Updated: Jun 17
June 17, 2022 marks my 2 year soberversary from alcohol. 🥳
This is by far the longest stretch of sobriety experienced since I started drinking alcohol in my early teen years. In reflecting on what I want to share with you, and how best to do it, I re-read this blog post I wrote on "6 Lessons Learned After 600 Days Without Alcohol," and decided to write this one as a follow-up or continuation of the conversation. So here are some new lessons learned after 730 days without alcohol.
Lesson 1: Getting sober requires you to stop drinking. Staying sober requires you to begin recovering.
The addictive cycle is a cycle of suffering. When you decide to stop drinking and get sober, you push pause on the cycle. It's in this place of pause where the real work begins. This "work" takes many shapes and forms because you are literally rewiring your brain which has been programmed to believe alcohol is your ultimate or go-to source for feel-good chemicals, and that it can help calm things down, take the edge off, and bring pleasure.
Entering pause mode brings opportunity to see how alcohol actually revs up anxiety, creates new edges that you may fall from, and detracts from fully experiencing pleasure.
Staying sober requires us to challenge false truths society feeds us about alcohol and, eventually, to learn how to cope with the entire range of human emotions instead of try to control, manipulate, or numb them with alcohol.
Learning to cope with emotions, perhaps for the first time in your life, is hard work and can leave a person vulnerable to want to "change back" to their old ways. Sober mentors, trauma-informed therapists, and emotionally mature people are all sources of support that can help you learn healthier ways of processing emotions.
Lesson 2: When you stop one addictive behavior, you need to be very careful about what tries to take its place.
Addictive behaviors and addictive patterns travel in packs (just like mental health diagnoses). It's actually much less common for a person to struggle with a single substance or addictive behavior like drugs or alcohol, shopping, emotional eating, or porn use, than it is for a person to have several addictive tendencies that require working through in order to maintain a life free from the addictive cycle.
Addressing all of your addictive behaviors is necessary to truly free yourself from the addictive cycle.
Personal example: Slaying the drinking demon in year one did not take me off the addictive cycle altogether, instead, it actually just made more room for three of my other "issues" to come to light throughout this past year: cannabis use to dissociate and numb out, overworking to gain a sense of self-worth and value in society, and obsession with healthy eating to try to control my fluctuating invisible illnesses (mental health diagnoses and fibromyalgia).
It has taken this past year for me to really see how these behaviors are all intertwined and how these behaviors work on the same dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, etc. chemicals as alcohol.
As you can see, quitting drinking is only the beginning. As my therapist once said when I asked what was happening as it seemed after a year sober from alcohol I was actually only getting worse, you have, for the first time in your life, been able to get out of survival mode and this is where the healing begins.
As a side note, I didn't accept this with grace, but I understood the assignment no less. Being told the hard truths (ex., not drinking doesn't solve problems but gives you the energy and brain power to do so in a life-changing way) has been integral in me coming to understand what recovery is and why people say it's a lifelong pursuit.
Lesson 3: Emotions (including anger, grief, and disappointment) are part of a healthy human experience.
Another hard truth! I mean, I know you know this about anger, grief, and disappointment, but do you accept this?
If you want to stay sober for a milestone like two years, you will need to acknowledge these unpleasant feelings are going to happen (and should!).
If you are numbing your feelings with alcohol like I was, though, it can be really unsettling when those feelings begin rising from the depths of your own darkness. It can honestly feel like the grief of ungrieved losses will destroy you, that you cannot survive it, but this isn't the case.
Anger, sadness, and grief that is so big and so scary, is actually much more a threat to your health when it's unprocessed and left to run rampant in your body while you drink to try to tame it, numb it, or drown it.
Waves of emotions come and go when you feel them and release them; and learning how to do this is what being in recovery is all about. In the first year, all emotions I felt were pretty much centered around the alcohol and cannabis complex because #cravings. It took all my energy just to not consume alcohol or cannabis.
After a year alcohol-free and some weeks sober from cannabis, things started coming to the surface as my mind made way for new, sober thoughts and my heart was allowed space to grieve for literally the first time.
At this point, I started remembering past traumas and experiencing intense night terrors and I relapsed with cannabis several times in attempt to "calm things down" and continue working or continue wearing some mask for others who were uncomfortable with my emotions.
What helped me be able to move from consuming cannabis and stay sober from alcohol was EMDR therapy. It was necessary at this point to help me process some of the things I'd be hiding from myself including things from childhood I was never allowed to healthfully move through while my family, rife with illness, addiction, financial strain, and unprocessed trauma, was in survival mode.
EMDR over the course of several sessions released my lucid dreaming from a state of survival mode to a place of empowerment. This allowed space for recovery on a deeper, soul level.
Lesson 4: Changing your life changes your life.
I didn't know changing my life would actually change my life...
I thought I could stop drinking and stay the same people-pleasing, overfunctioning pseudo-adult with no range of real human emotion, and that was a challenge to overcome on its own, and I'll forever be working on this, and that's okay because I no longer expect perfection.
Short story time
Here is some more context for those of you who want to know what can happen after two years without alcohol...
Two years ago, I was experiencing overwhelming suicidal thoughts that were beginning to crossover into seriously dangerous territory. I may have looked "fine" from the outside or to the untrained or dissociated eye, but I wasn't safe with myself (despite being on medication to manage suicidal thinking and symptoms of severe depression and being in trauma-informed therapy).
I was not okay.
Moving (sometimes very slowly) from a place of not feeling safe with myself to inhabiting a place where I now trust myself and am safe with myself took (and takes!) so much work... How could I have not changed in that process? I was supposed to change! I am still changing! My life today depended entirely on me changing (which, much to the chagrin of some around me, also required me to start standing up for myself, my needs, and establishing boundaries for the first time).
But still, I tried for too long even after a year free from alcohol to pretend as though I was somehow the same. Trying to maintain an image of constancy for others or yourself (especially in the first and second year where literally everything is changing because you are rewiring your brain) is a slippery slope toward full relapse.
Lesson 5: You need space to grow as you figure out and create who you are without alcohol.
Give yourself the space to grow, to change, to discover new and old parts of your existence.
You may be trying to appear the same to pre-existing people in your life for many reasons, and all of them are doing you a disservice and limiting the real potential of recovery. You may be putting in this effort to avoid ruffling feathers and being abandoned, to prove you don't think sobriety makes you better than anyone else, or to prove you're still "cool" and don't take yourself too seriously. That you are still the same...
You may also be trying to appear the same so you don't have to change further, leave certain unsafe people, or make more major life changes. I promise this will only delay your healing, and keep you stuck in a place where you can't fully accept the authentic version of yourself.
Feel like no one in real life likes your sober self? IT HAPPENS. If you need someone to tell you they like your sober self, try opening up about how you feel in a support group for other people trying to quit a substance or stay sober. These people often also struggle with feeling unloved, unwanted, and no longer like they fit. They can help reassure you that you have a community with them (even if you're not a 12-stepper - which I am not).
Psst...You can pop in-and-out of AA to get what you need. This is controversial but better than all-or-nothing and never dipping your toes into the AA pond at all. For example, I attended several meetings during the holiday season when surrounded by people drinking and needing to know there were people only this planet who also had sober Christmases or were dealing with staying sober when around others who were celebrating the season with alcohol. It served its purpose, and it's always an open door policy.
Lesson 6: Choose your safe people very wisely.
Speaking of reaching out and connecting, you'll be better off knowing some people are not safe people to go to with big emotions or with feelings of relapse. These people may be family members, friends, a spouse, or even so-called mentors.
Why are some people not "safe people"? Unfortunately, there are many reasons someone may not be safe to go to when you're struggling. They may be scared of change, resistant to see you as someone with a problem with alcohol, emotionally immature and unable to handle this responsibly, or they may be dealing with their own insecurities about their own drinking or about being abandoned if you change "too much."
They may also be committed to a storyline about you that's simply inaccurate and therefore dangerous (ie., you never really had a problem with alcohol, or, you're being dramatic about an event that happened to prompt you to stop drinking). These people do not want to see you suffer, so they may enable you to relapse instead.
Enabling "red flag" phrases include:
It's totally understandable if you have a sip for a special occasion
Maybe you could just try limiting the amount you drink rather than quitting altogether
Could you just drink less?
Why does it have to be all-or-nothing?
I never saw you as a person with a problem with alcohol
You never drank more than anyone else
But you're not an addict
Why are you punishing yourself
Maybe being totally sober is just too much with everything else you have going on
Why don't you just (insert another drug or behavior) instead
Aren't you making things harder by giving it up altogether
Can't you just moderate (a glass here and there)
I won't judge you if you decide to drink again
Everyone needs "something to take the edge off"
You don't want to "go too far the other way"
I'm not saying you should smoke or drink, but maybe something to help calm things down is necessary right now, and that's okay
I'm not saying you need to cut people out if they say these things (only you can make the decision about who needs to stay and who needs to go), but do consider twice before going to them for support if you're struggling to stay sober.
Lesson 7: Don't pretend relapse triggers don't affect you. Know your triggers and respect them like your life depends on it (it does).
Never make the mistake of thinking you have this sober thing figured out, and that now that you have reached X amount of time or have done a sober holiday cycle, it's going to be smooth-sailing. That's actually a really great red flag that relapse is around the corner.
Understand that temptation will come knocking.
Know your triggers so you can create plans for how to honour your needs.
Know that there is nothing shameful, embarrassing, or weak about not wanting to be around a bunch of people drinking or doing other drugs (yes, this extends to "fun" settings like vacations, weddings, and retreats that involve alcohol).
You do not need to and should not pretend it's fine because this sort of added temptation, stress, and exposure can pave the path for relapse.
Relapse triggers big and small include:
being overly tired (ie., overworking and not resting)
being hungry (ie., not feeding myself nourishing food or exercising too much without compensating calorie-wise)
feeling lonely or untethered
being spiritually depleted (ie., avoiding the spiritual realm because of some false illusion of being too busy)
having PMS AKA premenstrual syndrome that sets off a series of hormonal changes,
experiencing a flare up in fibromyalgia symptoms
being overly strict in other areas such as food consumption (ie., you can only say 'no' to so many things in one day, pick your battles)
being around people actively consuming alcohol
parties where alcohol is a central character (ie., New Years' Eve, Christmas, etc)
Triggers don't make you weak; they make you human.
Triggers don't make you weak; they make you human. Avoiding them (when possible) doesn't mean you are not strong, are not recovered, or are not okay- it means you know staying sober in a world that pushes alcohol and drugs as a way to (not) cope is energy-consuming on its own and you don't need to test yourself in this space. You're already being tested. And guess what? You're winning every single day you stay sober. That's the strength. That's the bravery. That's the warrior saying the cycle stops here.
If you found this helpful, someone else may find it helpful, so please feel free to share this post on your social media. Thank you for being here for my sober journey!