I celebrated three years sober a couple of weeks ago, and when I say ‘celebrated’ I mean that I raised an eyebrow when I noticed what the date was, thought something like: “no way, I’m three years sober today, that’s crazy.” Then I made myself a cup of tea and carried on with what I was doing. (I don’t know what to tell you; I’m British.) I was happy about it of course, but in the happiest possible way it felt like nothing special. No reason to make a fuss. It was just another lovely day and I had things to do.
To me, three years of continuous sobriety didn’t particularly feel like something to get excited about or celebrate in itself and I think that’s because time spent sober was never my main goal – being truly happy, healthy and helpful was. It still is.
I don’t consciously keep track of how long it’s been since I last drank anymore, certainly not in days, weeks or months, and I haven’t for some time. I’m mostly reminded of numerical milestones when other people mention them. I honestly believe that’s because I’m far more focussed on enjoying my day to day life and thinking about the things I’m doing now, instead of paying attention to the things I don’t do anymore.
I did a lot of reflection during my first year or so as a teetotaller, and I felt like I needed to back then. It served an important purpose at the time. It kept me constantly mindful while I was finding my feet, getting used to a different lifestyle, learning new coping techniques and addressing the underlying problems that drove me to drink excessively in the first place.
Now, with over three years of continuous sober experience behind me and all of the other smaller sober stints I racked up prior to those three years – two months here, three months there, I did six months one year and seven months during another – I don’t feel the need to reflect with such rigid regularity anymore in order to live the life I want to live.
Things have changed significantly over the last few years. I have evolved dramatically. I don’t need to do now what I did then – and I mean that in more ways than one: I don’t feel the need to numb out from my life like I once did and I don’t feel the need to employ the same recovery routines I once did either. Things have changed and I have adapted to those changes. I’ve found what works best for me.
Sobriety just isn’t on my mind in the same way that it used to be during those early weeks and months when everything about it felt either deeply unfamiliar or intensely uncomfortable. I don’t crave the same escapes that I used to. I’ve created a life that I no longer want to escape from. My coping skills are infinitely more sophisticated. (The way I used to cope with problems was by drugging myself up until I forgot they were there. A solution that felt reasonable enough, until the next day when I had even more problems to deal with.)
Looking back, I recognise now that I felt a lot more relaxed about not drinking around 18 months into going sober. This shift happened subtly and, like a lot of things, it was only obviously apparent when I looked back on it. I think there are distinct phases of recovery but the transitions through those phases are different for everyone. There is no specific timeline trajectory. There isn’t a set speed or a certain order or predictable levels of severity. And that’s why I firmly believe that there is no ‘one size fits all’ method of recovery. We all have to find what works best for us. One destination – many ways to get there. Some people do sober stretches and then manage to happily moderate afterwards. Other people balk at that idea and plan to stay abstinent forever. Everyone is different and everyone should be allowed to have different recovery stories without being negatively judged.
When I look back on my early days of sobriety, I personally felt that the more energy I used up on how long I’d spent sober, the less energy I had left to put into the things that really furthered my recovery. I never determined my success by how long it had been since my last drink. I gauged how I was doing by how I felt and how I was performing in general. I’ve met people who have been sober longer than I’ve been alive and they’re miserable as sin. The length of time you’ve remained abstinent doesn’t necessarily determine how healthy or happy you are.
Personally, I think if you’ve developed an unhealthy dependency on something, whatever it is, then you should probably do whatever it takes to remove it completely from your life for a good while, or forever, until you work out what the root causes of your problem are, but it’s your choice as to how you go about it. Removing the thing you’re compulsively turning to is job number one – and that’s hard enough as it is. After that is where the real work starts. I know that I wasn’t capable of successfully moderating whilst I was still all tangled up in a messy, dependent relationship with alcohol – I tried enough times and it never really worked. I knew I needed a long uninterrupted stretch of complete abstinence. I didn’t know how long that would be and I was prepared to never drink again if that’s what it took. I think I had to commit absolutely and indefinitely at the start in order to make real progress possible – I think that’s probably true of a lot of things.
I found it incredibly hard not to drink at first, but after a while it was only somewhat difficult in certain situations, and then it evolved into more of an enjoyable personal challenge. It became a considered choice rather than a consequence. Being sober made me feel empowered rather than powerless. I preferred feeling strong and capable over being sloppy drunk.
Once you realise that being dependent on drugs, any drug at all, weakens you and renders you incapable of being fully present, it ceases to be anywhere near as appealing as it once did. But you have to give it time and dig deep. It’s not easy. You don’t go to a couple of parties and feel great about being sober straight away. In fact, I had to endure a few parties before I started to enjoy them again.
I didn’t want to feel comfortable only when I was drugged up. It made no difference to me what that drug was; alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, benzodiazepines, psychoactives, stimulants or sedatives. Whether they were prescribed by a doctor or dealt by a dealer – I didn’t want to be reliant on anything at all. I wanted to be completely free. I wanted to be authentically me. I wanted to feel calm, confident and complete all on my own. No masks. No props. No crutches. No excuses.
I never wanted to give up drinking so I could mark the days off on a calendar, collect consecutive AA sobriety coins or bang on about how long it’s been since I last drank alcohol. I wanted to stop drinking because I sincerely felt that I needed to at that time. Drinking had become something I’d come to heavily rely on. I’d developed a very unhealthy dependency on it and it had started create and exacerbate more problems than it alleviated.
I knew that I drank to dangerous degrees more often than not and I knew I needed to stop completely, indefinitely, perhaps forever, if I was to properly address the underlying reasons as to why I drank so destructively in the first place.
It was really hard at first. It felt utterly impossible. But it wasn’t and it isn’t. (The millions of people who’ve stopped drinking even though at one point they felt that they couldn’t, are living proof of that.) I just didn’t believe it was possible back then because I’d gone for so long feeling hopeless.
I had a good 12-18 months of cyclical bingeing and abstaining before I managed these three solid years and some of those binges were the best of times and the worst of times – nothing feels quite as seductive as something you kind of like but know you shouldn’t really have. (Back then my appetite for booze ran parallel to my appetite for emotionally unavailable men. An unhappy combination where one problem fuelled the other.)
After a while and some trial and error I learnt what worked best for me. I got involved in the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship for a while. I enrolled on various sobriety courses. I attended SMART Recovery meetings. I took up new hobbies. I overhauled my diet. I learnt to cook properly. I started meditating every day. I healed childhood traumas. I got back into yoga. I started lifting weights at the gym 5 times per week. I went to dance classes again. I hung out more with people who didn’t revolve their lives around getting drunk. I started to take my health, all aspects of it, really seriously. I helped other people. I volunteered. I started this blog. I wrote a book…
I worked incredibly hard on myself and my triggers. I employed hardcore personal discipline, I read a shit ton of books and researched the fuck out of addiction, recovery and healthy living and I just plain and simple persevered. I did not drink. Not under any circumstances. I sat slap bang in the middle of any discomfort that came my way. I didn’t try to escape it or avoid it. I dealt with it properly.
I got through the happiest and the hardest of times and never touched a drop. I got really ill and I didn’t drink on it. I got married and remained stone cold sober. I fell pregnant and then lost my baby at 12 weeks and I didn’t drink a single second of my pain away. And to my surprise it wasn’t hard not to drink under any of those circumstances because by then I knew where my power lay and it wasn’t in a bar or in a bottle.
It was, it is, inside me.
And yours is inside you. Even if you don’t know it yet.