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Last week was a really special week for me, because I celebrated my FIVE YEAR SOBERVERSARY on Saturday, March 17!
It was also my anniversary weekend with my Sweetie, so we spent a few days up in Montreal in an Air BnB with an exquisitely large bathtub, had a fancy seafood dinner, and laughed a hell of a lot. While the tone of my “dublaversary” weekend was cheery and celebratory, I also spent a lot of last week reflecting on my path to recovery and sobriety (I use the two words interchangeably), and I named some practices that might be helpful to anyone who struggles with moderation, self worth, and recovery.
What is Addiction?
The American Psychiatric Association defines addiction as follows:
Addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence. People with addiction… have an intense focus on using a certain substance(s), such as alcohol or drugs, to the point that it takes over their life.
This post will only talk about my personal experience with addiction and recovery, but know that you don’t have to prescribe to any one definition or experience of addiction, alcoholism, recovery, etc. For example, I don’t think of my own alcoholism as a disease, and I don’t do AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), but some people do both of those things and I totally support them in those choices. I also use homeopathic/herbal tinctures as medicine and I drink mocktails with bitters, although some recovering alcoholics choose to abstain from both because most tinctures/bitters are made with high proof alcohol. I don’t drink kombucha because the alcohol content is too high for me and I get loopy! Although addicts, alcoholics, and people in recovery definitely have shared experiences, everyone also has different experiences, and different people recover in different ways. Although I don’t do the 12 steps, I love the AA mantra “take what works and leave the rest.”
My Story, or When the Bad Times Started to Outweigh the Good Times
I’ve had my fair share of unhealthy coping mechanisms that ranged from annoying to self-sabotaging to “girl, you are going to ruin your life.” I’ve been using various coping mechanisms since I was a child as a way to dissociate, and alcohol and drugs became my go to way to escape as a teenager. I had a YOLO perspective long before it became a hashtag. Drinking was something I always looked forward to in my teens and twenties, and the money I spent and hangovers I suffered always felt worth it for the fun that I thought I was having.
Except, the more I drank, the less fun I had.
Sure, my drinking started out amazing! I went to queer dance parties and danced and laughed closing out the bars, bought my friends drinks, drank wine in the bathtub, and generally had a blast. But, eventually (and this is a trope other alcoholics will recognize) I started to drink alone and the bad times started to outweigh the good times.
Before I actually got sober in 2013, the only other time I had considered that I might have a drinking problem is when I was 20 years old, living alone, and using drinking to help myself sleep. I was battling insomnia and terrifying, lucid nightmares, so I would drink when I got home from work, nap, wake up and drink more, and nap more before I got up to get ready for work. That sounds sad, but it’s not the worst part:
I started to lose access to my short term memory.
I’m not just talking about blackouts where I had gotten too drunk and didn’t remember who I had kissed or where I had gotten pizza—I am talking about full on, “I can’t remember what I did yesterday during the day” memory loss. Of course, it took me 6 more years of binge-drinking and making dangerous, unhealthy, and irresponsible decisions before I finally quit for good.
Looking back, I truly believe that if I had not stopped drinking when I did that I likely would have gotten a DUI and that I wouldn’t have been able to maintain a long-term relationship, do any healing work, write a book, write an article, or even participate in a Masters or PhD program.
Why I Say No to Moderation
I actually quit drinking first in January of 2013, doing the “take some time off drinking to see what happens” thing and then trying to just have one drink in March. Long story short, I ended up blacking out and being a total asshole to my then girlfriend, who—thank Goddess—gave me an ultimatum the next day of choosing her or booze. I chose her, which in reality was choosing myself and my recovery.
One of the speakers in Andrea Owen’s recovery series podcasts described moderation like this (I’m paraphrasing and adding my own take, too): Imagine that someone makes you your favorite meal, lets you take one bite of it, and then sets the plate down alongside a bunch of other people eating that delicious meal, but you just have to watch. Doesn’t that sound horrible?! Well, that’s what drinking in moderation feels like for many alcoholics, including me. I resonate hard with the stories I hear from other alcoholics/people in recovery about being out at dinner or on a date and feeling distracted by how much/how quickly others are drinking so you can plan how may more drinks you can have without looking like you’re drinking too much, but really you want to drink as much as possible. I would regularly host after-hours drinks at my house in college because it meant I could keep drinking, and I dropped many a dollar on buying shots for groups of people because I wanted another drink and enabling others to drink somehow made my drinking seem okay.
I am not a drink every day alcoholic. I am a “can’t have just one” alcoholic. To the point where I wouldn’t have a drink at dinner if I knew I couldn’t keep drinking, because I knew I would feel panicky and anxious. Once I started drinking, I drank until I passed out. The alternative was flashbacks, panic attacks, or fights. As I mentioned in my post on Mindful Production, I don’t seem to have that switch in my brain that says “okay, you’ve had enough,” so I chose not to deal with moderation.
How Sobriety and Recovery Affects Other Parts of My Life
I’ve been in the trenches and recovered from a smattering of coping mechanisms, but I’m not ready to hang those up on The Tending Year’s clothesline. For now, know that I quit drinking, smoking, and committed myself to healing my CPTSD and codependency. These practices taught me a huge lesson:
strive for long term results over quick fixes.
When I’m faced with a challenging decision that I know I have to make, I use my “dive deep” mantra (I wrote about this in Week 11′s post) and I commit to learning how to make a change. Choosing to commit to a long term goal instead of giving in to a quick fix often meant I had to sit with uncomfortable feelings. Here’s two examples of choosing long term results over quick fixes:
- Stop using my credit cards for retail therapy when I was upset. I would so easily drop $50 on candles, $150 on shoes, $75 on products from Etsy, and $200 on groceries, all in the image of “self-care.” I have a long term goal to pay off debt and save money, and retail therapy was actively preventing me from getting to that goal. Instead of buying shit I didn’t need when I was feeling sad or nervous about something not going my way, I learned how to use what I have now, shop at different stores, and detox from buying goodies on my phone just because I wanted to hide from my problems with that rush of endorphins that comes from buying something.
- Stop smoking cigarettes when I craved nicotine to “self-soothe.” Even when I had on nicotine patches, I still would sometimes crave cigarettes because they symbolized to my brain “you are soothing yourself.” In reality, I was delaying the inevitable time when I would no longer depend on cigarettes, and I chose to do these things instead: use the Quit It app to record how much money I saved and how much healing I achieved, chew tea tree oil and cinnamon oil toothpicks, drink a TON of water, extend the nicotine patch deadline (they say only to use them for like, 2 months, but I totally used them for 3+ and I lived to tell the story AND I actually detoxed enough to quit). I also started working out more, which helped because I could actually feel my lungs getting stronger. The experience of the bad parts outweighing the good parts was true of smoking, too. I didn’t like going outside in the snow or freezing temperatures to smoke in the winter (even when I had a cold!). I didn’t like being the only person who still smoked. I didn’t like hiding that I smoked. I didn’t like dropping $11-12 per pack on my hipster cigarettes. Quitting cigarettes is NOT easy. It’s estimated that it takes between 8-12 attempts before it will stick. But the good parts on the other side of quitting have been SO worth it to me: I’ve saved roughly $2,815 dollars, I have avoided inhaling roughly 51 grams of tar, and I’ve halved my risk of heart disease to that of someone still smoking (per the Quit It App).
As I mentioned above, I listened to the first few episodes of Andrea Owen’s recovery series podcasts, and while I can’t vouch for any episodes I didn’t hear, I’d recommend the series to anyone who is in recovery, thinking about recovery, or has friends/family who are in recovery.
Even if you don’t struggle with addiction or alcoholism, there might be some habits or practices you wish could be a little different.
- Examine your coping mechanisms to see if the bad outweighs the good. If it does, imagine and/or practice alternatives. If this post motivates you to replace an unhealthy coping mechanism with a healthy one, that’s amazing! But, I’m not here to judge or to ask or tell you to stop, drop, and roll away your coping mechanisms. Instead, I’d just ask you to shine a flashlight on them with compassion and examine if they are serving you or if they are delaying an inevitable choice in your path. For example, I didn’t have to process my anxiety or codependency or trauma when I was drunk, or when I knew I would soon be drinking. I reached for a cigarette when I felt irked or annoyed or anxious. Neither of those choices actually served my healing path, and eventually I was ready to make other, healthier choices that served me.
Are there things that make you feel upset, angry, or triggered? How do you respond to them? When you feel calm and ready, try writing down positive ways you could cope so you’ll be able to make a choice the next time you feel triggered. This could include things like: go for a walk around the block, meditate, journal about what is upsetting you, call a friend to vent, take a bath, watch a TV show, stand up for yourself/set a boundary, pray, exercise, write a gratitude list, etc. It is not easy to choose a new practice if you know the old one “works”–quotation marks because “working” might mean survival, which is AMAZING, but you might wish you could do more active healing. BUT, you might feel more convinced to try a healthy alternative the next time you want to reach for the negative choice because you trust that your previously grounded, untriggered mind knew this good choice might work just as well–if not better!
- If you think you might be (or you know you are) an addict or an alcoholic and you’re not sure what to do, you are not alone! I am certifiably shy AF, and the thought of going to an AA meeting where everyone knows one another but I don’t know anyone or know how the meeting works is the definition of hell for me. There’s no way I would have gone to any of the AA or Al-Anon meetings I went to if I hadn’t gone with a pal and been able to sit in the back silently. I loooooved the speaker meetings where people talked about their experiences with drinking and recovery, and even though I chose not to commit to the AA program, I’ve been able to access a great community with online recovery groups on Facebook and by making sober friends IRL. Ask around and see if you know any other sober people or if anyone in an online group you belong to is recovering.
*Please note that the original version of this blog post was published here.