5 Lessons from 5 Years of Sobriety

By Victor Yocco 04/15/19

When I reflect on this choice I’ve made every day for five years, I realize sobriety is a limitless resource, readily available for anyone who needs it. I won’t run out of sobriety one day if someone else becomes sober. I won’t run out if 500,000 people become sober.

Man holding up hand with fingers outstretched, indicating 5 years of sobriety
I didn’t know I could make it five days, let alone one year. I would have laughed if someone told me I’d make it five years. ID 120615879 © Valery Bond | Dreamstime.com

I’m entering my fifth year of sobriety this April. Finding and maintaining sobriety has been no small task and I’ve learned a lot about myself over this time. I’ve changed from who I was as a drunk and as a newly sober person to who I am now. There have been high points, low points, and everything in between.

I’ve had many opportunities to share my experience with others: I’ve spoken at conferences, written articles for The Fix and many other online publications, been interviewed by WIRED, and been a guest on numerous podcasts and radio programs. I’ve felt scared and vulnerable sharing my stories and experiences, but on each of these occasions I’ve been rewarded with community support and increased accountability. Inevitably someone reaches out to thank me, in person or virtually. I believe this human bond we create through sharing is critical for all who struggle with addiction. 

In this post, I am commemorating my fifth sober anniversary with a reflection on five lessons I’ve learned. Holy shit! Did you read that? I’ve been sober for five years. I didn’t know I could make it five days, let alone one year. I would have laughed if someone told me I’d make it five years. Wasn’t I just pulling a typical Victor and waiting for the fallout from one of my drunken rampages to calm down? Turns out I am able to stick with something.

I’ve spent most of the last five years examining myself and reflecting on life. One thing is clear, I am full of contradictory thoughts and actions. We all are. As famed American poet (and proponent of being naked in nature) Walt Whitman wrote in Song of Myself:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

You will see my contradictions here and elsewhere. Let’s jump in to the lessons.

1. Recovery Does Not Equal Recovered

I still have cravings for alcohol. I still need to remove myself from situations that make me feel out of control. My life is not perfect and I’m not all better. I have the same shit, the same trials and temptations to deal with, but now I address them as a sober person. I don’t believe in full recovery – not for myself. I’ll define recovered as either a complete lack of interest in drinking or the ability to drink in moderation with no chance of falling back into abuse.

I’m aware some people identify as recovered and no longer have issues. I don’t dispute their recovery but I have enough self-awareness to know this has yet to occur for me. My thoughts when I crave alcohol are to feel drunk, to overconsume, to try one more time for the elusive buzz I spent over 10 years unsuccessfully chasing. To stay successful in recovery, I need an in recovery--not recovered--mindset.

2. Sobriety Is What You Make of It

Sobriety without additional work has a limited impact on your life. It might be a huge impact, but the ceiling extends drastically upward when you combine it with additional work on yourself. Alcohol abuse wasn’t the only issue I had and being sober allows me to begin addressing these underlying issues. I’ve needed to continue working on myself beyond sobriety. I have areas of deficiency I’ll need to work on for years, if not forever. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refrain from listing these.

Sobriety (from alcohol) at its most basic level is a period of time spent not drinking. I understand why many people commit to the day at a time mindset. You need to have small, achievable time frames to get through cravings, days which you spend refocusing, creating healthier habits, rebuilding or building a new life, and building your support system. Simply staying sober will heal your body. Staying sober while learning and growing will heal your mind as well.

I haven’t always been successful at doing more than staying sober. In fact, I’ve recently gone through a year or so of backsliding when it comes to handling my anxiety and mental health and building social support, which has resulted in some drastic negative changes in some of my closest relationships. However, I have stayed sober and this has allowed me to correct my course. I’ve become proactive in using techniques to manage anxiety and I’ve pushed myself to develop new and deeper relationships with positive people who support me. I’m seeking new opportunities to grow in the right direction.

3. Sobriety Is My Soulmate

Sound dramatic? How about, sobriety is my rock? Sobriety is my better half? Sobriety is the one thing that has been there for me every single day for five years. Sometimes I didn’t want it around and sometimes I’ve had to fight to keep it. I’ve gained and lost a number of things over the past five years but sobriety is the one consistent positive presence in my life. I get to choose every day whether I want to keep my sobriety or not. Choosing yes for another day deepens my commitment and strengthens the neural pathways that help me resist temptation.

When I reflect on this choice I’ve made every day for five years, I realize sobriety is a limitless resource, readily available for anyone who needs it. I won’t run out of sobriety one day if someone else becomes sober. I won’t run out of sobriety if 500,000 people become sober. Sobriety can be everyone’s soulmate simultaneously.

Sobriety won’t leave me if I slip up. These five years are made up of a string of days where I’ve made the same choice. If I had chosen to drink on any of these days, sobriety wouldn’t be any less available to me; I could have come back the following day. In that sense, five years is meaningless. Regardless of what stage you’re at, or even if you’re just thinking about it – sobriety will be there when you’re ready for it. Sobriety won’t judge you. Sobriety doesn’t care if you had a drink yesterday, or if you’ll have another drink in a week.

4. Drunk Conversations Are Toxic to Everyone

I remember being the drunk who shared my philosophy of the world with anyone who’d listen. I was so smart, my insight incomparable, my language spot on. If only I could hold on to that level of confidence when I’d sober up the next day, I’d show everyone how great I was. Yet I could never muster the words or confidence when I wasn’t drunk. In sobriety, I see drunk conversations as absurd, pathetic, or sad at best. Few sober people would say the words that so comfortably spill out of the mouths of drunks.

I still frequent bars and venues where alcohol is a focus and I still encounter plenty of drunk conversations. They fall into three categories:

  1. Drunk with plans to conquer the world. You have the ultimate plan and you know how to execute it. If only the rest of us were as excited as you are about it. You’re going to pass out before you can start making progress.
  2. Drunk with plans to conquer their date. This is disgusting. You are seducing your date with slurred words and poorly veiled references to sex. They are looking around to assess their exit strategy. Hopefully you don’t throw up on them.
  3. Drunks who are sad, whiny, or complaining about life. Bartenders find themselves having to support these conversations unless it’s a group of drunks and then it becomes a contest over who is the most aggrieved. Sometimes these folks end the night with fighting or violence. Regardless of how tough you talk or how many people you fight, drunk shit-talking still boils down to being a sad, whiny loser.

I’ve written these three conversations out using a judgmental tone. And while I am judging, I am also aware that I’ve been an active contributor to each type of drunk conversation on dozens of occasions. I’ve done my part to give others uncomfortable experiences. I apologize for that and hope some of my work in sobriety has atoned for some of what I’ve done.

5. Being Vulnerable Without Alcohol is More Authentic and More Rewarding

I had what I refer to as diarrhea mouth when I would get drunk. I couldn’t stop talking. Alcohol was a truth serum for me: I could get drunk and tell you exactly what I was thinking and feeling. I could express elation, I could express sorrow. I could tell you I hate your fucking guts. The words came easy (see my previous lesson!). Speaking the truth while being vulnerable without alcohol is more difficult, but it’s also more authentic.

I now pause before I share my thoughts and feelings. I have coherent thoughts during this pause where I calculate whether what I’m saying might be harmful to others. I also consider if what I’m saying leaves me exposed to criticism or hurt. This pause didn’t exist when I was drunk. I’m also fighting my natural tendency to withdraw from being social during the pause. Sober Victor is someone who is less comfortable sharing what is happening inside of him. I still end up saying hurtful things or oversharing in ways that might make others feel uncomfortable, but I am aware of and accept the consequences.

My vulnerability extends beyond what I say. Writing exposes me to criticism in the form of online comments or posts in other forums. Opening myself up to written criticism from others is a reversal of how I used writing as a drunk. I used my writing to hurt people: mean texts, drunken Facebook posts, belligerent emails, and even hand-written letters were a hallmark of my absurd drunken behavior. Again, I hope the words I write now to share what I’ve learned provide some atonement for the words I’ve written to hurt people.

Here is a sixth bonus lesson. I plan to write more about this in the near future. My reflection on my history of alcohol use has led me to conclude:

6. I’ve Abused Alcohol Since My First Encounter

I didn’t progressively become an alcohol abuser. Yes, my abuse became worse, but I abused from the beginning. I’m fairly certain I’ve never had a single healthy experience using alcohol. If you can relate to this, consider stopping your drinking until you can figure out if you do have an issue.

Five years have passed in the blink of an eye. I had no concept of what five years would be like when I first stopped drinking and I’m not sure I fully understand or appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment. I’m not sure I’d have been healthy or alive to write this if I hadn’t found sobriety.

What do I see for the next five years? I’m committed to staying sober and I’ll need to make some adjustments to accomplish this. I have recommitted to seeking support in the form of healthy relationships with other sober people, attending support groups, journaling, and practicing mindfulness. My sobriety is not on cruise control. I also intend to stay an active contributor to The Fix and other relevant publications; I find it helps me stay accountable.

Thank you for reading this post. Thank you for being part of my journey. Please share this with anyone who might find it useful.

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Victor Yocco.jpg

Victor is a researcher and author living near Philadelphia. He writes and speaks on topics related to UX research and design, and recovery. He has written for A List Apart, McSweeney's, Internet Tendency, Vox.com and many others. Find Victor at his website or on Twitter.