Two hundred twelve days. Not a drop of alcohol swallowed in all that time. I’ve been told the first year of sobriety, or sometimes even the first couple of years, can be a wild roller coaster ride until all part of ourselves arrive at renewed equilibrium and balance. It can be a long healing journey for our mind, body, and spirit to recover from the toxins we ingested during our many drinking days. I drank for decades. Every part of our human design is affected; physical, mental, and emotional. Every aspect of our being needs to regroup in order for us to become the high functioning human we long to be, beyond merely existing, above barely making it through the days, to a life of truly thriving, to a life filled with vitality and enthusiasm.
It takes time and consistent, conscious effort to establish new habits that redirect our subconscious to create new pathways in our brain as we become sober. We create a new way of living in our world. One of the seeming insurmountable challenges for most of us who decide to take this ‘road less traveled’ of being a non-drinker, is learning how to coexist in a culture where the vast majority are boozers. We live in a culture where being a non-drinker is an act of rebellion, an anomaly, sometimes considered odd or weird. We have to navigate a whole new world for ourselves, find our way through the booze-guzzling jungle. Many of us were ‘life-of-the-party’ types, lighting up at social gatherings with the ever present drink in hand, encouraging others to join in, laughing, dancing, chatting happily, never imagining a life without the “fun” of booze. I was one who encouraged the presence of booze anywhere it was acceptable, sometimes taking risks, pushing the envelope, believing it always enhanced the experience.
Our society is brainwashed to believe alcohol is an elixir, that it helps us let go of inhibitions, allows us to relax and de-stress, sleep better, makes us funnier, happier, smarter, sexier, more attractive. Our experiences of social drinking are usually enjoyable, at least in the beginning, reinforcing those beliefs, until we find ourselves drinking to excess and paying the price with hangovers, low and non-functioning days, embarrassing behaviors, lack of impulse control.
The process of becoming addicted to alcohol is gradual. Addiction occurs slowly over time, one of the many reasons for disputing the theory that addiction to alcohol is a disease. No one is immune to alcohol dependency. Addiction is like sinking in quicksand in ultra slow motion- it pulls us further under the surface until we lose all control over it. If we continue down the slippery slope to complete physical and mental dependence on alcohol, it can lead to a death sentence. Alcohol is responsible for contributing to all sorts of serious illnesses. Addiction to alcohol can happen regardless of genetics or biology and often includes many years of moderate “social drinking”. When we associate drinking with stress relief, fun, relaxation, relieving anxiety, reward, celebration, letting go of the day, enhanced social skills, and all things positive, the frequency of drinking booze increases steadily over time. We enter the danger zone when we use alcohol to self-medicate, teaching our brains to become reliant on it. We find ourselves drinking higher and higher quantities of alcohol and making excuses to start drinking earlier in the day or on days we would not normally drink. Eventually this leads to ingesting relatively large quantities of the substance on a regular basis.
Some people are binge drinkers that go many days or weeks without drinking even an ounce of alcohol. The weekend rolls around and they ingest enormous quantities at one time, getting completely smashed perhaps to the point of blackout. They do this repeatedly, thinking they don’t have a problem because they can go several days or even weeks without drinking. Then, out of control drinking and all its consequences reappear. Others drink smaller quantities frequently, daily or almost daily, establishing a habit that is excruciatingly difficult to break.
The quantity of booze we imbibe tends to increase over time because it takes more to get the same buzz we enjoyed when drinking less in the past. Our brains automatically release neurotransmitters and hormones that efficiently counteract the effects of the intake of alcohol, returning us as best it can to the desired state of homeostasis, which then leads to requiring more booze to acquire the same “buzz” we used to feel with less. Our brains then release higher quantities of those same neurotransmitters and hormones to counterattack the effects of more booze, and our ‘tolerance” becomes higher. We are teaching our brains to counteract our increased intake and we no longer get buzzed unless we drink more. It takes more and more alcohol to attain the desired effect. Our livers immediately release enzymes to rid our bodies of the toxic effect of the alcohol flowing in, quickly prioritizing all metabolism to processing the alcohol over digesting any nutrients from the food we might have eaten. The processing of alcohol takes precedent over the digestion and assimilation of the healthy food we may have enjoyed as our dinner. Most of what we eat while we drink, and after, hence goes straight to fat storage and causes bloating, nausea and indigestion.
Here is a great explanation of the science of our brain’s reaction to ingesting alcohol: https://www.hackensackmeridianhealth.org/HealthU/2018/12/27/what-happens-to-brain-drink-alcohol/
The act of drinking alcohol over a long period of time can surprise us with how quickly the change happens from positive to negative. It seems for a long time that our drinking causes us to feel happy and enhances our celebratory mood, bringing a sense of bliss, relaxation, even temporary euphoria and delight. As we become more physiologically and chemically dependent on booze with increased dosing, we find ourselves experiencing less pleasure for shorter periods. We find ourselves finding less and less enjoyment from the high of the alcohol buzz over time as the duration of the buzz decreases and it takes more alcohol to reach the desired state. More alcohol to get the buzz means more negative effects to follow, such as a booze-induced state of anxiety, dread, guilt, shame, depression – often without our full awareness. Until. Until we notice we wake up feeling foggy-headed with a body full of aches and pains, slow to throw off the covers, getting up later and later, groggy and unexcited about the morning because we feel crappy. Until we swear we’re going to take a long break from drinking only to find ourselves having a glass of wine (leading to two or three or more) later that very day, ultimately repeating and deepening the ill effects. Our sleep is interrupted with middle-of-the-night tossing and turning as we awake with anxiety about what we did or did not do while drinking. The sinking realization hits that our alcohol-influenced behavior caused us to do things we later regret, maybe as innocent as leaving a messy kitchen with a sink full of dirty dishes, several important tasks again left undone because our buzzed state made the tasks unmanageable, leaving empty packages of normally off-limits sugar-laden or processed foods scattered on the kitchen counter with indigestion (and regret) as the result. The aftermath of excessive drinking can be as dangerous as driving under the influence and recklessly endangering ourselves or others, getting a DUI, risking our future. Eventually our repeated attempts at cutting back on the quantity and frequency of drinking booze, of moderating to more “normal” levels of drinking, are unsuccessful. We find ourselves riding the hamster wheel of addiction, and we must face the truth that alcohol is not enhancing our lives in any way, shape, or form.
Decades of numbing and escaping emotions, putting the monsters in the closet thinking they will be quiet if locked up and pretending they don’t exist, can bring some big surprises when the closet door is opened. Mind and spirit swim in a sea of emotions, sometimes akin to drowning. A whole Universe of emotions surface throughout the sober journey. Emotions of all types continue to peek their heads, some welcome, some not so much. No more numbing or escaping with booze means emotions are up front and center stage. Emotions can send us to places we have never been before. The sobriety roller coaster takes us laboriously up the mountain, slowly chugging away, requiring great effort to make it to the next crest, then whoosh, breathlessly it takes us flying at high speed going down, down, down into the next scary unknown, exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
Lately I have been in a state of melancholy, often feeling restless and unsettled. I know I am not alone, this is a tough time for everyone. Our country has experienced a flood of far reaching negativity and division politically and socially. The pandemic has required hiding our faces (and hence our smiles) with masks, intensified our sense of separation. Feeling disconnected is painful for those of us with tender hearts who thrive on connection. Mass populations of people are filled with self-righteous anger and indignation. My highly sensitive self has a hard time maneuvering through the maze of our bizarre 2020 world. I find myself often feeling less inspired, less eager to tackle the day, less joyful. These are parts of my own emotional kaleidoscope. I am learning to be with the vast portrait of what makes me who I am. When my emotions vibrate at these lower frequencies, it is harder for me to accept and embrace them, but I am determined not to bypass them. I will get there, working through all stages of my feelings. My natural state is one of positivity. At my best I am bursting with joy, gratitude, kindness, appreciation, and vitality. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t experience bumps in the road, even infrequently. The only way to get to the other side is through, even if it the road is long and slow. I am learning to steady myself as I steer through the less exciting states of normality that sobriety (and life in general) brings. I revere the immensely happy times and deep rewards of being booze free. I know way too much to turn back to a life of boozing. The temporary fix of the booze buzz I enjoyed over many years is unattainable for me now, overshadowed by the knowledge of the damage it does to my psyche, my spirit, my physicality. As I reflect on my success at slaying the booze bitch, which was one of the most difficult challenges I have ever confronted, my sense of pride returns. I love the support and connection I feel from the Sober Sphere. Sober communities are full of tender, raw, vulnerable folks who share the agony and the ecstasy of the journey- with all its ascents and descents, the ultimate triumph of overcoming addiction. I may not be riding the pink cloud of sober ecstasy any longer, full of rainbows and unicorns, but I am committed to living my best life. My best self will vary from day to day dependent on many factors. I will continue on the sober path, grateful for all the gifts it brings. I am still learning to surf the sober waves, gaining skills to competently swim in the sober sea. Life is a bowl of cherries with plenty of pits. The delight of their juicy sweetness makes the bitter parts bearable, worthwhile. Without contrast, we would not appreciate the best things in life.
Here’s a non-alcoholic toast to the good life. Touche’.