I was asked, as a sober woman of long term sobriety, to share some things I have learned over my 23 years in recovery. I’m honored and privileged to do so and grateful for the opportunity.
Before I begin, just a few disclaimers that I think are REALLY important for you to know:
I am NOT an expert, by any means, on alcoholism, recovery, or 12 step programs.
All I have to offer you is my story and my experience in recovery.
None of the tips I’m about to share are original – they are all suggestions that other members of long term sobriety shared with me that I found REALLY helpful along the way and now pass along to you.
So now that that’s out of the way... a little bit about me and my journey:
Growing up, I was always one of those kids who never quite felt like I fit in anywhere. I was 12 or 13 years old when I started drinking, and suddenly everything fuzzy went into focus. Suddenly, with booze in my system, I felt smarter, prettier, funnier, and braver. I could finally approach that guy I had a crush on! I could dance! (Well no, not really, but boy did I think I could! Can I just say THANK GOD Facebook and smartphones did not exist when I drank!)
Often when drinking, I would not recall many things that I did or said. It wasn’t uncommon for me to wake up not knowing how I got where I was. As much as I loved the effect alcohol had, I didn’t like the blackouts, so I thought if I only drank beer, or wine coolers – no hard liquor, all would be fine. That didn’t work. Then I tried drinking on a full stomach. Certainly, bread or pasta would absorb the alcohol, and I wouldn’t get to blackout or pass out stage so fast... nope. That didn’t work either. Then I thought, well maybe if I smoke pot while drinking it would help, WAY WRONG ANSWER!
Long story short, by the time I was 18, my drinking continued and progressed to the point that I had offended many of my friends/loved ones, and developed a self-loathing that was increasingly becoming more and more unbearable. I graduated high school and was accepted into college. I believed if I moved to another area, where no one knew me, I could completely reinvent myself. It would be a fresh start! I could hit the “reset button,” and things would be different. The problem was, I was still the same person dealing with untreated alcoholism at the time, but didn’t know it. So my plan was not successful. I immediately found people just like me and my drinking became even worse. I started doing things I said I would never do and my self-loathing deepened.
In my first semester at college, I had a significant suicide attempt at 18 years old that resulted in hospitalization for a week in the intensive care unit, followed by three weeks in the Mental Health Unit. This was in September 1995. Through friends of friends, I found my way to my first 12th step meeting in October 1995. My sobriety date is 2/24/1997. I relapsed several times between my first meeting and my sobriety date and at one point was convinced that I was never going to “get this sobriety thing”.
What I offer you is a cliff note version of what I had to acknowledge, learn, and practice to get AND STAY sober. I hope you find these tips as helpful as I did when members of long term recovery shared them with me.
1. ADMITTING I NEEDED HELP. As cliché as that sounds, it was and continues to be the most important factor of my sobriety today. Until I hit a point where it was very clear to me that I couldn’t drink alcohol safely, but had no idea how to live without alcohol and needed help – I wasn’t able to get and stay sober. Period. It didn’t matter that my friends or family saw this clearly, it only mattered that deep to my core, I acknowledged this and said “I can’t do this anymore. I need help”. Then and only then was I able to become teachable and once I was teachable I was able to receive the help offered to me.
2. LEARN TO LISTEN AND LISTEN TO LEARN. When I was newly sober and stark raving crazy, I hated how the shiny happy people of long term sobriety were so perky all the time. It baffled me that people could be that happy without drugs or alcohol in their system and I was convinced they were getting high on the side. (I’m happy to report that many of those folks I previously despised, I proudly consider my friends today - and none of them were getting high on the side; not then or now). Yet, at the same time, I despised these people then, I wanted SO badly to be happy like they were - I just didn’t have a clue how to get there without being drunk or high myself. I was told I needed to pay attention to those who had come before me because they were:
Sober for a long time (which I hadn’t been able to get more than a month sober without relapsing),
They were really happy about the fact they were sober (I was absolutely miserable and angry that I was sober, but yet knew I couldn’t keep drinking either – let me tell you that is one AWFUL place to be!)
They were enjoying their life (again, I wasn’t happy at all and had no idea how to be happy AND sober)
The problem was I really struggled to pay attention, so I had to learn how to listen to people because I needed to listen to people in long term sobriety so I could learn what they did to stay sober and enjoy life simultaneously. How did I do this? I didn’t talk to friends during meetings – I listened while people spoke. Especially the shiny, happy annoyingly perky people. My sponsor recommended I listened hard to them, so I did. I didn’t go outside to smoke a cigarette during meetings, I waited until after the meeting was over. I stayed seated during the meeting and didn’t walk around for coffee or bathroom breaks. I took care of those things before and after the meetings because I was told if I missed something someone said – I may miss the one thing that could save my life and really make all the difference in the world to my sobriety.
3. IDENTIFY vs COMPARE. I would listen to others in recovery tell their stories that involved loss of employment, marriages, legal troubles and I thought I wasn’t “that bad” because I had never gotten a DWI, divorced, lost job, etc. However, I had a pretty significant suicide attempt that landed me in the Intensive Care Unit for almost a week, followed by a 3-week stay in the Mental Health Unit where I was diagnosed with Alcoholism and Depression. Some may say that could be considered a pretty major red flag that something was WRONG and I needed help. I was told that it may help if listened to others to see how I was like other folks in recovery, not different then. Once I started doing that, I heard all kinds of things I identified with. We shared the same feelings of shame, guilt, fear, etc. Although our paths to rock bottom may have been different, we all had the same feelings and the same realization that we couldn’t continue living the way we had been and needed help to live differently and stay sober. I had way more in common with these folks than I could have imagined and it wasn’t long before I LOVED listening to others share their experiences as it made me feel better to know I wasn’t alone and there was hope for me too. To this day, I continue to be amazed at how all of us are so much more alike than we are different. It comforts me and helps me feel connected to others in a way I never was before.
4. IF I WANT WHAT THEY HAVE, I HAVE TO DO WHAT THEY DID. As I mentioned earlier, I was constantly annoyed by the shiny happy perky folks in recovery yet wanted so badly to feel that good myself and be sober at the same time. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine, (a friend mind you who had the same sobriety time as I did but had become one of those shiny happy perky people in recovery and I was still miserable), challenged me and dared me to “do the work” he and others who were happy in recovery had done.
Until this point, I had read all 12 steps, thought about which ones applied to me, and which ones didn’t, and thought “There. I did the steps”. I understand today, that reading the steps like a checklist, is not the same as “doing the steps” and in my experience, the only thing that did was help me relapse. Repeatedly. Until I became willing to actually do what those shiny happy people in recovery did, I wasn’t able to get the peace, serenity, long term sobriety they had. I took my friend’s challenge to spite him and asked a member of long-term sobriety to walk me through the steps and program of recovery. I’m happy to tell you that despite my crappy attitude about this, I did do the steps as honestly and thoroughly as I could at the time and as a result, have long term sobriety today, enjoy peace of mind and serenity most of the time, and have been told by newcomers that I’m “always so happy”. (That always makes me chuckle – if they only knew how miserable I used to be!!). It’s very simple and clear for me today - I did what they did and I finally got what they had. It wasn’t complicated. Sobriety wasn’t this mystical secret or rocket science that I had convinced myself it was. I just needed to be willing to acknowledge I didn’t know what I was doing, ask for help, and take the suggestions given to me.
That’s really it. It’s really that simple. I searched for three years for how to get by in recovery without doing the work others in long term recovery had done and it baffles me today that if I had put one-tenth of my energy into actually doing it as I was into fighting it, how much pain and suffering I would have saved myself. Oh well. I had to go through what I did to get to where I am today, but I envy those that do that from the beginning. You don’t have to have a long time in sobriety to be happy. It’s not the length of time in sobriety that matters, it’s the commitment to living a different way to the best of your ability one day at a time that matters.
5. SOBRIETY ISN’T BASED ON OUTSIDE FACTORS, BUT INTERNAL WILLINGNESS. I got sober in a college dorm room at 19 1/2 years old, surrounded by young adults my age who were partying and drinking all the time. The same dorm that I drank/partied in and tried to take my life in when I was 18 years old. I returned to this dorm room after being hospitalized for my suicide attempt and I’m grateful I did. I will never regret this experience, although painful, I learned a valuable lesson through this time: my sobriety wasn’t based on where I lived, who I lived with, or what other people did or didn’t do. My sobriety was based on my willingness to do what I needed to do to stay sober. The rest of the world did not need to quit drinking and change. I did.
6. I CAN’T STAY SOBER ON YESTERDAY’S SOBRIETY. It doesn’t matter how awesome a program I worked five years ago or how many service commitments I kept in my first few years of sobriety (although I did a TON of those too – very helpful by the way, STRONGLY recommend service commitments!!) What really matters, is what I am doing TODAY to stay sober. What actions have I taken today to be a productive member of recovery and society? Am I treating my loved ones well? Am I being responsible and honest to the best of my ability? Am I staying connected with other members of the recovery community, actively participating in a 12th step program, and giving back what was freely given to me? I will not profess to be perfect, as I certainly am not. I have just found that my happiness and serenity in sobriety seem to be directly correlated to my connection to the program and fellowship and of recovery and the effort I am putting into those areas.
7. NO WAY AROUND, JUST THROUGH. Wherever I am at this point in my recovery is OK. I wanted 10 years of sobriety, peace, and happiness in 10 days. It did not work that way for me. I couldn’t get around early sobriety and all the uncomfortableness that accompanied it. (Although I will say, I think I napped A LOT in my first year sober! Reality without alcohol/drugs was exhausting!) I had to go through everything I went through to get to where I am now and I don’t regret it. Not one moment. Every emotional up and down, and I was the definition of a “human rollercoaster” in my first few years. I had to walk through every fear I had to find the faith that this program worked. I had to learn how to bear some discomfort as life wasn’t about feeling good all the time, I once thought, it was about doing the right thing and being the best person I could be, which isn’t always easy or comfortable.
8. Last but certainly not least…….I hate to tell you, but I have found and my sponsor continues to remind me, “THERE IS NO FINISH LINE IN RECOVERY”. This is a lifelong process of learning and growing and I can only do that one day at a time. Asking for the honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness to live this program of recovery to the best of my ability, one day at a time, is all I can do. Some days I do a really great job. Some days I don’t. I make mistakes often, but fortunately, I’ve learned (with A LOT of help) how to deal with life, one day at a time, so I don’t have to drink or use drugs to feel better.