Monday, April 24, 2017

Flyover country of the soul

Today I am three years sober.

I wrote a post not long ago that referred to my first year of sobriety as feeling as though I was crawling out of my skin. The more I think about it, the more apt that phrase seems. I really did feel as though I could not just sit with all my chaotic feelings about the awful things that were happening.

In retrospect, a lot of the awful things that happened were precisely because I couldn’t sit still with my feelings, because I couldn’t just realize that sometimes bad things happen, and sometimes people are assholes, and sometimes I make costly and embarrassing mistakes.

Bad things still happen. People are still sometimes assholes. And, unfortunately, I still make costly and embarrassing mistakes. But the feelings around all that are different. I no longer feel as though the whole world is against me, that I’m standing in the face of a storm that won’t stop buffeting me long enough for me to catch my breath.

When I make an expensive mistake or a social faux pas or lose my shit with my kids, I remind myself that everybody does stuff like this. I’m not the worst, most pathetic person who ever lived. I am just a person in the world, like everybody else.

When I was drinking and newly sober, I cycled between feeling intense shame because I was The World Person in the World, and righteous indignation because other people didn’t treat me like I was as perfect as I wanted to be and in moments of grandiosity convinced myself I was.

Shame and grandiosity. Self-hatred and narcissism. These are the poles between which we swing when we’re drinking. When we stop drinking and take those first shaky steps on the road to recovery, those poles are all we know. We know nothing of the bland flyover country of the soul, where we are just as valuable – and just as flawed – as every other person. We don’t know how to acknowledge our mistakes without self-flagellation, clean up the mess as best we can, and move on. We don’t know how to forgive other people because they’re only human and doing the best they can, even when they hurt us.

Life is so much better now than when I was drinking. I still have problems. I still get angry. I still get embarrassed. But the problems are not catastrophes, the anger isn’t rage, and the embarrassment isn’t soul-killing shame.

None of this would have happened if I hadn’t developed a drinking problem and then got sober. When I was new in AA and people would introduce themselves as “a grateful alcoholic” I was like, WTF? Now, I get it. I’m grateful that drinking too much broke me open, and sobriety put me back together, better than before.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Counting Days


A friend recently celebrated a year sober. In her "I have a year!" post in our online community, she credited something I wrote there during her first dark days, when she was struggling to string more than a few sober days together, with helping her turn the corner. It was my "I have have two years!" post, where I wrote this:

Today I am 2 years sober. Life is still hard, but it is immeasurably better than it was when I was drinking. I was high functioning, had a job, kept up appearances, but my off switch was unreliable. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't, and when it didn't, I would wake up hung over, ashamed, hating myself. I love not waking up feeling that way now, not ever. Not once in two years. 

There are a lot of people in this group who are struggling in early sobriety, or not even in sobriety yet, still drinking but wanting to be sober, or thinking they want it in the mornings but not wanting it by the time 5 o'clock rolls around. I've been there. The first time I wrote in my journal, "I think I drink too much," was not my Day 1. It was quite a few months before that, maybe more than a year. I can't remember now. But from the time I first wrote those words, the pleasure of drinking was eclipsed by the shame of drinking too much. 

More than 2,000 years ago, Aristotle wrote, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." What I do repeatedly now is get up, don't drink, go to bed, repeat. The more sober time you have, the easier that gets. 

Modern research confirms that willpower can be exhausted, that it's hard to decide to do something and force yourself to stick with your decision, but if doing something becomes habitual, it becomes easier. You don't have to decide, each and every time, that you will do it. Brushing your teeth every morning and night isn't burdensome because it's a habit you've had for decades. You don't think about it, say, "Should I do it today?" You just do it, without thought, without exerting willpower and feeling the consequent depletion of willpower. 

That's why continuous sobriety is the key to sobriety. When people get annoyed about having to reset their sobriety date when they only drank once, and think, I shouldn't lose my 50 days or whatever, it's not about slapping you down and saying your 50 days don't count. It's not about counting or keeping track at all. It's about habit formation -- the habit of not drinking, not because you have to decide not to drink, but because you don't drink, just like you do brush your teeth. When you have a few weeks of sobriety then drink, then stop for a few weeks then drink, then stop, then drink, you're deciding every single day whether you will or won't, and deciding is the exhausting part. Every day that you don't drink, the habit of not drinking gets stronger. That's why people count days. Not to brag, "I have such and such many days/months/years" but because the longer you go without drinking, the stronger the habit of not drinking becomes, until you don't have to decide every day, will I drink or won't I? Because you just don't drink, and you don't have to decide and deplete your willpower by deciding. 

There is no magic number when you stop having to decide and not drinking becomes a habit. I have no idea when it happened for me. I just know that it did, and I'm so grateful.

A few days after my friend's one year post, another member of our online community wrote this:   

Sorry for the bad news, but I still say that if you are treating this as a battle of willpower then you are eventually going to lose. If you really want this, then winning 1000 battles of will and then losing only 1 is not going to meet your goal. If you believe me, then the challenge isn't for us to avoid having a drink, it's to work on our brain so we don't want to drink. This is going to involve doing a lot of shit you don't want to do, and maybe don't believe in, not giving a shit about what your spouse or significant other thinks, rolling with some serious fears about what the future holds for your relationship and your life, ignoring a bunch of shit other people do or say, and ignoring a bunch of shit that your brain and ego is going to tell you along the way - the same brain and ego that got us here in the first place.

He's right. Absolutely, 100% right. While texting with a sober friend yesterday, it hit me that the reason so many in our little community are struggling so much is that they haven't done what this guy (who has been sober five years, and is a different person from the raw, newly sober guy who wrote this post was) and I have done: work on our brains, doing a lot of shit we didn't want to do, and maybe didn't believe in.

A lot of members of our online community are pretty anti-AA, but for me, AA was a life saver. Not because I couldn't string together sober days (I was 5 months sober before I got  sponsor and started working the Steps) but because doing those Steps totally flipped the the script on my victim narrative, see my own part in things, take responsibility, and stop being resentful and wallowing in self-pity.

I had problems with the higher power thing, so for me, my higher power was the program itself, all these people sitting there sober 20, 30, 50 years, living proof that the 12 steps can keep you sober.

Step 2, coming to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity, was believing that if I did what these people did, it could restore me to sanity. And that belief, that willingness to believe, is missing in so many people in our online community. They see all of us with two or three or five years of sobriety saying, it gets better, it really, really, really does, but they are not willing to believe that it could possibly be true for them.

I have posted in that community before about one of my favorite books, Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. The title makes it sound like one of those self-help books, but it's actual science. What Gilbert's research shows is that human beings are incredibly shitty about predicting what the future is going to be like, and that asking someone currently having the experience you are imagining (like being sober a long time) gives a more accurate view of it than imagining it yourself. 

I have read so many posts in that community from people who aren't sure if they want to be sober. Do I really want to give it up forever? Am I being too hard on myself? Can I face a life without it? Many of us – perhaps most of us, certainly I – have danced that dance in our heads before. What strikes me now as I look back on that time in my life is that I was speculating about something – long-term sobriety – that I had no personal knowledge of. I imagined a life without drinking, when drinking was all I knew.

What I was capable of imagining was only what I knew already of not drinking – the white-knuckling early days, when it felt like deprivation. Of course it did. Giving it up was brand-new. What I was incapable of imagining was a life where I didn't think about it much at all. A life that was good and full and satisfying without wine in it.

That's exactly Dan Gilbert's point in Stumbling on Happiness – we can't imagine it. We. Can. Not. Imagine. It.

Instead of continuing to debate should-I-shouldn't-I?, I suggest a data-driven investigation into drinking and sobriety. Try a year without wine. You don't have to think about a life without alcohol forever and ever and scary ever. Just a year. Try it. After a year, if you think sobriety is grim and awful and sucks beyond imagining and we are all full of shit, then by all means, drink up. You won't have to wonder anymore whether sobriety is worth it. You'll have done the research, and you'll know.