I hate to break it to you, but many of our thoughts are complete and utter rubbish.
That seems like a bummer, but I promise realizing that is another sober superpower.
The truly difficult part about getting sober is that part of you doesn’t want to! Isn’t that the rub? For years, most mornings, I would think, Why in the world did I drink last night? I couldn’t come up with a single good reason. Then, I’d spend time berating myself, being confused and confounded, and making promises to myself that I would inevitably break.
When evening rolled around, I’d crack a beer or open a bottle of wine completely oblivious to the thoughts I’d had just 10 hours earlier. Why wouldn’t I have a beer? Beer is delicious. Wine with dinner, so classy and normal. It’s as if the morning thoughts never even happened—who was that person? Round and round I’d go. Not wanting to stay on the ride, but not really wanting to get off either.
These split personalities both seemed accurate and true and equal. Morning me and evening me were both terribly convincing. How could I choose?
First, I had to get in the right state of mind to have a fighting chance of examining my thoughts, and that meant stacking up some sober time by any means possible. When the thoughts and cravings are tied to biology, it is seriously an uphill battle. This is why so many people repeat early sobriety over and over again—a concept best captured by Clare Pooley here.
However, after about a month or so alcohol-free, your sleep returns, hormones level out, you start to move out of the regular limbic response, and some of your dopamine and serotonin receptors start coming back to life. Now you can start the process of metacognition or kicking the tires of your own thoughts.
Annie Grace teaches the ACT process, which stands for Awareness, Clarity, Turnaround. Basically, pluck the thought from your brain tree and examine it objectively. Write it down. Test theories on it. Here’s an example.
I had an awesome day at work, submitted a huge project, the client is happy, what a relief. Phew! I’m going to grab my favorite beer on my way home, kick back, and celebrate. I deserve it!
Now examine the thought.
Is beer a good way to celebrate? Hmm…what is true for me? I will likely drink five of those beers over the evening, be distant and disengaged from my family, get lazy and sleepy, definitely consume media or social media (not create anything), then go to bed (most likely mad at my husband for some imagined slight), sleep like crap, and wake up tired, dehydrated, and feeling crummy—already behind before the next day even starts.
Play the tape forward for yourself. Be brutally honest. What will the night and next day look like for you if you celebrate with that favorite beer?
My original thought doesn’t seem to pass muster.
Now re-write the thought.
I had an awesome day at work, submitted a huge project, the client is happy, what a relief. Phew! I’m going to grab my favorite [insert something that actually makes your heart, soul, brain, and body feel good (yoga, bath, delicious food, quality time with loved ones, movie, good book] on my way home, kick back, and celebrate. I deserve it!
Since we have so many “reasons” to drink, we get lots of practice with this process. I should have been suspicious of my thoughts when they told me to drink in order to celebrate and commiserate, to express joy and sadness, to declare the weekend or any day ending in y.
Our thoughts seem real, and for good reason—there are several things happenings here:
Associations: If you’ve drank at every celebration, barbeque, concert, camping trip, or other enjoyable experience of your life, then you’ve made some pretty strong associations and have well-worn neural pathways between drinking and the activity. Our minds literally become wired to expect and need alcohol in all of these settings. Of course, alcohol didn’t actually make things more fun and probably made lots of things worse, but convincing your brain of this takes time and practice.
Desire: You want what alcohol is selling! Alcohol says it delivers relaxation, fun, letting loose, sophistication, confidence, bravery, hot sex, a social life, whatever…and you want those things! The alcohol industry spends billions convincing us of all of this. And it’s extremely effective. The problem, of course, is that alcohol delivers none of that.
Your Unconscious Brain is Dumb: Well…not dumb, but not good at decision making. It is good at driving behavior. One key to sobriety is getting your conscious and unconscious brains on the same train—the Alcohol Sucks Express, or its more joyful neighbor, the Sober Life is Euphoric Express. You learn tools like ACT, automatic writing, and playing the tape forward that help immensely with getting your subconscious on board. This will not happen overnight. It takes time—more time than we would prefer. But when it happens, it’s magic. Not only will you quit drinking, but you also won’t have any desire to drink. The goal really isn’t to not drink; the goal is to feel truly happy and at peace with whatever decision you’re making. This process of allowing our higher self to make choices that benefit us in the long-term, over our more primitive self (or the lizard brain), prioritizing the short-term, quick hit of dopamine is a lifelong process.
Examining our thoughts is a superpower because many of our thoughts are nonsense. These nonsense thoughts show up as (limiting) beliefs or (embellished) stories where we are 100 percent the victim or the hero, and some even disguise themselves as actual memories.
We hold tight to these stories or beliefs because they’ve formed the foundation of our identity. But true power and freedom and change comes when we are brave enough to say, Is that really true? Do I love drinking? Am I bad with money? Do I make poor choices? Did X, Y, Z person really abandon me? Or is there more to the story?
The process of getting sober teaches us that our thoughts can be big, fat, liars, and that is a superpower.