Two years ago today I was sitting on a flight with a stage five hangover. You know, the kind where you’d cry if there were any moisture left in your body? When the beverage cart came by, I did something I’d never done before when given the option to order wine – I asked for water.
Ever since then, I’ve kept this practice of choosing water, or coffee, or anything other than alcohol. I’ve kept this practice of saying yes to my health and well-being.
Over the course of these past two years, there have been thousands of little micro-learnings and signs that keep supporting this decision and effort to stay sober. However there are 2 things that stick out the most – these are the biggest things I have learned over the course of the past two years without alcohol:
It’s Important to Release Shame
With the benefit of hindsight, I can see now how much shame I was regularly subjecting myself to while I was drinking. Maybe I wasn’t to the point that I needed to pour myself a drink in the morning when I woke up, and sometimes I could go months without having an issue. But one thing was clear, when it came to alcohol, I didn’t have the ability to feel when I’d had enough. I always wanted more.
In the comments section of my first post about sobriety, some people asked why I don’t just use self control:
Why not just drink one then? I can do that. I just have self-control.
Throughout my whole 20s I thought that it was just a self control issue, too. This is the most misunderstood thing about alcoholism and is quite damaging advice to give to anyone who is struggling.
I’ve never felt more relieved than when I started reading Living Sober and learned that it was never about self control (they will give you this book for free in AA, by the way, but you can buy it here if you’d rather read it on your own). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition, affectionately called “The Big Book”, also refers to alcoholism as an obsession mixed with an allergy, and this rings true for me: The obsession that next time it will be different, and the allergy of not reacting to the substance in the same way that others do. Isn’t that why some of us become addicted to food, technology, love and attention, or porn? We are all wired so differently, and while some can have self control and healthy boundaries, others never had that ability.
The other piece of shame came from hiding my sobriety. I was afraid that I would be judged for being unable to handle alcohol in my life – perhaps because I judged myself so harshly about this. But I’ve been so amazed to find that time and time again, people are nothing but impressed. I never saw that coming!
Their reactions are what helped me to accept and appreciate that the sober path is actually the path for strong people. People who are willing to remove a crutch. People who are willing to feel life full on.
Now I am in the driver’s seat. I don’t wake up with towering dread anymore or see a woman in the mirror who I’m ashamed of.
In my previous post about this, I skirted how big of a problem alcohol had been for me and didn’t dive into the program I used to get sober, but I don’t want to wear any masks now, and even though it’s an anonymous program, I feel keeping it a secret doesn’t help anyone.
After some coaxing from a friend in the early days of my sobriety, I went to an AA meeting, dived right into a 12 step program, and attended Refuge Recovery (a Buddhist approach) meetings too. I got a sponsor in Berlin and went to a meeting almost every day for the first three months of my sobriety. Sometimes I cried in meetings, I expressed how difficult it was, and I was met with so much support and love, it was incredible. The 12 steps helped me get brutally honest with myself about where I was in denial, and through all of my spiritual practices in life, this has been the most profound. Even as someone who struggles with the ‘God’ word, I was able to put my feelings towards it aside so that I could get the other benefits the program had to offer. I honestly think everyone would benefit from a 12 step program. It’s about radical honesty with yourself and righting your wrongs. Russell Brand does a good job of explaining it in his book, which I recommend on audio.
Going to the first meeting is scary, but once you’re there it can feel like home. If you don’t like the first one, try again. There are many different formats and it took me time to find the ones I liked best.
It also helps me to look to women I admire who are sober. Gabrielle Bernstein, Brené Brown, Natalie Portman, and recently Anne Hathaway have all spoken about their decision to quit drinking. Here’s a list of rock stars, too. I love how they all work to destigmatize it and this is partially why I’m being so open today even though it scares me. This brings me to my second big realization:
Feeling Our Feelings is Beautiful
During the first few months after I quit drinking and smoking, I noticed how sharp I was becoming. The brain fog lifted and I became much more in tune with my body and my emotional state. I had never realized how much I’d been messing with my ability to listen to myself before.
Around this time I got more deep into meditation and spiritual practices. There was a space, a void left behind, and I knew I had to fill it with something else. I learned about breath work, Tantric practices, and Emotional Freedom Technique. I still get stressed, I put myself down and things upset me. Since I don’t choose to reach for a glass of wine, whiskey, beer, or anything anymore, I have to use other ways of getting through it.
Now I feel the pain. I sit with it and I allow it. In Buddhism one of the Four Noble Truths states that things are ever-changing and impermanent. I know that when pain comes up that it will not be forever. I also know that growth is often preceded by great struggle. But I don’t want to hide from any of it anymore. I feel fortunate that I feel everything fully now, and I don’t have to question if my emotions are real or caused by a come-down. I’m happy to report, by the way, that my anxiety pretty much disappeared after I quit.
I’ve also learned to feel more love and compassion. I have days when I am PMSing and struggling and things are not going well, but more often I’m able to approach people with equanimity and patience. I just assume that everyone is doing their best, or if someone is aggressive, I’ve learned not to take it personally. When you’re steadfast and you’ve done the work to understand yourself and to be compassionate towards others, what other people do to you matters a lot less. You know it’s really about them, not you.
I have so much more time for myself these days, exponentially more money, and more confidence than ever. I know I owe that to sobriety. I owe that to myself. That feels really damn good.
Maybe this all sounds too good to be true or like I’m floating on a cloud, and sometimes I feel that I am. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to feel more joy than sorrow these days. All I can do is share my own experience.
And I know that I’m never really out of the woods. Addiction is seductive and every now and then a fantasy enters my mind that I could party like I used to for a weekend. That it would be fun and consequence free, or when things are hard that I could just disappear into the underbelly of Berlin for a while. Maybe I’d never come out.
That’s why I just take it one step at a time. It used to be impossible to imagine giving up alcohol for my entire life, and sometimes I lament that I won’t be having wine in Italy or craft beer in Portland, and I wish that it would be different. That I could be “normal” like those who can have just 1 or 2 and for whom it’s not a problem, but that’s not the hand of cards I was dealt and it’s not worth it to pretend otherwise.
Here’s a final thought that I found beautiful in my early recovery: In order for shamans to truly become a shaman, they must heal themselves first. I used to feel victimized by my pain and my story, but now I look at my struggle and I feel gratitude for it. Without suffering I would never have sought to heal, and I’m so grateful for this journey.
And if you’re reading this looking for an answer, all you have to do is decide not to drink today, and make the same decision tomorrow. Know that you don’t have to do it on your own, and to know that it is totally possible.
You’re stronger and more capable than you think. You’re never too broken.
Today I celebrate 2 years. I hope that in 20 more, I’ll be writing a post like this again.