I used to hate sobriety.
I really did. I was trapped in alcoholism and I hated the idea of getting sober. I hated the process of going 24 hours with a drink. I hated the feeling that I had, the creepy onset of withdrawal symptoms from alcohol.
And I had a few brief (very brief) stints where I did not drink at all for a while. I hated that too. I hated the fact that I had to feel my emotions and my feelings. I hated that I could not escape from a rotten mood simply by taking a drink.
In my mind I was sacrificing my freedom. I was no longer free because I was forcing myself to remain sober when I really wanted to drink myself silly. So in my mind I viewed this as a loss of freedom.
When you are stuck in a prison of your own making, eventually you can no longer see the bars that bind you. You are too close to the problem itself to realize what has happened to you.
Everyone around me could tell that I was trapped in my addiction and that alcoholism was ruining my life. They could all see that I was losing my freedom. But I had it all backwards. I believed that everyone wanted to force me to get sober, and thus give up my freedom. They wanted to control me. So I resisted this and vowed never to give up drinking and drugs.
I was trapped in my own cycle of misery and chaos. It was fueled by my fear of sobriety. I did not want to face my life without the crutch of alcohol.
Why you hate sobriety to begin with
When you are stuck in addiction you hate sobriety because every time that you stop drinking for a brief period you go through withdrawal from not getting your drug of choice. Your body cries out in protest for the alcohol that it demands. This is a very uncomfortable experience. In fact it can be extremely dangerous and it can even kill you.
The problem with this is that every alcoholic will have these brief periods where they “lay off the sauce” for a day or two, and start to experience these horrible symptoms. So they will learn what it means to go through withdrawal and what it feels like. And they will not like it.
The second part of this problem is that the alcoholic will then project this experience onto “sobriety.” So starts to associate that short term discomfort of withdrawal with the concept of “sobriety.” Want to get sober for the rest of your life? Heck no! Not if I have to feel like that! Now obviously it gets better after you go through the short discomfort of withdrawal (usually about 78 hours or so for most alcoholics) but in our mind we probably do not realize that we are projecting that discomfort onto the rest of our lives.
My excuse with this was always that “I can’t be happy when I am sober.” Then when I would go through that short day or two of withdrawal I would be completely uncomfortable and I would basically be miserable. I did not know how to have fun without drugs or alcohol any more. So I would blame my misery on the abstinence and say “See? Look! I cannot be happy when I am sober. I need drugs! I need alcohol! I need something that other people obviously do not need just to be happy!”
This is why I hated sobriety. Because I had convinced myself that I could never be happy without alcohol.
This is an issue of timing. If you get sober for 5 days then guess what? You are not going to be bouncing off the walls with sheer joy. Five days is not long enough to make a dent in your sobriety.
In order to be happy in recovery you have to learn how to be happy without alcohol all over again. You know, like when you were born? When you were 3 years old? And you were not self medicating every single day in order to be happy? But you just were happy without needing any chemicals?
Anyone can get back to that point. It is not really sobriety that you hate, it is just that you have become far too dependent on a chemical in order to regulate your mood. You have come to depend on alcohol in order to make you “happy.” You have been doing this for years, maybe decades. So if you suddenly remove the alcohol from the equation then your ability to make yourself happy is suddenly compromised.
In the short term this is a huge problem. You will be miserable for a few days, maybe for a few weeks. In the long run this is not a problem at all. And this is what I have to try to convince you of.
This is what the guy who came to an in-house AA meeting at my first rehab center tried to convince us all of. He was talking about how awesome life gets in the future. He was talking about how much fun he has now in life, how it just keeps getting better and better, and how every day is like a new adventure for him.
I didn’t care. I wanted to care, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Obviously this man did not realize that I was different, that I was wired differently than he was, and that I required alcohol in order to be happy.
Much as I wanted to explore this “happy life of adventure” that he described, I was stuck on a different path (or so I believed). My adventure was to be a fifth of vodka and late night television. Some adventure, right? And I believed that I was supposed to do this over and over again, day after day, the same old pattern of drinking. Just to be “happy.”
How could I not see that this was a pattern of pure misery? How could I not see that it might be worth it to go through some temporary pain and discomfort (withdrawal + early recovery) in order to get to a life where I was not stuck in that awful pattern?
The reason that I stayed in denial for a few more years after that was because I was not willing.
I was not willing to give recovery a chance.
I was not willing to go through the discomfort and learning experiences of early recovery in order to build a new life.
If you are not willing then you can have no recovery.
How to give recovery a chance to work in your life
It is hard to explain recovery to the struggling alcoholic without mentioning the concept of “surrender.”
Sometimes it feels like beating a dead horse. Because this is truly the key that unlocks a new life for people.
You have to surrender.
But how does a person actually do that? How do they actually let go?
It is a difficult thing to describe. It is hard to visualize. It is tricky to explain.
The best I can do is to explain my own moment of surrender, and the circumstances that led to it.
I had already been to rehab twice before. It had not worked. I was still drinking and using drugs every single day.
I was increasingly miserable in my life. I was in a relationship with an enabler.
A time came when my enabler left town with family for a few weeks. During that time I was all alone. Sure, I still had my job. And I had a few friends. So a few days I was with other people, and still “partying” with them. (Partying just means getting drunk or high).
But then there were also some nights when I was all alone. When my friends were busy with other things. And normally I had my girlfriend who I was living with to be there with me. But now she was on vacation and I was all alone.
I thought that this was an opportunity to finally be really happy, to medicate myself as I had always wanted, and to really get wasted like I always wanted to.
This turned out to be wrong. I was not happier with her gone. And this was my final undoing. This was what led me to surrender.
Here I was, all alone. No one left to point the finger of blame at for my own unhappiness.
I had to own my unhappiness. I had to blame myself.
Here I was, left to my own devices. I had the isolation that I always craved. I would never admit to myself in the past that what I really wanted was to be alone, to just drink and use my drugs in peace and quiet, without other people around to bug me. That was my secret desire all along.
Now I finally had it. I was alone and I had plenty of drugs and alcohol and nothing was fun. I was miserable. And I could not dodge the fact that I was miserable. I could not blame anyone else for my misery. I was just stuck in misery and I had created all of it.
I realized then for the first time that I was responsible for my own happiness. All of it. No one else could be blamed for where I was at in life. I had reached this point of total responsibility. I was finally accepting my situation and realized that it was my own choices and it was alcoholism that was making me miserable.
I had drugs and alcohol. And I could not get happy. No one was bothering me. I was all alone. And yet I was still miserable.
Is this all there is? Is this the “freedom” that I had secretly desired for so long?
It was a sham. I was not happy.
I had cheated myself out of a life of happiness. I thought that this was the path to freedom and happiness, but I was miserable.
And so that was my moment of surrender.
I finally saw this all in clear light. I glimpsed the future. I realized that it would never change. It would never get any better than this.
I was totally free with no one else to get in my way. I had money and drugs and alcohol. And yet I was miserable.
So I gave up. Right then and there I gave up. I stopped with the idea that I could medicate my way to happiness.
I did not know if I could be happy in sobriety. In fact, I was pretty sure that I would be miserable in sobriety.
But it didn’t matter. Because I finally knew for a fact that the road I was on did not lead to happiness.
This is the revelation that led me to surrender. When I realized that drinking would never make me happy in the long run.
If you want to give recovery a chance to work in your life, you must first surrender.
If you surrender fully and deeply (as I did) then everything else will likely fall right into place.
If you don’t surrender fully then it doesn’t matter what else you do. Nothing will work.
Thus, surrender is the first and most important key to recovery.
It gets greater, later
After I surrendered I asked for help. My family directed me into rehab. I went to detox and short term residential. Then I went to long term rehab.
It doesn’t really matter though.
So long as you surrender fully and completely, you can’t really screw any of this up. Don’t sweat these details. They are not important. What is important is the level of surrender that you reach.
So I asked for help and then I went to rehab.
My whole thing with sobriety was the fact that I wanted to be happy again. I did not want to be miserable. I was miserable in my addiction and for brief moments I would drink enough to block out the misery. But this was not really “happiness.” I wanted to be happy.
So my thing in recovery was this:
“How long until I am happy again?”
I admit that this is a selfish desire but I do not believe that anyone else is much different. No one wants to be miserable.
Now the interesting thing is that my definition of happiness changed over time. In recovery I realized that there is something better than the crazy cycle of misery and happiness that you experience in addiction. That is contentment.
I was never content in my addiction. I was happy when I was smashed and drunk, and the other 99 percent of the time I was miserable. But I was never content.
Now in recovery I am content about 99 percent of the time. I am happy today, but it is not that falling-down-drunk and smash your face happiness that I used to chase after.
Today I can realize that the lack of misery is a huge part of the path. I had to eliminate my points of misery in my life in order to find contentment and peace.
So I quit drinking. I stopped using drugs. I quit smoking cigarettes. I stopped being lazy and started exercising. And so on.
I had to eliminate several of these “points of misery” in order to get to a place where I was content.
This is not happiness, per se. This is a platform for happiness.
One of my great teachers calls this “the daily practice.” You do certain things each day, routines that lead to positive changes and healthy behavior. You work at it. You address mind, body, spirit….the whole thing. A holistic approach where you do not neglect any area of your life. Always striving for improvement and positive change.
When this becomes automatic then it is a daily practice. When you take positive action every day then it sets you up for experiencing joy in your life.
Not only will you be content and avoid misery, but you will also open yourself up to experiences of joy and happiness.
Not the fake sort of peak experiences that you had when you used to get wasted. But real joy that will last in your life that you will actually remember. The joy of impacting other people in a positive way and making a difference. The joy that comes from connection with other humans. And so on.
The key to this experience is the setup.
You don’t just get sober one day and then the next morning you wake up and you are full of joy.
The saying in AA is “It gets greater, later!”
They are not just teasing you with this. This is not a manipulation tactic. It really does take a bit of time.
I had to fix a lot of things in order to escape the misery. It was not just drinking.
For example, very early in my recovery I noticed that my biggest “character defect” was that I engaged in self pity all the time.
I had to become aware of this defect. Then I had to raise my awareness on a daily basis so that I could catch it if it crept up on me. And I had to come up with a way to shut it down when it happened (hint: the solution for self pity is practicing gratitude).
So even though I had quit drinking, I was not going to experience real happiness and contentment until I was able to eliminate this character defect. If you work through the 12 steps then you will attempt to identify those defects and eliminate them. You can also avoid the 12 step program and simply realize that you have to eliminate these self defeating behaviors. Either way, you have work to do. You must take positive action. You must find your “points of misery” and eliminate them.
I had to realize that when I was engaging in self pity I was only harming myself. It only served to make me miserable. Even though it felt comfortable for me to engage in self pity, it was only hurting me in the end. I could not afford that “luxury” in my recovery. So I had to fix it.
This did not happen the same week that I got sober. It took some time. Heck, it took some time before I could even identify this as a problem.
This is why it “gets greater, later.” Because it is going to take some time for you to work through your issues and eliminate your points of misery.
What is happiness, really? The term has lost all meaning because most of us associate “happiness” with getting totally wasted on drugs or booze.
Instead, strive for “contentment.” You reach contentment by eliminating the points of misery in your life. Identify them, become aware, then take action to shut them down.
Once you reach this contentment, you will have a platform for experiencing real joy in your life. You will then have moments where you go beyond the old standard of “happiness” (when you used to get smashed and drunk) and you will experience something far greater. You will experience real joy.
But you have to build the platform first. This takes time. And building that platform is done by eliminating misery from your life.
You have to sweep away all of the junk in order to make way for something good to come into your life.
Build your “platform of contentment” through a holistic approach. How could you be healthier? How could you eliminate something negative? (smoking, eating junk, not exercising, etc.)
It takes time to do this. This is why you have to “give recovery a chance.”
There is no way you can accomplish all of this stuff on the same day that you get sober. It takes time.
Give yourself a chance.