The changes that come with recovery are both personal, as in emotional or psychological, and physical. We know now that we are both physical and psychological beings; the two ‘separate’ parts of ourselves may influence one another, overlap, converse. Know that and you can use it: if you are physically uncomfortable, use your thoughts and emotions to sooth, by watching a comedy, going to a meeting, or doing something you enjoy. If your emotions feel overwhelming, use your body. Exercise, take a hot bath or shower, power clean, eat some soul food. Take a nap or get out of the house.
Part of what makes recovery daunting is the unknown: we don’t know what to expect, and when things happen, we are so unfamiliar with them they feel threatening. Remind yourself that change is always scary. That doesn’t make it bad. Much of it is simply anxiety that will go away once you get comfortable; the more you fight it, the longer it will hang around.
But there is also much that is truly different. Alcoholism distorts who we are. Alcoholic is who we’ve come to think of as ‘self’, even though it’s a distortion. As you recover, you begin to feel, think, and behave almost like a different soul. What was scary isn’t so much. What was a bother isn’t a problem. But sometimes, learning to deal with fear, uncomfortable situations, or even the day to day without alcohol can seem overwhelming.
It is not overwhelming. It just feels that way.
The Personal Changes, what to expect
Fear, and Hope From the moment you decide, or even consider quitting drinking, you’ll probably ricochet between fear and hope like a tennis ball. Some people experience more of one than the other, but it’s fairly universal to experience both in quantities and ways you may never have before.
This is a good thing.
There is nothing, nothing more important in an alcoholic’s life than recovery. Of course, we have other parts of our lives. We may be students, family members, professionals. Those parts are central to who we are. We may be Christians or Muslim, athletes or everybody’s best friend. But I promise that none of these can mean much without recovery. I promise that what you will find in yourself is more strength, more joy, more patience, more skill than you ever really thought you had. Not in an abstract way: alcoholics tend to grandiosity and think they’re a bit better than others, smarter or prettier or have a better shot at wealth and success if only the cards line up right. That is not the kind of hope I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is real. You do not even know what you are capable of. You have no idea how much and how deeply you can feel. You have no idea what a good person you are.
But none of that will mean anything, you won’t ever know, unless you get some sobriety.
You have some thread of hope in you, even when you feel hopeless, despairing, and lost. Those feelings are common to early recovery. For the most part, that’s why we come in. We don’t try to quit drinking when everything is roses. We try to quit when we want to lay down and die. Realizing you are an alcoholic is a very dark and lonely and shameful place to be.
But the core of hope is there. It’s what dragged you in the door. It’s what made you think, even on a very small and quiet level, that maybe you can change. Allow yourself to feel down and dark, but also nurture that hope in you.
Life is better than you know. You are better than you know. People kept telling me “you don’t have to feel that way anymore”. People told me I could change. I didn’t always, or even very often, believe them. But I was able to take them at their word.
And I’ve come to realize they didn’t even know the half of it.
Nurture your hope. There are things you can do: listen at meetings, and talk to people afterward. They are amazing people, often it’s hard to imagine that they are actually the same people who lived the stories they tell. Ask for their stories. With each one, try to make some mental note, even if it’s a sarcastic, weak one, telling yourself you can, too.
Fear, though, is also common. Common, and completely healthy. You should be afraid, if you’re doing this for real. If you honestly pay attention to what you are learning about alcoholism, it should scare the hell out of you. If you honestly look back at your own life, you may come to see how many times you nearly died, or nearly hurt someone else. You will hear people talk about these things: killing children while they drove; ending up in jails and prisons; attempting suicide; losing custody, jobs, wives. You will realize, if you stick with the honesty, that there is no reason that didn’t happen to you. You are not any smarter, more gifted, more talented, or less far along than these folks are. You just got lucky. And if you drink again, you may not be. Eventually, you will not be.
The best you can hope for, in going back to alcohol, is that it will only be as bad as when you quit. That is as good as it gets. It doesn’t ease off, or get easier, or become more controlled. It will be as bad as it was. For most of us, it will be worse.
That’s your choice.
But the sense of ‘new life’ is also scary. We are big failures. We’ve failed, disappointed, and given up in many different scenarios in our lives. We come in with much shame, more than a little self-loathing, and very little trust in ourselves. To think of having to live – to fix our mess, or apologize, or simply go back to work – might scare the hell out of you.
It is scary. But you are brave enough to have come this far, and that is, honestly, the hard part. Just because a thing is scary doesn’t mean you can’t handle it. You can. And if one thing doesn’t happen to work out, you’ll come to find other options. Sobriety does that. You suddenly see choices where you used to feel pressure. Practice breathing, don’t beat yourself up for being afraid, and do the best that you can.
The best that you can is all it takes. Most days, all that needs to be is not drinking, moment at a time. Most days, you’ll accomplish a hell of a lot more than that, in spite of yourself.
You have nothing to fear. But you have to try to know that.
Many things that wouldn’t normally be hard may be hard, especially in those first thirty days. Even, maybe especially, the routine, everyday kind of things. Family is a trigger for many. Work. Doing our ‘usual’ things without the ‘usual’ drink can be extremely uncomfortable.
Just remind yourself that you are uncomfortable. You’re not failing, you’re not bad, this isn’t rocket science. You’re just uncomfortable.
I had a really hard time cooking. Often, I drank while I made dinner. Not all the time, so you wouldn’t think it’d be a trigger. But it was a time when my mind could wander, and the repeated motions reminded me of doing them in the past, and the very nature of waiting for a pot of water to boil, or the frustration of a tightly bottled jar, became terribly anxiety producing things. More than once I collapsed on the kitchen floor, crying. More than once I walked away from a half cooked meal, or without doing the dishes, because I simply couldn’t handle it. I had a girlfriend who destroyed her crock pot. She beat it against the counter. Not just a few times, but smashed the things to pieces.
We both laugh about this now. It is funny. But half of its being funny is also because it was terribly, terribly real.
Do what you can. But also go easy. Realize that the first month might surprise you with emotions, fears, sudden tears or anger. If you can’t handle cooking, don’t. It will get easier. Just get through the day, however you can.
Alcohol also brings up a lot of fear. Simply being around it can make us uncomfortable and frail. I had a friend get married when I was two weeks sober. I considered not going, but I went. I was crawling in my skin during the whole reception.
This was silly. First of all, the reception was a brunch. No one was really drinking, except one of my friend’s uncles who quickly became a laughingstock. But I spent the entire time tremendously aware of the bar, and all the bottles lined up there, and how close I was to it.
I sponsored a girl who got sober in the summer. Each summer, her family hosted a tremendous Fourth of July barbecue. She grew more and more stressed out about it as it approached. I kept reminding her that she didn’t need to go: her getting sober is a very big deal; missing the event might bother her (or her family) a little, but that bother was nothing in comparison to the reward of getting clean or the cost of a relapse; she could return to the event next year, and years after, in a very different and better place; chances are she was worried about not showing more than anyone else was.
There are other things you can do:
- Bookmark: go to a meeting or call a sponsor immediately before the event, and have a plan to go to a meeting and call again immediately after.
- Have a fan club: let other people know you’re sober, and that you may be uncomfortable. Have a signal for “I need to leave”. Just having the signal may make you feel better, and not have to actually use it.
- Find the other sober people. No matter what the event, even if it takes place in a bar, there is (or should be) another sober person there. Even if you loath the person, buddy up. Make note, from time to time, that the person is still there and not drinking.
- Watch how others drink. Some people find this an eye opener. Either the silliness, stupidity, lack of co-ordination and sense appears ridiculous, or, as with myself, I quickly realized that no one else was drinking the way I drank. They leave glasses unfinished. They sip. They are capable of going to a show to actually listen to the music. The first time I went to a bar again, I went to hear music. I watched. People held onto one beer for over an hour. They didn’t rush up to the bar again as soon as it was empty (or, like me, almost empty). I realized I would have had eight drinks in the time it took these folks to have one. Clearly, there was something wrong with me and getting sober was a good idea.
You will have urges to give up. Expect this, try not to let the urge unsettle you. Just notice when it happens and shake your head.
The best way to deal with this urge is to build up accountability. Go to meetings, and make commitments while there to go to another the next day. Get a sponsor. My sponsor had me calling three other sober women every day, just to check in. People know that you are just checking in, and expect it. You do not have to have anything to say. Just make the call. You do not have to remember who, exactly, is connected to all the phone numbers you have. I had a girlfriend that regularly called people she didn’t remember, just had numbers for, and never really talked to again. There is nothing wrong with this.
It can be hard to reach out. It feels vulnerable, and it goes against what we’ve taught ourselves for so long. We might feel needy.
This isn’t true. It is a fact that every time you call someone, you are leapfrogging their own recovery forward. It can be hard to feel or understand this in the beginning, but it is true.
I also heard a woman speak on how she realized, one day, that not calling is not an act of politeness or strength, but a sign of pride. Who did she think she was, that she shouldn’t call the people who had reached out to her? Who did she think she was, that she should be stronger than they were?
The urge to quit usually makes us retreat. It makes us not want to call. It can be sneaky, telling you that you don’t really need to call today, or that you just went to a meeting yesterday and certainly don’t need another one right now. It can tell you you are busy, and tired. It can, as it did for me, manifest as a desire to constantly go to new meetings, rather than seeing the same people. That way, no one would notice if I didn’t show up. It maintained my distance.
Again, be aware that you will probably think and feel this way and be prepared to meet it. Eventually, you don’t have to be so thorough. Eventually, you don’t have to go to a meeting every day. But if you sincerely want to get sober, a hour a day is the best shot you’ve got. You do not have to do anything. You don’t have to look nice or take a shower first. Just do whatever you need to do to get there.
Many people talk of meetings as magic: we dread them, we feel exhausted, we think we’ve heard it all already and are sick to death of them. No matter how you feel before the meeting, you will leave feeling one hundred percent better. This is true if you are in a good mood: you’ll feel even better. And it’s true if you’re low: you’ll walk out changed.