sober questioning

‘How Do I Survive Early Sobriety?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Ana,

I’m scheduled to go to a hypnotist next week to begin my journey into sobriety — finally. I’m 57 years old now, the days of countless Cosmos or margaritas are past me now, but the emptiness and loss of being an alcoholic remains. Sometimes the regret takes my breath away.

I know that no miracle cure exists and still expect it to be as hard as ever. I guess I just want help to even start. I do feel more ready than I ever have.

My question this morning is, What helped you the most at the beginning? Meetings around happy-hour time? Telling friends? The idea of going to AA meetings scares the hell out of me, mostly because there’s no backing out after that, no anonymity to melt back into. But there’s also hope in that — I can almost see it.

Are there any top-five elements you can think of that have helped you the most in those first few months?

Ready, Steady, Go

Dear Ready, Steady, Go,

First, let me say you’re ahead of the game here, and it makes me optimistic about your chances. You’re not just taking a specific action — seeing a hypnotist! — you’re making plans for what to do after that.

Thank you for asking me to make you a list. I love lists! That might be one reason why I love 12-step programs! So many lists. Still, much like 12-step programs, lists are not for everyone; certainly, not everything on the list below will be helpful to everyone.

However, my truth is that, out of everything I did, Alcoholics Anonymous is what helped me the most. For one thing, it helped supply a few things I know you’ll need: structure, amusement, staying busy. The 12 steps also suggested that I cultivate a spiritual practice; even today, self-reflection and humility in the face of the universe’s sublime complexity are the foundation of my daily decision to stay in recovery. My experience with AA is that belief in God (Christian or otherwise) is totally optional, but the spiritual component of AA is highly controversial — which is one reason I’m not going to put it on the Sobriety Quick-Start program you asked for.

Still, if what’s scaring you off from AA is simply people seeing you there, the advent of Zoom means you can go to a meeting almost anywhere in the world — and keep your camera off. And even at in-person meetings, contrary to popular myth, you do not have to say your name or identify yourself as an alcoholic. So, hey, maybe give AA a shot.

But if AA still puts you off for other reasons, it’s definitely not the only way to get the support that is vital throughout recovery. Start searching your social-media feeds for mentions of sobriety and follow sober people. Watch recovering folks tell their stories on YouTube, and look through the comments. Listen to sober podcasts. Follow sober meme accounts. You will find community. Actually, you will find communities, plural: sober people of color, queer sober people, sober moms, sober young folks, sober mountain climbers, sober lawyers, and sober restaurant workers. Telling your friends who aren’t in recovery that you’re getting sober can be helpful. Making friends who are also sober is all but a requirement.

Now, the five other things that helped (listed, as requested, but not in any particular order) me in my early sobriety:

  • Going to therapy. Community is great, but I also needed someone to talk to who could see my issues through a professional lens and recognize when I might be veering into an area in which I need help beyond recovery from alcoholism. My bipolar disorder was diagnosed only after I stopped drinking; a lot of people find that underlying mental-health problems become clear only once alcohol isn’t clouding the view.
  • Doing my best to let go of food issues and letting myself eat what my body craved. Alcohol has a lot of sugar in it, and without alcohol, I wanted sugar straight — no chaser. Candy. Pastries. Ice cream. My first sponsor told me to keep chocolate with me at all times, as if addiction were a dementor. (Maybe it is!) I have no idea about the science of it, but newly sober folks craving sugar is a well-accepted bit of folk wisdom. If the idea of eating whatever you want is scary, welcome to the large Venn-diagram area in which addiction and disordered eating overlap! Like me, you can just add it to the list of things to talk about in therapy.
  • Amusing myself. Some people may classify this has “having fun” or “self-care,” but “having fun” seemed like a tall demand, and “self-care” just makes me think of spa days. I tried to reconnect with things that brought me pleasure, if not outright joy. I discovered a bunch of TV shows that I’d missed before when I was too busy drinking to seek them out (Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad); I comfort-watched TV shows I knew I loved (Buffy, The Office). I binge-listened to comedy podcasts (How Did This Get Made?, The Dead Authors Podcast). I bought a How to Draw book, and I took up knitting again — both had the added benefit of giving my hands something to do that wasn’t holding a wineglass while watching those TV shows and listening to those podcasts.
  • Structure and staying busy. Going from a lot of drinking to no drinking frees up your schedule a lot. I found that if I didn’t have plans (yes, especially around happy hour), or at least a general idea of what was on the horizon for me, I felt an almost physical pull to old habits of body and mind (drinking and beating myself up). After rehab, I went to a 12-step meeting and/or a yoga class almost every day. I roped a couple of friends into weekly coffee dates. I volunteered. Occasionally, I found myself overscheduled, which is also bad. If I had to do it over again, I’d probably start with just a few weekly activities and feel it out from there. Which brings me to …
  • … Finally giving myself permission to not do anything at all. After some dark nights of relentless negative self-talk, I had to learn (the hard way) the difference between “having structure” and “crucifying myself on a to-do list.” For me, structure is a scaffold that I can hold on to when other areas of my life feel shaky. I can turn a to-do list, on the other hand, into a torture rack. Too much time on that rack will get me looking for something to ease the pain. Not drinking is in itself work — exhausting work. It takes energy to negotiate the world without a protective chemical haze and figure out what, exactly, you’re feeling now that you can feel. Thanks to the pandemic, a lot more people understand how tricky it can be to answer the question “How are you?” We who have survived early recovery have always recognized it as a gnarly pop quiz. Sometimes mere existence was so draining I went to bed not having done anything I had planned on doing except staying sober. That still happens today. And I still have to remind myself that it’s enough — staying sober is, in fact, the only reason I’ll get a chance to try again tomorrow.

Your description of the alcoholic life as one of “emptiness and loss” is achingly apt. I too am familiar with how regret can feel like a gut-punch. The bad news I have for you — what I want you to be prepared for — is that those feelings don’t disappear right away. Un-numbed, I occasionally experienced them even more powerfully.

I couldn’t have survived that delicate time without faith. Don’t worry — I don’t mean faith in the Bearded Sky Daddy or anything mystical or otherworldly. I held tight to faith that however bad I felt, sobriety was the only way to something better. At times, that can be a bigger lift than believing in God. What made it feel true was hearing it over and over from other people who had been there before. So let me be one of the first ones to tell you now that it will get better. It will. I got somewhere better, and you will get there too. It will get better. I promise you.

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‘How Do I Survive Early Sobriety?’