Updated: Nov 11, 2020
The myths and the reality
When I decided to quit drinking, not for a week or 100 days but forever, I believed some amazing things would happen.
I thought I'd have flawless skin, lose 20 pounds, have boundless energy, and basically a perfect life from that point forward.
For the past few years, the sober movement has intersected with the wellness movement and created these myths that once you give up alcohol, all will be well in your life. I bought into the idea that it was for my physical health (and only my physical health). I just needed to give it up and I'd feel like a million bucks afterward.
Well, none of that happened, unsurprisingly. Right before I quit I was down to drinking only a few times a month. I hadn't binged in at least a year, so there was no dramatic weight loss because I wasn't consuming tons of alcoholic calories. I won't deny there are people, especially men, who, when they quit drinking, drop a ton of weight right away. The reason is that they're consuming a lot of alcohol, and cutting it out does have a significant effect on their health.
The most significant changes in my life after giving up alcohol have been psychological, and social. They've been unexpected, challenging, life-affirming, and surprising. I'm going to break those down for you, but please remember - this is only my experience. Some folks may identify; some will have an entirely different journey. Regardless, if you are contemplating giving up alcohol, I hope this will inspire you.
I started to trust myself again.
This one is huge. The worst part of struggling with addiction was anytime I started to have momentum, creating a new habit, lifestyle change, progressing at work, making strides with my mental health… I would keep it up for a little while, but eventually, the wheels would fall off. The cycle was: a renewed sense of purpose and creating a big plan, gaining speed, going strong for a few days, then a break by having some drinks, which led to stalling out - and spending the next day or two anxious and depressed. This cycle would often begin again soon, but always left me feeling like I couldn't build on anything.
After years of this cycle, I stopped believing in myself. I didn't trust I could follow through with anything. What I didn't know until hindsight was the role alcohol was playing in this. Releasing alcohol from my life forever gave me integrity I'd never had. I started to build days and change small things in my life. I started to believe I could.
After quitting, I decided to try hosting a month-long meditation challenge. I announced I would do Instagram live meditations every sunrise for the entire month of March. It might not sound like a big deal, but there's no way I could have actually completed this challenge if I'd still been drinking! I did it. I showed up every day, both for myself and the folks that joined the challenge. I had fun and it was so rewarding. Being able to rely on myself has increased my self-esteem and self-respect and empowered me in ways I never thought possible.
I've uncovered hidden trauma.
This one is less pretty, but it's real. When you spend years drinking to the point of blacking out, there's a reason. My first year sober happened to coincide with the #metoo movement and going through those two things together brought a lot of repressed stuff to the surface. I'll be honest, I'm still dealing with most of it.
When I was 15, I lost my virginity in a very abusive relationship with a 23-year-old man. I was with him for two years, and the relationship ended on a scary note. After the breakup, I stuffed it all away and never properly dealt with it. They call it statutory rape, but I had never categorized it as rape in my mind. I'd always had a vision of myself at 15 as mature and making my own choices. Sadly, this occurrence - of men in their 20s grooming and preying on teenage girls, and the girls believing they are special - is all too common.
And the subsequent years spent as a dangerously promiscuous person, terrified of anything resembling commitment? I spent those years believing that was who I was. I was wild, willing to try anything. But, after hearing countless stories of women who had been abused, while at the same time parenting a 15-year-old daughter, I started to realize that was also a reaction to trauma. I broke down and started grieving for my young self. I am starting to see the domino effect that relationship had on my life for years after. And I saw how my needing to drink to have sex was a direct result of disassociating from my own body, from my own pain.
When we take on a defense mechanism as part of our self, when we believe we are our trauma response, it's arresting to come to that realization. And it's scary to let it go. I'm thankful for this clarity. Addiction puts us into a state of arrested development. When we start drinking to avoid the grief we should be moving through, it gets stuck in our bodies. This is why I believe in a commitment to awareness, and why I believe the opposite of addiction is connection.
Accepting my sexuality.
Repressed sexual identity coexisting with addiction is something I'm learning is not uncommon. When I was young, my first crushes were all on other girls. I remember discovering my brother's Playboys and the fascination and excitement I felt was distinct from how I felt about boys. I was attracted to both. I had no language for that. I had no role models, no one to look up to.
What I did receive was a lot of shaming, mean comments, and discomfort from other girls. There were no out gay people in my high school in small-town SC in the 90s. Kids today talk about how great they imagine the 90s were, but they don't know about the rampant sexism, racism, and homophobia.
As before, the way I dealt with this as an adult was having sex with women during wild, drunken nights. Falling accidentally into bed with friends, having threesomes, and all manner of sexual adventures, but never once did I have a meaningful romantic relationship with a woman. I hope to change that someday. I've worked through a lot of my hurt and shame around women, and I'm now able to have deep, caring friendships with them, which wasn't something I could do for a long time. But I'd still love to explore that part of me more fully, now that I am no longer hiding.
My heart has grown three sizes.
Being a young person hiding so much pain, guilt, and shame - my reaction had been to armor up. Become untouchable. In my 20s, friends were always telling me I seemed like a sociopath because I was so cold and unfeeling. It's wild, but I took it as a compliment! I didn't want to need anyone. I didn't want anyone to get close. A lot changed when I had a baby. My heart cracked open a little. And as she grew, she would warm my coldness, challenge my cynicism, call out my lack of empathy. Over time, I started to realize the defenses that had served me so well were now hurting the one person in my life I loved the most.
I started to work on my heart. I explored energy work, meditation, sound healing, herbalism. I started to immerse myself in a culture which encourages you to learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings and learn to be vulnerable. My heart continued to soften. I did a lot of this work leading up to getting sober. I was getting more and more healthy, and with each solstice, each full moon, I'd ask over and over to clear out the things that kept me drinking.
I burned writings, danced through the pain, sang in ceremony, chanted, cried. And two years ago today, alone under a full moon, I ended my soul contract with alcohol. My heart that night was bursting with love. For my inner child, my inner teen, for my daughter, my partner, my community, and my family - all of it. I knew I wanted to keep growing and to do so, I had to release this chain holding me back. I did it on my own time, it felt gentle and right, and I will always be grateful for it.
Continuing to commit
So that brings me to today, my two-year sober anniversary. I don't fully agree with the philosophy of counting days. There was so much healing and recovery I did before releasing alcohol for good. I count that work, too, even though I was struggling with sobriety.
I am sharing these parts of myself because I want people to know what recovery means to me. Like a soul retrieval, this process has allowed me to recover parts of myself I had lost. I've been able to forgive, grieve for lost time, and hold my young self in love. I've been able to call back in those rejected aspects, those shameful parts. Recovery, to me, is a journey to become whole again. I still have a long way to go, but I'm so glad to be on this path.