Someone recently commented in the forums about how quickly life gets better when you quit drinking. After all, the consequences from a night of heavy drinking can be severe, immediate, and even deadly.
But for the chronic alcoholic, or even the “problem drinker turned habitual,” how fast does life really improve once you quit?
If we stop drinking completely today, how long will it be before we are happy again without alcohol? How long before we can enjoy ourselves without self medicating?
How long before our life gets good again?
Let’s break it down and take a really close look at what the typical recovery timeline from alcoholism looks like.
First a disclaimer: people recover at different speeds.
As someone who has lived in long term rehab for almost 2 years, and as someone who has worked in a drug rehab for over 5 years, I can definitely say that alcoholics do not all recover at the same rate.
Some alcoholics struggle for years just to get a month of sobriety under their belts.
And of course, some recovering alcoholics struggle to make growth in their recovery even though they are staying clean and sober. Just because you are sober does not mean you are growing as a person. In fact, some people tend to be miserable in recovery and just spread this around to others (dry drunk syndrome).
However, there is a saying that is often quoted around the tables of AA, and that is:
“My worst day sober is better than my best day drunk.”
There is definite truth in that saying, and many recovering alcoholics agree with the sentiment. In other words, even when the going gets tough in recovery, it beats drinking by a country mile.
Sobriety really is better. That said, you cannot necessarily look at a recovering alcoholic and say “They should be happier by now,” or “they should be happy with their life again in six months,” and so on. You cannot make those statements because people recover at different speeds.
However, if a person is putting forth a real effort in their recovery, their life should get better and better over time.
Keep taking positive action every day, don’t drink, and things get better.
The only 2 questions are:
1) How fast does it get better?
2) What areas of your life improve?
Eliminating the negatives: sobriety is instant damage control for your life.
If your life is quickly spiraling out of control due to drinking, then complete and total abstinence is the best form of quick damage control. Most alcoholics are reluctant to commit to total abstinence of course, and so they struggle for years or even decades to try and control their drinking (while still enjoying it).
Because no alcoholic can find that perfect balance between enjoying their booze and still maintaining control, this experiment in denial will just keep creating more and more chaos in their life until it finally lands them in big trouble. The alternative, of course, is to stop drinking entirely and start to recover.
When you make a decision to stop drinking, and actually stick to it, things start to get better slowly. The first thing that you notice is that the chaos starts to subside. There may be some residual effects in your life from all the crazy stuff you have done lately, but at least when you are abstinent there should not be large amounts of new chaos being created. If there is, then you probably need more help than with just substance abuse, which is another issue entirely. For some people, this is definitely the case. I suggest that you seek mental health services if that tends to be the case for you.
There are many alcoholics who insist that they do not want to focus on “eliminating negative things from their life” and would rather work on “adding positive stuff.” I can tell you right now that this is another form of denial, and that the biggest gains you can experience are to eliminate your addictions. They are so incredibly detrimental to your overall health and happiness that no other positive influences in your life can possibly make up for them.
For example, if you continue to drink but find a great new relationship, you might reason that the new relationship is such a positive factor in your life that it does not matter if you continue to drink or use drugs at that point. This is classic alcoholic thinking and is easily disproven in a matter of months or even weeks. Just try it! In this example, the “new” relationship eventually becomes old, and the drinking always gets steadily worse over time anyway, in spite of any other factors. Having a new relationship or getting a new job or finding the perfect roommate is never going to be able to somehow negate your alcoholism.
If you are stuck in addiction then you must start by eliminating the negatives. Your life can NOT get better until you take this crucial step. Do not fool yourself into thinking that you can “cut back” on drinking and seek other positive influences in your life to help stabilize you. If you continue to drink in any capacity then eventually you will find yourself in deeper and deeper trouble.
Sobriety and sustained abstinence from alcohol and other drugs is your baseline for recovery. It is necessary for your life to get better in any sort of capacity. Without sobriety, no real growth can be made, and no lasting happiness, purpose, or achievement can really occur.
The alcoholic is stuck until they embrace recovery.
Bouncing back from alcoholism physically.
How fast does your physical body get better?
I have been told that the liver has an amazing ability to repair itself once you stop drinking, but I do not have direct experience with this.
What I do know is that I was horribly out of shape, eating poorly, and generally not taking very good care of my body when I was drinking alcohol every day. I was a complete mess when I got sober and to be honest I looked a bit thin and sickly.
Today I am in much better shape, and over the last year I have successfully run 2 marathons. When I was still drinking I could not even run a single mile.
The disease of addiction runs deeper than this though, because I was also smoking cigarettes and other drugs due to my alcoholism. These additional drugs had an even greater negative impact on my health, especially when combined with the heavy amounts of alcohol every day.
Really this is just another example of serious damage control. The alcoholic is abusing their body in such a devastating way that quitting drinking has a massive positive effect.
You may exercise in your recovery, or you might not. Either way, you are going to be far healthier in recovery, simply due to the fact that you are no longer pouring large amounts of booze into your system all the time.
There are other physical benefits from getting off the sauce….lots of little details that we tend to gloss over while we are still drinking, because we have to justify our alcoholism to ourselves. Things like the quality of our sleep, the complexion of our skin, our dental health….all of these are negatively impacted by alcohol. But the fact is that we do not realize these negatives while we are drinking, because we…
….Get used to negative effects slowly over time, so we do not notice them as readily.
….Mask negative effects of alcoholism on our bodies by self medicating and being drunk enough to ignore it.
….Minimize the negatives in order to justify our drinking.
When you stop drinking alcohol, the body begins to repair itself, very slowly. Give it time to heal. I was not running long distances the same year I got sober. I did not run at all, in fact. It took time for me to start to actually live again.
Give yourself that time. Stop polluting your body and start taking care of it. Within a relatively short period of time, you may become healthier than you have ever been before.
Improving your relationships in recovery.
Many alcoholics who are still drinking on a regular basis can point to at least some of the existing relationships in their lives and label them as “toxic.”
In recovery, our goal is to eliminate (or minimize) our toxic relationships, and find healthy ones instead.
This can be quite a different path for various people. Your journey will likely not resemble mine at all.
I got fairly lucky in my recovery, as I cut all ties with the people who I used to drink with, and moved into long term treatment. I instantly made a lot of sober friends, and I never really had to deal with past negative influencers. Temptations were minimized because I immersed myself in a supportive recovery environment.
If this option is not available to you, then you have to make it become available. Making excuses about how you are surrounded by drinkers is not going to keep you sober. Instead, change your situation. Find the support you need. I know people who have sat in recovery halls and AA meeting halls for months, only leaving to go home to sleep. These are desperate souls that went to extremes to stay sober.
Some will complain “I can’t do that. I have kids, I have responsibilities,” etc.
Well, what if you are dead? That is where alcoholism leads, if you do not embrace recovery.
The same argument exists for removing toxic relationships. People say that “they can’t get away from certain people.” Nonsense. Imagine you own death. Now, decide that you want to live, and do what it takes to get away from toxic people. If certain people are always going to tempt you to drink, then you simply have to get them out of your life. Doesn’t matter if it is your parent or your spouse….it is still your responsibility to stay sober. Without sobriety you have nothing. Do not make the mistake of putting a relationship above your sobriety.
Here is that theme again about eliminating the negatives. Yes, this is MUCH more important than finding the positives. If you have dangerous people in your life that trigger you to drink, then eliminate those relationships at all costs. It can be hard, but it takes what it takes.
If you go find positive influences in your life it will help, but NOT as much as eliminating the toxic people. You have to eliminate the poison before you can truly start to heal.
Raising your own standard of living: education, careers, etc.
Most drunks are darn smart, in my experience. Many of them can hold down a job while they are still drinking, and somehow still manage to show up to work on time and pass inspection. This is just what I have observed, and many others in recovery seem to agree with this.
So you can imagine what happens when you sober up a drunk and put them on the path of recovery. Their ability to perform at any job greatly increases. The mind may be in a fog for the first few months or even years of recovery, but it does slowly lift.
Most alcoholics have been through hell. We have made it to work while hung over, made it through that important presentation after puking our guts out in the bathroom, and so on. We have abused our bodies in the extreme and lived to tell about it.
Alcoholics have guts.
And those who find recovery and stick it out in recovery most definitely have guts. So it is no great stretch to imagine all of the recovering alcoholics who eventually go back to school, seek higher education, make advancements in their careers, and so on. Many go on to start their own businesses as well.
Before I got sober, I was delivering pizzas for a living, and I thought it was one of the best jobs in the world. Now I make substantially more money while actually helping recovering alcoholics, in a position that has real meaning to me. Not only that, but I also have a profitable side business that allows me to reach out to hundreds of alcoholics every single day.
And of course, this is no mistake. It is not about being smart; it is about removing the alcohol. I have been given the gift of sobriety, and I am merely doing the best job I can with the opportunities in front of me.
If you quit drinking and stick with it, you will have plenty of time. Time for what? Time for learning, for creating stuff, for mastering new skills. You can watch television all day and waste away, or you can get busy and push to better your life.
If you choose to better your life, it will happen FAST in recovery.
It will happen rather quickly because….
….Alcoholics tend to have guts, and they know how to push hard and make things happen.
….Alcoholics have lots of time in recovery (you used to drink all the time, right?)
….Recovery tends to favor personal growth, so you should naturally seek to better yourself in recovery.
This stuff might not happen instantly in the first month or even the first year of your sobriety. But I would be shocked if you have not made huge leaps and bounds in your career or professional life within the first 5 years of your recovery.
Initially, do not be shocked if your productivity goes down in early recovery. This is common. We need time to adjust without the booze. But after a few months, once you find your footing in sobriety, you should start accelerating at some point. And then things just get better and better.
Self actualizing: spiritual development and finding purpose in your life.
Many alcoholics believed that they were “spiritual” even while they were drinking.
Upon sobering up, they quickly admit that they were nowhere near spiritual. While drinking, we are completely self absorbed and self centered, regardless of how much of a spiritual “front” we put on for others (and for ourselves!). We are kidding ourselves when we claim that we have a strong spiritual connection while still drinking.
Some addicts and alcoholics claim that getting drunk or high is a spiritual quest for them. This is denial and they are lying to themselves, because the drunkeness and the high become an end in themselves. Nothing more is necessary for the true alcoholic. They don’t need a spiritual revelation, they just need to get drunk! But they can fool themselves into thinking that they are on a deeper quest with their drinking or drugging.
In recovery, you basically have a choice: you can develop spiritually and seek real purpose in your life, or you can go back to drinking (and thus eliminate the need for that spiritual quest).
If you get sober and then do nothing, by default you will eventualy revert back to drinking again. This is labeled “relapse” and is a direct result of “complacency.” Don’t grow, and you will drink.
So what is the spiritual quest? How do you find purpose?
I would say there are several ways, here are some quick examples to illustrate:
* Serious involvement in 12 step programs and/or sponsorship. This works for some, but is certainly not for everyone. But helping others in AA or NA can be very inspiring.
* Find your true calling by helping those that your heart goes out to the most. Find your greatest sorrow in the world and then work to fix it. Follow your heartbreak, as they say.
* Find religion. Join a community, help others, spread a message of hope. Very powerful if it coincides with your beliefs.
* Find your niche in helping others. Figure out what you are good at, and then use that to help other people to grow.
Very rare is the “flash of light” syndrome in recovery. Much more common are people who slowly trudge a long path, look back one day, and realize that they have found real purpose in their life, almost as if by accident.
Is life really better now? Measuring freedom and happiness.
Is your life really better now that you are sober?
One of the reasons that AA meetings are so powerful is because of the newcomer who stumbles through the door and still reeks of cheap wine. That guy might have a tale of woe that takes you right back to your early days.
And that might be exactly what you need, even at 5, 10, or 20 years sober.
So that you can measure. So that you have a yardstick. So that you appreciate how far you have come. Remember, the human mind is programmed to forget the bad parts! If you do not remember where you came from, you risk going back to it.
So what is freedom in recovery?
Freedom is the abscence of addiction.
Freedom is not having to rush out on a Sunday before they close the liquor stores early.
Freedom is not having to worry if you have enough booze to get you through the night.
Freedom is not having to rely on a buzz in order to enjoy conversation with friends.
And what is happiness in recovery?
We thought that we had found true happiness when we first got drunk.
But true happiness is achieving that awesome feeling without having to rely on a chemical to get us there.
True happiness is bursting with joy when you are finally living sober and helping other people in your life and making a real difference.
True happiness is using your gifts and talents to touch the world and make it a better place.
Compare this to the toxicity that you created as an alcoholic while still drinking. Compare this happiness, joy, and peace with the chaos and the negative emotions that you created from drinking every day.
Compare the joy of recovery to the misery of addiction.
Your best day drinking is a faded memory, and you can never reclaim it. Those days are gone. You can’t go backwards. It will never be fun again.
But recovery stretches out before you as an infinite promise. What do you want to achieve? What positive connections do you want to make? What gift can you give to others today?
While you are drinking, you are trapped, and you are miserable. Recovery is a gift because it gives you freedom and happiness. You are free to create a new experience for yourself. You are free to pursue happiness again, rather than simply struggling to self medicate yourself above that level of misery.
Think about that: while drinking every day, you can barely drink enough alcohol to poke your head above “the misery line.” But in recovery, within a few short weeks, your everyday normal level of happiness is even HIGHER than that misery line.
No alcoholic will believe this at first, but if they are honest with themselves, they can prove it.
While you are still drinking, keep a journal every day and honestly record how happy you are in your life. Every day. Then, stay sober for 30 days and start taking positive action every day. Keep a daily journal about how happy and content you feel then, too.
Now, compare the two journals. The difference will be like night and day, written out before us. While we are drinking, our denial tells us that we are happier when we are drunk…..but it is always that ideal drunk, that romanticized version of the perfect buzz, that drunk that we might have achieved one day but can never seem to reach any more. If you actually measure your happiness, in writing, you will see that sobriety wins every time.
In summary: give sobriety a chance and the rewards will come quickly. In less than a year your life will be transformed. Take positive action every day, don’t drink or use drugs, and good things will happen.