I liked who I was when I was drinking. I was fun loving, wild, and irreverent. I said and did things that I would never have done if I were sober. Drinking dismantled my perceived shortcomings and low self esteem. It made me bold and courageous.
When the alcohol hit my system, everything would become suffused with a golden yellow glow. Every idea, every person, and even I, myself, would be bathed in this light. My breath would start to slow, any problems seemed manageable, and my life’s possibilities seemed endless. The world around me sparkled.
Alcohol opened my mind. It would allow my attention to wander to things I might have otherwise missed. I would have what I thought were great ideas that I thought I would not hesitate to follow through with. However, the next day I would realize that my sober self did not have any interest in doing those things, and I would end up having to return a bunch of Amazon packages that I did not remember ordering. There were hits and misses.
During low points in my life I could count on alcohol to tame the battles raging in my mind and lessen the anxiety that gripped my chest. However, as time went on I started to understand that alcohol was not treating my anxiety and depression, it was compounding the intensity of the symptoms and lessening the effect of any possible solutions, such as medication, exercise, meditation. The balance had shifted- what alcohol was taking from me was far outweighing what it was giving to me. The golden-hued moments were fewer and further between. The need surpassed the want as the toll alcohol was having on my body and mind became magnified.
As I considered quitting alcohol I simply could not picture it. I could not imagine parts of my life without alcohol — unwinding from a tough day at work, having a nice meal, going to a wedding, having friends over. Moreover, not having that tool to achieve a predictable change in mood and mindset was a frightening prospect. I would have to develop other, healthier tools. Fast.
The decision was made: I needed to be done with alcohol. She had to go. It was a somber goodbye as she packed her bags and shuffled out the door. There were no hugs, no heartfelt declarations, no reminiscing. Just a door slam as she left. This time through the front door and not the back door from which she had snuck in. I breathed a tentative sigh of relief as I looked around but wondered — where would fun come from now? I needed to put out a BOLO (be on the lookout) for the sparkle.
I cranked up the stereo. Music would still be there for me. I had always loved music and it gave me a sense of weightlessness and joy I was seeking without alcohol. But something felt off. Every song I had loved either reminded me of drinking or of my struggle not to drink. It felt like I was going through a breakup. I didn’t want to listen to songs that reminded me of being together specifically or of breaking up in general. So I switched to listening to pop hits. I remember a particularly hard day singing Justin Beiber, “Love Yourself”, at the top of my lungs in the car and feeling much better by the time I got home. This is to say that there were both expected and unexpected results of sobriety. A temporary change in music preferences was unexpected. It was, however, temporary, after a year or two I was back to listening to everything I had loved. Only, I loved it more. It spoke to my wide-open soul and my clear mind.
As I turned up the volume on whatever resonated with my soul, I also opened myself up to different ways of finding moments of joy and wonder. These were moments that I had within my grasp when I was drinking. Within 30 seconds of my first sip, the alcohol would sprint to my brain and pull the harness to slow the chemicals and pathways in my brain to alter my mood, slow my reflexes, and create a sense of well-being. Without alcohol, I found other ways to get to that place of bliss. The tools had been there all along, I just hadn’t picked them up and used them. I didn’t know that rubbing my 8 lb dog’s belly for 5 minutes could give me a sense of calm akin to the anxiety reduction I felt with alcohol. Or that getting into bed with a sheet mask and a mug of tea could feel like a tiny fireworks display, a triumph.
So now I look for glimpses of awe, I search them out and take them wherever I can find them — eating a donut, walking on the river, or reading a really good book. These moments are real. They are not created by a chemical substance’s effect on the neurological pathways of my brain. They are created by authentic experiences causing a release of natural chemicals in the brain that give me the same feeling I craved from alcohol. Sometimes, this feedback loop is not as quick or as predictable as alcohol; but it exists if I am willing to put in the effort. There are days when I can’t quiet negative emotions in under 5 minutes like a glass of wine would. It may take multiple attempts and a number of approaches — deep breathing, journaling, going for a walk, talking out my feelings, taking a bath. But I know that once I slow the flow of thoughts and redirect the stream of emotions that I have actually solved a problem that will not flood back in tomorrow morning accompanied by a raging hangover riding the waves.
Also, gone are the unspeakable post-socializing hangovers. I had been using alcohol as a social lubricant since I was a teenager and the worst of my drinking took place at social events. Social situations were perhaps at the top of the pyramid of greatest fears I had about being sober. Amplifying my panic over interacting with people was the idea that I would have to explain why I no longer drank. I avoided parties and bars for several months. I stuck to uncomplicated interactions with a few people who were not heavy drinkers. I wondered, was the joy of being with people in a social setting gone? No, just a temporary blip while I reoriented myself. I tentatively emerged from my hibernation and went to a party and the simple delights that come from human connection were still there, only better. I could have entire conversations on single topics without diverging. I wasn’t distracted, scattered or thinking about my next drink. I listened and reacted appropriately to what others were saying. I learned from people, asked questions and felt a deeper connection than I had previously. So no, I am no longer the person in the group who wants to go to the next bar for the next drink. But I am irrefutably me.
I understand if even thinking about sobriety makes you shiver like you’re stuck in a blizzard. If you feel like you would be giving up the best parts of yourself, the playful part, the creative part, or the part that can feel the deepest. However, what you are losing is a version of yourself that never existed. Alcohol may have shown you what is possible but it would never let you achieve it.
The awe and joy still exist. The staggering beauty of the world is still there. The flashes of genius still happen. You just have to lean in to hear the whisper. It is no longer a scream.
This post was previously published on Change Becomes You.
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Photo credit: Sonia Kahlon