and other parts of their life that alcohol has affected, but most people seem quite normal on the outside.
Needing help just wasn’t as unusual, pitiful, or miserable as I had expected. In fact, it was the opposite – the most empowering thing I had done for myself in a decade. My only question was why I hadn’t thought to look up a group and come to a meeting sooner. Perhaps I hadn’t reached my version of “rock bottom.”
One thing that makes recovery groups effective is the “light touch” approach. These are people you see periodically, even regularly, but have minimal to no interaction with outside the group. When you interact more deeply with people, you start to develop common ends and social roles, which can create stress and tension. Without letting these group dynamics form, the discussion remains peer-to-peer. Everyone is on the same level, and no one is in charge. You engage in helpful cross-talk, listen intently, ask questions, and offer insights to one another. Everyone is dealing with something stressful or challenging, and anyone can share a related experience or advice to help. It’s a lovely thing.
I am so thankful for the people in my recovery group – the advice they’ve offered me when I had questions, their trust and courage in sharing their experiences, and the time and energy they dedicate to working on themselves and supporting each other’s growth. It’s a level of earnest kindness and compassion I hadn’t experienced much until attending. I hope the stigma towards these groups dwindles with time, because I can’t recommend them enough to people who are struggling with their entry into sobriety, feeling isolated and adjusting to changes in their emotions and social roles. All of it can be managed, and it certainly gets better. But it’s a much easier and more empowering process when you have a sober community to help.
Quitting drinking doesn’t mean you can never again do and consume things that give you great joy. You are not doomed to drinking water, eating bland food, or sitting around with nothing to do in all your free time. Believe it or not, you can retrain your brain to look forward to and deeply enjoy non-alcoholic treats and behaviors.
The pleasure that comes from drinking alcohol arises when it activates the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, a powerful reward system in our brains, by releasing a rush of dopamine. Over time, this overload causes natural dopamine production to decline. People develop tolerance and need more alcohol to produce the same effect, struggling to experience significant pleasure without it.
This alteration is progressive but reversible. It can make it quite unpleasant to give up alcohol, and difficult to experience a comparable level of pleasure from other things, until the brain adapts. You can learn more about this process here. Alcohol also affects the central nervous system and is both a depressant and an indirect stimulant. Though it’s not so much the focus of this post, you can read more about the complex neural effects of alcohol here.
When you quit drinking, your brain’s reward system doesn’t just go away. Alcohol may have been removed from the equation, but other foods, activities, and healthier behaviors such as beloved hobbies, favorite meals, and exercise have an opportunity to step in. They operate on the very same neural pathway. Regularly engaging in healthy behaviors rewires your brain to reap the feel-good benefits of dopamine without depleting it, which continued alcohol use does. Your experience of pleasure becomes more regulated, predictable, and sustainable. With practice, that can help you form more stable, healthier patterns of seeking pleasure and reward over time.
At first, your focus while getting sober may be simply getting through each day without submitting to alcohol cravings. That’s quite common and perfectly okay – you shouldn’t feel pressured to enjoy every moment and be “high on life” right away. But if you’re dedicated and persistent, or even simply patient, you’ll eventually gravitate to new things and activities that give you pleasure, becoming habitual and comforting.
When I quit drinking, I started to look forward to cracking open a soda, seltzer, or non-alcoholic ginger beer, mindlessly snacking on a bunch of popcorn or cheese late at night while my eyes were glued to a Netflix series. True, it wasn’t that good for me, but we can’t give up all our vices at once. This behavior worked through the same pattern of reward my brain is wired to seek – a bit of mindless and compulsive consumption. It helped me transition out of drinking, because I didn’t feel all that different while I was doing it than back when I drank. I was still able to engage in all the consumption I desired. There was just one fewer beverage involved. And I felt more able to cut myself off, without wine lowering my inhibitions.
When I’m hanging out with friends or strangers, I find it helpful to bring selzers or sodas – often something with caffeine and sugar. That way, I have a drink in hand to consume and don’t feel like I’m missing something. The caffeine and sugar keep my energy level up and on the same level as those drinking alcohol. Sometimes, I’ll buy myself a mocktail to fully get into the mindset that I am treating myself and deserve to enjoy something special. I still drink my fair share of coffee, too, and that gives me a bit of joy in the morning – which is definitely not my favorite time of day.
Rewarding yourself doesn’t have to be limited to food. Stay up late, watch too much TV, take yourself to the movies, sleep in, hang with friends, make art, read, go for walks outside! There are thousands of things you can do besides drink alcohol to create pleasure. For some people, activities that are more introverted will bring them energy. Others may derive an emotional “lift” from finding social outlets that don’t revolve around alcohol (Meetup.com, which I’ve mentioned before, is a good place to start).
The things to which you gravitate will depend on your own predispositions, but it’s quite helpful in early sobriety to “try on” new things and see if they stick. Make a list of things you’re trying and that you really enjoy so you can come back to them when you’re feeling down. As much as you can, make time and space to enjoy your life and take a break from all that is difficult. Give yourself credit, respect, and reward for all the hard work you’re doing.
Because of the nature of our reward orientation, we sometimes expect the world to reward us for our internal changes, like giving up alcohol. But this doesn’t happen. The world moves on and most people don’t notice or have room to show they care, busy enough on their own journeys. We must find ways to treat and reward ourselves, and to recognize our little wins, cultivating a grateful perspective and attitude. It can help to keep a gratitude journal and to participate in a recovery group or online community to get some positive feedback on your progress with people who are on this similar unconventional journey. You can find some of those communities here.
Sobriety can sometimes feel isolating. Because we’re in an alcohol culture, society won’t reward us for quitting. We have to create our own systems of reward and recognition, turning inward rather than looking for validation from the outside. But that can only make us more content and integrated people. Enjoy your sobriety, and reward yourself for it!