January 30, 2023

I’m Only Human: 11 Lessons from Sobriety.

May 21, 2020. The day I found myself on the edge.

I remember the words, “I did it again,” running through my head.

I felt an incessant pulsing behind my eyes; I felt my thick, dry tongue taking up too much space in my mouth. Sensation and sound came flooding in—not quietly layering themselves into my consciousness as I roused, but thundering in like a crowd of noisy shoppers on Black Friday. 

“Oh, right, I’m a mom. Those are my four children waking up. They need me. They need me, and I’m still drunk, and I can’t move.”

Because I couldn’t recall, my husband reminded me that I drank two bottles of wine the night before and broke most of the third; that we got in a fight I didn’t even remember; that I should probably check my phone for text messages sent. As I took inventory, I felt pain, anxiety, a racing heart, a pounding head; I was weak and nauseous.

I hated myself in the mirror: bloodshot eyes, swollen fingers, dry skin, bloated belly, and parched lips. Under my skin, I had the bone mass of an older woman, my skeleton weak and brittle from my autoimmune Celiac disease, compounded by years of alcohol abuse. I woke up ashamed, exhausted as hell, sick and tired of my own bullsh*t.

I made a choice that day. I told myself, “No more.” But if I’m truly honest with myself, I had made that choice and told myself that very thing countless times before; it had yet to stick. The raw memory of the last hangover always lingered long enough to keep me sober for a week, maybe two; the lure of alcohol and its promise of a fun time was too strong to keep me away for long.

Alcohol was an escape from the responsibilities of adulthood and motherhood. It was a fast-track to connection with my husband. It was a reminder of simpler times, of fun we had as a young couple. Four kids later, I needed this more than ever, because the reality of young children can feel suffocating at times; alcohol was like a “get out of jail free” card.

Except I was so far from free. I was weighed down by a substance; I was reliant on a fickle friend. This friend first courted me in high school; it latched on early, specifically during my junior year in 2003, and my still-developing young brain naively invited it in. The relationship deepened over the years, it kept a hold on me through college, into my “fun 20s,” into my 30s—how long could I keep making excuses for it? I became a sucker for its siren call, blissfully ignorant of just how enslaved I really was.

During yoga teacher training in 2015, the lead teacher offered a journal prompt: one desired life change. My pen hesitated over the pages, hand shaking, instant sweats. After a few moments, that felt like an hour, I wrote, “I don’t want to drink anymore.” I slammed the journal shut quickly to hide the truth. I had butterflies from my gut to my throat. I never told anyone. I made sure to keep the journal stashed away from any curious eyes. I don’t even think I opened to that page again, for a long time.

Of course, five more years passed between writing those words and actually doing something about them. Five years of denial, blackouts, casual lies at doctor’s appointments that I was an “occasional social drinker.” Five years of planning my life around binge drinking and hangovers; I couldn’t teach class on Sundays because that was my recovery day. Of course, the Sunday hangover rolled over into the next day, and I showed up exhausted and bland to that Monday evening class. Five years of covering up the truth, of pushing my body to its limit; five years of crippling anxiety, sleepless nights, and guzzling coffee to get through. Of unbridled eating to try and soak up the alcohol. Five years of empty promises to myself, shame, and regret. Five more years of pretending, and posing, and smiling anyway.

I wish I could put my finger on exactly what made May 21, 2020 so different. But if I could, surely I would have utilized its power much sooner. 

That’s what’s funny about being human. We can know what’s good for us and still choose to ignore it, possibly for years, possibly forever.

I was, as I have since learned, a “gray area drinker,” a term coined by Jolene Park. Gray area drinking is characterized by pattern of use and abuse that is not quite at the level of alcohol dependency. It may be characterized by periods of sobriety, followed by periods of bingeing. It is the commitment to drinking that steals the rest of the day away. It is saying “just one glass,” that turns into the whole bottle. It’s laughing at drunken mistakes, only to make them again and hope no one finds out. It’s the kind of drinking that can be easily hidden, all the while is silently chipping away from the inside. The kind that’s not really talked about much—but, goodness, needs to be.

Whatever it was about that day, sobriety finally stuck. I started out replacing booze with local soda, with kombucha, with ice cream, and delicious desserts—whatever I needed to to get by. I relished every morning that I woke up clearheaded. I counted every single day. I made it to one week, then two, then 30 days. The promise of the next morning kept me going. Ninety days was the longest I had ever gone sober before; on day 91, I celebrated with a bottle of wine. But this time I made it to 92, then 100, and next thing I knew it was May 21, 2021, and I had gone a whole year. To me, that marked the point of no return. It has now been over two and a half years.

Each day that passes brings more clarity. Here are some things I have learned along the way:

1. Addictive behavior doesn’t just disappear.

Regardless of the level of use, any behavior or substance that cannot be controlled consciously equates with a level of addictive behavior. It’s seeking pleasure externally to fulfill an inner emotional need. It’s the mentality of “if some is good, more is better!” I couldn’t stop at one drink, ever. So, once I kicked the booze, I sought pleasure and fulfillment in other behaviors.

For a while after getting sober, this manifested as compulsive online shopping. I knew better, and I hit “buy now” anyway. Once I saw this pattern in myself, I began to recognize how it has manifested in different ways, throughout my whole life: social media, food, and food restriction, to name a few. It’s part of my psyche. I am good at latching onto things and holding on for dear life. Therapy, support groups, journaling, meditation, can all help with this phenomena, which is known as “addiction transfer.” 

2. Once I gained clarity on my addictive patterns, I learned how to use them as a superpower.

If I had been so consumed by and fixated on damaging behaviors, could I also be consumed by and fixated on creating healthy patterns? The answer was, yes. I eventually started exercising more often, beginning with runs, walks, and, for the first time, a daily yoga practice. I slowly cleaned up my diet, actually realizing cues of hunger and satiety.

More recently, I have started following a consistent strength training plan that has helped me rebuild my bones back to normal levels, and as an added perk, I have better posture, less pain, and greater self-confidence. The obsession with drinking slowly shifted to an obsession with waking up every morning feeling as good as possible. I learned to channel my addictive tendencies into a deep passion for body awareness and the pursuit of wellness. I now choose the term “dedication,” which implies a conscious choice.

3. Alcohol brings a rush of pleasure and a temporary release of anxiety; other things can too.

Music with a strong beat, pounding the pavement, and challenging my body with strength work, all bring a natural endorphin rush and lasting “high.” I embrace my human nature and my need for this feeling of pleasure; the hard part is to feed it through healthy outlets. Find something that works; get hooked on it.

4. Befriending failure is key.

If I had a dollar for every time I woke up and said, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” and for every time I did it again anyway, I would be rich. I failed, over, and over, and over, again. I failed myself. I failed my husband. I failed my kids. But, I had to keep failing, and hating myself for it, in order to try again. Failing is part of my story. So is starting over. Both are necessary to make any lasting change.

5. Social media can be a friend here.

I joined sobriety Facebook groups and followed sober Instagram accounts. I lurked in the shadows for a while, reading others’ words and finding solace in the knowledge that I was not walking this path alone. They can be places of comfort.

6. Don’t lurk in the shadows forever.

Alcohol abuse brought shame and silence. In order to finally leave it behind, I had to find my voice. Around day 44 of sobriety, I posted a selfie and introduced myself to an audience of strangers in a private Facebook group. Like I had done in yoga teacher training all those years ago, I took ownership of my truth. I finally felt brave enough to share my story, and in doing so, began to free myself from the dark corners of my past.

7. There are times I wish I could go back to how it was before.

It was fun; there was danger and excitement. In spite of its messiness, it felt easier somehow. Easier to not care, to check out now and then. Because now I have to actually be present, and I have to feel things. Like, feelings. When anxiety does hit, I have to navigate it. On sleepless nights, I’m just alone with my thoughts, wondering why. When motherhood frustrates me, I have to lean into it.

I don’t have social lubricant; actually talking to people is hard for this natural introvert. When things feel monotonous, I keep doing them anyway. I can’t drink away any aches or pains; I have to recognize them and work with them. Things get uncomfortable. I have no escape hatch. The truth is, though, that even the hardest day, sober, is infinitely better than a fun day drunk.

8. The siren call of alcohol never goes away.

There will always be times when I hear its call loud and clear. Cooking with my husband while music is playing, sitting outside in the summer at a backyard cookout, holidays, which used to be my “drink all day” days, date nights, or weekend getaways; these are hard, and probably always will be. Thoughts creep in. “It’s okay, I could just have one,” or, “My kids aren’t even around, so what does it matter?” But then I quickly remember the black hole that I will spiral down, I remember that last morning’s hangover, and so far it has kept me away. One day at a time.

9. I can move forward and transcend patterns, but my past will always be part of who I am.

Two and a half years later, I still have nightmares about being drunk. For those first few moments upon waking, I experience panic that I’ve failed again. Before I even open my eyes, I do a quick scan because I’m sure I’m horribly hungover. Then comes the wave of relief when I realize it was just a dream. These have lessened over time, but they still come. Potent reminders of the choices I’ve made.

10. I am not anyone else, and they are not me.

Once I owned my truth, I started telling everyone. Usually this is met with support; sometimes with judgement, or caution. Sobriety doesn’t always have a place in our culture. Talking about it has created more awkward moments than any other kind of conversation has. Others may feel the need to defend themselves or their own alcohol use. They may want to know why. They may feel the need to tread lightly. After all, I must have been a full-blown alcoholic. My work is to release any judgement of these responses. Their story is not mine; my story is not theirs. I have only to answer to myself.

11. Sobriety is cool.

I’ve laughed more, remembered everything, felt the sun on my face, and enjoyed deep, restorative sleep. As a family, we have more money for things like ice skating, adventures in the city, meals out, and day trips to new beaches. I have read books, played baseball and frisbee, gotten dizzy spinning in the field, flown kites, and tried rock climbing. The connection with my husband now comes in the form of heartfelt conversation, meaningful touch, and laughter until our sides hurt.

My sobriety shows me, every day, that life, at its purest and simplest, is full of surprises and challenges to be overcome. Not to mention that being the only sober person in a room can be quite entertaining.

It’s hard to let things go—even when those things are no longer needed. Putting on a strong front, even in the depths of pain, is a human strength, and often a point of pride. But the longer a heavy load is carried, the dead weight intensifies exponentially. After so many years, my arms were tired, and my fingers were fatigued. Eventually, there was no choice but to put it down.

I’m on my knees, every day, with gratitude.

So now where do I go? Surely transformation is an unending process. My work now is finding softness, releasing the “all or nothing” mindset that accompanies these addictive tendencies. There are times for drawing hard lines; for me, this boundary has to be drawn around alcohol, forever. But, there are also times for softness.

I’m used to beating myself up for my failures. I am good at assigning shame to any decisions that aren’t “perfect.” So, my work is learning to see that missing one workout at the gym or one morning of yoga does not equate to a failure. If the house is a mess, or I stay up too late watching a show, I am still a worthy person. Eating an ice cream cone does not ruin all the work I’ve done, nor is it a reason to feel guilt.

Life exists a spectrum. I am both light and dark and all shades of gray in between. I have found strength; now I must learn how to simultaneously hold the truth of softness. I trust that, like everything else, this takes time. Sometimes it helps to widen my perspective, and reflect on just how far I’ve come. 

And, I am forgiving myself for taking so long. Transformation cannot come until the uncomfortable, raw edge of transformation is reached. Sometimes, that takes 17 years or longer.

After all, I’m only human.

~

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