Ask Katie: How Do I Keep My Grades Up While Getting Sober?

By Katie MacBride 01/10/17

Being exhausted and generally overwhelmed in early sobriety is normal. Don't neglect your mental health.

Image: 
A frazzled woman holding a stack of books.
Take a load off.

I have been sober for about six months and I have been feeling increasingly depressed. I don’t have health insurance, though I will be able to go on an ACA exchange in my state come January. I am about to start my last semester of college, but this past semester it was really hard to get all the work done. I am usually a good student but it’s been hard to keep up with the work while going to meetings, meeting with my sponsor, and honestly, just kind of being overwhelmed and depressed. I feel like everything is really exhausting—even small things. I also feel like I need to go to more meetings than I did before, which seems weird because it seems like the most meetings are usually needed at the beginning of sobriety. Do you have any thoughts about this? Is it just a phase that everyone getting sober goes through, or is there something more going on?

Congratulations on six months. For me, the milestone that felt the most significant was nine months. Not one month, not one year. There’s nothing inherently significant about nine months—it’s just that between six and nine months were challenging for me and I was proud of hitting that milestone. While it’s hard to generalize about the experience of getting sober—everyone is going to have a slightly different experience—there’s no doubt that things can get pretty freaking weird in the first year of sobriety.

Being exhausted and generally overwhelmed (sometimes on and off, sometimes consistently) in early sobriety is normal. At least, I haven’t met a sober person who hasn’t experienced it. I can’t offer a medical or psychological explanation for the exhaustion, but here’s my highly unscientific guess about where it comes from: when we’re drinking and using, the whole point is to dull reality. When we get sober, reality comes sharply back into focus. It’s a little bit like when Dorothy lands in Oz and everything goes from black and white to color. Everything that used to be a bit fuzzy around the edges is suddenly bright and clear.

Technicolor can be awesome, but there is a downside: the negative stuff as well as the positive is brought into stark relief. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the negative things are worse than we imagined when we were drinking, just that we can see them more clearly. Even things that are neutral—neither overtly good or bad—have an impact on us because we’re finally aware of what’s going on around us. All that processing, even the subconscious processing, takes a lot of energy. It’s overwhelming.

So yes, being both exhausted and overwhelmed is normal. And while it seems like those feelings should be linear and consistent—really intense when you first get sober, and decreasing consistently as the months go by—that’s usually not the case. Sobriety is unpredictable. It doesn’t go in a straight line: it stops and starts, takes three steps backwards one day and two steps forward the next. I understand how frustrating that is—you feel like all the work has to be for something. I promise it is, even if it doesn’t feel as consistent as you’d like.

Still, many people (myself included) get sober only to realize that their addiction was only part of the problem. It became clear that I was also facing depression, and had been struggling through depression since long before I even began drinking. Both therapy and antidepressants helped me with this, but therapy is definitely a good place to start.

Therapy can be expensive, but hopefully the insurance you’re going on will cover at least part of it. You might also look into what counseling services your school offers; if someone at the school can’t see you directly, they might be able to refer you to someone who can help you ASAP. Whether you end up going to therapy for a few sessions, or for longer-term, I think it’s always helpful to talk to a professional when you’re going through difficult times. And it’s incredibly common for people in recovery to add therapy on top of their meetings/support groups. So, to answer one of your questions: it is normal to be overwhelmed and exhausted in recovery, and there also could be more going on. Either way, it’s a good idea to talk to a professional, because they’ll be able to help with both scenarios.

I know you are struggling and I don’t want to diminish that. I understand how difficult it is when you’re exhausted by things that seem too small to suck that much energy from you, the kind of dull anxiety about the amount of work on your plate. It sucks. Your letter makes me feel quite positive about your situation, though.

It’s incredibly important to be able to recognize how you are feeling and adjust your self-care accordingly. You say that you’ve been feeling like you need more meetings and so you’ve been going to more meetings. It sounds like a simple thing, but most of us aren’t used to assessing what it is we need and giving that to ourselves. The fact that you can do that is a really good sign.

I think you might want to take this self-care one step further and consider slowing down on your classes. Therapy can be really helpful but it’s also, in my experience, exhausting. When you’ve already got a lot going on, that can be tough to manage (though very much worth it). Is it possible to take half a course load next semester instead of a full schedule? Or even take a semester off? Cutting back on your academic commitments will take the pressure off and give you some time to rest and not have to rush from school to therapy to meetings, all without a second to breathe or think. School will always be there, and addressing whatever you need for your mental health is a million times more important than anything else.

Good luck with school, congratulations on your sobriety, look into therapists, and keep doing what you’re doing (though maybe at a slightly slower pace and with more naps). I think you’ll be just fine.

Regular Fix contributor Katie MacBride is not an expert or a mental health or medical professional; she is a sober person offering her experiences and advice about sobriety. Every other Tuesday she will answer one recovery related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. If you have any general advice questions email her at [email protected] with Ask Katie in the subject.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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