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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

two people sitting on a bench, photo taken from above
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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

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

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What happens on non-drinking dates?

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

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

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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.

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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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Breaking down stigma

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

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

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

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

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Why we drink and why we quit

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

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

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

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

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The history of social norms surrounding alcohol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to combat stigma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Dana G

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