Some pitfalls of early sobriety : Avoiding the Fuckit Bucket
If you’ve ever given up drinking you will have read a myriad of articles proclaiming how fabulous life is without booze: words of hope, words of praise, page upon page of unimaginable achievement.
Since I stopped drinking 4.5 years ago I've become increasingly aware that these articles are pretty one-sided tending to focus on the whoop-whoop positive angle which is encouraging but not wholly accurate. Getting sober can be a miserable affair full of self-doubt anguish and depression. In writing this my intention is not to discourage you from trying sobriety but to help you navigate the road with eyes wide open so when the fuck-it bucket appears to be the only way forward (and believe me it will) you'll have an alternative perspective to draw on.
My last drink was 41/2 years ago. This makes me a mere babe in sobriety terms when compared to titans like my friend John, who has 35 sober years under his belt, however, it's been long enough to understand why some people repeat behaviours over and over again, which ultimately leads them to the fuck it bucket. In writing this, I hope to help you to recognize the signs that the bucket is beckoning, acknowledge them and move on. Fore-warned is fore-armed, this is what I learnt :
Not drinking hurts :
If you’ve been drinking more than is healthy you will discover very quickly that not drinking hurts. It hurts a lot. You will crave alcohol, you will lose sleep, you will experience a range of unspecified illnesses, your skin may erupt and you will feel like you are hanging onto the edge of a very steep cliff with nothing to greet your fall but some very spiky rocks. Basically, you will feel like shit. If you can ride this out (which may take many months) you'll start to feel clearer, more energetic, full of optimism and zest for life. You will want to get on with it and make the most of every day. You will feel "Hey!! I can do this, my happy shiny life is waiting for me". Hold that thought, never let it go.
Grief is an essential part of the process:
If you’ve been drinking too much for too long, you will go through physical withdrawal, then, at some stage, grief. Heavy drinking is like an ever-tightening circle. Even if you function OK during the day, working and looking after your family, at some point, your life will start to shrink as alcohol begins to take the place of the healthy relationships and the connections that make being human, human. Without you recognizing it, alcohol will become your best friend. So when you stop drinking it will feel like somebody close has died, then you will grieve which hurts like hell. You will go through the stages of the cycle of grief, which will threaten your sobriety. I learnt that the most precarious stage is 'bargaining'. This is when you will inevitably start thinking that maybe you can have a drink occasionally. This is when a lot of people fall off the cliff. If you find yourself missing having a drink, working out plans that will enable you to drink occasionally, designing a moderation plan, it's time to take time to step back to work out what is really going on.
Sugar and carbs are an essential part of your recovery:
It is the law to keep ice cream in the freezer and eat it! This may be at odds with your goal to lose a zillion kilos but alcohol is packed with sugar. When you stop drinking you face a double whammy withdrawal unless you give yourself some unrefined sugar. Don’t worry you'll cut it out eventually, but rushing it may unintentionally trigger the cravings. I believe that if you focus your efforts on one addiction at a time you raise your chances of success. Don’t fight it, just make yourself the promise that once you are stable you will do your teeth and BMI another favour.
At this point, it is worth mentioning triggers: HALT
Hunger or thirst
Anger or any form of strong emotion
Take care of them or they will knock you on your ass.
Goals can ruin your self-esteem:
It’s really common when trying to beat an addiction to set goals: Lose weight, give up the cigs, eat clean, exercise daily, learn new skills, make sober new friends, find the perfect life partner. But hold your horses! Unless you are super disciplined and you know that you will carry through, keep your goals to the bare minimum. Only adding a new goal once the stated one has been achieved. This will keep you focused, successful and the fuckit bucket in the corner. Achievement preserves your fragile self-esteem. There is time, you don’t need to do everything at once
Not drinking is boring:
Until you stop drinking it is hard to quantify how much time is spent drinking, wiped out and recovering. The simple and surprising truth is that when we don’t drink we sleep better but we sleep less, so that time has to be filled. The bad news is that unless you have the faith and constitution of the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa combined, it really is not a great idea to go out with your drinking buddies in the early months, so you have to find something constructive to do. In general terms, if you plan to drink, you probably will. I found reading about getting sober is a great thing to do. But to be honest it got tedious and drunk-brain started thinking that I'm ‘not as bad’ as the author. If you're creative, you will find that your creativity has not been compromised by the lack of grog in your life, but it changes and may assume a form that you do not immediately recognise.
You may decide to start a new course and be pleasantly surprised to find that your mind, once affected by blackouts, is fresh and alert and your memory is not as shit as you thought it would be. Personally, I'd recommend taking a basic course on neuroscience and drug addiction: it will give you an understanding of what is happening to you in recovery, and how to help yourself.
Then, there is the good old standby: Netflix ( other streaming services are available) Find a hobby that you will absorb you or try something you've always fancied doing: building mastery over a new skill or re-engaging with a lost one will remind you daily why you chose not to drink.
Don’t believe everything people say :
We’re back on the subject of self-esteem/ self-worth/faith. If you belong to a group of people supporting each other in sobriety you'll be bombarded by stories of ‘what not drinking has done for me’. new jobs, marathons ran, new relationships, old hobbies rekindled, books written, websites built, awards won, exams passed, fabulous holidays paid for by the money not spent on 1 litre of red a day. If it hasn't happened to you, you may feel envy, a sense of failure, and all sorts of negative feels about yourself. The thing to remember is that you are you, living your life, your way. Not everybody comes into their own quickly. Give it time, work on what you want to do. Congratulate others, but tread your own path.
Evangelism wears thin:
When you get happy with being sober, and your life starts turning around, you want everyone to feel the same as you. As a consequence, you may become a little bit overzealous. This is especially difficult if your partner or your best friend drinks to excess and you want them to stop. This may be hard, but leave them alone. Do not pick at them or criticise or try to persuade them to stop. They have to decide for themselves; no amount of nagging will make them stop. Nagging causes resentment and worse.I have several friends who led by example; doing so strengthened their relationships. It hurts to see your significant other pouring their life down the drain but they are grown up so must be allowed to think and decide for themselves.
It is simply true that you may be enthralled by your decision to quit, delighted by the benefits you've gained, but not everyone sees things like that. This is especially true of people who have stopped drinking but are struggling to stay sober. Listening to you blathering about why they shouldn’t think about drinking may tip them over the edge. I know this because I am guilty of questioning friends' decisions to moderate. I regret not being understanding and compassionate.
Change takes time :
When you first make the decision to stop, the idea of a day without alcohol seems just about possible, but a week improbable and three months downright fantasy! You will soon find that each of these milestones comes then goes and before you know it you have a few sober months under your belt. This is when you need to beware of something in your head telling l you that you were wrong: you didn’t really have that big a problem so a drink won’t hurt. You may tell yourself, that you have proved that you can now drink like a normal person without asking yourself the question: what is normal drinking?
I have seen good friends, having been sober for years, let that thought take precedence, take the first drink, then wipe themselves out. I have no idea why this happens and I am not about to find out but what I will say, is before you decide that you are OK to drink again, take the time to work out the possible consequences.
Guard your emotional health:
The pink cloud of early sobriety does eventually evaporate. You may start to think about what went wrong reflecting on your path to your current situation. There will be regret, self-flagellation, blame of yourself and those around you, resentment, guilt. You will feel very sad indeed. This is normal. You may have to look back to examine your past to make a better tomorrow but try just to acknowledge it and move on.
These cycles of depression are known as Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS). This is the brain recalibrating itself. It comes and goes in cycles. The good news is that as time goes by you recognise the signs, and learn how to cope with these mood dips. My experience is that each cycle though disorientating is less broad, less deep than the last. I am aware that these low moods are linked to ignoring my triggers.
Practising mindfulness, learning about philosophy and yoga worked for me because they got me out of myself getting me thinking in a different way whilst keeping my body moving. The bonus is that you can do yoga whilst watching Netflix.
Bad days, arguments, breakups, job losses, illness, death. These things happen. I remember after a particularly bad day, that could have been career changing, a friend of mine said ‘drinking won’t help’. I took no notice and dealt with the fallout with the world’s worst hangover. I now see that she was right. Shit happens. Alcohol causes stress, depression and anxiety. The easiest way to deal with shit is with a clear head and an open mind and a willing heart.
Tell the truth:
At the start of your sober life, it is hard to tell people that you no longer drink. You may feel that you will be judged as being weak. You may feel that putting your decision out there is taking a risk that could seriously impact on your life. You may also fear being pressurised by your drinking buddies or being ostracised.
I did not tell the truth. I used ‘Stoptober’ as my excuse for not drinking. Then I lied telling everyone that not drinking was such an amazing experience, that I decided to roll with it. Later, I got braver and would say that I suffered from stress and anxiety and discovered that not drinking helped. I regret this.
I know that it’s not for everyone, but alcohol is the 3rd biggest killer in the western world; directly and indirectly. I am beginning to think that unless we start lifting the secret veil, speaking openly about alcohol abuse, this pandemic will just get grow. I am no longer embarrassed that I was a drunk. I am happy to talk openly about drinking too much. I am no longer taken aback when family and friend say ‘but you weren’t that bad’. I now reply: 'yes, I was'. This admission led to some interesting conversations for which I an glad.
If things are to change, we have to be open, especially with our kids. They may not take any notice, but at least the seed has been planted. I know people who want to take on the alcohol industry, influence government policy. I say, good for you, it may take forever, but a small start is talking honestly and openly about addiction and how it affected you.
Not everyone succeeds first time, not everyone finds it easy.
In cyberspace, I have met lots of people who have decided to kick booze to the touchline. Some, like me, have found it relatively easy. That is after years of trying, the decision finally stuck. The fuck it bucket does come calling. So far, I’ve kept it in its corner.
Others struggle and fight with the decision daily, never quite reaching the levels of peace and serenity they sought, but striving to get there.
I have met others who cannot go more than a couple of days without. These people are not weak, far from it: They have such admirable strength because they pick themselves up after every hiccup and start again. It is easy from the standpoint of sobriety to discount these people but, that is not the right thing to do because these are the people who need our unswerving support. They need us to be their cheerleaders. They need a circle of supporters who believes in their sincerity. Isolation is the most damaging state for people who are striving to kick an addiction. It behooves us all to remember that. I know, because for years I was one of those isolated people.
Life goes on
Once the initial fear of not drinking fades, it’s time to start living. It can be shocking to find out that life without the grog is not as we imagined. Without alcohol, life can be dull and difficult. There are highs and lows. But that is life. The challenge is to find a way to make it work and making it work means dealing with the emotions that as drunks we strove to drown.
My daily challenge is to keep my head out of the fuck it bucket, following actions have helped:
I have to make sure that I eat well, stay hydrated and get plenty of sleep. My mood dips if I’m not busy and spend too much time alone. I try not to overthink and dramatise. I am learning to deal with what's ahead of me and not ruminate about what's behind me.
Above all, I am grateful that I have given myself a second shot at life.
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This post is by Erica MrsP
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