Sober Milestone Madness and Lessons
I had a milestone this week. 18 months since my last drink, which, surprisingly (for me as a Sauv Blanc with ice kinda-girl), was a creamy Boddington’s beer.
While 18 months might not sound all that long for someone running a sobriety school and coaching others in the art of quitting, I’ve been on this journey for closer to four years. I spent a long time trying and failing at moderation. I was sober for six months a few years ago while I dipped my toe in the pool of AA, then relapsed. And during that relapse period, I worked my ass off figuring out how to free myself from alcohol. 18 months ago, I earned that freedom and started coaching people six months later.
Milestones like this are a strange contrast for me. On the one hand, I’m immensely proud of myself for the positive changes I’ve made and of how hard I’ve worked to help others. On the other, these milestones tend to shake my usually-dormant Wine Witch wide awake. She sits up startled, saying “Wow Jen, look how good you’ve been! You haven’t had a drink in 18 months! Surely, after all this hard work and all this time, you could go back to moderate drinking. You know you didn’t REALLY have a problem anyway…”.
On her last point, I don’t disagree because I’ve learnt that alcohol wasn’t actually my problem. It was my solution… This is the first of six lessons I’ve learnt that I’d like to share with you in this blog.
1. Alcohol was not my problem
Although alcohol is a highly addictive substance, I’ve learnt that my problem wasn’t the alcohol per se. The problem was my mental health.
When I was problem-drinking, I was struggling with depression, anxiety, and PTSD. Alcohol was my tool, my coping mechanism, to self-medicate that.
If my problem had been alcohol alone, the problem would have been solved by quitting. But, it wasn’t. Although I’m MUCH, much happier now, I still struggle with my mental health. And I’m still working very hard to heal.
Which brings me to lesson two.
2. It’s ALL about healing
Renowned Canadian Addiction expert, Dr Gabor Maté doesn’t ask his patients ‘Why the addiction?’, but rather, ‘Why the pain?’. Instead of saying ‘What’s wrong with you?’, he says we should compassionately ask addicts, ‘What happened to you?’.
Alcohol is very effective at temporarily numbing pain. Which is why, after a traumatic birth experience with my first son, I started drinking every night.
What I’ve learnt in sobriety is that it’s crucial to address the root causes beneath why I drank. If I don’t, I’ll simply transfer my addiction to something else. Like work – which, when I’m in pain, I sometimes find myself trying to escape in, or the need to constantly busy myself as a distraction.
Quitting drinking didn’t immediately result in rainbows and butterflies. Don’t get me wrong, I have experienced many, many, rainbow and butterfly moments, but that’s only because I’m doing the work on my shadow-side.
3. Relapse is not failure
Relapsing after my initial six months of sobriety was a profoundly important part of my journey. It highlighted what didn’t work for me (AA – which is a topic for a blog post in itself).
I needed that period of relapse to prove to myself that I really wanted sobriety. Because, as the saying goes, sobriety isn’t for those who need it, it’s for those who want it.
It taught me what NOT to do if I wanted to stay sober (like allow myself to question my decision to quit).
It taught me that I needed to be hyper-vigilant in challenging my Wine Witch. And to always come back to my mantra: Not one drink. No matter what.
These, and other relapse-induced lessons, were necessary steppingstones to the sustained sobriety I enjoy today. As such, I see my relapse as helpful and necessary. Not failure.
4. Recovery burnout is a thing
As an over-achiever with a tendency towards perfectionism, when I got sober, I wanted to be sober-perfect. I dived in headfirst and didn’t come up for air until I’d read every Quit Lit and addiction book on the market, completely reinvented myself as a healthy non-drinker, got my own Quit-Lit book deal, and established Thrivalist.
You see, I struggle to switch off. I’m hard wired to achieve. To do. To do more.
When I was drinking, 5pm marked the end of the day and the start of my mental downtime. As my wine glass emptied, so too did my mind.
When I quit drinking, I was left without that well-worn off switch. All of a sudden, extra evening hours opened up in my week. I could get the kids fed, bathed, read to, and into bed, and then diligently carry on working. It was such a novelty to be un-buzzed and productive at night! But, and I’m sure you’re seeing this coming, I’ve learnt that just because I can be productive, doesn’t mean I should be.
As a friend once told me, ‘Sometimes rest is the work’.
Self-care is something we harp on about endlessly at Thrivalist. And d’you know what? I often teach the things I most need to know!
5. Everyone’s journey is unique
When I first freed myself from alcohol, I felt like I’d found THE cure. What I’ve learnt though, is that there are as many ways to get sober as there are drinkers. It’s a choose your own adventure kinda thing. We’re all so different, and what works for one won’t necessarily work for another. That’s why I feel strongly that the more people who share how they did it and what’s working for them, the better.
I’ve learnt not to judge anyone else for their choices about alcohol. Whether they drink or not, or they stopped drinking and now they drink again… You do you, Baby! Alcohol, in and of itself, isn’t evil. Yes, it’s a drug. It’s addictive. And it’s carcinogenic. But I know people who would argue the same about sugar.
How people choose to use alcohol (or not use it) is their prerogative. Just as people are entitled to make different lifestyle choices when it comes to food (vegan, paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free etc.), we are all entitled to choose how we use (or don’t use) alcohol.
6. Not being hungover never gets old
You might have seen this quote before but honestly, every day I’ve woken up in sobriety, I’ve woken up grateful for the clear-head and restorative sleep. I can’t see waking up hangover-free ever getting old! Ever.
In closing, sober milestones lend themselves to reflection and introspection and clearly I’ve been doing a bit of that! What I know for sure is that quitting alcohol has been the catalyst that I really needed. It’s catapulted me onto a path of healing, personal development and spiritual growth that I couldn’t have walked while drinking. I’ve grown a lot over these last 18 months. I’m showing up for myself and my people in ways that make me proud. I have healthy self-esteem and am closer to self-love than I think I’ve ever been.
To steal a line from one of our students when describing her sober self… Who is this person? I think I like her!