5 Common Questions of the Newly Sober

Almost everyone I’ve spoken to in recovery started out by asking themselves these five questions:

  1. Am I Really an Alcoholic?

We have this idea that there are two kinds of drinkers: the good people who can handle it and the bad people who lose control and become alcoholics. No one wants to cross the line and join the losing team. No one is excited about a new identity that carries enormous social stigma and shame. The notion alone kept me drinking long after I knew something was wrong. I didn’t want to wear that label, and anyway how could I be the “A” word? I was successful and happy, not miserable and screwed up. I just needed to get my nightly wine habit under control (whatever that meant).

To quit drinking simply makes us “non-drinkers”, not necessarily “alcoholics”. Forget labels, diagnosis, teams, categories, or stereotypes.

The underlying question is really, “Is it really necessary for me to give up alcohol entirely?” Going back to the idea of good drinkers/bad drinkers, most of us connect abstinence with addiction and resist it because it carries an identity of shame.

Some common advice is this: If you’re not sure whether or not you need to quit drinking, try moderating. Put it in writing (“I will only drink on Friday nights, and I will stop after two drinks” or “I will not exceed weekly guidelines for healthy drinking”) and see how that goes. Some people in successful recovery may roll their eyes at this point, some will chuckle knowingly, and some will nod sadly. That’s because almost all of us tried it ourselves – multiple times – and failed repeatedly. That’s why we had to quit, because we couldn’t moderate.

Generally speaking, people who don’t have a problem with drinking alcohol also don’t have a problem with NOT drinking alcohol. So if sticking to a written intention is un-doable, then it is likely that the best outcome will result from abstinence.

  1. Do I Have to Quit Forever?

Many of us have heard that alcohol addiction is for life; it doesn’t go away and can’t be healed, only managed as a chronic condition. The general consensus is that life-long abstinence is best, and that can be an overwhelming prospect at first.

Focus on today, not forever.  I am not always a fan of 12-step slogans, but I can attest to the wisdom of “one day at a time” and “just for today” and “easy does it”.

Anyone who has gotten to the point where alcohol seems to be taking over daily life (my experience) or has become a dangerous unpredictable force (such as occasional but extreme black-out binges) needs peace and freedom from the negative relationship with alcohol. The easiest way to achieve that is to take it day by day, moment by moment, until some new healthier habits start to form. It does get easier.

Another slogan I find helpful when the concept of “forever” seems impossible is “Just do the next right thing.”

If recovery slogans put you off, there are plenty of old corny jokes with the same message:

“How do you eat an elephant?” (One bite at a time!)

  1. How Do I Know When I Have Hit “Rock Bottom”?

Hey guess what? Rock bottom is not a prerequisite for recovery! The only requirement is motivation. If you are inspired to quit drinking before it destroys your life, then you are among the lucky ones. Your challenge will be to stay motivated and maintain the drive.

Unfortunately, “rock bottom” is a stereotype that is perpetuated by virtue of its visibility. When someone in our community or a high-profile newsmaker is out of control, we are all witness to the evidence and curiosity keeps us following their journey through disaster to (we hope) recovery. The media prints graphic photos of the hot-mess-of-the-month, then updates us on subsequent court proceedings, incarceration or rehab, and hints at a triumphant return to great heights. Movies are not made about the soccer mom that quietly switches to tea and blogs anonymously. Where’s the drama? Where’s the hook? Still, it is an equally common reality.

Once addiction takes hold, it rarely seems to self-resolve. The normal pattern for addiction is that it only gets worst until the pattern is stopped. Rock bottom looms as the ultimate destination, but it is possible to get off the ride at any time. For those who are either oblivious their problem’s momentum, or not able to stop for whatever reason (social, physical, economic, and/or  mental circumstances), it may not be possible to muster sufficient motivation to quit drinking until something catastrophic occurs that removes all other options.

  1. Will I Have to Go to Meetings?

There are many different pathways to recovery. In addition to Alcoholics Anonymous, programs such as SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Life Ring, and Celebrate Recovery offer alternative group methods. I have many friends who attend meetings and absolutely love them.

Another option is to self-manage your own recovery, drawing from a combination of materials and philosophies of different pathways. The drawback to this method is that it is easy to remain isolated, and I’ve learned that there is true  JOY in spending time with other people who understand what it’s like to go through these changes. I strongly suggest that anyone who tries getting sober on their own reach out and look for ways to create a support network.  Being connected to other people also helps to keep you accountable, gives an outlet to celebrate small victories, or a safe place to seek advice. Check out Mrs. D’s new Living Sober community, join the Booze Free Brigade online support group (not just for parents, as the intro page suggests), or check out Belle’s 100 Day Challenge.

To quit drinking without attending a program or meetings  – sometimes referred to as “white knuckling it” –  is often dismissed critically, usually those who see it as a rejection of a program they love dearly. Many suggest it is a sure recipe for failure. I can tell you that I have 3 years and 8 months of solid sobriety without ever joining a program. The difference between a “white knuckle” approach and good recovery, in my humble opinion, is the willingness to go beyond abstinence and dig into exploring the dark recesses of the mind and heart that felt the urgent need to numb and escape. That is where true recovery originates, and it is not an easy process. Unearthing old wounds, changing self-awareness and understanding, developing new ways to address and express pain, identifying resentments and healing them, creating better ways of thinking and interacting with ourselves and others – these are goals of recovery that steps, therapy, and behaviour modification programs are all working towards. THAT is the work of recovery, and THAT is where things really get better after the alcohol is out of the picture. How you attain them – through a program or on your own – is your choice.

PS – The only people who “have to” go to meetings are those who are court-ordered.

  1. Should I Go Away to Rehab?

There is no easy answer to this. I have heard from some people who voluntarily went to rehab and loved the experience. I expect that they were already highly motivated to make a change, and might have succeeded with or without treatment. Some others I know went to rehab as a result of a low bottom experience or intervention and had no other options (perhaps because the court, an employer, or family members demanded they attend). Again, motivation and willingness can determine whether or not treatment will be effective, and if rehab is a positive experience.

Even if rehab isn’t absolutely “necessary” – I considered it but got sober without treatment – it is a possibility worth exploring.

Medical detox should also be looked into, because alcohol withdrawal can be extremely dangerous for some. Most of us remember movies like Trainspotting and think that withdrawal from hard drugs must be life-threatening because it is so horrific. In fact, the only two withdrawals that can cause death are (surprisingly!) alcohol and benzodiazepines. I am not an expert so I won’t dispense advice except to suggest researching Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) and decide what is best for you. Most of us are scared to tell our doctors about our alcohol struggles, but that is truly a great starting point. It is time to get honest.

To hear some first-hand accounts of rehab and PAWS, check out these episodes of the Bubble Hour:

http://www.thebubblehour.com/2014/11/understanding-paws-post-acute.html

http://www.thebubblehour.com/2014/10/an-open-discussion-about-rehab-why-when.html

http://www.thebubblehour.com/2013/02/episode-12-lets-talk-about-rehab.html

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42 comments

  1. A lot of us grapple with the angst of “labels” around our drinking; “alcoholic”, “moderate drinker”, “teetotaler”,”social drinker”, “boozecan”, “wino” – I’ve called myself all those things over the years! Many people say that labels don’t define us and I completely agree. Today I label myself an alcoholic but for me the meaning is not shameful or derogatory, it is empowering. For me to call myself an alcoholic simply means that alcohol is a toxic substance for me just as gluten is a toxic substance for someone else.

    How does this substance “alcohol” get away with us carrying the shame?? Alcohol is the toxic substance NOT US!!! Why do we so readily accept these uninvited labels stamped onto our foreheads?

    Here’s a little something for YOU alcohol, from “Roses”, by Outkast:
    “I know you’d like to think your shit don’t stink/ But lean a little bit closer/ See that roses really smell like poo-poo-oo”

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    • Ok I’m replying to my own comment bahaha – is that weird?!! But in the last 7 days since discovering and embracing UnPickled, I suddenly find I have a LOT to say! It’s so incredibly therapeutic for me but I hope my ramblings help someone else too!

      I just need to clarify that I just accepted a few days ago, without a doubt, that I am, in fact, an alcoholic. I’m telling the online world now – but I still remain anonymous. I don’t feel any obligation or compulsion to tell everyone I meet that I’m an alcoholic. I will be very selective about with whom I share this when I do come out of anonymity.

      I don’t think it should be a requirement to slap a label of any kind on your forehead – only do it if it is helpful to you. Don’t stress over “what am I going to tell people?” Don’t feel obligated to tell anyone anything. If people hassle you about why you aren’t drinking alcohol then by all means lie if you feel you need too! As in ” I’m getting over a bit of a bug” or “I can’t drink on the medication I’m on.” Or you can always say ” I’m trying to get pregnant” ( at 54, I can’t use this one anymore 😳) Say you are the DD! My experience has been that the people who are persistent in trying to get you to drink, are the people who might very well have alcohol issues of their own.

      I think the secret to quitting drinking is finding the tools that speak to you individually – the tools that hit the “sweet spot” in your head where suddenly your brain says “wow! This makes sense to me!” There are many, many ways to quit successfully!

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I love, love, love the fact that you don’t see the need to label oneself as an alcoholic in order to make changes. That’s one thing I always dreaded when I thought about how badly I needed to stop. The last thing I wanted to do was to label myself as an alcoholic. That term comes preloaded with shame and regret. To refer to myself simply as a nondrinker feels more powerful and implies that I hold the power and control over the decisions that I make, not the alcohol. Love it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jean thank you for this post. I have been living off The Bubble Hour for the past 7 weeks. Those podcasts and you ladies are very inspiring. However I have been really confused as to whether to go to AA or not. I don’t feel it’s for me and I feel confident that I can explore the issues around my drinking alone but I do feel the need for IRL people who have done this too. All I can find in my locality and the surrounding areas here in Ireland is AA so I’m going to have to consider going to meetings to get that connection. Offloading on my husband isn’t fair and even my therapist seems to lack the connection with how it all feels for me. I want to talk to people that give me that ‘yep, I get it!’ reaction that you all have on TBH when the other person says something about their drinking. I’ll keep thinking and trying. Anywho, thanks again!

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  4. Naltrexone can help you stop when quitting doesn’t. Most people who quit and aren’t all “wow quitting was the magic tool for me”, are still drinking. If you can prevent those opiate receptors from firing, the craving goes away and you can stop. I think you should research some scientifically proven and viable methods of stopping without all the angst. It’s not about character building. It’s about stopping.

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  5. I love your blog! I drank between 1 and 3 bottles of wine a day for a decade at least, but was always able to appear ‘in control’. I guess I was a classic ‘high functioning alcohol dependant’. Sounds much cooler than ‘alcoholic’, so I go with that one! My issue is that because I never hit rock bottom I always have the wine witch muttering in my ear that I could do moderation. I know she lies – I’ve tried it many times! Please check out my blog on http://www.mummywasasecretdrinker.blogspot.com and thanks so much for your inspiration!

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  6. I’m a soccer mom. I’ve found myself drinking too much to often but I’m freaking out at the aspect of quitting forever or joining a program.

    Thank you.

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  7. Thank you SO much for recommending LivingSober! I knew there were online support groups out there but I had given up on quite a few because I couldn’t figure out how to work them or they just weren’t what I was looking for. The setup on that site is very simple and familiar and already I have been met with an outpouring of empathy and support in just a few hours! It was just what I needed. Even though I knew i wasn’t “alone” before I didn’t know how to get connected with others when things like AA aren’t really my scene (I’m shy, get awkward in front of strangers). This is going to be an invaluable lifeline to use alongside your blog and other resources.

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  8. Thank you so much for this post. I am currently 6 days sober, having learned a long time ago that AA was not the way for me. For a long time I thought that meant there was no hope for me, but now I see that there are other ways. I feel hopeful and more confident about starting this new life on my own terms.
    Thanks for your wisdom.

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  9. Re: Labels. “I’d rather live my life sober and consider myself an alcoholic, than live my life drunk trying to convince myself I’m not”.

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  10. This was such a good post ! Put everything I’ve been feeling into a nutshell ! I’m ” surrendering” to accepting I can’t control my drinking and to working on my feelings and what brought me to that realization and working on my triggers on a day to day basis , with the help of my husband , who I fear was forced into co dependancy with me ! Now we are both digging our way out of this … But actually every day feels better and better. . I’m especially careful to be mindful and appreciative of all the little joys ! I’m much happier surrendering to my need to never drink again quietly reading on line and talking to trusted friends who’ve been there ! Than to a program that can seem very militant at times. ! But I must say even though I could chant all those AA slogans over and over again ! I could never really connect with them ! But now I’m truly clean sometimes one will spring to mind and cause me to say ” aha ” ! It’s whatever works !

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I was thinking about what you said about moderation. I truly think it CAN work, if the person doing it has the iron will to make it happen. But here’s the thing: the person doing it would be going against nature – against their own nature, even – and that’s almost never a recipe for happiness and contentment.

    For some reason, our genes and experiences have combined to make “moderate” NOT our default setting, so trying for it would be like someone who’s built like a strongman deciding to compete in marathons. *Could* they do it, if they wanted it bad enough? Sure. Would they enjoy it? Not likely.

    So regardless of what word we use to describe ourselves, let’s remember that strongmen don’t win marathons. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve had a number of readers write me to say they decided they’d been abstinent long enough and were ready to try moderating. I always ask them to stay in touch because I’m curious to know how it works out. I have yet to have anyone say it worked out well. Without fail it escalates quickly, and they are soon back starting over (or I should say, continuing the journey). I wish it weren’t so, but this seems to be how it goes for many. To me, it is like eating one peanut. I can’t fathom one peanut, one potato chip, one french fry, or one glass of wine, so for me it is best to have none.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I so agree with you, SC. I know this is an old post but I am new here and just now reading. My husband thinks I could just cut back but I lose my resolve after one glass and he would be helping me by policing me which would get ugly…Just really esier to stop completely and not drink. Which is what I have done for 24 days now.

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  12. This is an awesome post. When I first found your blog 200+ days ago, I was comforted and motivated by these same truths in various of your other posts. I still struggle with “forever,” but know deep down I don’t want to have to start at 0 again. And experiences like yours keep me going. Enjoying your daily posts this month!

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  13. I appreciate the way you’ve outlined many of the main questions that many of us have when we quit drinking without labeling or giving pat answers. Online works for me, non labeling works for me, signing up for chunks at a time through Belle’s challenges is working for me. I also appreciate your advice on talking to your doctor – I did even though I felt very embarrassed as I knew her professionally – she was very supportive and sent me for some tests to check everything is OK physically. I’m still working through the tests but am very glad I told her.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I love this definition: “Anyone who has gotten to the point where alcohol seems to be taking over daily life or has become a dangerous unpredictable force (such as occasional but extreme black-out binges) needs peace and freedom from the negative relationship with alcohol.”

    Thanks for validating the choice to become a non-drinker. I still feel plenty of shame in not being able to be a moderate-drinker, but it’s easier for me to wrap my head around (and tell people) abstinence is simply the easiest way for me to deal with this right now. Today.

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    • Isn’t it funny we feel shame? My son isn’t ashamed of his peanut allergy. No one is embarrassed to be gluten free (whether by choice or necessity). I really hope that by blogging, reading, commenting, sharing, and telling our stories in whatever capacity we are able to, we can help change people’s thinking.

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  15. I am 5 years sober . I have never labeled myself an alcoholic. I don’t believe in labels. However I am someone who does not drink. For years I loved drinking until I didn’t. I knew for a long while I had a problem, that I wasn’t a normal drinker(whatever that is). Wine was WAY to important to me, it took up way too much of my brain space. I could not moderate, I could not .I tried every trick in the book to try to keep drinking, nothing worked. What did click for me was the forever thing. I know many people disagree with this concept, but the” one day at a time” thing would backfire on me because in my mind I always felt like if I accrued enough sober time, or drank for a while within reason I was ok, then I would be back at it. Once I admitted to myself that putting down the drink forever was my only option, the mind games stopped. I felt a sense of freedom. It just made sense.To each his own I say, whatever work. Everyone is different. I did find following sobriety blogs helpful and I was a member(mostly a lurker) at women for sobriety online for my first year. That being said being a nondrinker does not define me. It is part of who I am, but not the whole . There is definitely NOT only one way to get sober. Do what works for you!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Reblogged this on Hazy Lines and commented:
    I found this post and it helped me. I’m rebloging it here so that someday it can help someone else. If you like it, please visit the blog and read the other posts by this amazing blogger.

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  17. Thank you for sharing this. It echoes my present state of mind and the questions that I keep asking myself. I have been trying to quit for a long time now. Been to rehab once – it didn’t work for me. I am mostly white knuckling it. It’s been 4 days of sobriety this time. I’ll surely be back to read more of your post. Thanks once again.

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  18. I am so glad you suggested talking with your doctor. So many people don’t but I feel I benefited tremendously from doing so. Keep up the good work and congrats on your daily posting. I think you are going to meet your personal challenge. What a lofty goal but you’re banging it out!

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  19. Reblogged this on clearmom and commented:
    I’m so grateful for Jean at UnPickled. She was and continues to be a very important person in my recovery. Listening to her voice on the Bubble Hour, and reading incredibly insightful blog posts like this, it still feels very comforting to me. My journey has not been easy, but when I’m struggling it helps me to read something like this that brings me right back to center. Thank you Jean.

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  20. I remember on so many occasions listening to my priest and thinking to myself “How did he know that was exactly what I needed to hear?” I read your blog and more often than not feel the same way. Thank you. You will never know how you have helped me take my life back from my daily 2 bottle of wine habit. I spent most of my life always trying to do the right thing and make all those around me happy. Didn’t become a drinker until my mid-forties, now at 67 I’m almost 60 days sober. I won’t bore you with all the various reasons I relied heavily on alcohol for relief. I’m dealing with that through my guidance counselor (I strongly advise therapy). I don’t live “one day at a time”, but in the moment and for the moment. I thank you with all my heart for the assistance you have given to me.

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  21. Great post! I was sober for 15 years, tried to drink normally for 9, and am 3 weeks sober again now. I did the 12-step way for the first go-round, and lived with the label of “alcoholic” the whole time. This time, I’m simplifying it and saying that “I’m sober today” and “I don’t drink anymore” because I feel that I am more than just my problems with alcohol. Some may say think that you can’t stay sober unless you admit you’re an alcoholic, but this go-round, my sobriety is for me and I think that one can be committed to not drinking without having to put a label on it.

    I also do agree that the odds of staying sober are much better with group support— regardless of which type of group you go to. Online support is really good as well, but there’s nothing like talking face-to-face (or over the phone) with people who understand exactly what we’re going through.

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  22. My stepfather used to be an alcoholic, so I appreciate this post. He did have to hit rock bottom to quit, but once he put down that last beer 15 years ago, he’s never picked up another since. He is a changed man in more ways than one! What a difference quitting has made in him. It warms my heart!

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  23. Good information on the groups besides AA. I went 5 years, thought I could “handle everything”, started up again and am now at 8 months sober. It hasn’t been without struggle but I like the idea of the online groups.

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  24. Thank you for the post! Exceedingly timely and very much needed. How did this state of physical change possibly exceed all the Wonderful joys to be so very grateful for? Why is this such a selfish act? And if you look at perhaps the hurtful pains, scenarios of disrespectful advantage being taken that cause so much hurt, why take back dignity in innebriation? Working on that. Your posts help in being honest without putting the big A on the chest. Every one has deficits and faults. Yet, none of us has the letter “C” for coward posted on our forheads. All of has have fault. Some of us drink, mostly on rejection.

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  25. this was a marvellous post and put so many things clearly and simply. thank you. I particularly appreciated this line in the first paragraph: ‘No one is excited about a new identity that carries enormous social stigma and shame.’

    the whole idea of giving up completely seemed so extreme that there was a point when committing slow suicide assisted by alcohol actually seemed easier. I was so wrong. I now hope that by leading full and rewarding lives without including alcohol we can all model an alternative for our friends and particularly our children…

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  26. hi
    love this and will share it. I am ‘white knuckling’ it – successfully,(90 days today) – BUT, this has been prefaced with many years of therapy leading to this point, and the therapy is still continuing. Recovery is so NOT about not-drinking, it is about self awareness and all those other beautiful things you Posted. thankyou!!!!

    Lisa
    http://www.thecword-compassion.com

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  27. […] I do not really know what the “Press This” button meant on WordPress.  So I am trying it and it looks like it will post a link to Unpickled’s post today, which is exactly what I am trying to accomplish!  In her consecutive days of posting in November, which I have really loved and have learned so much from already, this post of Unpickled stands out to me as one I will want to go back to over and over again.  So I wanted to link it here.  It is awesome and so helpful!  Thanks so much Unpickled!  I have just passed 6 months – my last day of drinking was May 12, 2014.  Sometimes I feel like I have come so far, but other times I feel like I have just begun this journey.  Surely to those who ave achieved long-term sobriety, 6 months does still definitely fall with the “newly sober”.   There is still so much to learn and do.  Unpickled, your insights in the past 6 months have been so helpful and this post was so therapeutic for me:  5 Common Questions of the Newly Sober. […]

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  28. Reblogged this on Running From the Booze and commented:
    I haven’t posted anything for a while because I have been trying to find the right words about “recovery” without sounding negative about the traditionally accepted notions of sobriety and ” recovery”. UnPickled has done a fabulous job with this topic.

    Find something that works for you and don’t let others pressure you into thinking that there is only one way to work on sobriety.

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