Creating Drama to Conquer Trauma

The inspiration for this blog post came in the wee hours of the night, while I was scrolling through Instagram instead of going to bed at a reasonable time – as so often happens with my overstimulated “night owl” mind. In doing so, I was fed an enticing confluence of posts… well, two, to be exact. The first was from a psychoanalyst who described what we can do to resist a strange phenomenon called “repetition compulsion.” (Don’t worry, I’ll define that in a bit). The second was a reel from @therapyjeff about the feeling of loss that can accompany settling into a romantic relationship after the honeymoon phase dies down.

The result was me tying everything back to patterns of heavy drinking, like I often do, and furiously typing ideas into the Notes app on my phone before they escaped me.

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So, how do these things come together?

Setting the Stage with Booze

I’ll get to @therapyjeff later on. First, I’ll need to describe “repetition compulsion.” The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines this as a concept from psychoanalysis involving “an unconscious need to reenact early traumas in the attempt to overcome or master them. Such traumas are repeated in a new situation symbolic of the repressed prototype.” It sounds a little wonky and convoluted, but this is how it works…

Traumas often lead to deep-seated and long-lasting fears, like the fear of abandonment, failure, or loss of autonomy. That fear (counterintuitively) can drive us to seek out situations of chaos and danger because they create a turbulent environment that resembles the one where our traumatic experience took place. Our fears, hurt, and anger have kept us stuck in trauma’s aftermath. By rekindling this dynamic, we prepare ourselves with a stage on which to reenact our response to the aggressor, another chance to do something where we once felt powerless, in the hopes of triumphing over whatever it is that threatens us.

You can find out more about repetition compulsion here.

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A very straightforward route to creating this kind of chaos comes via alcohol. It’s a path most of us are unconscious of even setting foot on, as heavy drinking creeps up on us, entrenched in our culture’s coming of age. If we have unresolved trauma, particularly from childhood or adolescent development, it’s easy to fall into a cycle where we compulsively repeat both heavy drinking and the self-destructive behaviors that accompany it because doing so creates a tense environment that suggests the opportunity for change.

When we fail in effecting that change, we try and try again. But the pain and fear originating from past trauma persist, sometimes elevated due to the new consequences of our well-intentioned but ill-directed behavior.

One of the hosts of my new favorite podcast, Petty Crimes, described how alcohol can make it blatantly obvious when someone is going through something difficult, causing them to get belligerently drunk and to project their hurt onto those in their immediate vicinity. It’s clear that they lack attention where they really need it. They’re almost screaming for notice – forcing others to contribute that missing attention by taking care of and cleaning up for them.

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In the case of myself and many women I know, relationship or breakup-related pain can give us cause to drink and act out – but pain and anger related to traumas rooted in family relationships, death and loss, discrimination and marginalization, and other factors can also lay the messy groundwork.

Scratching the Dark and Stormy Itch

Looking back, I can see that in my heavy drinking years, I was trying to overcome the shattering sense of abandonment I’d experienced due to a breakup that impacted me in a way that I can only define as deeply traumatic. In its wake, I drunkenly sought out romantic entanglements that without fail led to rejection, hoping against hope that someone would pull through and give me the sense of security and validation I so deeply lacked. Instead, I only led myself to experience that rejection pain over and over again… and to do or say other things I regretted as a result of alcohol myopia.

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At times, I felt the fresh (albeit, soft) breath of empowerment at the back of my neck when I moved on from someone without a feeling of unrequited desire. That was all the soothing I needed at the time – just enough to nudge me onward in the same compulsive cycle. More often, I was out there conducting the “petty crime” of getting obnoxiously drunk because there was a gaping void inside, and I wasn’t well-versed in healthy ways of expressing that or fixing it.

In the long term, compulsive repetition didn’t work for me – and it rarely works for anyone else. Cycles only feed themselves. Recreating traumatic situations by acting out in unhealthy ways increases the salience of the pain we’re trying to overcome. It reinforces an ugly pattern. We’re scratching an itch, and the more we do it, the more infected it gets.

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Heavy drinking tends to fuel the pattern. It’s very difficult to break out of repetition compulsion without quitting or cutting way back. Despite my most desperate efforts, I didn’t come close to resolving or triumphing over any of my earlier traumas until I gave up alcohol. Only sobriety could provide me with distance from that pain, giving me enough clarity of mind to break free from the vicious cycle.

This pattern of creating turbulence has been difficult for me to escape. Even now – though I do it in much smaller ways, and in my head, through rumination. I also occasionally self-soothe by catastrophizing and imagining myself mistreated by loved ones or strangers. There is a sort of righteousness in feeling wronged. But I’m aware of this tendency, where it came from, what it serves and what it doesn’t. I understand the cathartic nature of the exercise. I can acknowledge these thoughts, contextualize them, and move on. Still, the effects of trauma don’t leave easy.

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Self-reflection isn’t always enough to get over this pattern. Doing so may require a support group, therapy, or other means. I’m a believer that therapy is a good option for just about everyone at some point in their lives. I participated in both a Smart Recovery support group and individual therapy for a year or so after quitting. And I don’t think I would have had as smooth, as enriching, or as enlightening a transition to sober life if I had gone about it on my own.

Stretching Our Way Out of the Doldrums

Back to @therapyjeff… it’s here where I start to see a lot of parallels between what he describes as a lull of boredom and disillusionment after we’ve been in relationships for a while, and what happens in sobriety after we come down from the initial excitement of the “pink cloud.” In both cases, things tend to settle into a more regular rhythm. Like those who’ve experienced war, leaving the toxic environment of drinking or the early stages of a developing relationship – often as chaotic as they are exciting – can lead us to feel jaded and disappointed. Many people start to feel an unexpected sense of loss or grief.

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With sobriety, we also give up our simple source of generating the tension we relied upon to work towards triumphing over our fears. We must deal with those fears and the traumas that created them directly. This is harder… and scarier. But it’s also more effective.

Stability is the aim of overcoming trauma. But when it arrives, it may not feel like the nirvana we expected. At least not permanently. When the sameness sets in, we sometimes miss the stimulation and euphoria of drinking or the honeymoon phase with our partner – the acute desire, the drama, the ups and downs, the unknowns, the story ever unfolding. We resent our new steady path, forgetting the hurt, desperation, and anxiety that often accompanied the earlier chaos.

Periodic boredom is a given. But we can create a spark in healthier ways and have fun with that process. Getting outside of our comfort zone can help us to add novelty and grow in ways we never imagined, gaining a real, lasting sense of empowerment and self-efficacy, as opposed to the facsimile of stability we sought through reenacting our fears and traumas on the drunken stage.

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In my case, this has meant writing, learning a new language, joining interest groups to push myself out of introversion and broaden my connectivity to others, and other exciting adventures that I’ll leave for my next post. What constitutes novelty and getting outside of one’s comfort zone will vary. Stretching the self is an independent endeavor, contingent upon what motivates and challenges each one of us.

Of course, just as with our limbs, flexibility takes time. We must be careful not to overstretch in the early stages of sobriety. For some changes, like starting new relationships, transitioning jobs, or moving long distances, the results are unpredictable. While our self-image is still healing and vulnerable, failure can hit us hard. So proceed with a healthy amount of caution, especially at first. With consideration of risk and your own resilience. With sober baby steps.

But do proceed, as getting out of your comfort zone can open new worlds of possibility. And this innate resource of ours will be critical when the lull of sober normalcy hits.

Challenging Ourselves Toward Empowerment

When confronted with fear or reminded of trauma, turning to negative coping behaviors or crutches like alcohol may seem easier at first. But it will, almost without fail, route us toward heavier drinking and the vast extended family of self-harming behaviors that accompany it.

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Fear is an inherent and inescapable human emotion. When we recognize that and cut off destructive inputs that only make it worse, we can define our own, healthier coping mechanisms. We can seek security and safety in more constructive ways. With heavy drinking and its toxic friends out of the picture, we’re able to create chaos elsewhere – by challenging ourselves with pursuits in other realms like the creative, intellectual, athletic, and charitable.

Sobriety allows us to create new identities for ourselves and to nurture previous ones that were drowned out by booze. What’s more, we develop a personalized and reliable accelerator to help us through times of boredom and disillusionment.

The repetition compulsion isn’t unique to heavy drinkers, but it’s certainly common among them. Everyone experiences some degree of fear. Regardless of whether we drink, it’s critical to find and nurture our own healthy spark to combat it. For those with trauma to overcome, challenging ourselves provides us with a way out of the chaos loop, a path forward. And that is where we create a real, lasting sense of empowerment.

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Four Years Yada Yada

As each year post-giving up alcohol passes, it feels less… worthy of celebration. Yes, I’m glad to have made it this far. But I don’t think it’s much of an accomplishment, compared to year one or year two. Sobriety is much easier for me now. Day-to-day avoidance of alcohol is my “norm.” I rarely think about booze or my decision to relinquish something once so compelling.

That doesn’t mean life, as a whole, is easy – I’m still grappling with work, health, happiness, and you name it, like everyone else.

I hesitate to post about sober-versaries because they feel a bit self-congratulatory. They could also discourage people who haven’t had an easy time with sober-continuity. I don’t want to imply that my way is the only way. Plenty of people move in and out of alcohol sobriety, never actually want to quit in the first place (and instead just cut back), or otherwise vary on the spectrum of drinking less. Just because I needed to stop completely doesn’t mean I should go on bragging about the fact I’ve kept up with it. Frankly, it’s boring.

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Anyway, here we are… at four years. I’m sharing this, after all, because I do think (or at least hope) it might inspire some who are in the consideration phase of cutting back or quitting. Throughout my 20s, I knew I had a problem but wasn’t ready to do anything about it. I was stuck in limbo, worried that sobriety would kill my social life and leave me in a depressive rut with no path to rebuild my self-esteem.

At some point, a few loose acquaintances started to announce their sobriety on social media. Some of them were people I never realized had a problem. But now, they seemed to be doing great, as if they’d discovered new life. When I read their honest, brave, and stigma-flouting words about their past experiences, I recognized unhealthy patterns in myself. I knew that one day, I, too needed to stop. The only question was when.

When I finally decided to cut ties with the beast, I was shocked by how many realizations struck me, particularly during my “pink cloud” – a distinctive and powerful high that occurs in the first few months after quitting. Being a writer, I was compelled to document my new awareness. And I’m still in tune with most of those early insights.

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Writing Less

It’s a writer-friendly fact that sobriety remains a part of your everyday consciousness for the first couple of years after quitting, giving purchase to both creativity and catharsis. But at some point, even the writer starts to lose momentum. Sobriety drifts into the recesses of your brain, and the rest of your life – good and bad – moves to the front.

My everyday stresses and anxieties are perhaps a little louder now that I’ve stepped off the pink cloud… but I’ve honed better tools than alcohol for dealing with them. And I have my peaks of happiness and joie de vivre, as well. Things are good. They’re normal. Sober is just a fact of life.

I’ve been sharing my experiences less here and less via poetry, my other lover. I’m very busy. Or so I say. The unflattering truth is that Netflix is just more compelling than the pen after a long day of work. And maybe I’m more relaxed now in my sobriety, so the realizations are coming less, my mind moving on.

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Whatever it is, I simply don’t feel as compelled as I once was to devote my free time to writing. That said, it’s been bugging me for quite a while that I haven’t shared anything new. I haven’t “checked in,” as they say in Smart Recovery.

Checking In

A friend who is trying out sobriety for a few months told me, “It’s nice to wake up without worrying that you might have said or done something horribly offensive.” A clear head, a clear conscience, and no hangover. It’s a wonderful feeling for someone who has seen the other side. What’s more, to get off the couch on the weekend and go outside before nightfall – and I don’t mean just for Gatorade. How radical!

It makes me sad to think how many days I lost to miserable hangovers – to my heart thumping and stomach twisting, feeling ashamed and worthless due to murkily memorable behavior, wanting to collapse in on myself like a star stuck in the night, finally calling it quits, burning out.

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Around people who’ve never had a problem drinking (of which there are several in my life), I feel like I missed out on a great deal of learning and lived experience from which they benefited, developmentally speaking. Hours of conscious attention to detail, of staring into the brilliant eyes of the world as it is. I’m also sure I killed off a few brain cells and will never live up to my full potential. Yes, I know that’s not exactly how it works. The brain and the body are marvelously malleable. But feelings aren’t rational.

I’ll always hold some sadness in my heart about these perceived losses, let alone the ugly things alcohol kindled and the pretty things it suffocated in me. The way it dined on my insecurities, my need to please… my hunger for attention and validation… the poisoned fruits of my social upbringing as a woman. Then fed off its own carcasses, compelling me to act out on my insecurities, wallow in shame, and then drown that shame repeatedly in its liquid chokehold. Even today, I preserve a self-protective anger about the whole mean-spirited relationship, the hideous feedback loop that was so difficult to escape.

They say it’s possible to let go, to forgive ourselves, but I fear shame is a life sentence. Identity is a possessive beast. She doesn’t let go easily. “Who am I?” and “what have I done?” keep holding hands, in private.

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On Stress and Anxiety

Now, at least, I feel like I have a few things to be proud of. Not sobriety itself, so much, but the things I’ve been able to do now that I’m not so frequently wracked with guilt, shame, and acetaldehyde (the hangover chemical). I have learned to breathe, even when I’m stressed and anxious.

That has enabled me to step into new communities, share my writing, and speak up in areas where I once remained quiet. I’ve resuscitated passions that were dormant for years. I’ve awakened a childlike attention to everyday beauty, enchanted as the wind streams through my hair. (Okay, that last one is aspirational. But I have hopped on the occasional bicycle, so the wind part is there.)

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Best of all, my anxiety has a maximum volume that’s perfectly reasonable (hint: it doesn’t go to 11). That certainly wasn’t the case before. I still get anxious, but I’m cognizant when it’s excessive and can put things back into perspective without downing a bottle of wine (or two) and losing a day (or two). Which, in the end – shockingly – never seemed to provide resolution.

Perhaps I’m just not as worried about the outcome of my failures. I’ve already been to rock bottom, in my eyes. Maybe this blithe attitude is partly an outcome of aging. Whatever the case may be, I can plug along in everyday life, through distress and worry, without alcohol – which I’d never thought possible.

And Still I Write

Four years is no joke, and I know that. (Knock, knock. Who’s there? Four years. Four years who? Four years of sobriety.) See? Boring. Sobriety checkpoints aren’t that interesting. It’s the same dull material with every passing year.

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But with some context, and more detail on the complexity of the experience, sobriety checkpoints can become interesting… or at least informative. Four years has been enough time to have significant, transformative realizations about myself and about my life, past and present. The future remains to be realized.

The good thing about introspection and writing about oneself is that these realizations keep coming. And evolving, as we tend to do. There is always something to write about when I’m in the mood to reflect on sobriety and turn off the TV. These things don’t coincide quite as often now, but when they do, it’s very satisfying. Because of that, and because I think it’s important to share the full, multi-faceted picture of sobriety – not just the landmarks and benefits – I continue to write.

Journaling in public is more fun, more gratifying, and more challenging than journaling in the dark. Knowing someone will read my words makes me select them more carefully. It also makes this whole sobriety thing feel more purposeful. Trust me, there’s plenty of purpose in avoiding alcohol’s rotten breath in my life without this blog – but still, it’s a little extra something.

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I Just Want You to Like Me

Also, that writer-born and woman-bred drive to please and be validated… let’s be honest, it’s still there. But I’m no longer letting it derail my life by soaking my brain in booze. I’m channeling it.

So while I hope these words offer occasional help and hope to others – whether they’re reading for encouragement, out of boredom or sober-curiosity, or even to judge my self-disclosure – I mostly just hope (like me) that they’re good enough. Along with the poetry book I’ve been trying to tie up for years and will eventually share with you, if I ever manage to stop editing it. I’m shooting for fall.

In this sense, don’t be like me. But if you are, consider joining me in a pact to care less about how we come across. We can keep doing our best, but do it for ourselves – because it makes us feel our best. Also, whether your next year is sober, boozy, or somewhere in between, let’s focus more on how we’re doing on the inside. Let’s check in. Breathe through the anxiety, pay attention to everyday beauty, and feel the wind in our hair. That’s what I’ll be working on, until next time.

-Dana G

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Overcoming shame and self-criticism

I was inspired to write this post while listening to a new episode of the NPR podcast “Hidden Brain” called Being Kind to Yourself that explored the foundations and effects of self-criticism, and how exercising self-compassion can improve our lives and relationships. The episode featured guest Dr. Kristin Neff, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin.

As so happens when you’re listening to a really good podcast, I connected on a personal level. I’ve dealt with my fair share of self-criticism, not only back when I was drinking – but in my current life as well, from feeling like I can’t get everything done at work to worrying that I’m not focusing enough of my free time on my hobbies and self-improvement.

In this post, I dive into the science explored in this podcast episode and how it connects to my experience. Recognizing where my self-criticism has come from and its negative effects on my life, both then and now, seems like a good first step toward changing course and exercising self-compassion in its place.

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Where the inner critic comes from

We all do it. We make mistakes and then kick ourselves over and over – much more than we might another person who did the same thing. These could be big mistakes or insignificant ones, affecting other people or just ourselves. Either way, our inner voice criticizes us and steals our confidence, telling us we’re unworthy and deserve any suffering that comes our way as a result of our behavior.

According to Dr. Neff, the inner critic has its origins in survival. If you commit an error while fleeing a predator, critiquing yourself can prevent you from committing that same error again. Self-criticism is rooted in our fight or flight response and a desire to stay safe. But today, it shows up everywhere.

When we slip up, we feel threatened and not in control. Sometimes we react by fighting, figuratively speaking – trying to control the situation. Or we deny what we did and flee in shame, fearing judgement. We might also freeze and ruminate on our flaws, prevented from moving forward with our lives. Back when I drank, any time I recalled doing something regrettable like embarrassing myself or saying something that offended a friend, I found myself frozen the next day – or several days – in rumination and negative self-talk. Over time, that negativity compounded.

Shadowy image of the figure of a woman with hand over her face
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Culturally, we’re told that being harsh to ourselves is the path to self-improvement and accomplishment. And to some extent, that’s true. We can reach short-term goals by shaming ourselves into pushing harder. I find myself doing that at work, and even with things I enjoy – feeling like there’s never enough time in the day. I focus on all the things I “should” be doing at any free moment, from writing a poem to reconnecting with a friend or going on a bike ride, stressed that I can’t seem to do them all.

Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create, recently shared an excellent blog post about workaholism and how many of us feel we deserve joy only after we’ve done enough other things that we consider virtuous. As she puts it, “no matter how hard we work, or how good we are, there will always be the possibility that we could’ve worked harder, could’ve been better. As long as joy is conditional, there will always be a reason to deny it to ourselves.”

Computer screen that reads "do more" on an office desk
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Over time, shame and self-criticism can do more harm than good. Rather than creating more hours in a day, they make us feel like we’re not enough. And rather than learn from our mistakes, they cause us to dwell on what a horrible person we are for making them. That can eventually lead to depression and anxiety, which undermine performance, prevent us from learning and growing, and lead to longer term problems.

Self-esteem and shame

People derive self-esteem in different ways. Sometimes it’s external, built through ego, or narcissism at the extreme. That kind of self-esteem is validated when others recognize our attractiveness or success and want to be around us. But it’s just as easily shattered when we’re rejected or put down. This can lead to insecurity, making us feel angry, rejected, betrayed, and alone.

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At other times, self-esteem is internal, propped up when we behave in ways that align with our morals – morals like honesty, loyalty, reliability, and avoiding harm to others. It’s good to have morals and expectations for ourselves, but even this can be taken too far. When people driven by perfection feel they’ve fallen short, they can come to believe there’s something seriously wrong with them – that they’re uniquely bad people.

I’ve had all of these feelings during and after many a hangover, knowing intellectually that no one is perfect, but dwelling nevertheless on what a horrible, worthless person I was. This happened after not only the bigger mistakes I made but also small embarrassments that no one else would remember. Unfortunately, that thinking pattern has been carried into my sobriety. If I feel disengaged or awkward in social interactions, unprepared to speak up at meetings, or that I’m neglecting my interests, I kick myself – thankfully with much less intensity than when I drank. I’m much more able now to recognize this self-criticism and rein it in.

No matter where it’s sourced, self-esteem can be fragile. When it cracks, especially as a result of our own behavior, it can lead to a sense of deep shame. Unlike guilt, which is a recognition that we did something bad, shame is the feeling that we, ourselves, are bad because we’ve acted in a way that goes against our self-image. We feel inauthentic, split in two. It can feel excruciating – it can feel like death.

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This can lead to further behavior that exacerbates feelings of shame, creating a downward spiral. Out of anger toward ourselves, we might think we deserve the negative things that happen to us, and then enable those things further. Shame can be found behind a whole range of dysfunctional behaviors, from drug addiction to suicidal ideation and eating disorders. It certainly played a huge and cyclical role in the ugly lifespan of my drinking.

Art Markman elaborates on the difference between guilt and shame, describing how these feelings affect us in the workplace. Guilt can actually be a motivator at times, encouraging collaboration and pushing us to re-start projects that have stalled. On the other hand, “there is evidence that people will explicitly procrastinate to avoid shame. Feeling shame about work you have not completed is likely to make the problem worse, not better, making it an emotion that is almost never helpful.”

Effects on relationships

We typically hide our insecurities, projecting confidence and success in social settings – something many of us jump-start with alcohol, albeit temporarily and imperfectly. But whether we’re drinking or sober, self-criticism and insecurity often emerge in our interactions with loved ones.

Two people in shadows who seem to be in a disagreement
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If we don’t properly deal with the voice of the inner critic, it can agitate and overwhelm us. We might take our frustrations out on others, even unintentionally, perhaps putting them down to boost our own bruised ego. Or we might repeatedly fail to recognize how lucky we are for the friends and loved ones in our lives. All of these things can create tension and distance in relationships.

When we’re absorbed in shame and self-criticism, or over-focused on how unlucky or busy we are, we’re absorbed in ourselves. We may hope that our “woe is me” perspective of self-pity will elicit an empathetic response, but people simply don’t want to be around someone who feels hopeless, stressed, and insecure.

Two eggs in a carton with sharpie faces, one looking annoyed at the other's anxious face
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Recently, I’ve recognized myself musing more loudly on the negative around my partner – like how much I need to do and how I’m not spending enough time nurturing my hobbies and introversion. Yes, I’m busy and have some more stress in my life right now, which inevitably needs an outlet. But I can see how this pattern, this person, might become tiresome. So, I’m working to look for the silver lining, give more voice to the positive, take breaks, and step outside myself. So far, it hasn’t been as hard as I thought, but it does take some awareness, attention, and practice.

Practicing self-compassion

Self-compassion, contrary to how it sounds, means turning the focus away from the self. It involves talking to ourselves as if we’re another person, for we’re much better at being kind to other people than to ourselves. We forgive them and tell them everyone makes mistakes sometimes. Unlike self-pity, in which we wallow in the loneliness of our faults and misfortunes, self-compassion comes from recognizing our shared humanity.

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When we make mistakes, this means acknowledging that we screwed up, but then recognizing that we’re imperfect, just like everyone else. Not everything is in our control. We must work to understand what happened so that we can properly take responsibility but also learn our lessons and move on. I know I was terrible at doing this when I drank, which is why I got stuck in denial, shame, and feeling like my identity was shattered after my missteps. After quitting, it took months of deep personal reflection, therapy, and recovery group meetings for me to see that I was not unique in my errors or my pain, and that I had quite a lot to move on to and look forward to.

You can still feel guilt, regret, and pain – those emotions are important. In fact, we shouldn’t shut down our inner critic completely, as it stems from a place that senses danger. Ignoring it can make it even louder. On the other hand, ruminating incessantly on negative emotions and exaggerating what we’ve done can lead to stagnation, deteriorate our self-image, and encourage further damaging behaviors. This is the cycle that so often leads to alcohol problems, like my own.

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Mindfulness exercises can help most people accept that we’re hurting and comfort ourselves. Combined with focusing on our accomplishments, they can also help us put things in perspective. Meditation, deep breathing, and physical touch – even something as simple as putting your hand on your heart or face – can be useful when working through times of deep stress or pain, allowing us to essentially hit a reset button.

In the longer term, introspection, or looking closely at our mental and emotional processes, can help us recognize our human nature and its flaws, softening our inner critic. Like self-criticism, introspection involves “talking to yourself” – but in a way that’s contemplative and compassionate, not harsh and belittling. Introspection was an important part of my personal recovery, helping me to understand the feelings of rejection and shame that led to my decisions and heavy drinking.

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The benefits of self-compassion

Research shows that when we engage in self-compassion, a whole range of good things start to happen. First, we develop more emotional resources to learn from our behavior and do things differently in the future. By taking care of ourselves, we also end up with more room to be compassionate toward other people without burning out. We become more connected to others in the recognition of our shared imperfection, and even treat our relationship partners better.

Self-compassion leads to self-protection. It helps to diminish the unhealthy behaviors people engage in to try to escape pain, such as suicidal ideation, procrastination, and addictive behaviors. We eat better, sleep better, and practice safer sex.

When we tell ourselves to change because we care about ourselves, and not because we’re bad people who just can’t reach some unrealistic idea of perfection, we’re more positive and more motivated to change. What’s more, the people around us are encouraged to support us in doing so.

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This isn’t just a good lesson for those of us who are trying to give up alcohol or maintain sobriety. It applies to all kinds of harmful behavior we might be working to change, whether egregious or minute, overt or concealed.

Residual shame and self-image issues that follow us into sobriety can also make us more critical of ourselves as we deal with the stress of everyday life. This has been my experience – and I’m learning that a compassionate approach can have just as many benefits when managing these more mundane stressors, too. We are all worthy of experiencing joy and rewarding ourselves, regardless of all the work tasks or good deeds we haven’t yet accomplished.

Softening our inner critic and instead letting self-compassion drive our behavior can make us happier, healthier, and more enjoyable to be around. So why not try it?

–Dana G

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Re-entering a world that drinks

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

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

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Sobriety and introversion

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

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

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

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

Social gatherings in the opening world

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear and projection surrounding control

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

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

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

Getting back out there

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

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

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

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

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

–Dana G

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Grief over lost time and potential

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

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

image of a woman shot from the back with a train rushing by in the foreground
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The amount of time, and the opportunities that feel lost, vary greatly among those who’ve cut back or given up on alcohol. Regardless, this sense of grief can be tremendously painful – and it can feel impossible to make up for those losses.

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

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My own grief during the pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not about “fixing it”

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

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

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

–Dana G

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Free will and free fall: Alcohol myopia

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

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

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

What is alcohol myopia?

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

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

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

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

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

Myopia and free will

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

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

My Hyde

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

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

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

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

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

Reviving the will

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

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

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

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

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

–Dana G

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Dating without drinking, Part 1

The one-year rule

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

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

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Shore yourself up first

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

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

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

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

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

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What is it about dating?

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

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

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

Heeding the rule, but late

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

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

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

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

Read part 2 >

–Dana G

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Dating without drinking, Part 2

Finally, the dating

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

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

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

“Sure, but I’ll have a seltzer.”

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Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

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

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

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

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The said and the unsaid

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

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

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

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

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What happens on non-drinking dates?

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

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

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

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

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

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The easy and the not-so-easy

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

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

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

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

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

–Dana G

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Refocusing the narrative of memory

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

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

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The bad stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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The good stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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The full circle

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

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

–Dana G

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Feeling powerless

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

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

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

What can you do when you feel powerless?

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

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

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

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

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Alcohol consumption during a global pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moderating or eliminating alcohol consumption

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

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

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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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