Nine months after getting sober, I have finally started writing about alcoholism, addiction and my experiences with 24 years of substance abuse.
I waited so long to write about what, so far, is the most important thing I have ever done—getting sober—because it has taken nine months for my head to begin clearing.
I say “begin clearing” because sobriety is a complicated process, a progressive journey toward health, and it’s also a cyclical one. The sobriety I speak of is not merely being and staying sober physically. Real sobriety comes on multiple levels—physical as well as emotional.
I am not a doctor nor do I pretend to be a medical expert, offering complicated and cold descriptions of the body’s detoxification processes and then blandly listing the permanent conditions, corporeal and otherwise, that remain after physical sobriety is finally achieved—conditions that are souvenirs of decades of addiction.
No, I will not present you with carefully-measured scientific data.
But I can tell you how it feels.
After about three weeks of sobriety, I experienced alcohol withdrawal. My body took that long to flush out all remnants of the toxic alcohol stored in my cells. Fortunately, I was taking prescription medication for my other diagnoses, and though I was physically sick, shaking and weak, the hallucinations were not too intense. I detoxed at home, by myself.
Now I am dealing with the lasting effects that alcohol has carved into my brain. My short-term memory is poor, offering up vague images shot through with holes, like a sieve. Memories of yesterday are dull and weak, and last week’s experiences are stored somewhere in my brain but I cannot access them without great effort, if at all.
These days, a journal and carefully-maintained appointment book are not luxuries or presumptions. They are necessary for me to know where I have been and where I am expected to go.
Medical research has shown that chronic alcohol abuse does indeed harm various aspects and levels of memory. Specifically, alcohol damages the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls memory and advanced learning capabilities. Alcohol abuse causes the hippocampus to shrink as brain cells slowly die. Yes, the old joke is true. And, sadly for addicts, it is real.
Even more harmful to memory are repeated withdrawals from alcohol, periods that can be as short as a few hours for a chronic, daily drinker. Physicians, emotionless and impersonal, state that nightly cessation from alcohol while sleeping leads to withdrawal, typified by dizziness, weakness, and shakiness. I would say that, for an alcoholic, withdrawal begins in the hours after she or he passes out, rather than peacefully going to sleep. I had not fallen asleep naturally in years.
In addition to serious memory loss, medical researchers have found that alcohol abuse leads to learning impairment. The more complicated the lesson or concept, the more difficult it is for an alcoholic to learn it. This is bitter news for me—I prized my intellect, basing whatever fractured self-image I could piece together on my self-assessed superior ability to think, to reason.
However, there are positive aspects to this noticeable memory loss. For example, when someone displays an annoying lack of mental agility or acts rudely, if I stay busy then whatever unpleasantness occurred will soon drift out of my consciousness. I will forget it.
Not a bad way, actually, to live.
Another good thing about my cognitive function—or dysfunction, as it were—is that it encourages mindfulness. My poor memory forces me to pay attention to right now, the present moment, and live where I breathe.
So finally, I choose to accept what is, rather than struggling to mold the world to my expectations. So I have memory loss and reduced cognitive abilities. So what? I can still feed myself, walk, see, love. And perhaps the blinders that alcoholism has instilled in my brain will ultimately serve a good purpose. They will force me to focus only on what is before me in the Now and cut down on the countless distractions, including maintaining a self-image that was never real anyway. And this—this peaceful acceptance of life as it comes to me—is the foundation of emotional sobriety.
When the tremors passed and the cravings greatly reduced, the cyclical part of recovery continues. I have spent my life wrapped in alcoholic thinking, and my emotional recovery will not be quick. An apt analogy is the act of climbing up a mountain path, one that wraps around the mountain so that parts of it are in shadow and others are in sunlight. Some decisions I make do not yield positive results. Sometimes I am still afraid to make a decision at all.
The concept of action still unnerves me. Even though sitting still in a negative situation ensures I will get the same negative results over and over, at least the position is darkly familiar. Familiarity breeds some comfort, even through unhappiness.
But emotional sobriety is about continuing to climb, to move on through both shadow and light.
This realization comes to me new again every morning and throughout the day, when I seek it. Move on, move forward. And by doing so, even if I never reach my ideal goals, at least I will have achieved something more than I would have by sitting still. I will not be alone with my stagnation any longer.
And this change—this revival—is now something I actually want.
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