One of the worst feelings in the world for the alcoholic is when they are coming off of a binge and starting to briefly sober up again.
This can be true even if the “binge” was not very long in duration. Just a simple night of heavy drinking can create really awful feelings the next morning.
This can be especially bad if the alcoholic blacked out during their drinking episode. There can be a feeling of dread because the person can sense that “things have happened” but their brain was not recording any of it, and there is a big blank spot there. This can be terrifying and only adds to the negative feelings.
So the question today is: “How can the alcoholic deal with these bad feelings after an intense drinking episode?” Whether that is technically a multi-day “binge” or just a night of heavy drinking.
The cycle of depression and alcoholism
It is worth pointing out the obvious here, that alcohol is a drug and that it is also a depressant.
Many people argue that they drink because they are depressed, but they often fail to see the fault in their logic, which is that the alcohol also leads to more depression.
Given this conclusion, one should try to work through the denial and realize that alcohol is part of the problem, and is not really a solution in terms of making you happy.
In order to convince yourself of this you can do a simple experiment. Most alcoholics will not follow through with this simple exercise because it is far too revealing of the truth.
The experiment is this: Start writing down your feelings every day. Not your opinions about things, but your actual feelings. Are you happy or sad today? Get a written journal or a notebook or something and simply write down today’s date and write down your feelings. Do this every single day. You might also note if you are drinking each day or not.
Keep doing this simple exercise every single day. If you keep this up then it will reveal the truth to you. And that truth is that drinking alcohol does not, in fact, lead you to happiness.
This is a revelation to someone who is deep in denial. But you can’t just tell the person this and expect them to wake up. They have to wake up to this fact on their own. They have to discover that they really are miserable due to alcohol. And they have to somehow make that connection in their minds and stop blaming other things. They have to finally realize that alcohol is, in fact, the cause of all of their problems.
Their denial has kept them stuck for years. Their denial has convinced them that drinking alcohol actually provides them with a tiny bit of happiness, and that the rest of the world and various situations are to blame for their misery. But of course they have it all backwards. The alcohol is at fault. If they were to remove the alcohol and start living a more positive life then all of their misery would evaporate. It was the alcohol’s fault all along, they were just not willing to see this and admit it.
If you are depressed and you are drinking alcohol every day as a solution, then you are caught in a trap. The way out of the trap is to first remove the depressant from the equation. Alcohol is a drug, and a powerful drug at that. And it is a depressant. This is the foundation on which you will have to solve your problem if you are seriously depressed.
Isn’t it time to think about breaking out of the cycle?
Every time that I had a really bad drinking episode (not technically a binge but just a night of seriously heavy drinking) I would resolve the next day to change my life. Something had to change. I felt so horrible and I felt so guilty about the ridiculous behavior I had engaged in that I just wanted to quit drinking forever and make it all go away. I wanted the madness to stop. And so I would make a plan in my head to never drink again. Or I would just use other drugs. Or anything. My mind would grasp at solutions and I would promise myself not to repeat the same madness again of getting drunk and out of control.
And yet, as is so typical with alcoholism, I was sucked right back into it. Usually in the very same day. Because what is the cure for all of those bad thoughts other than to medicate them with more alcohol? The cycle continued, as it does with so many who are stuck.
The only way to break free from this cycle is to stop putting more drugs and booze into your system.
The problem with this solution is that I was terrified of sobriety.
I was afraid to go to rehab, even though I had been there twice before and failed at it.
I was afraid to go to AA meetings. I did not like the pressure of being expected to say anything, or to have the attention shifted on to me.
I was afraid to face life without any sort of crutch, without the ability to self medicate and escape.
I would think: “Wouldn’t it be horrible if you had to live in reality all the time and not have this wonderful ability to shut your mind off?”
Because I was miserable and I was depressed and I did not really like myself all that well, it was a “gift” to be able to get so drunk that my mind basically stopped working. I thought it was a gift to be able to escape by getting drunk.
What is the solution to this? What happens to the alcoholic when you take away their ability to escape? How do they cope with reality, how do they quiet their mind, how do they learn to escape in sobriety and in recovery?
The answer for me was a combination of things:
1) I learned to meditate early in recovery but ultimately this was not the solution for me. I had some mentors who said it worked really well for them, and they encouraged me to try it, and I did for many months. But ultimately I found something that worked better for me other than seated meditation, and that was distance running. So I exercised instead. This was one of my new tools of “escape” that could replace getting drunk. And it worked surprisingly well, though I would not realize that in full until several years later looking back. In other words, I had to take the suggestions and just start trying things, then stick to them and build a habit out of it, and then years later I could look back and realize just how effective those things were for me. At the time when I first started exercising and meditating I did not see as much value in it. I had to do it for the long haul to get the full benefits.
2) I started to “put in the work” on an internal level. So I identified what my mind was doing that was negative. For me it was mostly self pity and also some resentment. So I had to learn how to shut down that constant self pity, I had to learn how to fight against it, I had to learn how to practice gratitude and combat it directly. Then I had to learn how to forgive myself and others so that resentments would not eat me alive. This is an example of “doing the work” in recovery. If you need help with this you can ask others to help you and someone will likely guide you through the process. Sponsors, therapists, counselors, or someone else that you trust might be able to guide you through this sort of work. The 12 steps of AA can also help you with this sort of work.
Doing this work was critical because it helped to alleviate the bad feelings. If you want to stop feeling bad then you need to sober up first, then identify the negativity and confront it and eliminate it.
3) I had to start taking positive action on an external level. So this means that I stopped drinking and I stopped putting drugs into my body. I went to rehab and took advice from counselors and therapists. I moved into a sober living environment and I started to rearrange my life. I quit a bad job and I got a good job (in terms of drug and alcohol influence). I went back to school. I found many new friends that were all sober or trying to stay sober. I started to exercise. I let go of toxic relationships in my life. These were all external changes that I had to make.
So really the summary here is that I took positive action in the following ways:
1) Surrender to my alcoholism and ask for help.
2) Take action. Go to rehab, start taking suggestions. Listen to people. Really listen.
3) Start making life changes. Do the work. Identify the internal garbage, the negative stuff. Work through it. Eliminate it. Then do the same with your external world. Constant progress. Always looking for more positive changes.
This is really the complete path of sobriety. Nothing more is required than this simply outline of personal growth.
But of course, the details matter, and we all need help with the details. It is one thing to say “just surrender and go to rehab” but it is another thing to actually do it and be successful at it.
Nevertheless, even though there may be many important details, this is still the basic path to success in recovery. If you want to be sober and eliminate the bad feelings in your life, you have to put in the work. You have to stop drinking, create a foundation of sobriety, and then start making positive changes. And you have to do a bit of digging to find out what the negative stuff is that might be floating around in your brain. And you have to process that stuff and eliminate it, so that you can be free.
What you can do in order to build a new life without the need to drink or self medicate
When I was still drinking alcohol every day I was a victim of my own actions.
I was a victim and I was also the attacker. I was my own worst enemy. I was my own biggest problem.
You may have heard someone say that “alcohol is not the problem. The drugs are not the problem. YOU are the problem.”
And there is truth to that. We can medicate ourselves in any number of ways. Even if you take away all the drugs and the alcohol, we still might get into trouble with other sorts of addictions: Sex, gambling, love, food, and so on. Just because we eliminate the symptom does not mean that the problem is not still there underneath it all.
And this gives us a clue to what our recovery must truly consist of.
It is not enough to simply eliminate the drugs and the alcohol. Although that is a necessary foundation of course.
No, we must go beyond mere abstinence and do much additional work. My strategy in recovery has been to do 3 things really:
1) Abstain from drugs and alcohol.
2) Become stronger so as to better resist relapse.
3) Organize my life and personal growth so as to avoid temptation for relapse.
Point one is obvious–eliminate the drugs and alcohol.
Points two and three are similar, but definitely consist of two separate strategies.
One idea is that you want to become a stronger person in sobriety, one who can resist temptation and overcome any cravings that might arise.
The other idea is that you want to eliminate or minimize future cravings!
When you combine those two ideas it is a very powerful strategy for lifelong sobriety. You are protecting your recovery on multiple levels.
I think some people believe that temptation will always be there, and therefore they must focus on becoming stronger. So they do “the internal work” that allows them to build resistance to relapse.
But there is this whole other realm of personal growth that is available to you, and that realm involves “eliminating future cravings to begin with.”
And obviously there is going to be overlap between these two things, which doesn’t really matter. Positive action is still positive action, regardless of how exactly it benefits us.
For example, I exercise on a daily basis and I also write about recovery on a daily basis. Those are both tools for helping me to minimize cravings for alcohol. I crave alcohol less often because I have those habits and routines.
But I also have a way to deal with a craving, if and when it does pop up, by simply going outside and going for a long jog, or logging on to the recovery forum here and asking for feedback or advice.
So those might sound like similar benefits, but they are actually different.
In one case, I am taking positive action to reduce the possibility for cravings or temptations.
In the other case, I am using positive tools in recovery to help deal with an existing craving.
Both are useful concepts for the recovering alcoholic. And both ideas should help to shape your journey in recovery.
So when I was building my new life in sobriety, I focused on finding those new habits I could establish that would help to minimize or eliminate cravings in the long run. What would help me to avoid temptations and cravings if I were to do it every day?
And that is not an easy thing to discover, because you won’t really know unless you actually live it.
So I had to do more than just exercise for a week. I had to exercise for several months straight in order to see how it would impact my sobriety.
The same could be true for meditation. Or any other positive habits that you might try to establish.
Sometimes you have to give things a chance in order to work. You have to give them time to see how it will impact you in the long run. This is especially true when you are considering lifestyle changes that directly impact your health in recovery (meditation, sleep, nutrition, spirituality, etc.).
How to overcome guilt, shame, remorse, and negative feelings
If you have these negative feelings, the first thing you have to do is to identify them.
Because some people don’t even realize that they have these feelings. They are completely unaware of them, yet they can be miserable at the same time. For example, someone might have a deep resentment against another person in their life, but they don’t realize that this is the cause of much of their misery. They are caught in the trap of believing that they are right in their anger and if they could hate the person even more that it would somehow satisfy them. And so they don’t realize that a feeling might be making them unhappy.
So the first step is to identify the feelings. You might need help in order to do this. I had to have someone point out to me that I was, in fact, feeling sorry for myself all the time, and that it was not helping me in the least.
Second of all, you have to be clean and sober if you want to do this sort of work. Because if you don’t have a baseline of sobriety from which to build on, any progress that you make today will be erased the next time you get drunk or high. All of that work that you do will be erased in an instant.
The only way to keep the progress that you make is if you are clean and sober. This is the only way to build a positive new life. Otherwise the addiction will just pull you back down into misery and chaos, every single time.
And finally you have to do the work. You have to make a plan to eliminate the negative feelings. You may be wondering: “How?”
It varies depending on the feeling and your situation. But there is a path to eliminate it, and you can make a decision to find that path and do the work.
For example, when I identified self pity as my main problem, I was able to form a plan to overcome it that was essentially actions like:
1) Become more aware of my self pity, learn to identify it instantly when it popped up. Watch for it.
2) Make a zero tolerance policy with myself to shut it down instantly. Redirect my mind to other things. No longer allowed to engage in self pity.
3) Practice gratitude every day as a way to redirect my mind. Write out gratitude lists every day. Say prayers of gratitude on a regular basis.
So that is a 3 step process for eliminating a bad feeling, such as self pity.
One, you have to identify the feeling.
Two, you have to be clean and sober.
Three, you have to do the work to eliminate the feeling.
That might sound vague and you might think it is impossible, but others have overcome negative feelings, and they can show you how to do it too. So if you are not sure how to “do the work to eliminate the feeling” then you need to ask questions and talk to people to find out how to do it (just like I did in order to overcome my self pity).
If you want the bad feelings to end then you need to take action.
If nothing changes then nothing will ever change. It is up to you to make a change.
And if you don’t know how to do that then you need to ask for help.