8 Things I Didn’t Know When I First Got Sober

for addiction.com

1. I still crave alcohol sometimes. And that doesn’t mean I’m doing sobriety wrong.

There are many people who feel that their obsession to drink or use was lifted not long after they got sober. This was not my experience. After nearly seven years without a drink, I still occasionally crave alcohol. In my early days of recovery, that craving was much more frequent.

One of the reasons I find it so important to have a support group of recovering addicts is so I can ask them questions like, “is it bad if I still want to drink sometimes?” The answer from my friends was a resounding NO. As one woman explained, “We’re alcoholics! Of course we’re going to crave alcohol!” The important thing is that I don’t act on the craving. A craving without action is simply a feeling — a feeling that will eventually pass. As long as I stay sober, I’m doing sobriety well.

2. There are a lot of people who aren’t recovering alcoholics who don’t drink.

This was a particularly shocking revelation. Before I got sober, I assumed that the world was divided into three camps: uptight teetotalers, people who drank like I did, and people who wanted to drink like I did but couldn’t for some tragic reason. I had no interest in associating with the first group, I was quickly becoming the only person I knew in the second group, and I just felt sorry for the third group. It may sound hyperbolic but I simply didn’t have the presence of mind or awareness to consider any alternatives.

After I sobered up, however, I realized a couple of things about my preconceived notions: 1) almost no one I knew was drinking the way I did, 2) my memory and general knowledge of people and places sucked. For example, I remember hanging out with a work friend; we had been at a couple of events together where people were drinking and I, at one point, saw her have a glass of wine. Based on that astute observation, I assumed that she was a heavy (or what I considered normal) drinker. Months later, when she got pregnant, I asked her if it was hard to stop drinking. She was obviously confused. “Not really,” she said. “I almost never drink, anyway. I don’t really like it.”

I was astounded. I thought back over my interactions with her. I had only seen her have one glass of wine that one time. I was making assumptions based on my warped perspective, not reality.

3. That instead of being judgmental when I see someone who’s wasted, I’m just grateful it’s not me.

In college, I once heard someone describe me as “the girl with the cup.” As in, the girl who clings to the cup in her hand for dear life, regardless of whether she is waiting in line for the bathroom, stumbling home, or attempting to tap dance on a trampoline. I was a sloppy drunk.

It’s hard not to judge the sloppy drunk. They yell, they fall, and they guard their alcohol like a mama bear guards her cubs. It’s not particularly easy or fun to be stone cold sober while someone weeps over his childhood ant farm before spilling beer on you. But I also know that the sloppy drunk is having a far worse time than I am. I remember what it’s like to feel that way — to have your emotions so beyond your control that you are barely hanging on for the ride. It’s horrible. So instead of judgment, I just feel empathy and gratitude. All I can do is remember how hard it must be to live in that place, and how grateful I am that I’m not there anymore.

4. That I was very used to feeling very ill.

By the end of my drinking, the only times I wasn’t hungover was when I was drunk. Each morning, I would wake up with a crushing headache, a Tilt-a-Whirl in my stomach, and a dull ache throughout my body. I thought nothing of it. That was simply what waking up was like.

Physically, getting clean was like recovering from a 10-year flu. I emerged from bed and didn’t have to cringe in the sunlight or wince at the sound of birds chirping. Hunger replaced nausea. The ailments I was used to carrying out like an oversized backpack were suddenly gone and I was lighter, freer. When I finally stopped filling my body with poison, my body, well, stopped feeling like it was full of poison.

5. How much hatred there is for 12-step programs out there.

“It’s cool that you’re sober,” my date said to me, “as long as you’re not one of those ‘AA-holes.’ ”

Prior to getting clean, I didn’t know much about the 12 steps. I knew of people who went to Alcoholics Anonymous to stop drinking; sometimes they were able to stop drinking and other times they weren’t. Beyond that, I hadn’t given the AA program much thought. I certainly hadn’t expected to feel defensive about my affiliation, or lack thereof, with a 12-step group. But it’s important to be aware of how people perceive 12-step programs. Knowing that people have strong opinions about AA, for reasons that have nothing to do with me, allows me to be prepared for comments and have a few diplomatic “mind your business” responses ready.

6. How much love there is for 12-step programs out there.

For every person who claims that AA is nothing but a bunch of “A-holes,” I can think of three who credit it with saving the life of a loved one. Instead of rolling their eyes at the mention of a 12-step program, they’ll drop what they’re doing and tell you the intimate details of their sister-in-law who was living in a van with three drug dealers and a family of raccoons until she found AA.

The bottom line is this: people have all kinds of stuff around 12-step programs. Good stuff, bad stuff, like so many things about addiction and recovery, it can be a charged issue. Every person trying to get sober needs to find what works for him or her and stick to it as long as it keeps working. There are so few medical problems that demand exactly the same treatment for all of those afflicted, why should addiction be any different?

7. Most people aren’t paying attention to whether I’m drinking.

In early sobriety, it’s common to feel as though you’re wearing a sandwich board that reads, “Look! This Person Isn’t Drinking Because s/he Is Such a Terrible Drunk. If You See This Person Drinking Alcohol, Alert the Authorities Immediately.” This is especially true in social drinking situations. I was sure that everyone was going to notice, and care, that I wasn’t drinking alcohol.

In truth, there were two groups of people who noticed I wasn’t drinking: the friends and family who had long been pleading with me to get help for my alcoholism, and the one or two people who drank as heavily as I did and expected me to take tequila shots until I blacked out with them. The first group was thrilled that I wasn’t drinking and the second group couldn’t remember my name. Everyone else either assumed the club soda in my hand was mixed with something and/or didn’t care. Eventually, I realized that no matter how it felt, I was the only person focused on the contents of my beverage.

8. That getting sober was only half the battle.

Nothing on this list applies to all recovering alcoholic/addicts, and this one is no exception. Many people find that stopping drinking or using drugs is all they need to maintain mental health. I am not one of those people. It was very apparent not long after I got clean that I was struggling with clinical depression as well as alcoholism. If I was going to appropriately deal with one, I needed to deal with the other and vice-versa. That meant doctor/therapist visits and, in my case, medication. And while depression can be a distinct issue from alcoholism, the two are intertwined for me. I’m not likely to stay sober if I am depressed and I have even less chance of staying free of depression if I’m drinking. Sobriety is just the beginning. But it’s a beginning on which things that are good, real, and healthy can be built.

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