4 Amazing (and Unexpected) Benefits of Sobriety

No doubt there are some big, obvious benefits to being sober that just about anyone can appreciate, even those of us who don’t fall into the dreaded “problem” zone. No hangovers, check. No “oops” texts to your ex-lover(s), awesome. No booze bloat, wahoo. No chance at a DUI, sweet. And then there are the more deeply personal and life-saving advantages for those of us, like me, who struggled really hard. No crippling anxiety, for example. No eternal cloud of shame hanging over your head. Newfound energy. Remembering your life. Not putting yourself or others in life-threatening danger on a regular basis.

Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about the benefits I never expected. The things I wouldn’t have imagined or predicted—the more subtle but profound shifts that have really changed my life.

Sitting in Post Office Square, Boston - June, 2015

Sitting in Post Office Square, Boston - June, 2015

The sacred pause.

I don’t recall a time in my life where I had space between feeling something and reacting to it. Or feeling the potential of something and reacting to avoid it. Certainly at the end of my drinking I was like a feral cat, running like mad on top of the furniture to avoid touching the ground, any ground. If someone said something critical, or I even suspected they might, I panicked, flipped, and then (usually) drank. If intimacy was creeping too closely in on me, or my favorite friend Rejection reared it's head, I threw bombs to avoid whatever the impending threat was, and then (usually) drank. There was no buffer between the feeling and the reaction—sometimes it felt like a negative buffer, like all I could feel was the shock of pain, real or imagined.

Now there is a space—a sacred pause, however small—between what I’m feeling and how I react. It’s nothing short of a miracle. First, because I’m not anxious and full of shame all the time, I stand a shot at allowing confrontation or criticism in my life without it vaporizing me, and second, I can actually feel something and not immediately react. It’s not perfect, but it’s there. I understand my feelings about something aren’t the absolute truth. I understand—at least intellectually—that other people’s feelings have nothing to do with me (holy shit, is this ever huge), and I can actually sit in discomfort without immediately drowning it out.

Time has expanded exponentially.

I knew I spent a good amount of time drinking, but I really didn’t understand how much time and energy I spent with alcohol, whether I was drinking it or not. I wouldn’t have admitted it, but alcohol controlled my thoughts more or less constantly. Even if subconsciously, I always knew when the next drink was coming, and I needed to have those things on the mental map. Parties, girl’s nights, after work drinks, book club, Sunday Funday.

When I was feeling good about drinking, I wanted more opportunities on my calendar. When I wasn’t feeling good, I wanted to create some space between them and thinking about the upcoming events would stress me out. Do I need to control how much I have? How can I be sure there will be enough? Who’s going, and how much do they drink? Should I do something before, and what about after? Can I navigate the next day hungover?

And of course, there was always the release of knowing wine was there for me after work. I always had a close tally of how much was in the house, where I could get it, and when. I wouldn’t have admitted to doing this math, but I always, always knew.

My plans revolved around alcohol. I would never commit to something too early on a Saturday or Sunday, just in case I was recovering (I was always recovering) and I certainly wouldn’t make plans that didn’t involve alcohol at some point. No play dates without it, no brunching before noon, no joining up with people who wouldn’t be cool with drinking freely, and no activities where booze wasn’t allowed (a movie on a Friday night? Pfffft.)

So it wasn’t that I spent so much time actually drinking, but I spent an absurd amount of time and energy organizing my life to accommodate it. All of it, really.

When I was faced with sobriety but didn’t really want to get sober, I was physically drinking less, but the time and energy spent thinking about it actually increased. And the questions changed. Now it was: Should I go? If I go, should I drink? Who will be there and do they know I’m supposedly not drinking? What’s the risk if I black out? What’s the max possible damage that could be done? Can I go and be sober (the answer was usually a “fuck no, that sucks”)? And on, and on, and on, and on.

It wasn’t until I dropped the ghost completely, until I removed it out of the mix of possibilities, that I started to reclaim my time and energy. Now there are big, beautiful, expansive pockets of time in my life—even though I am actually doing more. There’s space and calm, even in the busy-ness of everyday life. I can ask myself how I actually want to spend my time instead of it being perpetually driven by drinking.

I can access the life I'm living.

Not too long ago I attended a meeting and a woman my age spoke about the last days of her drinking, looking around at her life—the beautiful daughter, the loving, supportive husband, the gorgeous home they built, the career she’d progressed through—and as she said, “none of it was accessible to me. I had built this beautiful life and I couldn’t feel any of it.”

This hit me hard. I know the exact flavor of that troubling distance. That was me, too. I would have said I knew joy, love, appreciation, gratitude, and connection, but I didn't. I knew facsimiles of these emotions. I understood how they should feel, but they didn't touch down in my heart. I thought drinking made me feel things more, not less. I drank to celebrate, to experience, to enliven, to turn up. I drank to create space between me and pain, fear, doubt, anxiety and regret. I didn’t realize you cannot selectively numb out your emotions. I didn’t realize I had also killed my joy.

I know what real joy is now because I can look at my daughter and see her. There aren’t unnameable layers between me and others. I can see you. I can see me. I can access the life I'm living.

Fun looks different. Fun is so much more fun.

This may sound obvious, because my idea of fun had to change, right? Yes and no. Yes, I had to change my playground and my playmates, for sure. But I didn’t expect to actually like it. I didn’t expect to like doing the things I like doing now. I didn’t expect to really, actually like things that didn’t involve drinking.

My parents gave me a hard time in my teenage and college years because I was always looking for the ‘next party’ or the ‘next good time’…and I rolled my eyes then, because okay, what’s so bad about that? But I see now that I was looking for fun, initially, but at the end I was just looking for what I thought fun looked like. I was looking for what society tells us is SO MUCH FUN. I was looking for the fun in what used to be fun but was no longer fun and hadn’t been for a long time. I was trying to squeeze the last drips out of the fun rag that had been so dry for so, so long.

I had no idea how to really have fun anymore.

It has taken time, and I’m still figuring it out, but I’m starting to learn what it is I actually enjoy doing. My fun looks a lot more like being content now. It’s pretty simple. Probably more quiet. Maybe less raucous, but not always. My fun bubbles up now from the inside, it seems, from silly joys like coloring adult coloring books and finding some obscure Sylvia Plath reference in a new book. My fun comes from seeing how I can write something differently, or pushing my body in a new way. My fun comes from feeling what makes my soul tickle and hum, instead of throwing myself from one loud, boozie situation to the next. Sometimes my fun looks like a glorious, untimed nap.

I would love to hear what your unexpected benefits have been, so please comment below. In my next post I'll share the unexpected challenges in my journey.