February 1, 2021, marked eight years of continuous sobriety. To celebrate, I went on a hike, ate cake, and wrote five lessons I’ve learned since 2013. Here they are:
I Need to Feel Safe in my Relationships
This past summer, I was in Montana, hiking up a couloir with a couple of friends. I came across the remnants of someone’s winter wipe out — mostly ski poles debris and bits of gear-garbage. As I was picking up the pieces (leave no trace!) I came across something less expected: Psychedelic mushrooms in a grody ziplock baggie…can’t have plastic in nature, so I stuck ’em in my pack with everything else.
At the top of the couloir, I presented the evidence to my friends, recreating the crime scene of someone who must have gone skiing, tripped balls, fallen down, and lost their drugs. My friend Casey took one look at the mushrooms and said, “I will get rid of these for you,” and swooped them out of my hand. I never told him, but I appreciated the bejeesus out of his response. With that action, he told me he understood and supported my sobriety. Was I about to eat them? No — and not just because they were highly suspect after spending months in snowmelt — but that’s not the point.
Casey’s gesture was the complete opposite of encounters I have with people who don’t understand addiction or alcoholism. Even when they know I’m sober; some people will ask, “C’mon, why don’t you have a drink? Why do you hate fun?” Nothing sends me into a high-speed bailout faster than someone’s non-awareness or nonchalance.
Feeling safe means surrounding myself with Casey’s, people who acknowledge my recovery, do not downplay the seriousness and ask questions if they’re unfamiliar with the ins and outs of navigating a sober relationship.
I also tend to lash out when I feel my sobriety is being threatened, so apologies if you’ve ever been on the tail-end — moving on.
Not All Alcoholism Looks the Same
According to a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are five different subtypes of alcoholics, ranging from Young Adult to Functional to Antisocial. However, most people are only familiar with one type: The Chronic Severe Alcoholic. This is the stereotypical drunk, you know — the one who has lost everything; she’s en route to jail, death, and rehab all at once. Society tends to use the Chronic Severe Subtype as the reference point for all alcoholism, which creates a few problems:
- It prevents alcoholics from getting sober because they think, “I’m not that bad.”
- It causes non-alcoholics to say, “You weren’t that bad.”
For me, it was that bad, even though this is what I looked like:
Sure, there were the lows people didn’t see — like the crippling self-hatred and countless nights in shady parking lots waiting for blow, but even what people could see looked different than what they considered to be a real problem.
I was the party-girl, the lets-get-a-bottle-of-whiskey-and-dress-up-in-ghillie-suits-girl (long story), but the point is, most of the time, I had a smile on my face and a kegger in the works. Some friends were genuinely confused when I told them I was sober because my subtype of alcoholism did not align with what they thought an alcoholic looks like. (Other friends made the sign of the cross and muttered blessings under their breath.)
Anyway, the stereotype that all alcoholics are besotted bums is dangerous, and I would love for there to be more education so people realize it’s never too early to get help. And if a friend comes to you and says, “I think I have a problem,” please don’t say “it’s not that bad.” Normalize asking for help. Educate yourself on the scale of alcoholism.
Willpower Ain’t It
I’ve learned that people love to say, “Oh, all you need to get sober is willpower.” Let’s debunk that right now. Alcoholism is a disease, and suggesting willpower as a solution is akin to telling a cancer patient “just try harder to go into remission.”
Here’s an excerpt from someone who explains it more scientifically:
Alcoholism is considered a chronic disease for several reasons. It has some elements of heritability, meaning there are genetic components that can run in families. Environmental factors are also part of the equation. Consider diabetes, another chronic disease. Whether or not you develop diabetes is based on a combination of your family’s genes and your personal lifestyle choices, like diet and exercise.
Willpower was a tool I tried to implement when I wanted to manage my drinking — not give it up. “I’ll just have one,” I’d say, or, “I won’t drink this week” (as I proceeded to blackout on a Tuesday). My futile attempts to white-knuckle cravings never lasted long. It turns out, if you’re controlling your drinking, your drinking is controlling you.
I’ve learned to harness strength and determination (semi-synonymous with willpower) to achieve eight years of sobriety. However, I had to start with surrender, and surrender had to begin with rock bottom. There’s no willpower at rock bottom, just complete defeat.
The final problem with assuming willpower = sobriety is that it negates the most crucial aspect of all: my spirituality, which brings me to my next lesson.
AA is Not Religious
I know, I know, I thought it was religious, too. This segment will be short because AA ought never be dragged into public controversy. Alas, I tire of hearing, “Oh, you go to AA? Isn’t that a super religious organization?” as the person eyes me like I’m about to summon Jesus and blast an ash mark on everyone’s forehead. (For the record, I have no issue with religion when it’s not limiting the rights of human beings or operating out of straight hypocrisy.)
Yes, at a glance, you’ll see “God” in AA, but God in the traditional sense is not everyone’s cup of spiritual tea. To overcome the uncomfortable conjuring of a Christian God, I was taught to think of it as an acronym for Good Orderly Direction, Group of Drunks, or simply “Higher Power” (HP). The AA principles encourage alcoholics to define their own HP’s. Why? Here we go, I’ll tell you:
Finding an HP is essential for people in 12-step programs to not rely on ourselves or someone else to stay sober. (Big reveal: humans are fallible.) HP’s give us strength where we can’t find any, clarity when life is muddled, and helps guide us to a connected life; If that’s too woo-woo for you, sorry, not sorry.
Personally? My HP is the Universe, and we’re pretty tight. I love the connection I feel between me and the vast, seamless sky filled with galaxies and glistening stars. I love wrapping myself in the beauty of a neon sunrise or gazing at the moon and reflecting on how it’s the same one that’s been glowing in the sun’s fire for 4.5 billion years. If I can’t access that beauty, or if I’m ever feeling lost, I plant my feet on the ground and remember we’re all stardust — and that’s spiritual as fuck.
I Didn’t Love Drugs + Alcohol
I thought I loved substances, but I was just obsessed with the identity they had helped me create. Without ever knowing who I was (and being terrified of finding out), I let drugs and alcohol dictate my whole life: Who I would hang out with, who I would date, what I would do for work, when I would go home, when I would wake up in the morning, and on a more macro level: whether or not I lived or died.
In early recovery, I felt deep, dark sadness over the loss of booze and blow. I mourned the death of my relationship with them, saying dramatic-but-true-sentiments like, “My life is over.” I actually went to my storage unit in California and tossed everything I owned: Hello cruel, sober world. Living felt pointless without my synthetic crutches for survival. I didn’t know who I was anymore or what the point was.
Imagine my surprise when I realized that life is 100 times more meaningful and profound without the substances. Although I was trudging, life got easier. I began having conversations without wanting to crawl out of my skin. I unsew the traits I’d stitched into the fabric of my being and rebuilt on a foundation of authenticity. I made decisions about who I was, instead of letting drugs + alcohol dictate them for me.
Finding out who I am over the past eight years has been a real trip (not the mushroom kind). I got sober at 26 and haven’t felt an ounce of regret since — where as I used to wake up with regret eating me alive. Sure, I’ve messed up, but I can face the mistakes without manipulating the truth — without running away, almost like an adult or something. Weird.
It hasn’t all been moonrises and neon suns; I’ve lost two friends to suicide, one brother to cancer, and three to this disease. I’ve lost jobs and clients, and friendships and partners. I’ve gone through breakups and breakdowns. However, being present for all the pain has taught me how to live. I’ve embraced grief in all its rawness.
Perhaps the most rewarding result of sobriety has been the ability to help others. Please know, if you’re reading this and you’re wondering, “Do I have a problem?” it’s okay to ask for help, and you don’t have to feel this way anymore. Leave a comment below, slide into my DM’s, ignite a flare gun. Whatever’s clever. I’m here for you.