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.

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.

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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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