Thursday, June 9, 2011

In Which I Answer The Question I Get The Most

How did you do it? people who are struggling want to know.   How did you stop? 

This question makes me itchy, but it is the question I'm asked the most. 

It makes me itchy because there is no one way to get sober, and nobody is an authority on how it is done.  But just like I share my stories of drinking and addiction, hoping someone can see themselves in my words and find some measure of comfort, I realize it's okay to talk about my recovery the same way.  

I don't like giving advice.  I like sharing stories.  But on some level, I guess, they are one and the same.

Looking back on it now, I can see two main things that kept me sober even when I really didn't want to stop drinking:  talking and breaking patterns.

I found sober women.  I found them in recovery meetings - I didn't know where else to look, and I knew they would be there, so that is where I went.   A lot about meetings was completely overwhelming at first, and much of it was downright off-putting, to be honest.  But the people, OH - the people.  It was such a relief to talk to people who understood, who weren't pointing their fingers at me and asking: why did you? or how could you?  or what's wrong with you? 

I came to understand that these people were safe, that I could pour out my feelings and my truths, share the burden of my shame with them and lighten my load.  They didn't have magical answers, but they would nod their heads in empathy and understanding, and just the act of unloading made me feel light, free and hopeful.

Some people were full of advice - lots of  you should do this and you shouldn't do that.  I listened to all of it, discarded the advice that didn't work for me and embraced the advice that did. At first the advice felt crippling; I was caught up in the 'right' way to get sober, and felt like I was doing it all wrong.  Finally, one of my new good recovery friends gently pointed out that the idea was to find the way that worked for me.

"Are you drinking?" she asked.

When I replied that I wasn't, she smiled and said, "Well, then whatever you're doing is working."

Even when I wasn't sure at all why I was there, I kept going to meetings, because for all of my confusion I felt safe there, my mind quieted and I felt peaceful. So I kept going. I found the people that helped me the most and I clung to the them for dear life.  I am not a clinger, and falling back into their arms is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but it worked.  

I talked.  A lot.  I talked wide-eyed in wonder about the all the feelings I had, the ones that I had stuffed down for so long.  I was so angry - at myself, at the fact that I was an alcoholic and couldn't drink.  I was so scared.   How was I going to navigate life without the soothing effects of wine?   These people understood why I felt that way, because they had lived it, too.  When I would ask people not in recovery how I would live without alcohol, they would blink and say, "well, just don't drink!"  

In response to the same question someone in recovery would say, "it seems impossible, doesn't it? But it is possible, although it's going to get harder before it gets easier, so hang on tight and keep on talking."

The other important part of my early recovery was breaking patterns.  I looked at my triggers and could see there were times of day, situations and feelings that always made me want to drink.   It was hard to look at my triggers, because the number one item on the list was my kids.  Admitting my kids were my biggest trigger, and having safe people to talk to about it, was the turning point in my early recovery.  

The toughest time of day was late afternoon and early evening, and I spent the first couple of months white-knuckling it, muddling through, until I followed the advice to change my patterns.  During the tough hours I would talk to another recovering alcoholic on the phone, go for a walk or lose myself in video games or mindless movies.   I had two small kids at home, so I couldn't just escape any time I wanted to, but I would pile them into the car and head to the playground at 5:30pm if I had to.   I walked in a different door of my house for a while. I rearranged furniture and I cleaned like a maniac.  It didn't matter what I did, really, as long as it helped me get out of my head for a little while.

I slept a lot.  Life was so bright, loud and chaotic, and the feelings were so pointy without the numbing effects of alcohol, that sometimes my brain would simply shut down.  It took me some time to understand that sleep was a safe way to escape, to drop away for a while, so I didn't beat myself up about it, although it freaked my family out.  Seeing me sleep at odd times of the day was a trigger for them, and with the help of other recovering people I found the words to explain to my family how I was feeling, why I needed to shut down sometimes.

But the single most important thing I did in early recovery, was get honest, both with myself and with other people.  Those things I didn't want to think about, let alone talk about?  I started thinking about them and talking about them.  I wrote in a journal, before I started this blog.  Honesty is the antidote for denial, and denial keep you stuck. 

And lastly, I stopped drinking. Such a simple thing, but it is the hardest step.

If you are trying to stop and you physically can't, get help.  Talk to a doctor, or go to rehab.  Rehab is such a nasty word, isn't it?  To me it smelled of failure, of bottom-of-the-barrel drinkers.  I wasn't expecting to find other Moms, other smart, funny, creative and interesting people who were just like me, but that's what I found.  Rehab isn't a dirty word; it is a place of healing, and it is full of people who will understand you, and get you safely sober and on the path towards recovery.

If you can physically stop but your mind goes nuts, start talking.  If you are triggered because you're irritated - be irritated.  Get to the other side of an unpleasant emotion without the numbing effect of alcohol.  Be in it, ride it out.   And then do it again and again.   Get through anger, hurt, resentment and boredom.  You can do this on your own, but it is miserable, so find safe people - ideally sober people - and start talking.

You can find sober people at meetings, or in chat rooms, or on blogs.  I get emails every week from people who say: "I've never said this to anyone before, but I think I'm an alcoholic", or "I can't stop drinking, even though I want to."   I know exactly how brave it is to admit that to yourself and to someone else, and it makes my heart soar because I know this person just broke through denial and gave themselves a fighting chance at sobriety.

Sober people are the bravest people I've ever met.  They are authentic and compassionate, and they exist in the truth.  It is a beautiful, beautiful place to live.

Come join us.  It's amazing here.


  1. "Honesty is the antidote for denial, and denial keep you stuck."

    I don't have a problem with alcohol, but I have other things I'm struggling with. Your words - and especially the statement above - are such a gift and a help, no matter what things we may be dealing with.

    Thank you.

  2. I was married to an alcoholic/addict for 17 years. You and others I have "met" in the blogging world have helped me understand the other side of things. Sadly, he is still there. I applaud you for your sharing, and I hope many are touched by your words and find hope and recovery because of you and the others who put it out there. I am very drawn to the posts of those in recovery, and I am thankful for the things you have taught me. And I would agree, you are some of the bravest people I know.

  3. this is a beautiful post ellie!!! just in my short (almost) 2 years of recovery, what has worked to keep me sober has changed and evolved so much, sometimes on a daily basis, but you hit on the most important things, realizing that you have to stop drinking completely and connecting with others who know what it's like. i am so glad that you are brave enough to speak about recovery and your grace inspires me more and more with each post :) thank you

  4. Ellie, I applaud you for your sobriety. I had no idea so many moms suffered. I am sober just over 6 years. I agree with you.I think sometimes life couldn't get any more beautiful in sobriety. Other days I loathe the emotional pain I have to trudge through because I don't anesthetize my body physically anymore. It's funny, I cry when I am overwhelmed, sick, or ..let's talk PMS in sobriety. My first year, if someone hadn't warned me to mark my calendar, I thought I was on my way to crazy town! ha ha I can laugh now that I understand it better...but at first, yikes! I too couldn't have made it without people, women in recovery. And like they promised, it did get better. Have you done your housecleaning yet? 4 and 5? Those set me free! My worst day in sobriety beats my best day drinking any day anytime. I hope by God's grace I won't drink....just for today!:)

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