I have been struggling quitting drinking for an entire year. Through all the failures in quitting and trying to moderate I've learned a great deal about why I drink, the triggers, the people I feel best around and those who bring out the worst in me. This time I have resolved not to start again. I'm seeing a therapist, going to meetings, listening to podcasts, reading books, and searching endlessly online. I'm doing yoga almost everyday.
I'm now on day 6, for the umpteenth time, and I am determined to make this my last day 6. I know to a certain extent what to expect as I've made it two weeks a few times. But this time it is harder. I'm facing the truth about why I drink, and I see that there are some steep mountains yet to climb. I suffer from mild but constant depression. I live in New Orleans, a town where drinking goes with absolutely everything and is encouraged at every turn. I have to shed nearly all of my friends, and so loneliness is a big issue. I also have come to realize that not only was I in the wrong job (I lost it last year due to restructuring), but I am also in the wrong career. The thought of going back to it makes my stomach turn, and I fear that the mountain of debt I have accrued will never be paid. I need to move since the other folks in my house, a 4-plex, are quite fond of parties and have so far argued with me about wanting to be sober. How could I possibly have fun, enjoy the city, etc.
Here's my question:
How did you manage the first week and first month? I am trying to take things day by day, but I feel overwhelmed by the obstacles in my path including a fear of losing livelihood. To compound things I'm having incredible mood swings and nightly insomnia. I refuse to allow alcohol temporarily back in to fix the temporary loneliness or insomnia or fatigue as I always used to since I know it will take over and I'll be off to the races yet again. I am swinging back and forth between excitement about a new life ahead, one where I enjoy all of my senses and being healthy, and having a mountain of issues to face before that is possible. Things set me off in a big way. How long do mood swings, insomnia, and this constant dull headache last? What were the tools you used to get through everyday without drinking and still be productive in your work life even when you felt like you couldn't?
I know there's a new life ahead, but it is tough to get through everyday without resorting to just a little wine to get me over the hump. I've read all the checklists about creating a schedule, going to meetings, bedtime routines, etc. It falls flat sometimes. Any advice you have or links to sites that helped you would be greatly appreciated.
-Stuck at The Start
Hi, Stuck –
I’ll answer the question about practical tools, tips and advice, but first I want to address the bigger thing I get from your letter.
I recently read Rob Bell’s most recent book, How to Be Here.
In it, he talks about how for years, he knew he wanted to write a book. He’d written hundreds of sermons, essays, speeches, built a church, gone on tour, gave talks to thousands of people. But he hadn’t written a book and he wanted to write a damn book. He had more material than he needed. He’d built an entire life—supported himself and his family—on his ability to come up with ideas. There was a book in him. He talked, thought, dreamt about it; he had titles and jacket covers. But none of this stuff turned out an actual book. At one point he even hired a stenographer who sat in his office with him and listened to him sermonize. The guy wrote it all down so Rob could take his thoughts—now on paper, like a book!—and turn it into a book. But that didn’t work, either.
“All of which led to the shocking realization that if I was going to write a book," he said. “I was going to have to actually write a book.”
I share this because I sense after all the times you’ve attempted sobriety in the past year, even with all the good work you’ve done and are doing, even with the book you’re throwing at it, you still think you’re missing something that’ll allow you to actually do it.
But you aren’t.
You’ve got everything you need to do this.
You just have to write the damn book now.
I reached a similar point in my own path after I’d been at it for a year. I’d accumulated all the knowledge (probably too much), understood my patterns and triggers, had a good arsenal of tools and self-care, but still had trouble putting together more than a couple weeks. Because the truth was I still wanted to drink. As much as drinking had screwed up my life and my insides, I was still split about the thing: I wanted to be sober, but I also wanted to keep drinking in my life. And I rationalized it in 1,000 different ways because it was complicated. I was complicated, dammit.
So a big part of getting through that first stretch was realizing that no matter what my circumstances were I would still want to drink sometimes—maybe, possibly, for an indefinite amount of time. But that I wouldn’t…couldn’t do it…if I was to actually get sober. As my incredibly writer friend Kristi said so perfectly:
I’d been trying to kill the want. And now I didn’t give a fuck about the want. Now I only cared about killing the yes.
For the next week, month, six months, however long it takes, focus on killing the yes.
You’ve got a bunch of things working against you: New Orleans (gah), roommates, debt, stress, work, and the biggest whammy: an active addiction living inside your brain. You’ve also got a ton of things working for you: meetings, yoga, therapy, resources, and optimism, even if it is fleeting. You’ve got more going for you than a lot of people do when they get sober. So, you know…you’re special, but you’re not unique. And I mean that in the kindest, most compassionate way possible. I mean that to say, it’s totally possible to do this no matter what’s happening in your life.
There was a time in my last stretch of early sobriety—a banal, sunny Saturday afternoon when I was driving my daughter around doing errands—and I was trying to figure out what to do next. The familiar witching hour energy started coursing through me. In the past this is when I’d think up some plans that involved friends and their kids and, of course, drinking of some kind. A barbecue. A play date. Dinner at my house or theirs. Dinner at a restaurant. Time on the beach. My daughter and I had spent a lot of the winter holed in because I wasn’t comfortable doing anything without drinking or being tempted to drink, and I was tired of holing in. So was she. I scrolled through my mental list of options and nothing gave me relief.
In that moment, as I turned on the blinker and waited for other cars to pass—other families, normal fucking families, I imagined; people who probably didn’t have to consider what they were doing that afternoon with such exhausting detail; people who could just show up at a barbecue, eat a cheeseburger, drink a few IPA’s, go home, watch Netflix and wake up to take their kids to soccer—I felt one of the deepest waves of depression and loneliness I’d ever experienced, even though an hour before I’d been elated.
I didn’t want to be anywhere.
I just had to…be.
But then something hit me. I realized, in this ordinary moment that hurt so much: this is exactly how hard it’s supposed to be.
This is what it’s like to do the very hardest thing.
You are doing the very hardest thing and it’s supposed to be this hard.
I was in a women’s meeting last week and we were trying to pinpoint the difference between people who get and stay sober and those who don’t.
We came up with no magical, fit-all answer, because of course there isn’t one, but we all agreed the first part is really fucking hard and slippery. Like I said, I personally tried to over-understand it without actually having to quit, so when I read the thing Augusten Burroughs says in his book, This is How, it smacked me straight.
“In 100 percent of the documented cases of alcoholism worldwide, the people who recovered all shared on thing in common, no matter how they did it:
They didn’t do it.
They just didn’t do it.”
I wish I had something softer. I wish I could offer you six months of my own sobriety and all that came with it.
But the way to get through these first days is to not drink right now in this moment, and then keep doing that, no matter what, until it gets easier. And it will. It won’t feel fast enough, but it will.
In the meantime you have to give a middle finger to drinking and to everything that reminds you of drinking and everyone who wants you to drink and a society that rejects the idea of you being sober. You have to say no to everything that will keep you from saying yes to this, for however long it takes until the light comes on. You have to trust that the light will come on. You don’t let yourself make excuses and you have blind faith in people like me and you never, ever give up. You stay grateful and humble in the moments when it’s easy; you use all your tools and ask for help when it’s not. And when you hate it, you do it anyway.
And if you fall, you come, come again.
It may be worth mentioning when I got sober I also had six-figure debt. I was in the wrong career and couldn’t fathom a way out. I had anxiety that threatened to kill me every few weeks (still do, but better). I had months of unopened mail and a divorce I had to settle and some very real and in-my-face practicalities in my life that kept me from being able to hit pause. I experienced the same overwhelm that you described, but I’d used wine to get me through enough to know that it was a dead end. It sounds like you know that, too.
You asked how I stayed productive in my work life even when I felt like I couldn’t, and the answer is: I didn’t. I lowered my expectations of myself by about 1,000% and that was hard for me, but necessary. I established some non-negotiables and I actually stuck to them. I treated myself and approached all my decisions as if I was pregnant.
Because I know you want an actual timeframe (who doesn’t?), I’ll tell you this:
The physical part (headaches and such) cleared up within weeks, but I remained exhausted for many months. Big moodiness lasted several months too, but has evened (the truth is, though, my feelings are wide and deep and sobriety hasn’t changed that, I just have some space on them now). The obsession with drinking lifted in degrees over nine months. Now, I rarely have it and when I do, it doesn't have any real pull; I can see it for the futile carrot it is.
Progress was circular and messy but with each passing month the baseline shifted. Shitty today is not the soul-crushing shitty of two years ago. I can still have a bad day or week but I don’t lose my self-esteem and dignity.
If you stay sober and do the work, things will only get better—not because the outside stuff will change (although it might), but your insides will. Sleep will come back. Work will sort itself out. You will make new connections. Your depression will suck you in but it won’t kill you like drinking will. About your livelihood, my love: that is the prize you stand to gain ten fold. You will recover yourself.
Some Tips, Mantras and Books
Put a lot of Interrupters* in your life – people that will check in with you about your sobriety, who won’t let you fall off the map.
Tell everyone what you’re doing. This is obviously based on my own experience, but until I told everyone, I was leaving fire doors unlocked and escape latches open for myself and calling it something else.
Give yourself a break on everything else. I talk about this in detail in The Pregnancy Principle, but the gist is: let physical sobriety be the only measure of your success for a while.
Help someone else. This is why I go to meetings—because it gets out of my own head. There’s always someone with less sobriety than you and the way we get to keep this is to give it away. Even if you’re only able to offer a kind smile, that’s perfect.
Expect it to be as hard as it is. (As for friend Jon so eloquently put it, the first 30 days of sobriety are a cunt. It's true.)
Have blind faith it'll get better.
- I am, I am, I am. When things got really loud in my head, I close my eyes and repeat this. Tune into your heart beating. Go running or dance around until it becomes really loud. Then listen to it: I am, I am, I am. You’re alive, you’re sober, right now.
- Now, now, now. Whenever I started to future trip (how will I ever dig out of this? How will I possibly do this forever?) I would remember what my yoga instructor David said to one of my fellow teacher trainees when he confessed he was afraid he couldn’t stop drinking. David asked him if he was drinking right now. He said no. How about now? No. And now? Still no. That’s how it’s done.
- Acceptance is a small, quiet room. – Cheryl Strayed. Everything I feel about this as it relates to sobriety I wrote about here.
In addition to the 11 Books That Changed My Life, I would recommend:
- Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston
- Good Medicine by Pema Chodron (love the audiobook best)
- The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
*This is a term Annie Lamott coined.