I was 23 years old when I hit an ugly bottom from years of alcoholic drinking.
Having begun my drinking career when I was just 14, nine short years of erratic, irresponsible behavior stole my dreams, severely limited my future, enlarged my abdomen, and bloated my face.
Paranoia, extreme fear of everything around me, constant anger, as well as a negative, pessimistic attitude created a vicious cycle of uncontrollable self-medicating abuse. All I wanted to do was drink. All. The. Time.
By the time I got sober, I realized that if life was fair, I would have and should have died from the many dangerous choices carelessly made without a second thought to anyone else. I didn’t care. My only reason for existence was to numb and escape from the deep emotional pain of my unhealed, unrealized childhood trauma.
As recovering alcoholics and addicts, we learn early on just how fortunate we are to find recovery through the Twelve Steps or other programs that support sobriety. It’s the start of a new life that can be more than we ever dreamed. Along the way, a few things were made clear to me.
When I felt emotional pain, had a problem in my life, or felt uncomfortable about anything in general, drinking wouldn’t change it.
For me, “drinking over” what bothered me was my go-to reaction to everything. In my alcoholic mind, I had a problem. The issue could have been as normal as the need to do my laundry that week, but I didn’t see it that way. Everything in my life automatically was categorized as a good reason to get drunk.
When we get sober, that mindset doesn’t simply vanish and won’t change until we change it. However, the tricky part of this rather obvious statement is how oblivious we are to it. In my early sobriety, I struggled with this example of alcoholic thinking. I needed help from someone else in a recovery support group (notably a sponsor) to point out what I was continuing to do to myself and then guide me to another option.
One day, I was at work and something happened that made me mad. As an angry person, not much had to happen for me to go from zero to sixty with rage. I remember calling my sponsor, praying about it, and reading affirmation books, anything to take my mind off of drinking as a way to feel better.
I ended up taking a walk, and during that time outside, I was struck with the idea that drinking would not change or fix what happened. Whatever the problem was, it would still be there when I sobered up. In fact, I probably wouldn’t even remember what I was angry about by next week. The moment of clarity literally stopped me in my tracks, right there on the sidewalk. I knew this was the truth. I did not drink that day.
Forgiveness was a paradox.
There was no doubt that I needed to work the Twelve Steps in order to stay sober and learn a new way of thinking and living. While working on Steps Eight and Nine, where we make a list of people we harmed, and then make amends to them (paraphrasing), something became clear. I wanted to hold on to all of my resentments (listed on 13 pages, both front and back), but in my heart of hearts, I really wanted to be forgiven by some key people in my life. No, this isn’t how it’s supposed to work. As my sponsor and I discussed my amends list versus my resentment list, I had to admit that I wanted forgiveness, but I was not willing to forgive. My hypocritical attitude changed from then on.
I am not what people are thinking about.
Nope. Another lesson learned when a good work friend lovingly set me straight. My paranoia was in full force the first few months of sobriety, and I shared with my friend how I thought everyone stared at me when I walked into our work area. To my surprise, she turned to me calmly and asked, “Who do you think you are that everyone would stare at you? No one is doing that.”
I remember being startled by her response but not taking offense at all. At that moment, I realized that she was right and I ended up thanking her for telling me the truth. The memory of her wise words is still with me to this day and was an important turning point in my emotional sobriety.
I could choose to practice gratitude instead of reacting negatively to a situation.
Gratitude is the healing balm for every alcoholic. The coveted attitude is not a natural response for any alcoholic in sobriety or actively drinking. We want to complain, play the victim, and live in a pity party 24/7. It’s part of that toxic mindset that justifies our drinking. But when we are sick and tired of living in an alcoholic wasteland, we learn that we can actually choose how we think instead of automatically being triggered into a reaction of negativity.
This marvel idea came to me one day during a meeting known as The Gratitude Hour. The meeting supported a different thought process of gratitude for all that we have or don’t have to do anymore. When people shared how they felt or what had happened to them, instead of the usual negative “poor me” discussion point, gratitude was inserted into the story and changed the whole situation. The more I attended this meeting, the easier it was to choose gratitude.
My mistakes didn’t have to follow me for the rest of my life.
The belief that we are our mistakes is toxic and dysfunctional. Many alcoholics walk around the world with this shame-based state of mind, which is a false reality and only arrests our growth in recovery. In my Step Ten work, a refreshing idea was introduced to me as part of my new way of living. I could make amends when I made any mistake, and then let it go. This was revolutionary for me! There was no need to carry the shame around with me. How many of us grew up in alcoholic homes and lived under such difficult rule? Too many.
Thirty-four years later, I still embrace these lessons as a sacred part of my recovery journey and share my story whenever I can.
Life can be wonderful, one day at a time.