Drinking After Sobriety
On an unusually warm afternoon for Wisconsin in February, I feel unsettled and restless. When the weather gets nice like this, my mind wanders and my body wants to be out in the world. Works seems less appealing and cruising around to a decided destination seems more appropriate. I have plans to meet with friends later at an event, but for now... I have the afternoon to myself. One of my favorite ways to spend those blocks of time is slowly sipping a really nice beer at a local bar... but for awhile I lost this enjoyment of mine.
The Road to Sobriety
Sipping on a fine brew at a bar has always been something I enjoy but in my past I enjoyed it on a whole other level. Often, my intentions would start out a-ok. Go have a beer or two that I really want to try and enjoy the relaxing social time off from my duties. The problem would occur after that second or third beer, I wouldn't want to stop. I would want to wander, explore, call in other troops, go harder, go longer, and eventually it would be 3am. This led to a slew of problems and eventually I met the end of that cycle. People come to sobriety and recovery in a wide variety of ways. Some hit rock bottom and some don't. I am someone who did, my rock bottom was emotional and I had to dig myself out no matter what it took.
That day was November 1st, 2014, All Saints Day. It is an important day for me to remember and I think about it almost everyday since. The realizations that I had on that day forever changed me and the way that I live going forward. I realized that I couldn't lie to myself anymore and ignore the pain that I was going through daily. I realized that my mental state scared me and I could no longer try to just control/mask it. Career wise, I knew that I'd never accomplish what I wanted to if I was hungover 4/7 days of the week. Relationship wise, I knew I'd lose my partner if I kept putting them through my unpredictable emotional cycle. At the top of the list... I didn't love myself or know how to take care of a mind that scared me. I was scared that I would end my life, even if I didn't want to. I go into quite a bit more detail about what led me to this point in my blog post on Depression's Deeper Purpose.
My life was scattered all over the floor, the lawn, and the street after hitting my bottom... at that's how it felt. I was so raw and constantly kept my head ducked because it felt like every living thing that I came in contact with could see all my failings. Even though I was entirely humbled and empty, there was a strength that stirred deep within me. I had been completely emptied out and now I could start fresh.
Almost the next day, I sat down and devised a plan. I found a therapist that could see me asap, which is hard to find. Sitting at a table in the library, I did research like a college student on all types on mental illness conditions. I was looking for comparisons in how I felt and acted, looking for an answer. My notebook was scrawled with the ones that hit the mark... Bipolar, Borderline Personality Disorder, Massive Depressive, Depression, Anxiety. The list went down on the paper with purpose, I was going to figure all of this out. Next was the social aspect of my life. I removed several people from my social media so that I would not see what they were doing and develop "FOMO" (fear of missing out). My phone was next and I removed several contacts.
It was a brash approach. Later I would learn that not everything is solved with an analytical approach and sometimes the most pristine clarity comes from the unconscious part of ourselves. I would also learn that I didn't need to be tied to a mental disorder and that even if I had symptoms of some, it didn't mean that the solution lied in the diagnosis. The quick decision to remove one of my best friends from my life was also not good for me in hindsight. This action plan is what carried me through to a better place. So, even if it had some flaws... it worked. I got into recovery.
Therapy and Self Work
My first therapy session is very clear in my mind, but from a third person perspective. I can see my former self sitting across from that therapist, my body twisted up in a painful ball. My face burnt from so much of the past flooding out of my eyes. All of my words coming out like buckets of sludge being poured off a balcony. The therapist's face contorting with genuine concern and urgency, which was like someone wrapping a blanket around me after being out in the rain. The sensation that I wasn't even in the room but that I was floating above it and watching all of this go down. That first session was everything. It was my debut into the realm of honesty, admission, humbleness, and willingness. I was there for help, finally asking for it.
It was in therapy that I really learned what being in "recovery" means. To me, the process and lifestyle is a dismantling of everything that has come before. It is the work of going through your past and rifling around with purpose to heal and move forward. Recovery also means stepping into a place of humbleness and being open to new ways of looking at things. Through that lens of humility, one can see spiritual openings and allow the soul to grow. Part of my recovery was staying sober from alcohol and drugs. This sobriety was vital to me being able to access my spirit and allow myself to process feelings/emotions.
My experience in therapy was varied between 3 therapists within 2 years. The third being the longest lasting working relationship. Each of my therapists was very different and brought a different work method. The first and third were amazing to work with... the second, not so much. Throughout my experience in therapy, I learned that a less action based approach is better for me. Therapy is a great place for me to be my own sounding board, putting thoughts out into the air and making them more real. It has been the single most important tool in me growing emotionally and spiritually. It has been vital in my ability to understand my past and heal from parts of it.
I went to therapy sessions weekly, sometimes bi-weekly throughout the first 2 years of recovery. This commitment to self work extended to what I did in my free time as well. I utilized a lot of down time to do self care activities. These included exercise, reading, tarot readings, crystal therapy, essential oil therapy, nutrition, drawing, writing, and low key entertainment like gaming and movies. This was the rhythm of my life for almost 2 years. I rarely saw friends, mostly because I couldn't handle it. Seeing people from my past rattled me too much inside, especially if they were drinking or using. It was easiest to be alone and I became a hermit by choice.
Within my first years of a recovery based lifestyle, I went through many ups and downs. To be honest, it was the hardest thing I've ever done. I truly entered the dark night of the soul which is a journey that can, at times, take everything out of you. There were many periods of deep depression and emotional instability. I felt so many layers of my previous persona being peeled away and I still wasn't sure what was at the core. This lack of clarity about who I was led to a shaky sense of self and in turn made my mental health unpredictable. Through all of this, I kept working on myself. I knew there had to be some sort of light at the end, a lessons to be learned.
Sure enough, my lessons came. Those lessons and strength are the gifts of a journey walked. I have earned the ability to love myself and have more gratitude to be here than ever. Beyond that, I have an understanding of where I've been and where I want to go. My spiritual self has grown and I now can look at myself as part of a larger system, something outside of my control. I also know who I really am, gained an understanding of my gender identity and how much it has impacted my past. Even though it has been the most difficult road I've traveled, I would walk it again because the growth that I've experienced from it is more than I could have ever imagined.
Choosing to Drink Again
Just shy of 2 years sober from drugs and alcohol, I started to feel like sobriety was no longer helping me. I no longer felt comfort or safety in it. It was starting to feel more of a burden to carry than a load off my back. These thoughts came in to my mind the Summer of 2016. It would be simple things, like camping and wishing I had a nice beer or bourbon while sitting next to a fire. I thought, "it would be nice, I wish that I could enjoy that". Simple thoughts like that. But, I had been taught that this was my mind just trying to find a way to get alcohol back in my life.
Many addicts are taught that this is the way they will always be and that abstinence from there poison of choice is 100% necessary. For awhile, I thought that about myself. In the beginning of my sobriety, I knew I couldn't drink in moderation. The mere idea of that was laughable. The idea of enjoying a beverage and leaving it at that was long gone. I used. I killed pain with more pain. Booze was my preferred tool and drugs were my way to sharpen that tool, make it more effective. As time went on in my sobriety, I started to become very clear about what "using" feels like and when you can feel the triggers to do so. That awareness is very powerful. I started to question if me enjoying a few drinks would really be using. If I was aware of my feelings and emotions, of not wanting to escape them... it wasn't using but instead, just drinking.
One thing recovery taught me was not to make quick reaction based decisions. I let the idea of drinking again marinate with me for a long time. Waiting to make a decision was strengthening my awareness and honing in on what I really wanted out of a decision like that. I knew I didn't just want a drink. What I wanted was access to certain places, events, and social gatherings. I wanted to feel a part of those things again. To be honest, I didn't feel like I was truly present or enjoying some things because I felt like I was punishing myself by not drinking. For a long time, it was vital. But now... it just seems like I was holding onto sobriety for the longevity of it, for the ability to say 2 years.. 3 years sober... 10 years sober. When I thought long and hard about it, that wasn't really me. It wasn't really what I wanted. I wanted to enjoy life and part of that for me is really great beer.
On a camping trip that Summer, I made the decision that sobriety just wasn't working for me anymore. I didn't drink on that trip but I certainly wanted to. As a drove my Jeep through the Southern United States, I passed old tavern towns of Kentucky and Tennessee. The thought of stopping in to one of these old historic taverns and having a drink really appealed to me. It seemed like such a simple pleasure and one that I was denying myself simply because I had decided to abstain from drinking. I let the feelings ride with me and explored them in my mind. During that trip, I did a lot of meditation on if I could handle introducing alcohol back into my life. I knew that what I was craving was a deep part of myself. I do love the way that having a drink with someone can tie a bond, it can loosen the mood just enough to reveal a layer of the personality that doesn't normally come out. I enjoy that and I missed being around it.
After ruminating on the decision I knew that I didn't want to drink to alter my state, escape, numb out, or run. I wanted to be able to drink occasionally, end of story. It was the lack of excitement about it that was promising to me. I wasn't itching for a swig. I knew that if I tried it again and it didn't go well, that I could always go back to sobriety. That method would always be there for me as a tool.
Drinking After Sobriety
When I got home from that trip, I did some research on people that had went back to drinking post recovery. I didn't find much, actually next to nothing. It seemed like a pretty taboo topic (which is why I'm writing about it).
AA and Sobriety Groups have long held the upper hand in people getting off of drugs and alcohol. I can not turn a cheek to the countless people that these programs have helped. It is a vital resource for many people and has turned many lives around for the better. AA and Group Therapy never appealed to me though and I knew that I didn't want that to be my life. I had a very clear aversion to entering a program like AA because I didn't want to feel tethered to it. When I did my research on other people's stories about drinking again post sobriety, I found that much of the information out there is tethered to these systems as well.
There was a lot of "avoid at all costs" type messaging out there and very little positive feedback. Maybe that end all result is the truth for most, but I am not an advocate for one system suites all. That being said, many people need to avoid their substance of choice 100% in order to save their life. One slip up could result in death, I know that is a possibility. But, I do think that each person needs to decide that for themselves. Things change, realizations are made, people grow and change... along with circumstances. For me, a LOT changed and my mind was in a different place. I decided that I would try to drink again, even after very little positive reinforcement from other people's stories. It felt right to me, a gut instinct that I didn't want to ignore just because it was a taboo thing to do.
My wife and I discussed the decision in length. I also knew that I would be seeing my therapist on a regular basis and that I could check in with them about the situation. This system of accountability was good for me because it required me to stay aware of my thoughts/feelings before, during, and after drinking. Most importantly, I was willing to be honest with myself. If I felt scared, uncertain, or shaky after this choice, I needed to be able to tell myself that it was a failed experiment. My commitment hadn't changed, I was still determined to be my best possible self.
The First Beer
I had my first post sobriety beer that fall. It had been about 2 months since I had first entertained the thought. There I was with the foamy cup in my hand and it suddenly seemed a lot smaller than my mind had built it up to be. I took a swig of the hefe weiss and felt.... not much. It was a lot sweeter than I remembered. I sighed and was glad that it had not felt amazing. No fireworks or bliss, just a tap beer at a public event. It may seem simple, but to arrive at that point was such a complicated journey. It required many actions, decisions, and changes to be able to take a drink and have it just be a drink. That beer was not a tool, drug, or weapon. It was just a beer.
Life Post Sobriety
I am no longer sober and that's ok. I still consider myself in recovery because I am still leading a life of awareness. Determination to be better, authentic, honest, and true to myself is still at the top of my priority list. In fact, it's the awareness that changes everything. Being aware has allowed me to stay present while drinking. This mindset is what changes it to enjoying myself vs. using. I try to stay aware of why I want to have a drink. Usually it is for the taste, I really do love craft beer. Sometimes it is to feel more a part of the crowd or moment, to celebrate. Many times it is a great way to meet up with friends or be social.
There have a been a few instances where I felt that I may be drinking for the wrong reason. The frequency of this is very low though and only once has it been to attempt to numb out. I'm honest about that to myself because it allows me to flag those behaviors and learn from them. I still struggle with depression and anxiety. During those episodes, it is sometimes difficult to make the best choices in taking care of myself. I am aware of it though and continue to work on my awareness and mental clarity when dealing with a down episode.
This story was important for me to share. I find the general attitude towards addiction kind of concerning. When we treat addiction has an "incurable" disease, it can be damning for some people. I never really saw myself as having a disease but I certainly was using addictive behaviors to cope. Addiction is so common, especially the kind that flies under the radar. So many people are not even aware that they are partaking in addictive coping mechanisms.
My goal in sharing this story is to show that addiction is a very complex and layered behavior. It is different for everyone. For some, it can't be healed. For some, it can. For others, consistent treatment is needed for a healthy life. For me, it is something that I will always be aware of having a tendency towards. In my experience, it was a coping mechanism to try to release myself from emotional pain and anxiety. What it really did was trap me further. I am so grateful to be out of that cycle of using and to be where I am now.
***If you are struggling with an addiction or mental health, please seek help. I waited far too long to address my issues, but getting help was the most important step I ever took to healing. Please do not take my story as a blueprint, always soul search and find the answers that are right for you. Addiction comes in many forms and for some, playing around with their former substance of choice can be the last decision they make. I do not take the topic lightly, but take it with an open view. Please seek advice and counsel from a trusted person before attempting to make changes in your treatment plan.
For more stories about mental health, spirituality, and self care... please visit the Embrace section of my blog. Please feel free to share your experience on this topic in the comments below. For more updates, please follow River Runs Wild on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube.