themes of recovery: observations from two years of sobriety

Today, July 9, 2018, is my “soberversary.” It’s been two full years since my last drink. 730 days. 17,520 hours. Over a million minutes. Or something like that.

I’ve been chewing on a lot of thoughts about where I am in all this for some time, now. Even still, they feel incomplete. I know there is so much more to the story of sobriety–my story, and others’ stories. But what I came up with in this piece reflects some of the more poignant observations I’ve had about being sober for two years.

So, here goes: my observation of the themes of sobriety I’ve uncovered for myself in two years, in 4600+ words.

What, you didn’t think I’d keep it short, did you? 🙂

1) patience.

Almost anybody who gets sober can attest to the painstaking process of learning to keep your cool and remain patient during the first few weeks, or even months, of being clean. Our brains are firing at speeds we’re not quite used to and we’re trying our hardest to recalibrate how we regulate our emotions and our inner chill. And then some jerkward cuts us off in traffic, or the pizza place takes too long to get the order out, or we have a fight with our significant other, or the shoe store won’t take a return without the receipt, or our boss is a total asshole, or or or…and it all goes down the drain from there.

Patience. Most of us want it. Lots of us could use a little more. Many of us need it when it seems hardest to keep. In early sobriety, our brains are so frazzled by trying to make sense of this new world sans our favorite toxic substance and our ability to keep things calm seems like it’s nowhere to be found.

Obviously, “having patience” means patience with other people. More than that, however, it means patience with the world at large, as well as with yourself. Patience isn’t something given to you—it’s something you develop and foster and encourage within yourself. Patience takes practice. Patience takes the willingness to recite as many serenity prayers as you have to until your blood stops its rolling boil. Patience means looking inward and cultivating self-forgiveness. Patience means knowing that there are countless opportunities to lose your shit in any given day and acknowledging that very, very few of those opportunities are worth the pain it causes in the end. Patience is one of the many tools that helps get you from day 1 to day 730, and beyond.

2) the golden arc of progress and/or process.

I like to think that recovery from any kind of toxic relationship, addiction, or behavior follows a golden arc of zigzagging, non-linear progress. That is, most of us start out at some “bottom”, shoot up toward the sky with new revelations, sensations, feelings, and discoveries, and then slowly start to glide back down toward a safer, quieter ground–back toward a bottom that looks more like sturdy, solid ground than the very bottom of the well.

My golden arc of sobriety so far has gone like this–your mileage may vary:

days 1-3: Holy shit I am doing it, am I going to die? Am I dead? Or am I in heaven/hell already? What are all these strange sensations? Is my body even real? Why am I so tired/frenetic/confused? What is the longest time any human being has gone without crying, and how do they do it?

days 4-7: Okay, alright, I think I know what’s going on. This is starting to feel a little better. My head hurts though. And I need something sweet to eat. Will anyone notice if I just spend a few hours (or days) bingeing on Netflix and chocolate? What is the longest time anyone has ever spent napping, and can I do that? Why am I crying? Wait, why am I laughing?

Weeks 2-4: Okay this is hard, but I’m starting to get that hang of it, I think. I’m still not sure how to navigate friends asking me out for drinks, or my partner not believing me/knowing what to think, or my body’s intense cravings, but I’m just gonna keep trying. Also, why is everything so wonderful and beautiful/horrible and awful? Why do I wake up feeling fine and then ready to lose my shit when my coworker looks at me the wrong way? I think I might be crazy.

Months 2-6: I’m starting to feel really good. I’m turning down drinks/my drug of choice left and right. I still have cravings but I’m feeling pretty steadfast in my decisions. All this emotional work, though: oofda. Who knew there would be so much shit to unearth? Does that part get easier? Is there some kind of user’s manual for sobriety that can help me? I think I need a therapist.

Months 7-11.9: Alright well obviously I have a lot of shit to work on. Let’s make it a triple-whammy and add my professional endeavors and physical health to all this soul-searching, navel-gazing, identity-forming slogfest. Everything is gonna be fine, right? Even as my relationship crumbles and I feel like everything is falling down around me? It’s gonna be okay, right? Right?!

1 year: One year. One year? A whole year?! That’s amazing. Damn, I’m proud of me. But also, this feels normal now. this new normal is a good normal. I am happy with this. This is right. Let’s keep going.

1.5 years: Oh, man. That early sober glow. That fascination. That endless curiosity. That daily rollercoaster of up and down, left and right. How did I do that? I miss being amazed every day by the newness of sobriety. But I’m kinda glad I don’t have to ride that crazy emotional rollercoaster anymore. I feel pretty stable in this. I feel good. Let’s keep going.

2 years: I’m liking this. This is a forever kind of thing, isn’t it? Is this enough? I think it’s enough. I know what I need to do now to get through the tough times. I know I’m not invincible. Good thing I’ve been able to spend the last two years figuring it out. Past me had no idea what she was in for. I think she’d be really pleased to see where she’s ended up so far.

3) norming & storming.

A result of one’s rise and fall across the golden arc is the process of norming and storming through your sobriety journey. This, too, is a non-linear process, similar to the stages of grief. Rarely does one ever reach the acceptance stage of grief and then never mourn their loss ever again; similarly, rarely does one ever make it to the “norming” stage of sobriety and then never, ever feel an urge, a craving, or a desire ever again. And that is really, really OK.

Norming is what happens when you go several days, weeks, or even months without questioning your resolve to stay sober, where the act of not drinking or using seems as natural as breathing and your counter clock seems to speed lightyears ahead of where you thought you were.

Storming is what happens when, regardless of how long you’ve been sober, something tips you off your edge and all you want is a drink or to use again. Now. All of a sudden, your tips and tricks for coping aren’t working as well anymore–or at all. Or maybe, rather than being a sudden arousal of the beast, you have this gnawing feeling in the back of your brain that keeps picking at you, suggesting that “just one won’t hurt” and “you’ve been sober this long, you don’t have a problem.” It grows and grows until you find yourself staring down the barrel of the proverbial gun, challenging yourself from both sides.

Some people never reach full norming, and some people never really struggle too hard with the storming. Most people experience a mixture of both to varying degrees and intensities. The fact of the matter is that norming & storming are both completely normal in sobriety. While norming is good and comfortable, it should act as an alarm against complacency and the resurgence of old, addictive thoughts and behaviors. Storming is uncomfortable and tricky, but it can be weathered (haha–get it?) and can show us new ways to deal with impulsivity and the desperation of our inner addicts.

4) mistakes.

Nobody does sobriety perfectly because perfect sobriety isn’t compatible with the very core of what sobriety is (to me, at least). Sobriety is so unique to every individual, no matter how similar our revelations and journies might seem, and so to try to say we can do this whole sobriety thing perfectly is just not true.

Part of this whole no-such-thing-as-perfect-sobriety idea is the fact that even as sober people, we make mistakes. Lots of them. We’re learning and growing and figuring out who we are minus our drugs-of-choice, where we fit in with our world, and how we fit in. Maybe we don’t fit into our old worlds at all, and we have to build new ones for ourselves. Maybe the existing world will work for us, but with some adjustments. Expecting perfection without mistakes in this rediscovery of self is a setup for disappointment, shame, and potentially even relapse.

Mistakes are part of the process. This might seem cynical, but really, it’s an honest and ultimately hopeful statement. Recognizing when you’ve messed up and owning up to it–either to yourself or to others if your mistakes have caused them inconvenience, pain or suffering–is as vital to the process of growing as doing the “right thing.” Failures and mistakes show us our weak spots and if we listen closely, they’ll tell us how to mend them.

Don’t fear mistakes in sobriety and recovery. Don’t burn yourself trying to avoid them. They’re gonna happen anyway, so you might as well embrace them as they come.

5) perfectionism.

Despite what a lot of “normal” folks think, people who struggle with addiction aren’t lazy, unmotivated, apathetic mooches. Maybe I’m preaching to the choir here, but in my experience, a large portion of folks I’ve met who are in active recovery are incredibly driven, passionate people, who are often too hard on themselves, who strive often to do more, be better, and achieve their best.

We overload ourselves with to-dos, must-dos, could-dos, should-have-dones, would-have-dones, and why-did-I-do-thats. Of the sober ladies with whom I’ve become closest, ALL of us are pursuing Masters-level educations (and we’re ALL going into human services of some kind or another). My boyfriend, sober two years, got into physical fitness when he cleaned up and often goes at it so hard and with such vigor that he injures himself—but he’s attained an incredible physique for what he has put his body through.

It’s not uncommon for folks to go into sobriety thinking they have to do it perfectly, or else their past mistakes and regrets won’t ever be forgiven. We get caught in thinking that unless we are perfect in our sobriety, we cannot be redeemable from our past selves.

As I outlined in the section above, we cannot do this to ourselves. We cannot expect perfection from ourselves without allowing room for mistakes, fumbles, follies and even regrets. We cannot be all things to all people, we cannot expect more of ourselves than we’d ever reasonably expect from someone else. We have to understand, eventually, that it’s OK to say no, to step back, to aim for less than a perfect A+ all the damn time. We are humans made of malleable flesh and blood, not of steel–we can and will break under too much pressure.

We have to understand that every now and then, simply making the commitment to being sober is good enough. The rest will fall into place as it needs to. Trust the process as it unfolds.

6) humility.

As we stumble through our sobriety, fumbling with our mistakes and perfectionistic tendencies, many of us fall into the gentle embrace of humility, where we recognize our own struggles as being part of the greater whole, and where we understand that even the most unpleasant people we encounter have had a whole lifetime of experiences, pains, joys, and sorrows that have made them that way.

For me, working as a therapist intern at a community rehabilitation center really brought me back to my center and grounded me in the reality of other people’s experiences. I worked intimately with people from all backgrounds, whose lives had been ravaged by addiction, abuse, and trauma, and even though our paths in life were very clearly different, I saw myself in them.

In every distant or defiant client, I saw my own tendency to protect myself from the outside world.

In every frantic, anxious client, I saw my own tendency to over-worry and fret about the things beyond my own control.

In every depression patient, I saw my own uncertainty about the meaning of this life and the demands it makes of us, day in and day out.

And in every client, regardless of their mental health issues, I saw myself in them because of the one thing we all shared: an addiction that we used to help protect ourselves from the world, which led us astray. I was humbly aware of how my own relationship to alcohol could very easily lead me down the path that my clients had taken to rock bottom. Their suffering revealed to me their resilience and their drive to survive at all costs, even if those costs were “negative”, and for that, I am forever humbled.

7) communication.

Before I got sober, I often felt like my words were stuck in my throat, especially when it came to communicating my true emotions to a lover or close friend. I had a hard time speaking my truth and standing up for myself. I wanted to keep people happy and comfortable. I worried about people viewing me negatively if I spoke my mind.

Even before I started abusing alcohol, from ages 19-21 I, myself, was being abused by a man who claimed to love me and need me. That man tried to cull my friendships with the most important women in my life, he belittled and degraded me, and he tried to silence my creative voice by demanding to read every journal I kept or every poem I wrote. My internal creative voice went mute for nearly 8 years following that relationship. I felt like I no longer had the words to speak genuinely. I felt as though that voice had been amputated, appearing often as a ghost of itself. The pain was visceral and ached deep in my throat.

When I left that relationship, I started drinking to get drunk immediately. As I’ve grown and learned more about traumatic experiences, I can look back and forgive my past self, seeing her as a young woman desperate to erase the pain she endured under that man’s thumb. Drinking made things better for a while. It dulled my urgent need to write. It made the words feel less important, less frantic. They didn’t even need to happen. It made conversations flow more easily between myself and others, even though in retrospect, those conversations were often vapid and shallow, taking no form other than something to fill the lonely space between us. It made me feel OK, for a while.

When my husband left me in late 2014 I felt the words trying to flutter back up from my stomach to my throat, but I quashed them with alcohol. I drank somuch. I’d start the evening with a pen in my hand and paper on the table in front of me, but as soon as the first sip of wine went down, that urgency to write dissolved. I’d end up watching Netflix or mindlessly browsing the internet, instead.

I got sober in 2016 and at that point, I took tiny baby steps toward finally talking about the pain I held inside of me. I tried talking to my then-boyfriend and though he tried to listen, I don’t know that he actually got much of what I was saying. I started this blog to relieve some of the pressure. I found that I actually had a lot to say–most of it focused entirely on my experiences of early sobriety, but some of it autobiographical. It was good, but not yet enough.

So after three months of sobriety, in October of 2016, I formed a creative writing group. I started hosting events every other weekend, and even though I reveled in the excitement and novelty of it, I often felt like a fraud. There were so many people who came to my groups who were so much better than I was. And attendance was spotty. In the spring of 2017 I nearly gave it up. But finally, after about 9 months of struggling, a magical shift happened in the writer dynamic and the group took on a life of its own.

Even more importantly, for me, I started feel my way back into my own voice. I felt my words opening up inside me. I kept writing in this blog and revealing parts of myself previously unknown. Speaking with friends became easier. Being honest with my therapist felt easier. When I finally had the courage to leave my ex-boyfriend, I spoke from a genuine part of my heart about why I had to go, and I think he really finally heard me then. At least, that’s what I hope and believe. Whether that’s true isn’t really my story to tell.

Regardless, I think I’m still finding my voice, bit by bit. It’s a wonderful and sometimes frustrating journey. When the urgent, honest part of my mind starts speaking up, I am much more attuned to listen–and say what I need to say out loud.

8) loss.

Sobriety gives us many things, most of them positive (or at the very least, neutral). It gives us the chance to feel our way back into our own lives. It gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate the way we approach life and the people we love. It gives us clarity, better sleep, better health, a chance to change ourselves, an opportunity to grow from the pain and solitude of our addictions.

Sobriety also takes things away. For so many, sobriety and recovery represent the end of the very important, all-consuming, toxic and dysfunctional relationship we have with our drug(s) of choice. It represents the loss of our most steadfast yet harmful companion. Many folks liken it to leaving an abusive partnership.

On the outside, it seems so simple–he/she hurts you? Of course you should leave! But for those of us who have been the victims of addiction or abusive relationships (or both), we know that leaving is a complex, terrifying proposition, regardless of how sweet the freedom tastes on the outside.

When we leave–when we get sober and enter recovery–we are thrilled by our liberation and yet all-too-often, paralyzed by what it actually means. We’ve lost a part of ourselves and now we’re pushed into the world, forced to reckon with a life without the abuser we’ve become so intimately connected to.

In getting sober, we may lose friendships. We may lose partnerships that functioned around drinking or using. We may lose our sense of self and identity. What am I if not a drinker/user? Where do I fit if not among that crowd?

For me, I’ve lost a good deal of things: a relationship, friendships, a reliable way to make myself fall asleep at night, a short-term anxiety-blocker, my social appeal to non-drinkers, an identity wrapped around being a craft beer snob, and a way to feel like I fit in regardless of where I am or who I’m with, among many other things.

Loss and grief are often touched on when people speak about sobriety, but it’s often overshadowed by the more positive notes on recovery. But the feeling is real. The experience is real. No matter how much we gain from recovery, there are still plenty of things lost to the fire. It’s important that we honor our grief in losing those things, even as we distance ourselves for our own sake and health.

9) disconnection.

When I first got sober, I refused to change my social life out of a fear of being lonely or “outing” myself as an alcoholic. I kept spending time with people who drank regularly and heavily. I never really asked anyone to refrain around me, even when I felt tempted, and I rarely ever rejected an invite to hang out at the bars or breweries, even when I knew I’d be sipping a soda water or Lacroix and garnering confused looks from my peers.

For the most part, I still enjoyed my friend group and miraculously I never once caved to the temptation to drink, even as everyone around me kept getting sloshed. I rarely turned down an invitation to hang out, even when I knew there’d be booze involved. I even once hosted a wine tasting party at my house, where I showcased a bottle of alcohol-free wine and the tasters (all drinkers) commented that it tasted like sour grape juice.

Um. Duh?

Despite all this, I didn’t feel truly connected to most of the people I was spending my time with. Every now and then, I’d get singled out as the non-drinker in the bunch. They’d ask me how I could possibly have fun without drinking. They’d say getting drunk around a sober person made them feel self-conscious. They’d point out my weird non-alcoholic drinks, or laugh when I pulled a can of LaCroix out of my purse, and for the most part, I’d laugh along. Because hey, sometimes being the weirdo in the group can be fun. It’s a small act of rebellion that has few social consequences, at least not at first.

Still, I persisted in spending time with people I had very little in common with. And I felt lonely much of the time. I knew that as soon as the first beer cap was popped off among these folks, there would be an immediate disconnect between myself and them. But sometimes being lonely among others is better than being lonely with your own thoughts. And so, there I stayed, for perhaps too long, until I finally had the courage to stand up and walk out the proverbial door.

10) re-connection.

When I first got sober, all I wanted was to feel connected to someone who knew what the hell I was going through. I wanted to find “my people” without even knowing who my people were. I just knew I felt alone, and I wanted to change that as quickly as I could.

I tried AA. I’ve been to a handful of meetings over the past two years. Like many, it just wasn’t for me. I appreciated the sense of community contained within those rooms, but never felt committed to the program enough to return with any consistency. I lauded the positive effects it had on friends and some of the clients I worked with, but never felt a true sense of being “home” when I was there.

I joined online forums and started blogging. These things helped more than I thought possible. I made connections with people across the world who could relate to my struggles in so many ways. I cheered them on as they did the same for me. I revealed parts of myself that people in my real life had no idea about. And yet, that critical piece of face-to-face interaction was missing; I was too scared to put my real identity out there (I still am, quite honestly) but I was hungering for someone to have tea with while talking about sobriety and all its mysterious ways.

I had to find a connection with others in different ways. For me, this meant reaching out to old friends who were also sober. It meant leaving a romantic relationship with a drinker and accepting that the friendships I had formed within that relationship weren’t going to serve me anymore. It also meant literally creating a space where I could connect with folks who shared a similar love for my oldest passion: creative writing. The creating writing meet-up group I started in October of 2016 has been going strong for almost two years. I met my current partner (who is 2.5 years sober) and several new friends in this group. I’ve revealed myself to other writers, and have bore witness to others revealing themselves to me.

The change in my social life and the way I connect with others has been nothing short of amazing to me. It has taken two years, consistent effort, and a difficult lesson in letting go of old relationships to get where I am today; I can’t wait to see where these connections take me next.

11) transformation.

Transformation is an almost guaranteed result of recovery. Whether it’s a positive or negative transformation is entirely up to you and the approach you take to your recovery. It’s not a process that happens in a vacuum. It’s hardly ever an overnight process, though I’m sure that can occur for the special ones among us.

Usually, the transformation occurs as a result of the hundreds and thousands of smaller decisions, thoughts, behaviors, and emotions you experience and act on, day in and day out, ad infinitum. Familiar with the AA slogan, One Day at a Time? Yeah, it’s pretty much all that, even if you’re not a member of the 12-step crew.

Early on, the transformations might seem more obvious: you’ve got 24 hours, 48 hours, 1 week, 1 month without drinking or using. You’re building more momentum, your brain starts to clear of its boozy fog, and your eyes are wide open. Holy cow, you might think – I’m actually starting to sleep well, I’m less anxious/depressed/angry, and my body doesn’t hurt as much anymore.

Or maybe your thoughts are more along the lines of, holy cow, I am so embarrassed and humiliated and ashamed of my past self. This feeling is so uncomfortable, I have so many things to make up for. How could I have done so many stupid, awful, shameful things?

Eventually, all of those beautiful pink-cloud revelations and shame-filled nights of anxiety become re-integrated into your sense of self, and your sobriety turns from a day-to-day slog into a more peaceful way of being. It might never be completely, 100% effortless, but you don’t beat yourself up every day anymore, nor do you spend your days reveling in how amazing your 700th night of sober sleep feels (or, maybe you do—which is totally awesome and congratulations on keeping up the gratitude for so long).

For me, it was a slow and rolling transformation of my internal sense of self: my strength and resilience caught me most by surprise. Suddenly, I found the words necessary to stand up for myself, speak more honestly, and open my heart just a little more to the people I loved. I made some pretty stupid mistakes and actually learned from them. I understood what a healthy boundary actually looks like, and how to keep it in place. I learned what it meant to connect with myself and my body. I integrated my past pain into my future growth.

These things have been invaluable to me as I’ve moved away from old relationships and habits into the new.

12) room to grow.

The beautiful thing about growth in recovery is that there need be no end. The growth and change may slow or become harder to detect the longer you go on, but the opportunity is always there. There is always space for more mistakes, more empathy, more connection, more communication. Whether you’re at 2 days, 2 months, 2 years, or 2 decades, the recovering mind and heart can always be taught new things.

Enjoy it. Lean into it. Observe it. Embrace it. Own it. It’s your recovery–your garden to tend. Make it what you wish it to be and be ready to grow as the wind blows, the rain showers you, and the sun warms you up.

It’s worth it. Promise.

4 thoughts on “themes of recovery: observations from two years of sobriety

  1. miel says:

    I have recently finished reading your blog. Yes, all of it. I found your introspective approach engaging and full of insight. Thank you for creating such a complete account of your personal journey. It’s inspiring to see how far you have come. At some points along the way, I held back from commenting (i.e., giving advice) on much older posts. When I got to the end, I found it great to see you reach so many healthy and transformative conclusions on your own, especially regarding romantic relationships. You deserve to have relationships that fulfill you and don’t leave you feeling lonely or voiceless. Working on a relationship is positive, but hoping for something other than someone else can give is a road to ruin. So wonderful that you are learning to stay true to your heart’s desire. Best wishes for the next 730 days and beyond.

    Liked by 1 person

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