Reporting back over three years after my last hangover: it really does get better. As long as you don’t give up.
First of all, congratulations! You are one of the few people who get the opportunity to remake their lives. Addiction is a life-threatening condition, and many people don’t realize they are addicted until it is too late.
Learning to live in the world without using alcohol or drugs to soothe or cheer or delude or numb yourself isn’t easy. But if you stick with it, it does give you a kind of superpower. It's called resilience. Getting through pain and social awkwardness and grief and parties without chemicals builds it immeasurably.
Because it isn’t easy to get sober, you are going to need help. Don’t feel ashamed because you need support, be grateful that you have realized. Getting sober is the chance to discover who you would be if you didn’t keep messing things up/canceling plans/letting people down because of drinking habits and hangovers. Be proud that you are taking responsibility for yourself.
If you can stop drinking, and work on the reasons why you drank, you can become the person you were supposed to be, the person that you know is underneath all that shame and disappointment and water retention. The person who draws you to read articles like this, who is desperate to have their turn at the wheel. Don’t you want to meet them?
Accept that you need help, that you can’t do this alone, and take steps to find people who are attempting the same thing. These people are everywhere, and they need you. Have you ever thought about who you might help with your stories, your strength, your hard-won experience? You have so much to offer if you would only recognize it.
Google ‘AA’ or ‘Smart Recovery’ and find a meeting or a number you can call. Think of all the people who have come before, who felt just as ashamed or defeated or fed up, and who made the decision to ask for help. You are joining the ranks of a gigantic, international community. If you can let go of your old ideas, and accept help and guidance, you can be part of something much bigger than you —and isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?
Throw yourself into recovery with the same enthusiasm and commitment with which you first approached the pub. Accept that, for a while, your life is going to look different. There will be a transitional phase, sure, but that’s okay. Practice having faith that you are on your way to something better.
Remember what brought you here. That last drunk and hangover was trying to teach you something — what was the lesson? Why was it so bad? Stay in touch with the truth of that. Write about it while it’s still fresh, and read it when you forget. Don’t listen to the part of you that insists it wasn’t that bad.
Tell yourself that you are in the business of seeing how good things can be now. Not that bad is no longer good enough for you.
With every day you stay sober, you have the chance to help someone else, to use your gifts, to be the person you were meant to be.
So what are your gifts? What have you been meaning to do? Wanting to try? For years, I had wanted to bake bread. In my first weeks sober I finally managed it. A little thing, but it meant the world to me. What else am I capable of? I thought.
I went to the woods to learn bushcraft and built a shelter, which I slept in. I finally got a kitten. I signed up for a course in Permaculture, got an allotment, became a gardener. I volunteered to run a shared reading group in the library, and gave out food to those experiencing homelessness. I helped out in a local shelter. I ran my first ever 10k and fixed the broken things in my flat and got a job in the library. I learned to meditate (ish) and had a hundred spiritual awakenings and started going to Quaker meetings (occasionally). I stopped being quite so selfish and self-centred and tried to be a better daughter/sister/partner/friend/member of my community. I started a blog.
These were all things I had dreamed of for years, but never got around to them. Somehow, in spite of my total lack of responsibilities, there just wasn’t the time. It’s hard to run your life when your primary coping strategy is booze. Drinking and recovering from drinking takes hours out of every week. Hours that you could spend doing something useful.
At first, this gift of time is unnerving and overwhelming, I know, but stick with it. I promise it gets better. Alcohol and drugs were my main hobbies for so many years that it took a long while to find things that measured up. For a long time, sober life felt like waiting. But gradually I have got there.
Without a doubt, the thing that has brought me closest to relapsing so far is boredom. In AA they call it "restless, irritable and discontent". Do you know that feeling? Not very enjoyable when mixed with a general tendency towards nihilism as it often is. This is why it’s important to have a support group. Somewhere you can go regularly to share how you feel. To ask other people how they’re doing, and how they got through the first days/weeks/months/years. To follow and share in each other’s progress.
Meet with a newly sober friend and make a list of all the things you want to do, then gradually make your way through them. Keep each other in the loop as you move forward.
One of the most beautiful things about getting sober with other people is watching them change alongside you. Seeing them become the version of themselves that drink and all that goes with it was hiding.
So, how do you want to spend all this time you have won? And while you’re considering that, take a look at this place. It is more than miraculous if you'll only pay attention.
Have you ever examined a dogbane beetle up close? Every time I see one, I half believe in god. And not the vague god-of-my-understanding-a-la-12-step-god, but an actual, interventionist, life designing god (imagine the software that built the world). It doesn’t last, but I understand now that whenever I have that feeling I am in the presence of something crucial to my spirit.
In twelve-step circles, they call it your higher power (HP). When I first got sober, I didn’t have much on my hp list. The broiling anxiety in my stomach was so constant that I found it hard to read the internal barometer my sober friends insisted I had. I was convinced I didn’t have one.
By now, my HP list is gigantic and mostly internalized. I carry it in my head. I make time every day to do tiny things from it, like examine any living thing, close up (ladybird, gladioli, my boyfriend’s mouth) or touch a tree trunk or high five a rain-sodden leaf. Maybe I’ll read a chapter or call someone I love or breathe deeply for a minute. Write something very little like this, just for fun. Spend time with Ted (dream kitten). Notice the seasons changing. Catch a falling leaf. Swim. Run. Watch this video.
My list grows and changes, but I know it off by heart. When the doom feeling arrives, I focus on the world outside me or think of someone else. If I can't be happy, I try to be useful.
It isn’t a competition. The point is that you begin to learn what the actions are that you can take to make you feel better, to make you feel okay. After long enough, these become semi-automatic. Keep practicing!
At three and a half years sober, drinking doesn’t feel like an issue for me. It isn’t something I’m interested in or that I miss. The life I’ve built up around the void alcohol left is what I was looking for when I drank all that booze in the first place.
So please just keep going. Take it one day at a time. Remember that it’s the first drink that gets you drunk. And trust in the You that made the decision to stop drinking. Now that is a You that you can rely on!
You only have to not drink today. Is there someone you can help in the meantime? Someone who would love to get a call from you? Who would love to be asked how they are doing?
People say that their worst day in sobriety is better than their best day drinking. I’m not sure about that — I had some excellent boozy adventures, and quit before things got really dark— but my best day in sobriety is easily better than the very best day I had drinking.
When I feel joy now, it is real and balanced, not covering up deep anxiety, not sullied by self-hate or bad decisions, not even triggered by chemicals, and that makes it all the more valuable to me.
Ask for help, and remember that by doing so you help others. We are all in this together. One day at a time. You can do this!