November 3, 2019

How to Get through the Meandering First Year of Sobriety.

Sobriety is an adventure.

That’s putting it mildly. It’s a dirt path meandering up a mountain full of plot twists and constant surprises. You’ll never be bored, I swear. With every person who says sobriety is “great,” there’s another who says, “Um, this sucks, why am I doing this?”

I am three and a half years sober so I may have some things to share about getting through the first year. No one is an expert really. My drug of choice was alcohol, so I don’t know if my adventure would be different if it were cocaine or sex or food.

I do know a lot about the root of addiction, which is likely universal. I think we may find each other in those roots more than we would if we compared battle stories within our addictions.

Recently, I’ve seen an upsurge on Twitter and other public platforms where newly sober people are reaching out for help and validation. The questions they ask are so similar to what I went through, and I found myself commenting, encouraging, and sharing my experience.

I thought I’d share four of the most popular questions or comments I saw from newly sober people, followed by my thoughts and personal experience.

“Does this ever get better? I feel worse!”

For me, the first year was the hardest. The first few months were even worse. I felt better physically, but only by a margin. The morning hangover feelings were replaced by a lack of sleep and a sense of being an exposed nerve.

My anxiety was initially better, but then ramped up a few weeks later once I realized I didn’t have my crutch to deal with the daily shit-show of life. I remember sitting there thinking, “damn, I have zero tools for how to manage emotions, conflicts, or challenges.” This led to a serious effort being directed toward learning said tools. That effort consumed the rest of that first year.

There were emotional outbursts, child-like tantrums, and copious amounts of herbal tea and kombucha. I’d been pinning my emotions down like a trapped limb, and once I got off the damn thing, all my nerves went wacko. This settled down within that first year, thankfully.

The second year was also challenging, but by then, I had time and my new tools under my belt, so I felt more equipped to handle the ups and downs. Also, my body needed time to recover, so by the start of the second year, I felt much stronger and grounded in my physical self.

The third year still had a few weird moments. I hated being around drunk people, I was probably a little judgy about them. I had PTSD-like reactions to drinking establishments and inebriated people, so I avoided both. I still do, but minus the judgment.

But by the third year, I felt like, you know—I got this!

Does it get better? Hell yeah, but you may feel worse before you get better.

“God, when does the shame end?”

What still fills me with shame is looking back on those few years before getting sober and realizing that most of my health and emotional issues were because of alcohol. Talk about a giant-sized portion of denial. I mean, how could I have not known that anxiety, tremors, nutrient deficiencies, stomach pain, and nerve pain were caused by my alcohol intake?

At one point, I remember looking at my feet and being unable to scrunch my toes without my foot shaking uncontrollably. I thought, “Well, that’s weird, am I getting neuropathy or something?” That’s exactly what I was developing—alcoholic neuropathy, it’s a thing, and we rarely talk about it.

Shame persisted for years, and sometimes it stills pops up.

Since I started writing about my sobriety and addiction, I have friends and family telling me I’m an inspiration, and they’re so proud of me for transforming my life.

It’s great to get that kind of kudos, but the shame-filled part of me feels like I’ve outed myself and been relegated to this group of “others.” Yet, I’m as human and normal as any of them.

Sometimes when you open your doors to liberate yourself from secrets and denial, people will unknowingly place you at the fringe.

Some people are genuinely inspired by your journey. Some people want to keep you at arm’s length lest they are exposed as well. Still, some simply can’t handle being close to someone who’s swimming in the scary waters of their personal fears.

For me, I’ve found minimal benefit in worrying about what anyone else thinks. Having said that, I’m certainly glad I didn’t start writing publicly about my journey until I had a few years and a few more tools under my belt.

You’ll know when the time is right to speak out. Until then, take care of yourself as if you were in a cocoon. But rest assured, we addicts are very tuned in to denial, so working to liberate ourselves from it will absolutely help in the long run.

I’ve found that writing publicly and speaking truthfully about sobriety keeps me anchored in authenticity and strength every day.

“I don’t like all these new feelings, what do I do about that?”

Welcome to the hardest part of getting sober. The reason we find addictive things to soothe ourselves with is so we can be all warm and cozy and never have to face those terrifying feelings again. We badly wish we could keep using without all the adverse effects, but it isn’t possible.

Those new feelings were always there, but we didn’t learn how to feel them or cope with them. Those feelings are just the daily sensations of being alive. The only thing you can do is simply allow them to be there.

We learn how to be resilient with practice and small exposures that we can handle. For me, I kept to myself in the first year. I read a lot of books, made jewelry, took hot baths, and listened to inspiring podcasts and music.

I tiptoed into small daily challenges so I could give myself room to try things without overdoing it. I protected myself and treated my emotions like a baby bird. As each month passed, I got out into the world more and more until I felt more equipped to handle it all.

“What if I’m not doing it right? I don’t want to make mistakes and have a relapse!”

I contemplated sobriety for years before I had a moment of clarity and made the decision to quit. Others try and relapse 50 times before they stick to it. The point is, there are no mistakes. Your path is your path, and only you can walk it.

Excessive worry about relapse can actually cause a relapse. There’s no such thing as the right way, there’s only your way. Trust yourself, or at least commit to learning how to trust yourself.

A few months into my sobriety, I went to a gathering with some friends I used to drink with. I thought it would be okay, but it wasn’t. I had severe panic attacks the whole time and just felt my body screaming at me, “Why did you come here?”

After I got home, I could have berated myself for making such a big mistake. Instead, I opted for compassion, followed by the decision not to do that again. This turned out to be a blessing, as it showed me my limits. This “mistake” could have started me drinking again, but actually, it renewed my decision to stay sober and showed me how I can protect myself.

Sure, if you make a mistake, you could start using again, but then you always have the next day to make a new decision. You can use these mistakes to either reinforce your sobriety or to give up. Either way, you’re going to learn something.

Although it’s good to protect yourself a little in the beginning, you can’t do it forever. You’ve got to get out into the world and try; stretch your legs, flap your wings, use your new tools. You might stumble or even careen headfirst into a brick wall, but honestly, you won’t know until you give it a chance.

“What’s your biggest piece of advice you could give other newly sober people.”

I believe that the root of addiction (in a nutshell) is the aftermath of unresolved trauma, mixed with spiritual depression, combined with an empty toolbox. So do what you can to support these things in that first year.

Find whatever trauma therapy you jive with. It would be even better if you combine that with some spiritual support. For me, I dove into philosophy, meditation, and plant medicine. I meditated and went to workshops that helped uncover my repressed feelings. Within all of that, I naturally learned some new tools to help deal with my emotional and spiritual landscape.

Going too much inside your head may not help, even though you think it will. Our thoughts are often what got us into this mess in the first place, so willing your mind to be different will just exhaust you. Besides, it never solves a thing. It’s like a perpetual Ferris wheel; going around and around and never diving in the deep where you need to go.

Having said that, don’t be afraid to take that deep dive into your soul. Honestly, that’s where the hurt is, where the memories hide, and where you’ll find your tools. Taking this deep dive is precisely how I got sober and how I’ve maintained it.

There are no magic solutions for how to get through that first year. There’s only tenacity and commitment. Searching for the easy button is often how we create and maintain addictions. If you can breathe into the fact that early sober life will be tumultuous, then you’ll be better prepared to build a support network around you.

Let go of expectations and false dreams of the “good life” you think you will have once you’re sober.

Instead, embrace all the moments of life—the shiny, happy moments, as well as the deep, dark ones.

You can do this.

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