On December 24, 2011, at age 56, I had my last drink. I don’t know how many times I’d decided to quit before that. I don’t know what was different about that day, except that my husband had quit 6 days prior. Maybe that was the final push I needed. Today, as I celebrate 1,000 days of sobriety, I think it’s fitting to write a letter to my former self, which may also be a letter to someone who is reading this (is that you?). I’m still figuring out what works for me, and I humbly offer in Part I some practical suggestions for early sobriety based on what I’ve learned so far.
You know it’s time to quit drinking. With every attempt at long-term moderation, you disappoint yourself. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t hit society’s definition of “rock bottom”. You’re unhappy with yourself and the power that alcohol has over you. You’ve known for years that the only solution is to walk away from alcohol in the same way you would leave an abusive relationship, but you really can’t imagine life without it.
You can do it. There are steps you can take to get yourself sober and happy. Believe me, because I’ve done it.
First things first: get rid of any alcohol in the house. This is important. (If you live with someone who still drinks, ask them to support you. If they can’t or won’t eliminate alcohol from your home, you can still do this but it will be more difficult.)
Next, you have some shopping to do! Don’t tell me you have no money to spend, because you were spending at least $6/day (probably closer to $10) on wine, beer and spirits. Go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of non-alcoholic beverages. Sparkly, fruity, low-calorie, no calorie, high calorie. Whatever looks good. Pick up some candy while you’re there. Cookies and cake too.
Get a small notebook and pen to keep with you. You’re going to lose focus at times, so keep a daily log of what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. Just a few bullet points is good enough.
Your bed will be your safe place, so make it comfortable. Put on clean sheets, buy a new pillow, have a reading light handy. There will be times when all you can do at 8 pm is crawl into bed with a book or your hand-held reading device and wait for sleep to come.
Get connected to other sober people, online if you’re not ready to do it in person. Find websites and blogs. Put a sober days counter app on your phone.
Reward yourself. Three days sober? Yay! You deserve a treat.
Alter your routine. Drive home from work a different way. When you get home and your arm wants to reach for a bottle of wine, pour yourself one of your sparkly or fruity beverages instead. After dinner, go somewhere instead of sitting down to watch tv. Before bed, have a sweet treat. (You won’t need to do this forever, but in the beginning it will help.)
In the early days, people are going to piss you off. You will feel overwhelmed, angry and frustrated. This is when you’ll need to remind yourself that you will not drink today, no matter what. Write it down. “I am anxious about abc and angry about xyz”. Others around you may wish you were drinking. It doesn’t matter. You will not drink today. You’re sick of the empty promises you’ve made to yourself and you’re armed to succeed.
In Part II I’ll address building a life that supports long-term recovery. Stay tuned.
I’ve been absent from this blog space for awhile – wow, since April! – but I’ve continued reading other blogs and living solidly in recovery. I think it’s time for me to recommit to posting at least monthly, because I know how helpful it is to read about the lives of others with years behind them. If this blog has a primary goal, it’s to inspire people who still struggle to create a rewarding life without the buzz. So here’s what I’ve been up to.
What I’ve survived so far this year:
February – My amazing mom died unexpectedly.
March – My “baby” brother went through detox and treatment for heroin addiction. My youngest son, 18, moved out of the house.
April – June – I helped clear my mom’s house and put it on the market. Sold the new car she’d bought to celebrate her successful cancer surgery just months before she died suddenly of something else. I did my best to remain the strong oldest daughter in support of my siblings.
July – A visit to my 84 year old dad made it clear that his days of independent living are numbered and he needs help with a transition.
August – Closing on my mom’s house; time to distribute the proceeds of her estate. Delayed grief creeps in.
Throughout all of this, I continued working a full-time job, a part-time job, and began a volunteer job.
How life is better now than it was 3 years ago, despite recent challenges:
I don’t take things personally. Each person on this earth is living their unique existence as they best know how. As I cross paths with others, there will be points of connection both positive and negative, but my existence is peripheral to theirs.
I allow other people their experiences and space. I try to tread lightly.
I don’t waste (much) time feeling righteously indignant. (“What gives him the right to be angry at me?”) I jump more quickly to accountability. (“How could I have handled this communication differently?”) I respect myself more when I do this, and it becomes easier each time.
I establish limits and boundaries. I pause before making a commitment and have a small conversation with myself. My decisions are more thoughtful and less squishy.
I move through my sadness, and sometimes I move slowly. I allow myself to live with my feelings as long as I continue to do the next right thing.
I follow my interests. I didn’t know that making hand-stamped jewelry would be rewarding until I was inspired to try it. Now it’s an activity that blends into my life and gives new opportunities for sharing.
I’m grateful every day and I share that gratitude with a group of sober women like me.
I embrace cherish my sobriety and don’t take it for granted. Protecting it is my highest priority. From that foundation, not drinking is easy.
Have you been put to the test in recovery and survived it as a better person? Please share!
On my way to work yesterday I drove by some maple trees showing off their fall colors, brilliantly highlighted by the morning sun. I’d noticed them before and thought I’d like a picture of them to enjoy later. I almost continued on my way as I thought, “I’ll have to photograph them before it’s too late”.
Then I pulled the car to the side of the street and took my phone from my purse. I knew that if I waited a day, it may be cloudy. If I put it off until next week, the leaves may be falling. I snapped (do iPhones “snap”?) a couple of shots.
On the way to work today, the sky was gray. I’m happy that I seized a moment in time to stop and appreciate one of life’s many simple pleasures.
When I first quit drinking, I installed a simple free app on my phone called “Quitter”. It allows me to track the time elapsed since my last drink and the money I’ve saved. I made a guess that I was spending $6 per day when I set it up, which is probably pretty close to accurate. That’s the equivalent of one bottle of inexpensive wine, two bottles of Trader Joe’s 3 Buck wine, half of a fifth (would that be a tenth?) of Canadian whiskey or vodka, or a 6 pack of beer.
In the beginning, I checked my progress on this app a lot as reinforcement. I also kept a small notebook with me and wrote each day how I was feeling, any triggers I encountered, and rated myself on a “craving scale”, complete with little hand-drawn smiley or sad faces. These tools helped through some long, uncomfortable days.
It’s been a long time now since I’ve looked at the app or used the daily notebook. Over time, success in sobriety becomes its own reinforcement and widget-dependence diminishes.
Today I noticed that as the days tick along, the savings have become significant! Since I don’t actually have those dollars sitting in a savings account or a piggy bank, I’m reflecting on what I’ve done with the money I formerly invested in poisoning myself.
-Ingestible substitutes – I have to admit that for a time I became a little bit addicted to a beverage called Sparkling Ice. At $1/bottle, it satisfied the need to have something fizzy or fruity to sip in the evening. Then there was the ice cream, candy and other assorted sweets, but altogether, I’d call it a reasonable financial trade-off. And even with the junk eating, I’ve lost weight.
-Travel – I LOVE to travel but could never find the extra money for it so I rarely went anywhere. Since I quit drinking, I’ve taken two road trips with my kids and two plane trips to see my dad. I was also able to finance a trip for my dad and step-mom to attend a family wedding before she died of cancer.
-Debt reduction – I’m not debt-free by any means, but at least I’m able to keep up with payments, eliminating a huge source of stress.
-Rewards – If I see something I want to buy for myself – jewelry, clothing, shoes, books – I give myself permission to do it! I’m worth it.
Of course, it’s not about the money. That’s just a nice side benefit.
The sense of peace and the growth I’ve experienced as a human being?
Well, that’s priceless.
On Saturday I joined hundreds of other people for an annual 3-mile Recovery Walk, one of many such events held nationwide as September is recognized as Recovery Month.
It was a beautiful morning for walking, the turnout was great, and the city lake where the event was held is just 15 minutes from my home.
I went alone, walked alone, and didn’t really “connect” with anyone, but that was ok. I’m still dipping my toes into this pool of real life sober people. As a participant/observer, I felt completely at ease and fully present if somewhat invisible.
As I walked quietly alongside groups and pairs, I took in a couple of memorable slices of conversation.
“I used to think I had so many small problems in life, until I figured out that I really just had one big problem.” Yeah. I can relate to that.
Members of the “honor guard” wore purple sashes with numbers attached representing 10 or more years of recovery: 36, 28, 11, 15, etc.
A younger woman congratulated an older woman on her 10-year achievement, adding, “I would have had 6 years, but I messed up.”
The woman in the purple sash replied, “You didn’t mess up, sweetie. You just needed to go back and do some more research.” “No”, said the young one. “I really MESSED UP. I’m looking at doing 5-10 years now.” A poignant reminder of how serious this can be.
The variety of participants represented a true cross-section of our community. These were people I would expect to see at the grocery store, the mall, the movie theater, the county fair; normal people, living every day in recovery, coming together with friends and strangers on this day to honor the journey and show their faces.
I had my photo taken in a Fun Photo Booth labeled “Show The Faces of Recovery”, and I’ve posted it on my About Me page. Yes, I’m still hiding behind sunglasses, and I’m still a work in progress, but one baby step at a time, without fanfare, I’m getting out there – sharing myself, my face and my story of recovery.
Recovery works, and I’m living proof.
Last week, my husband and I went to see a screening of the film “The Anonymous People” (which I recommend), sponsored by a local recovery support organization. The theater was packed and I felt bathed in a warm and welcoming vibe.
This was the first gathering of sober people that I’ve been a part of and I loved the sense of belonging. (Yeah, we’re all sober, dammit, and we’re proud!)
Walking away from the movie that night, hubby and I weighed in on its message. Not surprisingly, we had different viewpoints. I felt inspired and agreed with the premise of the film – that it’s time for people in long-term recovery to speak out and become advocates. Hubby, recently stung by an idiot’s judgment after “outing” himself as an ex-drinker, thinks it may be better to just quietly carry on.
He compared it to quitting smoking. He was dependent on cigarettes, quit 15 years ago, went through a tough withdrawal, and then moved on to life as an ex-smoker. He explained that he’s not a “smoker in long-term recovery”. He doesn’t feel a need to be a non-smoking advocate or part of an ex-smoker community. Smoking is simply a part of his past and he’s done with it.
This is the way my husband quit drinking. He decided to stop, he declared to his family one day that he was done with alcohol, and that was it. He never looked back.
It was different for me. After deciding (for the final time) to quit, I white-knuckled it for the first week or two, then connected with an online group of lovely people who were also struggling or had recently been there. That forum became my lifeline and today, almost 21 months later, I still check in regularly. For further reinforcement, I read sobriety-focused books and articles and I follow a number of blogs. More importantly, I had to grow out of my addiction by learning to interact differently with myself and everyone around me.
I’m a different person now, shaped by the journey I was forced to take in order to live a happily sober life. I don’t think there will be a day when I feel that recovery is behind me, nor would I want that. In fact, I feel a need to continue to grow in my recovery by helping others who are trying to get to the other side.
The older I get, the less I know. There are many different paths to recovery, and I don’t judge anyone else’s methods. AA continues to work miracles for many. Alternative support groups, online and in real life, are abundant and effective. Just putting down the bottle and walking away works for some. I admire everyone who has succeeded in building a new life without alcohol, however they’ve been able to do it.
Reluctance to take one’s recovery public is widespread and understandable. No one wants to be branded a drunk, even in the past tense.
For me, I think it’s time to open up and reach out as situations present themselves. As Kristen Johnston said in “The Anonymous People”, “The shame and secrecy are just as deadly as the disease itself…I refuse to feel ashamed of who I am. I most certainly will not be embarrassed that I’m an addict. I’m gonna tell whoever I damn well want to. ”