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.”

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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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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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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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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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

cozy reading nook with candle
Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

Traveling While Sober

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.

Batalha Monastery (Portugal)
Batalha Monastery (Portugal) by Dana G

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. 

Douro Valley views (Portugal)
Douro Valley Views (Portugal) by Dana G

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.

Bucaco monastery (Portugal)
Buçaco Monastery (Portugal) by Dana G

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. 

Sambadrome Procession (Brazil)
Sambadrome Procession (Brazil) by Dana G

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.

Cafe Amelie (New Orleans), edited with Prisma
Cafe Amelie (New Orleans), edited with Prisma by Dana G

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.

Rio Carnival (Brazil)
Rio Carnival (Brazil) by Dana G

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.

Buçaco Palace (Portugal)
Buçaco Palace (Portugal) by Dana G

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.

Escadaria Selarón Mural (Brazil)
Escadaria Selarón Mural (Brazil) by Dana G

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.

Rio Negro (Brazil)
Rio Negro (Brazil) by Dana G

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. 

Batalha Monastery (Portugal)
Batalha Monastery (Portugal) by Dana G

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!

–Dana G

Cabo da Roca (Portugal)
Cabo da Roca (Portugal) by Dana G

Rebuilding Identity

“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.

mural of people dancing and having fun
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

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.

woman standing in front of colorful joker paintings
Photo by Court Cook on Unsplash

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.

woman looking at crystal ball with upside down reflection
Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash

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.

hand painted in rainbow paint colors
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

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.”

people with long shadows walking on a road
Photo by Tom Barrett on Unsplash

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.

–Dana G

sunny grasses
Photo by Kent Pilcher on Unsplash

Importance of Community

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.

Blurry photo of people walking in a city
Photo by mauro mora on Unsplash

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.

people with long shadows on the beach
Photo by Frederik Højfeldt Nielsen on Unsplash

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.

crowd walking in a city
Photo by Vitaliy Paykov on Unsplash

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. 

two people holding hands on bikes
Photo by Everton Vila on Unsplash

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 are virtual 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. 

three birds flying in the sky
Photo by Chris Briggs on Unsplash

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.”

sunset light under a dock
Photo by Daniel Olah on Unsplash

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.

–Dana G

two hands forming heart with sun in the middle
Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

Treat yourself!

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.

puddle with bright blue and green colors
Photo by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

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.

rainbow-color ferris wheel
Photo by Hannah Morgan on Unsplash

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.

neon sign that says eat what makes you happy
Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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.

two people holding sparklers next to one another
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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!

-Dana G

six blue and pink donuts
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How much should I share?

When you quit drinking, you don’t do so in a vacuum. We interact with people day in and day out. We find ourselves in situations at work, weddings, celebrations, and more where alcohol is present – often for free and sometimes without limit. It can take a lot of patience and practice to figure out how to navigate situations like these, and to interact with other people who still drink – some of whom you may know well, others not at all. 

Let’s face it – most of us want to be liked. And that can be a challenge when you’ve decided to do something like give up alcohol or go vegan. Some people aren’t quite comfortable around sober people, or may perceive your decision to be a judgment upon their own behavior. That said, remember that you are not responsible for other people’s feelings, discomfort, or reactions if they ask why you’re not drinking and you’re compelled to respond. You are free to say as much or as little as you want about your reasons for being sober, and you can guide the conversation.

two people talking next to one another by a window
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My best advice is to avoid being self-righteous or prescriptive about your decision to steer clear of alcohol. But if you’re comfortable talking about your experience, do it with those who are interested in hearing about it. Like many things in life, I’ve found that the best way for people to become comfortable with my sobriety is to project confidence in the way I talk about it. Communicating about your sobriety openly also contributes to breaking down stigma over time. The more people talk, the more it becomes okay to discuss the ways alcohol isn’t always a magical elixir. It helps make sobriety a valid option for people who need it, highlighting in our collective consciousness that it’s an inseparable component of alcohol culture.

Though you shouldn’t have to put other people at ease, the tools in this post are intended to help you do just that, taking the focus off the fact that you’re not drinking. As a quick side note, we also have an inflated sense of the amount other people think about us. For everyone else, the world centers around their individual experience (the “spotlight effect”). They care primarily about what others think of them, and are mostly looking at you in relation to what it says about them.

two women with each other's hands over their eyes
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Whenever alcohol is directly offered to me, once I say “I’m not drinking” or “I don’t drink” (or even “no thanks”), it seems like everyone’s next question is “why?” Everyone thinks they have a right to know my reasons. Though that can be frustrating at times, it hasn’t gotten too old for me yet, so I usually answer. I communicate certain things to my best friends, other things to my family, try to get a read on strangers before determining how much I want to say, and say very little to coworkers and some other individuals. I have my own reasons and comfort levels, but I’ve also found that different people respond better to different ways of talking about my sobriety. I’ve started to develop a sense of what kind of reaction I might get based on my relationship with them and their own demeanor. I’m not always right, but it helps.

Sometimes I simply say that I gave up alcohol for physical and mental health, and leave it at that. Other times, the conversation will evolve naturally, and I’ll talk a bit more about how I wasn’t always in control and got tired of doing things I regretted. Most people know that’s a widespread experience and move on. There could be hundreds of reasons you’re not drinking – medication, illness, pregnancy… you don’t owe anyone your truth, unless you wish to share it. It may be worth spending some time reflecting on your reasons for giving up alcohol, determining how much you want to say (or not say) to different groups of people in your life.

blank journal with pen on wooden table
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As social creatures, we navigate the world by asking ourselves if we are like or unlike other people. Because of this, many people turn the conversation about why I’m not drinking back onto themselves, and why they think they do or don’t have trouble controlling their alcohol intake. I usually let those people talk through their perspective without guiding the discussion, as I don’t have a way of knowing whether they have a problem or not. If anything, I’ll mention that for me, quitting was a good idea, but that not everyone needs to. I find myself saying that a lot – “not everyone needs to.” That seems to help people realize I’m not trying to project my lifestyle onto them. 

Inevitably, some people who have reservations about their own control over alcohol will take your decision to quit as a personal threat to their ability to drink, becoming defensive. In those more awkward conversations, I again frame my sobriety as a personal decision, something that was the best decision for me – not something I’m necessarily recommending to them. I usually keep it short and let the conversation move elsewhere. Most people know whether giving up alcohol is something they should consider. It’s not up to me to tell them that. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you can “save” people – most people need to decide on their own, when it’s best for them, if they are someone who needs to quit. If someone is immediately defensive, they aren’t likely to want your advice.

group of people at sunset with reflections in sand
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Weddings and other celebrations can pose a particular challenge, especially when there’s an open bar. A large part of American culture is tremendously hedonistic, and the idea of someone choosing not to consume alcohol that’s free and unlimited is not only off-putting, but insulting in some people’s minds. Your abstaining can be seen as threatening to take away something that’s helping other people relax and deal with social anxiety. In reality, alcohol is ubiquitous – it isn’t rare or exclusive. Your decision to forego it poses no real threat to anyone else, and those in your social circle will quickly realize that. I sincerely feel that with time, as the stigma surrounding sobriety is reduced, it won’t be seen as such a big deal to stick with seltzer or soda – even in this culture.

At events like these, you may encounter friends and family you haven’t seen in a long time, and others who don’t need or deserve much detail about your reasons for abstaining. You can always simply say you’re “not drinking,” offering up a reason like being on an antibiotic or challenging yourself to a “dry month,” if you don’t want to start a conversation about your sobriety. 

wedding reception setup
Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

Situations like this may call for the trusty coozie, and for ordering selzers or sodas that no one needs to know are non-alcoholic. If you already have something in your hand, it’s less awkward to turn a drink down. Most people don’t care what you’re drinking. They just want to see that you have a drink in your hand. It helps them detect a sense of community that supports their own drinking. In my case, having some caffeine and sugar also helps me to stay energized and enthusiastic – to really enjoy being there, socializing, and dancing. It helps to come prepared with a coozie and a few non-alcoholic drinks, where possible.

To sum up, I’ve noticed three categories of response types when I mention that I’m not drinking. First, there are the tense and standoffish people who don’t ask much at all, and usually find a way out of the conversation entirely. Second, there are the folks who are “cool with it,” often people who feel in control of their own drinking behavior or who know others who have gone through this, so they’re at ease talking about it. Finally, there are the people who are well-intentioned but a little defensive, turning the conversation to themselves – but these conversations can often be redirected with a bit of practice. Very few people have been openly rude to me, and in the cases where that has happened, I bid them good riddance.

If you’ve given up drinking, I wish you the best of luck in any social encounters involving alcohol that are headed your way. I’m sure other non-drinkers have interesting perspectives and strategies for navigating these situations, as well – I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

-Dana G

two women talking in a beautiful landscape
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Joy and the pink cloud

The first few months of sobriety can serve up a whirlwind of emotions. At first, you may feel tremendously vulnerable and uncertain. You might be working to push past a “sticking point,” to fend off the strongest initial cravings and find something to do with all this free time. You may not have decided whether sobriety is something you want to maintain permanently, and worry that if you go too far, you won’t be able to return to drinking with the same blithe and carefree attitude. Concerns about commitment certainly troubled me, but I told myself this decision wasn’t necessarily forever. It was just something I needed to do for the foreseeable future (whatever that meant – I kept it vague).

Whatever challenges your initial experience presents, what comes next emotionally for many who have transitioned from heavy drinking to sobriety is referred to as the “pink cloud.” This is an early phase familiar to many in recovery that can last for days or even weeks. All the emotions you’ve been systematically suppressing with alcohol come flooding back – most noticeably, the positive ones. Your brain starts to observe the world more clearly, to digest and respond to its stimuli with only its natural neurochemicals. It begins to heal itself, overactive in its firing of new neural connections. You feel almost manic, filled with youthful energy and high on life, like you can do anything. There just isn’t enough time to get it all done, and what’s worse, you’ve been wasting all these years steeped in alcohol.

Road sign indicating curvy roads ahead
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When I was in the steamy center of the pink cloud, it was as clear as daylight that alcohol was the root of my problems, rejecting it the one thing I needed to do all along. I was blind, but then I saw. Sometimes I would have a moment of powerful clarity, as if I was experiencing something the way I would have as a child. I barreled my free time into the creative pursuits I was passionate about long before alcohol came into my life, like music and writing. I felt like I was pushing toward some sense of long-lost purpose, uncertain of what that purpose was – which made it all the more compelling.

I had all the agency, elation, and sentimentality in the world, and just had to figure out what to do with it. Weird emotions arose. I felt like I saw the tragic beauty of the human condition – how we are trained to bury our sorrows in alcohol, which fueled our tremendous ecstasies and our dark delusion. I felt high and mighty, and wise.

Pink cloud against blue sky
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The pink cloud is essentially a manic state, with heightened emotion and arousal. Though it starts off with a rush of positive emotions, it can lead to things like overconfidence, denial, arrogance, impulsiveness, unrealistic commitments, and idealistic expectations about the sober life. But it feels really, really good – especially when it arrives at the end of a period of depression and dependence.

When my pink cloud passed, I got bored and frustrated. The idea that sobriety was always going to feel so good was an illusion. Now that this brief high was over, I started to question my decision to stop drinking, wondering if I would ever have the same amount of fun, euphoria, and social connection I felt with alcohol. I felt disappointed, and for a while there, a bit depressed.

you got this written in chalk on sidewalk
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Coming down from the artificial peak of the pink cloud threw a serious wrench in my once-clear path of sobriety. What helped me get past this lull was listening to audiobooks about the psychology behind drinking and the benefits of quitting. Understanding the complex and deeply ingrained role alcohol played in my life clarified how I needed to be patient with the neural makeover going on in my head. I came to accept that this was good for me, that I was worthy of happiness and healing. So I stopped questioning my decision to quit, and waited it out. Lo and behold, there were brighter days ahead. I found emotional equilibrium not all that much farther down the road.

I was lucky to push past the lull and see the greater things to come. For many, the manic nature of the pink cloud leads to overconfidence – to developing an inflated sense of agency around all things in their life, including drinking behavior. This is the point when a lot of people return to alcohol. They may feel they’ve recovered enough from their dysfunctional drinking patterns to reward themselves with just one drink. It’s also a time when many stop attending care or recovery groups, thinking they must not need those, feeling as good as they do. But counseling and support networks are critical at this point to help manage cravings and the triggers and temptations that surround us every day.

people with umbrellas on crosswalk
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If this happens when you’re trying to stay sober, you don’t have to think about drinking again as a “relapse” – it’s often just a “lapse”. What matters is not the amount of time you’ve stayed sober, but the accumulated insights you’ve gleaned from your combined efforts to become sober. You don’t lose that wisdom just because you have a few more drinks than you intended for a night, or several nights. You can pick up where you left off – and many people learn something about themselves they wouldn’t have otherwise.

It’s not always easy to focus on self-compassion longer term growth. We are socialized to think of sobriety as this huge commitment that’s only for people who have a “real problem” and are completely out of control. So lapsing on your sobriety can make you feel like a huge failure. But part of learning is slipping up a few times. We accept that readily in other parts of our lives, but are hard on ourselves (and other people) when it comes to drinking and sobriety. It takes time, effort, and often a few slip-ups – lapses, not relapses.

Broken rainbow llama pinata
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There are a number of things you can do to help prepare for the passing of the pink cloud, even in the midst of enjoying its benefits. You can work on mindfulness and appreciating balance – not relying solely on emotional highs to feel good. Rekindle interests you may have lost. Music and poetry helped fill my time and channel my energy. Perhaps reading, journaling, sports, or travel would benefit you. It helps to stay active, change up your daily routine, and avoid triggers. That might include avoiding old drinking spots, conflict, poor eating habits, stress, or staying up late. Triggers differ for everyone. You may not need or want to give up your friends who drink, but you can also foster new friendships with people who don’t drink to find encouragement, advice, and acceptance.

Long after the pink cloud parted ways with me, and I adjusted to the reality of life’s ups and downs with a more humble spirit, I became aware of the shifting nature of elation. My joys today are not the same as that feeling when everyone has had a few drinks – a euphoric connection, a heady interpersonal bond, immediate pleasure and relief from anxiety. Now, they’re a slower build. They arise from quality time and dedication spent in creative pursuits, overcoming anxieties by pushing myself, and taking in the beauty (and even the ugly) of the world with a clear mind.

Starry sky seen through a canyon
Photo by Mark Basarab on Unsplash

I wouldn’t say the things that now give me emotional and intellectual “highs” were foreign to me before giving up alcohol. But it feels like I’m fostering the more gratifying, hard-working pleasures in life. If you think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I feel like I’m cultivating the upper levels more than I ever have. I’m developing more enriching social bonds, my self-esteem has largely repaired itself, and I’m building creative habits that I believe will serve me well in the long term.

Many feelings situated in that hierarchy are not easier – especially at first, and especially in the social realm. I am literally missing out on certain activities with old friends. I don’t go out with them to bars and parties nearly as often. But I have found my way to be present and engaged when I do attend. Your sense of social identity may become muddled when you give up alcohol, but there are countless ways to adapt, the topic of a later post. The joys I experience today feel so much better and are worth the challenge of getting here. And they don’t give me a hangover.

-Dana G

Woman holding smiley face balloon
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