Short answer? Terrifying. Terrifying because to live without drinking was unimaginable — like a layer of my identity being ripped from me. I had reached the point where I could not imagine life either with or without alcohol.
Today, at 27 years sober, those days seems distant not just chronologically but because my reality is completely transformed. The only experience I can compare with getting sober is having kids: imagining how it might be to have kids is a world away from actually becoming a parent, supporting the lives of your children in countless ways and loving them more powerfully than you ever dreamed possible.
The same was true for me, but the child in question was my authentic self. There’s an apt truism that goes like this: You don’t know what you don’t know. In other words, we think what we know must be all there is to know about sobriety because we’re ignorant that a whole different realm exists.
I was sure I knew who I was. I was sure I knew the role booze played in my life. And I assumed I could guess what a life without booze would look like.
Wrong on all three counts!
Amputating a Limb
To guess at what life would be like without booze, it seemed reasonable to work this equation:
What would it be like, I wondered, to hang out in bars and NOT drink? Would I still play pool and darts, and, of course, smoke? How would I sit around on my stoner friends’ couches and NOT get stoned? What would be the point of hitting up a party if not to get drunk?
And what about life at home? How would I watch movies without booze? Cook or work in the yard? How would I ever relax and chill out?
Subtracting alcohol, I believed, would leave a gaping hole in my life. This void seemed inevitable because I’d lost track of both who I was and what life was about. The goal, I’d come to believe, was always to FEEL BETTER. I knew only two ways to do that: 1) booze and cocaine and 2) esteem from crushes and “cool” people.
Happiness through a heart connection with the inherent goodness of the universe wasn’t even on the table.
Here are some journal entries from my first year:
1 day sober: “I went to an AA meeting tonight. Was so uncomfortable and out of place and felt I will never, never stop drinking, so why even want to? I know drinking so intimately. I know me with a glass of wine or a beer better than anyone else in this world. I love to drink. I love it like freedom and happiness. I want never to stop.”
65 days sober: “I really do think AA has saved my life. I couldn’t have done it — stopped the drinking, the downward spiral — alone. I wanted to let myself go, let it end. That’s why crashing my car seemed the best way… But now I live in fear. I fear every coming minute, every hour of consciousness that I have to get through on my own — just me and the world. But the good side is, I know I CAN get through it if I just hold on and keep going. And that is courage. I am rough-riding the world, life, being me. And every moment I do is a triumph.”
222 days sober: “I’m seven months sober. I am very messed up. Even writing doesn’t seem to do any good, because I am so TIRED of being messed up. There’s never a break. Today it got to be too much for me. Sitting in a women’s meeting, this woman told her story, very low bottom. And while I was moved during it, afterwards my disease started creeping up from the back of my mind, my old love affair with drinking, missing it and the sense of REBELLION and SECLUSION and FALSE SELF-SUFFICIENCY I got from drinking. I missed feeling okay when I was drunk. I started feeling it was too much to say I’d never drink again.
“So I started planning my relapse, peeking at how I could, how the bail money was right there. Just drink. Drink like before. I do know I couldn’t control it for long. I drink to get drunk, not for one drink. There’s always further to go and I always want it.”
Notice that in the first quote, I have no faith whatsoever. Drinking is still my whole world. In the second, I’m courageously pioneering unknown territory. In the third, I finally recognize that I’m up against a disease that tells me I don’t have a disease, one that lies to me about how to fix everything. I know it’s lying, but I’m still extremely uncomfortable.
Time Takes Time
This is another simple truism from the program. Newly sober people pass through another childhood. When we take away the layers of self-stupefying to “take the edge off” and self-delusion that we can somehow feel what others think of us, we have to learn to live all over again.
Inwardly, we have to learn how to be okay with consciousness, how to feel difficult feelings like awkwardness, tension, boredom, guilt, discontent, uncertainty, jealousy, and so on. We learn that A) they won’t kill us, and B) that instead of numbing them away, we find the courage to change the things we can so we’re able to grow and cope. Each difficult feeling can serve as a spur for growth.
On the other hand, we also get to taste genuine aliveness, a full awareness of Earth’s beauties, tenderness toward people we love, and satisfaction from accomplishments both humble and huge. When we experience our first glow of true joy — not hyped up giddiness — or our first sense that maybe we DO belong, these experiences can be mind-blowing. Peace can be mind-blowing.
As we nurture a connection with our higher power, we begin to perceive it not as some deity overseeing the world but as an energy infusing everything, the force of goodness generating all that lives and evolves — not just biologically but (let’s hope) ethically. Through working the 12 steps, we learn that we can align ourselves with that divine unfolding to gain a strong sense of dignity and purpose.
All of these new feelings and awarenesses grew in me at their own pace, as they do for everyone new in recovery. Gradually a secure inward peace replaces early sobriety’s raw vulnerability. Our new job is now only to become the fullest possible expression of ourselves. Ours is the work of thriving.