climate crisis

Staying Sober on a Dying Planet

I gave up drinking to give myself a better future. But what if Earth isn’t getting one?

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

On my third day of Alcoholics Anonymous, someone told me to build a life “worth getting sober for.” I was confused. Wasn’t that what sobriety was supposed to do for me? For some alcoholics, drinking makes the present uninhabitable, but that wasn’t the main reason I got sober. I was in my mid-20s, single, unemployed, and living with my parents — my life was arguably habitable enough. It was the stagnation that made me want to get sober. If I could already build that life, I didn’t need sobriety. I quit drinking for the sake of my future, and I’ve been sober for almost four years.

But lately I’ve been feeling increasingly unsure of that future — not my sobriety but the idea that any of us will even be around 50 years from now. Climate change existed long before I got sober, but one benefit of drinking is that you’re not quite as attuned to the world around you. I quit drinking in early 2019, in Los Angeles, and within months of my getting sober, the wildfires were bad enough that I sometimes couldn’t comfortably leave my house. And we had it easy that year, relative to the two years before and after. Still, as I struggled through those early months, I wondered, Do I really want to be this aware? The feeling has since multiplied. Every time I see a news story about the inevitable displacement caused by rising tides, I lose a little bit of hope. I was at the beach recently and wondered if maybe I should have just one glass of white wine while beaches last. Should I prioritize the present over the future, the way I used to when I was drinking?

Unsurprisingly, rates of both climate anxiety (or “eco-anxiety“) and alcohol abuse have skyrocketed in recent years. Luisa Isbell, a substance-use-disorder counselor at a sober-living facility in San Francisco, says she has “definitely noticed more clients expressing anxiety related to global stressors like climate change, war, and the pandemic.” Just having the TV on in a sober-living facility, once a source of comfort or welcome distraction, Isbell continues, “can be an additional source of stress when they’re constantly broadcasting bad news.”

Dr. Adrienne Heinz, a clinical research psychologist at the Stanford School of Medicine, has a few theories about why climate events may trigger addicts in particular: “When climate events happen, it’s easier to slip into fuck-it mode because the world feels like it’s falling apart anyway. This can trigger relapse.” Evan Lawrence, LMHC, similarly describes how feelings of futility can be a particular threat to those who once used substances to cope with “untenable anxieties.” “Dealing with something that doesn’t respond directly to our actions induces feelings of hopelessness and increases the desire to quell those sensations with substances,” he says. Additionally, for those in recovery who are not religious, nature is often a source of “spiritual connection and greater meaning and purpose,” Dr. Heinz explains. “When our nature connection is threatened, we start to experience ‘solastalgia,’ which is existential distress over negatively perceived environmental changes.”

I spoke with over 50 recovering alcoholics I found via Twitter, many of whom confirmed what these experts are seeing. “I definitely consume way too much news/political reporting about climate change,” says Mike, a recovering alcoholic now sober for 14 years. “It stresses me out, and it really does push me toward a relapse.” As Claudia, who has been sober for eight years, puts it, “I didn’t use to think climate change would affect my own mental state, but I think when Trump pulled out of the Paris Accords, I began to wonder if there was a point to my sobriety.” For some, like Emily, who lived through Texas’s devastating winter storm in February 2021, the stakes feel even more real when the news becomes your reality.

“Because of power outages, I had to stay with several different friends, and they had alcohol in the house,” Emily says. To make matters worse, it was before she’d gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, and she was uncomfortable co-habiting with others. “You get used to living ‘one day at a time’ as a sober person, but living through multiple threats at once felt more like minute to minute.” She describes her hosts’ leaving her alone, which made relapsing an option: “The plan was to drink some of their liquor while they were gone to just chill out and relax during an anxious experience.” Fortunately, she didn’t. Looking back, Emily considers her active choice to stay sober throughout the ordeal the reason she survived. Before she left her apartment, she says, she was using her wood-burning fireplace in lieu of the power that had gone out, but the smoke alarm eventually went off, pushing her to leave and find shelter elsewhere. “If I had been drinking,” she tells me, if she had been tempted to stay or too impaired to make a rational decision, “I might have stayed in the apartment despite the warnings and could have suffered any number of consequences.” Still, she concedes that sobriety will only get harder as more challenges arise. “Realistically, drinking during the storm could have made the experience less traumatic,” she says. “I used to self-medicate with alcohol to become mentally detached from the problems around me.” But those problems, at least when it comes to climate change, are only growing bigger and worse.

The problem of eco-anxiety is compounded for those early in sobriety who don’t have years of sober living to keep them steady. They can be especially emotionally fragile, Dr. Heinz says, “because they are having to exercise coping skills they didn’t previously use.” The sense of futility was much greater for me in early sobriety. In my first three months of recovery, I made an active decision every single night: drink or don’t drink. But if every day you read updated news about our burning planet — that Zimbabwe had to relocate 2,500 animals due to extreme heat, that we may have to consider housing everyone in Canada, and that Pakistan is flooded (literally all news from just a single day) — and every night you must decide if it’s worth it to say no to the one thing you want most, you’re more susceptible to temptation.

Still, there’s hope. The people I spoke to — none of whom relapsed as a result of their climate anxieties — told me about a number of coping strategies they use. “I talked with sober friends and used meditation to get me through the harder ‘minutes,’” says Emily, describing the 2021 Texas storm. For others, shutting out climate news became necessary. “A huge boon to my recovery was for me to remove all social media from my phone in order to disconnect from the 24/7 consistent stream of political events,“ says Ryan, who has been sober for two years. In fact, the tools and perspectives addicts learn in recovery can help with managing eco-anxiety. “What can I do to stop climate change? I do the basic stuff: recycling, trying to minimize driving, etc. But it sometimes seems pointless,” says Mike. “So I use the Serenity Prayer, black humor, and reminding myself that, regardless of what may be happening, I brought kids into this world without their consent, and I have to show up for them.”

Dr. Heinz recommends resources like Yoga for Ecological Grief classes and the “Emotional Resilience Toolkit for Climate Work” handbook as well as finding a climate-aware therapist (i.e., one who won’t dismiss eco-anxiety as catastrophizing). While these benefit everyone, not just those with substance-abuse issues, addicts in particular need a way to handle triggers that emerge in daily life. “If climate anxiety is triggering, there are techniques, like keeping a daily log, that help people connect triggering events and thoughts to their behaviors, including using substances,” says Lawrence. He also recommends cognitive behavioral therapy and acceptance-and-commitment therapy for those suffering from both substance abuse and eco-anxiety. “I try to focus a lot on developing healthy coping skills and mindfulness with my clients in our individual sessions,” says Isbell, the sober-living-facility counselor. “Clients report that building up their distress tolerance helps them across the board, especially when it feels like there’s more to be stressed about than ever before.”

For me, the most helpful answer lies in the present. Because of climate change, I can no longer count on the future as an incentive to keep me sober. I must decide that, irrespective of tomorrow, sobriety now is preferable to drinking now. As I think back on it, my recovery helped me understand our collective sense of helplessness around global warming. It’s easy (and a little fun) to catastrophize, but after months in AA hearing people talk about how they rebuilt their lives from a place of no hope, I learned it’s possible to recover from situations that once seemed intractable. “Acknowledging that I was powerless over the substances that I used actually provided me with options not previously available to me,” Mike told me when describing how his difficult recovery compelled him to finally start taking antidepressants. Emily said the same about having stayed sober through a natural disaster: “At the time, the one thing that did seem in my control was my sobriety.”

Ultimately, both climate anxiety and sobriety are matters of control. AA meetings end with the first stanza of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Horrifying news about climate change reminds me that I was never in control. I’m not in control of the macro issues — the heating planet or the regulations the government places on oil companies — and I’m not in control of the micro ones, either. Things like whether or not my company chooses to downsize, or my landlord chooses to raise rents, or my favorite coffee shop runs out of cold brew. The future was never guaranteed anyway. Climate change merely brings that truth to the forefront.

The only thing I’ve ever been able to control is my reaction. I can choose to recycle, and I can choose to reduce my plastic consumption. I can choose to be present for the people in my life who are suffering for any number of reasons. I choose to take whatever steps are available to me to take care of myself and thereby relieve the pressure on others. I can choose internal stability amid external chaos. I can choose to stay sober, whether I have a future worth staying sober for or not. So I will.

Staying Sober on a Dying Planet