“The most liberating and empowering day of my life was the day I freed myself from my own self-destructive nonsense,” wrote Dr. Steve Maraboli, and I couldn’t agree more. Last Friday I celebrated four years of sobriety and, difficult as it has been and sometimes continues to be, every day I am sober is both liberating and empowering.
When I think back to the person I was before sobriety, it’s kind of hard to believe it’s actually been years since I’ve had a drink. But here I am, four years in, and pretty darn excited about it—especially because research has shown that if someone can stay sober for four years, the risk of relapse drops significantly. While there’s never a guarantee, it feels good to know I’ve hit some sort of milestone in my recovery.
Not everyone needs sobriety in order to live a positive, present life, but for me, it is absolutely essential. When I wasn’t sober, I struggled to stay in the moment, often ruminating excessively about the past. (Or in some cases, I stayed too much in the moment—not considering the consequences of my actions and landing myself in some pretty big messes.) When I wasn’t sober, I also struggled to stay positive, the depressive chemicals leading me down increasingly negative paths of thinking.
For me, staying sober is a huge part of living a positive and present life. Whether or not you, too, choose to live a sober life, you may benefit from taking a look at the lessons I’ve learned about getting (and staying) sober over the last four years. While they’re written specifically about my experiences with living a sober life, a lot of them apply to life in general so check ’em out!
TO GET + STAY SOBER, YOU WILL . . .
. . . HAVE TO WANT SOMETHING ELSE MORE.
Getting sober took me a long, long time because, for most of my young adult life, there wasn’t anything I wanted more than going out and having a good time. I didn’t care if I hurt people or myself. I didn’t care if I messed with my job or with my relationships. Nothing else matter more to me than doing what I’d always done—until one day something clicked. After years of placing blame on everything and everyone else, I finally realized that what I really truly wanted was to change myself, to become positive and present. I couldn’t do that with a bottle in my hand and so I made a choice: I chose to want something (a more positive, present life) than I wanted to drink.
. . . NEED TO KEEP REPEATING THE RIGHT CHOICE.
It’s one thing to make the right choice once (like asking for water at the bar instead of a beer), but to do it over and over and over again is really hard work. I’m four years into this, and I still struggle when a waiter approaches me to take my drink order. Even just doing every day things can be a challenge. For example, walking past a liquor store can send my mind racing, a little devil on my shoulder saying, “Just go in, get a six pack and drink it. No one will know.” Making the right choice happens on a moment-to-moment basis and it’s rarely easy. But, as frustrating as it is to have to make the right (often hard!) choice all the time, it’s so incredibly satisfying to make the choice that I know will make me more positive and present.
. . . HAVE TO FEEL REALLY LONELY SOMETIMES.
I’ll be honest: sometimes not drinking sucks. I miss the connections I had (or at least felt I had) with those I would go drinking with. I miss the invitations to bar crawls and happy hours. Even when I’m invited, I sometimes have to decline because I know certain events (like, say, an all-day tour of a vineyard) won’t be good for me. It’s hard choosing to be left out of the fun. And it can sometimes be the most lonely when I actually do go to social events. There’s nothing quite like holding up your water glass during a champagne toast to make you feel alone in a room full of people. Luckily I have a partner who is supportive (and sober) so that really helps, but I won’t lie: sobriety can be really lonely.
. . . NEED TO ACCEPT YOUR (MANY!) IMPERFECTIONS.
For me, drinking was always an escape. It was a journey I’d take to a familiar-yet-altered world where almost anything could happen. In that world, I was brave (can I drive home? sure!). I was social (talk to people I’ve never met? no problem!). I was free (leave the bar alone and wander the streets? sounds like fun!). All of my real-life problems could be avoided by downing a drink, and I could evade my many faults (particularly my inherent introvertedness) by simply cracking open a beer. Of course, sobriety doesn’t lend itself will to this type of avoidance. One of the scariest things about sobriety is how real everything is. When I make a mistake, it can no longer blame it on a substance coursing through my veins. When I have trouble being social, I can no longer self-medicate to get through an evening out. Which brings me to my next point…
. . . HAVE TO ACTUALLY FEEL FEELINGS.
When I was drinking, it often felt as though my feelings were magnified—every heartache was the worst one ever and every fight was a dramatic battle. But I didn’t know what really having to feel was until I got sober. With no escape from the way I feel, I’ve been forced to actually, you know, feel. Even when escaping into a night of drunken rumination actually made things worst, emotionally, drinking away any pain somehow allowed me to feel as if I was getting away from painful feelings, if only for a night. Now, there’s no escaping how I feel. I found this especially challenging last year when I put my beloved dog Bella to sleep. I wanted nothing more to escape from the loss and pain, to ease myself into some sort of oblivion where the loss of her didn’t hurt so much, but I couldn’t. I had to feel and it hurt like hell, but you know what? As cliche as it is, learning to feel without any escape has made me stronger and that strength (unlike the temporary escape that comes with numbed feelings) is something that can never be taken from me.
. . . NEED TO KNOW IT GETS EASIER, BUT NEVER EASY.
Someone who’d been sober for a few months once said to me, “It’s really not bad. I haven’t really missed drinking that much.” My mind instantly clouded with a green fog of jealousy. Not bad? Haven’t missed it? I wanted whatever sort of calm state of mind would allow me, too, to find sobriety so effortless. For me, it’s never been easy, and though it gets easier—I’ve learned how to better avoid triggers, how to handle my emotions, and how to make things less difficult for myself—it is never something I don’t really miss. Drinking was a like a dear friend I’d had for over a decade, and even though I know she was a terrible friend, I still miss her and the fun we used to have together. I keep waiting for a day when I won’t miss her and maybe that will happen someday, but for now, I’ve chosen to accept the fact that sobriety gets easier but never easy.
. . . HAVE TO TAKE IT ONE DAY AT A TIME.
Ah, yes, the good ol’ “one day at a time” slogan, courtesy of AA (which, by the way, I tried, but just couldn’t seem to get into). It sounds incredibly cliche, but it has been incredibly crucial for me in my recovery. When I think about never, ever drinking again, I feel a wave of panic wash over me. Never? Never ever? Telling me I can’t do something is the best way to make me want it more than anything so the thought of never being allowed to do something makes me feel increasingly rebellious. And so I don’t think about the never-ever part of sobriety. Instead, I tell myself, “I’m not drinking today.” When I think about it that way, it gets so much easier to manage. Not drink for a day? I can do that! And so I do it for one day and then another and another… and suddenly it’s been four years. Whether it’s drinking or something else you’re trying to quit, if you focus on each day (the present!), the idea of change can become the reality of progress.
. . . NEED TO TOLERATE PEOPLE WHO DON’T GET IT.
A lot of people don’t understand sobriety. Either they don’t have the aching need for alcohol so they don’t see why you’d need to give it up completely or they’re so attached to it themselves that thinking about you being sober makes them have to question their own habits (which most people don’t really want to do). It’s hard when people don’t understand or don’t think sobriety is necessary, but after four years of this, I’ve realized that it just doesn’t matter what people think or say. What matters is making choices for myself that help me to live a more positive, more present life. If those same choices work for other people too, awesome. If they don’t, that’s fine too. Luckily, I haven’t had people who try to pressure me into drinking, but sometimes the lack of understanding or support can be just as tough. The trick, I’ve learned, is to focus my attention on the people who do get it and allow their love and support to drown out the questions or disapproval of others.
. . . HAVE TO ACCEPT (BUT NOT FORGET) THE PAST.
I could spend my days wallowing in regret, wishing I could go back and change some of the mistakes I’d made while drinking, but that doesn’t do me much good in the present does it? Nope. However, I’ve also discovered it’s important not to completely forget the past—especially the negative parts of it. When I find myself reminiscing about the glory days of drinking, recalling how lovely it was to sit outside on a hot day with a cold beer or how great it felt to be amped up on RedBull and vodka and dancing without a care in the world, I have to remind myself how the past wasn’t all dancing and laughter. There were a lot of very unpleasant things that happened while I was drinking and sometimes (negative as this sounds!) it helps to recall those bad times to remind myself why I no longer drinking. Romanticizing the past can be a dangerous thing when it comes to sobriety so it helps to recall what the past was really like.
. . . NEED TO RECOGNIZE YOUR UNIQUE TRIGGERS.
Everyone has something that sets them off, and it’s no different when it comes to staying sober. I have some annoying triggers (summer, Saturday nights, weddings) that make me want to drink, but learning to recognize these has helped me. Just knowing that something is a trigger can help me make it through the tough times. For example, when I hear neighbors having parties and getting wild on Saturday nights and I feel that awful pang of loneliness in my chest, I remind myself that tomorrow it will be gone and it’ll be much easier. Just knowing that the feeling will go away helps a lot. Also, knowing what types of events to avoid makes it easier for me to avoid situations what will be really difficult for me to handle. I can’t always avoid triggers (Saturday nights aren’t going away any time soon…), but I’ve learned to be aware of them, which allows me to feel more in control of how I react to them.
. . . HAVE TO LEARN TO PUT YOUR SOBRIETY FIRST.
It’s taken me awhile to realize this, but I now know that if you want to really commit yourself to getting and staying sober, it has to be your number one priority. It has to be more important than the party of the year. It has to be more important than the once-in-a-lifetime celebration. It has to be more important that escaping loss or unhappiness. It has to be more important than what other people think (or what you think they think!). It has to come before everything, because if it doesn’t, there will always be a reason to let it go. Sobriety is a squirming, moody thing, and there are moments when letting it go seems easier than hanging on. But those are just moments and moments end. So do parties. And weddings. And Saturday nights. Sometimes it’s really hard not to hang on in the moments when I feel like I’m missing out. But I’ve realized that, for me, letting go of sobriety would mean missing out on so much more—on the positively present life I’m striving so hard to live—and that knowledge reminds me to always, always put my sobriety first.
It wasn’t particularly easy for me to write this post. I don’t talk much about my sobriety here on Positively Present, but it’s important to me and it’s important to the blog because, without it, there’s no way I would have been able to commit myself to these words—and to my readers—the way I have all of these years. So, hard as this was to write, it was important for me to share what I’ve learned. If you’re sober or trying to get sober, I hope these words help you. And if you aren’t sober or don’t want to be, I hope you’ve gained a nugget or two of knowledge from what I’ve learned over the last four years of sobriety.