January 17, 2021

Overcoming the Fire Swamp of Alcohol Addiction.

Superpowers you gain in sobriety.

As I scanned Facebook recently, I came across the story of a 35-year-old first-grade teacher, Zelene Blancas, who died from COVID-19. A video from her classroom had gone viral a couple of years ago as she showed her students how to express kindness to one another with hugs, handshakes, fist bumps, and high fives.

A couple of days ago, I also read about Luke Letlow, a 41-year-old man who’d been elected to congress and died of COVID-19 just a few weeks before being sworn into office, leaving behind a wife and two small children.

Stories like these cause me to ponder my own case of COVID-19. Although it was relatively mild, the thoughts of “what if?” are unavoidable. If it had been the end, how would I feel about the life I’d led to date? What am I proudest of? What time did I waste that I’ll never get back?

By all accounts, I’ve led a great life. I married my best friend, have two terrific kids, and have an engineering career. It might not always be a perfect fit, but I’ve done work that I’m proud of and had some amazing experiences. But, what am I most proud of? What brings me to my knees with gratitude, grace, tears, and awe?

My sobriety. 

They say you regenerate every cell in your body over 7 to 10 years—you are literally a new person—yet we’re unaware of this miracle that is regularly occurring. (Probably because we appear, more or less, the same.) In the relatively short time that I’ve been completely alcohol-free, that’s how I feel. Although I might look the same, and my new life generally resembles my old one. I feel like a completely rebuilt human being, every cell renewed, but with superpowers.

AA? Not exactly.

I definitely had a preconceived notion, stereotypes, if you will, of AA, and it was a nonstarter for me. In a (very) small town where we had just purchased a (very) large business, AA was just not going to happen for me. Aside from the fear of being recognized and all the stigma that goes along with that, the whole concept seemed so damn depressing:

Admit you are powerless. Forever. Admit you have a disease. Forever. 

Go to meetings. Lots of meetings. Forever. Give yourself a label. Forever. 

I looked up the local AA meeting hall and found a meme on their page saying:

“Them: being sober is boring.

Me: I’d rather be bored than broke, miserable, lonely, depressed, and sad all the time.”

Gosh, how uplifting. I wasn’t broke or miserable or lonely or even depressed. So if “boring'” is the best I can hope for, no thanks. When I saw images of people getting sober, it didn’t look fun. At all.

But thanks to my Pollyanna-ish nature and my propensity to look for the positive in a difficult situation, I stumbled across a new sobriety movement. I started finding voices like Annie Grace, Laura McKowen, Holly Whitaker, Kristi Coulter, and even Chrissy Teigen. They painted a ridiculously joyful looking picture of sobriety, not just surviving but thriving. They seemed downright delighted by their sobriety. I figured it was 90 percent bullsh*t, but perhaps worth a try (just in case).

When I started down the path of sobriety, I felt like I’d been blindfolded and told to walk through a fire swamp. I had no idea if I would make it. I had no idea what type of quicksand or rodents of unusual size. (If you don’t get this reference, go watch the Princess Bride. You’ll thank me.) I’d meet along the way or even what was waiting on the other side. Hell, I didn’t even really know if I wanted to go at all. 

But the truth was that I’d had a whisper inside me telling me that I needed to stop drinking. I could argue with it, ignore it, and try to drown it in craft beer, but every morning it was back. So, I finally decided to listen. I put on my blindfold, took a deep breath, and started walking.

This wasn’t my first attempt to get sober. I had gone to two therapists, telling both of them that I drank too much and wanted to stop or at least cut back. The first told me that my drinking sounded normal, the second suggested I wait until later in the evening to start drinking. Not super helpful.

Before getting sober, I had many thoughts about the prospect of quitting alcohol; they were all either bad or, at best, neutral. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how people did anything fun while completely sober—camping, concerts, dates, weddings. Nearly every fun experience in my last 20 years had included some amount of alcohol. I had some well-worn neural pathways that connected fun with drinking.

I had no idea that getting sober would give me superpowers or be the catalyst to overhauling nearly every area of my life.

I could not have predicted it to be the lynchpin for everything from healing childhood traumas to paying off debt to getting in the best shape of my life. I started picking up superpowers, like living in the present moment, setting boundaries, radical and constant self-love and self-forgiveness, and learning how to create liminal space so I could respond instead of reacting.

I’m greeted almost daily with epiphanies, clarity, purpose, bravery, confidence to be myself, and the ability to bring my unique perspective to all aspects of my life, to stop fitting in. Basically, the ability to do really f*cking hard things that no one notices—even that, I’ve come to realize, is a superpower. 

You see, when I started drinking as a way to “get through the day,” my days automatically became something I had to get through. When I started drinking to “take the edge off,” I became a person with sharp edges. 

It turns out that removing the alcohol wasn’t a loss of anything, but the start of everything. Because alcohol delivers on exactly none of its promises.

Maybe, just maybe, sobriety will offer you one of these superpowers too:

1. Being in the Now

We hear it all the time. Live in the now! Be present! All the self-help gurus tell us to be present. In fact, if you’ve read Eckhart Tolle’s, The Power of Now, you got 10,892 pages (minor exaggeration) describing him sitting on a park bench, you know, just being. But knowing that we should and knowing how are two entirely different things.

Early sobriety is nothing if not lots of practice sitting in the present moment. And to be honest, it’s excruciating. I remember evenings when I was surfing the urge to drink, watching the clock, taking life in 10-minute increments, hiding out in places where I did not have easy access to alcohol—the bathtub, my bed, the library, my office. Sitting on my hands, figuratively (and sometimes literally).

Time slows way down. Minutes turn into weeks. Just make it to 6 p.m. Just make it past dinner. Just make it to 8 p.m., so I can crawl into bed and hide from myself. Make it through the first round of drink orders at the bar or the first comment about your weight at the family gathering without reaching for a drink.

All this being with ourselves, our thoughts, our fears, our past, our pain—it burns. It’s like you’re sitting in a room full of every last painful thing you’ve tried to outrun, but there’s nowhere to run. It begins to feel like the room is on fire. You’re pretty sure alcohol can put out the fire, and it’s within reach, but, instead, you have to choose to sit in the fire—burn and burn and burn.

The bad news is that this is terrible. The good news is it doesn’t last forever. And all this practice of sitting in the now? It’s a superpower. It teaches you, albeit the hard way, a critical life lesson that some people never grasp. All we have is this moment. It’s the only thing that’s real.

2. Learning to Create Liminal Space

I used to think, man, I want a drink, and then I would drink. I didn’t know how to create space between the thought and the action. Many of the tips, tools, and techniques that help you quit drinking include methods that help create this space. For example, a meditation practice will help you realize that you are not your thoughts. And frankly, our thoughts can be big, fat liars.

Meditation, yoga, and other practices also give us the tools we need to get out of our own heads. Sometimes, our minds are not a nice neighborhood to hang around in, and we need a healthy means of escape. This tool translates to other areas of our life and allows us to pause, reflect, and choose how we want to respond to a situation instead of reacting.

3. Doing Hard Things No One Notices

Glennon Doyle reminds us that, “We can do hard things.” But can we do them when no one notices?

Maybe this is a youngest-child problem or a type-A overachiever syndrome, but if you like to get gold stars and recognition for your achievements, I’ve got some bad news: no one will care that you got sober. Or stay sober. At least, not in the moment. And it’s hard. It’s so hard you might think, where is my gold medal? Where is the parade in my honor?

I’m here to tell you that’s a good thing, and it’s a superpower. Most things in life that are worthwhile require hard work, early mornings, late nights, lonely sweat sessions, pouring over books when you’d rather be watching Netflix. The sooner you can accept that you’re going to work extremely hard, there will be obstacles, and (for the most part) no one will care, the sooner you’ll have complete freedom!

4. Creating Boundaries

Brené Brown says, “When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated.” I would add that when we feel used and mistreated, we use and mistreat ourselves. This is why we got addicted to a self-destructive substance, a pattern of behavior, or another person in the first place.

In early sobriety, you learn to be gentle with your sobriety and yourself. You learn to set boundaries for your sobriety like your life depends on it, because, of course, it does. You start to realize that perhaps the things that used to trigger you and make you want to drink should just be on the other side of a big, beautiful boundary. It turns out these new boundaries protect more than your sobriety; maybe they create a fence within which you can build a new life.

5. Living Amends

I discovered the concept of “living amends” quite by accident. I was making my way home from a business trip. I put my carry-on in the overhead bin and got settled into my seat. Several people in the aisles were looking for space in the overhead bins, but they were full. Flight attendants started checking bags for people.

One woman said, “But I’m going to have to spend the night in Salt Lake because I’ve missed my connection, and this bag is literally all I have.” The flight attendant apologized but took the girl’s bag to be checked to her final destination. I hopped up and offered to switch out my bag for hers. It was a teeny, tiny act of kindness, no skin off my back since I would be making my connection, but meaningful and helpful to this other person.

I sat down in my seat, and a revelation washed over me. In early sobriety, when my relationships started improving, I could see just how much room they had to improve. I could see that when I snapped at my kids on Saturday mornings, it wasn’t because they were doing anything “wrong,” it was most likely because I was hungover. I could see how little resentments I was holding toward my husband were actually born out of not liking myself or caring for myself.

These thoughts lead to regret, a desire to turn back the clock, and generally feeling regretful for the time wasted drinking, recovering from drinking, thinking about drinking, buying drinks, and doing things I wasn’t actually interested in doing. Because: drinks! Maybe my exhaustion, crankiness, and overwhelm had been self-induced. Gulp.

Back to the airplane: I realized in that moment of swapping out my suitcase that I could make up for my regrets. I could be the mom, partner, daughter, sister, and friend that I wanted to be—now. I could choose to be of service, and that is how I stumbled upon living amends.

While this is an AA principle (Step 9), I think we can move beyond simply “righting our wrongs” and look at living amends as a superpower. Once you start looking for ways to help, you may as well get fitted for your cape because you’ll have the ability to help people and be of service in ways big and small that will leave you feeling warm and squishy on the inside. You’ll feel like a secret guardian angel—like you were magically placed in this location at this moment in time to create joy or ease a burden. Because you were.

6. Doing Right by Yourself

At the wedding of a friend, the bride’s sister gave a toast and said that the bride “always did right by others, and did right by herself.” Did right by herself? Did I hear that right? What did that mean? Those words rattled around in my head for months. I imagine “doing right by others” to mean showing grace and loving-kindness, not judging, giving empathy, not shaming, and meeting people where they are—not where we want them to be.

Then by my powers of deduction, doing right by myself might mean showing myself grace and loving-kindness, not judging myself, giving myself empathy, not shaming myself, and meeting myself where I think I should be. This was a revelation and led me down a road of realization: if beating myself up worked, it really would have worked by now. What did I have to lose by least trying to do right by myself?

This is a short summary of a long list of superpowers. Of course, there are plenty of people who drink moderately and responsibly, but if you have even a tiny voice inside yourself questioning whether or not you might benefit from abstinence or even an extended break from alcohol (or whatever happens to be holding you back).

Give it a try. You might just blow your own mind with your new-found superpowers.

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