Navigating the Murky Waters of Early Sobriety

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When I think back to my early days of sobriety, which I define as the first few months of abstaining from alcohol, I think of it as being metaphorically akin to swimming in murky waters; where you’re trying to swim, but can’t see a damn thing. There’s so much sand, debris, and seaweed. You know that eventually, you’ll get to crystal blue oceans, get to observe all the sea life around you, and enjoy the beautiful open waters, but right now, you can’t even see a foot in front of you. You also have this sense that you’re leaving an entire life behind. In fact, your friends are back on shore in the hotel swimming pool miles away—dancing to Kygo and soaking in the sun. When you’re in the murky waters, you cannot help, but question yourself: why am I doing this when I could just be jamming to tropical house music with my friends? Why go on this journey to seemingly nowhere when I could just stay put and enjoy the immediate pleasures the pool provides? FOMO is real.

Well, the truth is that staying in the pool may have not worked out all that great for you. There’s a reason why you’re leaving and embarking on this expedition through murky waters. The pool gets contaminated often which makes you sick. The admission price to hang around at the pool every day is exuberant, and it keeps getting more expensive the longer you stayit’s starting to take a big toll on your finances. Oh yeah, and part of the package is that you get to feel regular doses of anxiety, shame, and depression. You remind yourself of this as you take the brave, but difficult path through the murky waters. When you first begin your expedition—that is, the early stages of your sobriety journey—you’re likely going to question your decision repeatedly. You may only focus on the good times at the pool: the fun, the Kygo, the sun.

Whether you’ve decided to cut back on your alcohol intake or become fully sober, you’re going to encounter some form of resistance. Inner turmoil for sure, but likely outer pressures too. We live in a world that perpetuates the notion that alcohol is the tonic of life; that without drinking, life would be boring and blasé. In order to live our best lives, truly relax, enjoy social gatherings, and to accentuate our pallets when eating a delicious meal, alcohol needs to be by our side. This vice is something we truly cannot live without. The media tells us this. Pop culture tells us this. Our friends may tell us this. Even our families may try to proliferate this supposed truth. No wonder there’s a common held belief that alcohol is synonymous with being happy in this life—no wonder the waters are so murky. According to a report by Movendi International, the largest independent global movement through alcohol prevention, marketing ad spend on alcohol was $6.7 billion in 2020, and expected to grow to $7.7 billion in 2023. We’re bombarded with messages surrounding a particular lifestyle achieved through alcohol, which has been deeply ingrained in our subconscious. What’s Christmas without the routine of Baileys in your morning coffee? What’s a romantic evening without a glass of red wine? What’s a tropical vacation without some Bacardi? These are the repeated promises that alcohol brands sell, and these are the messages that have pervasively penetrated our psyches. The appeal of alcohol is not innate, but learned. In fact, if we were to ingest alcohol without the added ingredients or supposed “lifestyle” it serves, we most likely wouldn’t enjoy it. Our physiological response would be to reject it. Why? Because alcohol, stripped of all it’s additives and flavouring, is ethanol—which is straight up poison.

How individuals abstain from alcohol for long periods of time can vary from person-to-person, but I’ve outlined a few ways it can be done (or is believed to be done):

(1) Previously being engrained in drinking culture and utilizing our willpower to abstain long-term, even if we feel that we might be “missing out.”

(2) The appeal of alcohol never really landed with the individualmeaning that they either never liked drinking, never tried it or there are other social, cultural or religious reasons why they don’t engage.

(3) Going through an unlearning process. It is embedded in our culture that alcohol is the catalyst to a good time, is the way to unwind or “celebrate” or it can be your crutch to dealing with the vissitudes life throws your way. It’s important to take a step back, do your research on the effects (short and long-term) of alcohol, and understand how it affects you personally. Sobriety after long periods of drinking accompanied by the strongly ingrained belief that alcohol is offering some sort of benefit to our lives, requires unlearning and relearning. Exposing the real truths about alcohol combined with solidifying this knowledge through first hand experience, can only aid us in our journey.

To navigate the murky waters and get through the unlearning process, hearing shared experiences from others, and learning to tune into your own inner feelings can be helpful. In this article, I recruited the help of Jessica Jeboult, founder of A Sober Girl’s Guide; which is an incredible resource to those who want to become sober or simply drink less. Let’s dive in!

The Feels of Early Sobriety

When we can’t see anything in front of us, it can feel very uncomfortable and disorienting. Jessica writes, “[Early sobriety] is a double edged sword, from extreme discomfort, to a roller coaster of emotions.” Boredom and isolation are some common feelings she describes, but at the same time, we feel “fresh, clear headed, [and] with a new sense of self and happiness.”

As we begin to swim farther and farther away from the party pool, we learn to tune into our emotions and real feelings, and slowly, but surely, begin to see in front of us. We start to see the beautiful tints of green and shimmering blue. Our journey becomes richer; our lives can become richer. 

Jessica purports that in early sobriety, it’s so important to pay attention to how you feel.

It doesn’t matter how much or how often you drink, it is how drinking alcohol makes you feel. It is an emotional relationship, so if you don’t tend to those emotions and feelings, you will stay in the same cycle and patterns. This doesn’t change overnight. Sobriety is NOT the destination, it is part of the journey.”

Physiological cravings may be intense at the beginning of your sobriety journey since that’s what drugs do: make you physically dependent on the substance. However as time passes and you rid yourself of the effects of the drug, what’s left alone is the psychological craving. When I used to undergo my 30 day alcohol-free challenges, I would exert so much willpower to refrain from drinking because I believed I was truly missing out. This was purely psychological. Achieving longer periods of sobriety—like 3 months, 6 months, and now coming up to 2 years—was only possible for me through an unlearning process; by changing the narrative from “I can only have fun, truly relax, or be social with alcohol in my life” to, “My life is rich in and of itself and NOT dependant on alcohol.” As Jessica said, sobriety is not an overnight thing. There is no final destination, but a voyage that is completely individualized. Learning to enjoy life again without alcohol or drinking less, can be a deeply gratifying journey.

Sobriety connected me with my real self, where I was able to discover what brought my life true meaning and fulfillment. Alcohol masked that from me. It was a buffer that made me disconnected from who I really was. 

I’m very serious about no alcohol, no drugs. Life is too beautiful. –Jim Carrey

Experiencing the same activities I didn’t think would be as fun without alcohol exposed the real truth on whether I actually enjoyed an activity or not. In order to minimize the feelings of fomo, I decided that I would still do all the things I did when I drank, but with an open, curious mind. If I believed I wouldn’t have fun without alcohol, it would become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, if I went into an experience with a curious mind, it could go either way. I learned that yes, there are indeed activities I don’t actually like, but only enjoyed because alcohol was present, and no, I’m likely not going to stay at a party until 2am—my naturally introverted self would be livid. I also realized that there are so many activities I enjoyed regardless of the presence of alcohol—like going out for food with friends, enjoying a good conversation and some delicious appies, seeing some live music, or going to a smaller gathering at a friend’s place. Enjoying the latter activities without alcohol helped solidify my experience. While I think some environments like bars or clubs, you may want to avoid at the start, I think fomo will be perpetuated if we decide to skip out on the other fun stuff too. Rather than going to the bar, maybe visit your friends for some pre-drinks with a mocktail—you don’t have to compromise your life or friendships for a personal choice you’re making for your own health and well-being.

Own Your Sobriety

“Alcohol erases a bit of you every time you drink it. It can even erase entire nights when you are on a binge. Alcohol does not relieve stress; it erases your senses and your ability to think. Alcohol ultimately erases your self.” – Annie Grace, This Naked Mind

One of the hardest parts of my early sobriety journey was the social aspect. When you choose not to drink, you’re likely going to be stigmatized—which quite frankly, is so fucked up but unfortunately true. Annie Grace, author of This Naked Mind writes, “Our society not only encourages drinking—it takes issue with people who don’t drink.” Deciding to remain sober in a world full of alcohol is going against the grain. It takes tremendous courage to stand strong in what you believe in, especially if you’re choosing to act contrary to your social circle and society at large.

Depending on how much you drank before and the habits of your immediate social circle, when choosing the sober path, your relationships are likely going to change or shift slightly; there’s no doubt about that. If your partner drinks heavily, this dynamic is going to change too. Healthy relationships will support you on your new path; they’ll let you swim freely. On the other hand, you may disappoint others especially if activities surrounding alcohol were one of the main, or only activities you did together. There’s real risk in losing friendships, and even a partner when you venture on this path solo. In the early days of my sobriety, I had to essentially “come out” as sober. I identify as gay and when I came out to my family and friends, I was riddled with anxiety. I felt similar when I came out as ‘sober.’ I felt like I was going to be judged or needed to justify my rationale. In both cases, I owned it and made the definitive decision that those in my life would either support me or they wouldn’t. If the latter was the result, then buh-bye!

Jessica so eloquently writes, “Not drinking is your choice. Own it. Make it a priority. You can go out and drink at any time, but you want something and deserve better for yourself. Choosing to not drink makes you feel better about yourself, and your choices.”

In my experience, choosing to not drink has only exponentially increased my confidence, self-worth, finances, health, creativity, and productivity. Take my focus group of one and remember that.

Drinking Will Never Make You Happy

“Why would anyone want to drink a poisonous, highly addictive drug that tastes foul; a drug that will shorten your life, debilitate your immune system and impede your concentration; a drug that will destroy your nervous system, your confidence, your courage and your ability to relax? Why would you want to take a drug that will cost you about $160,000 in your lifetime and do absolutely nothing for you whatsoever?” – Allen Carr

I think in the early stages of sobriety, when the waters are murky, many of us vacillate on whether or not we made the right choice. When I first took the journey into sobriety, even though I knew deep down it was the right decision for me, I still questioned myself. I thought about all the activities I’d be missing out on: going to microbreweries, enjoying some pints with friends, having wine at my family gatherings. Would I ever be able to truly ‘relax’ again? The back-and-forth, discomfort, and confusion is what makes the waters murkier. I think in order to get past that highly uncomfortable phase, it’s so important to expose real truths about alcohol and enjoy real experiences again. Here’s the truth, as Annie Grace so fervently expresses it, “You drink to get the feeling of peace that someone who is not dependent on alcohol always feels.” 

Remember when we were younger before we ever had our first sip of alcohol? Everyday was a new adventure. We got to explore, follow our curiosity, and enjoy life for the sake of life itself; we were not reliant on a drug to provide enjoyment. Can we ever return to this state again after drinking for years? I believe, whole-heartedly, the answer is a big, fat YES. While it likely won’t be immediate, abstaining over time and reconditioning your beliefs that alcohol isn’t the only way to retrieve enjoyment out of your life can help sobriety become your new (and exciting!) normal.

What you really enjoy in an alcoholic drink is not the drink itself, but the ending of the irritation of wanting that drink. Non-drinkers enjoy that all the time. – Allen Carr

There’s a ton of pseudo-science on the supposed benefits of alcohol, which is much more prevalent and searchable than solid scientific data and facts about the real deleterious effects alcohol has on the body, the mind, and on our relationships. Prolonged exposure to alcohol causes disease, severe mental health issues, and permanent changes in the brain. Here’s a hard, but true fact from a paper on alcohol and the prefrontal cortex by Abernathy, Chandler, Woodward, that chronic drinkers are not going to like: “Long-term use of alcohol has been shown to be more detrimental than cocaine in attention and executive functioning tasks.”(Goldstein et al., 2004).

Think back to some of your heaviest nights (or days of drinking): how did you feel the next morning? Did you ever deeply feel satisfied with how the night went or how you’re feeling the next day? This may be a slim to none outcome. Now on the inverse, think back when you truly enjoyed yourself and had a good time devoid of any alcohol. What did you feel the next day? ”No one ever wished they drank more or wished they drank after a night of being sober,” writes Jessica. 

Group Swimmin’

To increase your chances of success in your sobriety journey—whatever that looks like for you—a supportive community is essential. Taking the plunge into murky waters is much easier when you’re surrounded by others tackling the same journey, swimming in the same direction. Some may be in a similar place, while others are swimming a bit ahead. I’ll tell you this much: if I hung out with a group of people that drank often and mostly wanted to do activities surrounding alcohol, my chances of staying sober would have been slim. 

My entire social circle is either sober or drinks moderately. When I moved to Vancouver, I was sober so everyone I’ve met knows me as sober. It’s indeed much harder to “come out” as sober amongst your existing group of friends unless of course, you admit you have a problem with drinking. Either way, you may experience feeling stigmatized; it’s a lose-lose scenario. While the social aspect is likely going to be hard, especially if you’re social group is heavy into drinking, remember that the choice to be sober is YOUR choice and it’s a fucking fantastic choice. My ethos is this: I only allow people into my life that are supportive of my choice to remain sober. If people don’t want to date me, be friends with me, or want me present when they’re drinking, then those people are not my people. It’s a hard line I’ve drawn in the sand, but one I stand behind whole-heartedly. While I’m not you and don’t know what your exact circumstances are like, I know that trekking through that murky swim towards sobriety is a lot less scary and more seamless when you have a network and support system of others who encourage you to keep going; that could be from others that have been there and done that, are currently on the same journey, or are by your side and offering words of support. 

Final Thoughts

If you do need additional support, there are online communities like This Naked Mind Community, the Sober Girl Guide Social Club membership that includes support circles journals/workbooks and an ability to connect with other like-minded women, and group coaching also offered by A Sober Girls Guide. Just know that the decision to explore the path of sobriety is extremely courageous and you should be so proud of yourself for even taking the plunge! Wishing you all the best on your journey 🙂

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