I had high expectations. For starters, I expected swift and significant weight loss. I expected my wallet to fatten and my energy levels to increase. I saw no reason why I would not be more alert and free from sadness. I envisioned an immediate return to trust, warmth and desire from my bride of nineteen years, Sheri. I had no doubt that I would leave shame and suffering behind. Hours spent wallowing in what I called The Pit, the depths of depression and self-loathing, would be a distant memory. I would be myself again instantly. Was that too much to expect from my decision to quit drinking? If I was going to abstain from the second most important love of my life – second only to my wife and four kids – those benefits had better be the result.
My permanent sobriety has indeed been a life-saving experience with innumerable benefits. The benefits are, however, far more subtle than my expectations. Peace and contentment top the list of results from my sober reality. Calming the chaos that took place in my alcoholic mind is not glamorous, but it is an enormous relief. I feel good most of the time. I don’t feel great all the time as I had expected, but I mostly feel good. That is going to have to be good enough.
I quit drinking for several months a half-dozen times only to return to the drink because the high expectations for my new life were not met. Weight loss provides an obvious example. As a drinker, I was a very active man who was a little overweight. I had a beer belly. I carried twenty extra pounds that I attributed to booze calories. I consumed over 5,000 calories a week in alcohol. I cannot calculate how many extra calories I consumed in bad food choices when drinking. A fresh, juicy peach was no match for a dozen buffalo wings when I made decisions about a snack to compliment a six-pack (or two) on a Saturday evening.
I expected to immediately and effortlessly replace my six-pack of beer with a six-pack of abdominal muscles. I couldn’t wait for my hated love-handles to disappear. Inexplicably, my Adonis-like physique has yet to materialize. I have lost a few pounds, but my weight loss was not immediate and has been the result of commitment to reasonably-consistent pretty-good food choices. A drastic reduction in empty liquid calories did not yield drastic weight loss as I expected, but I no longer devour a family-sized bag of Doritos in one sitting when drinking heavily. I am good with that.
My relationship with Sheri is better, too. She does not throw her arms around me and whisper her love and passionate desire for me when I come home in the evenings as I had hoped. Our relationship is not a Lifetime Channel movie. She still struggles with the memories of insults my thoughtless, alcohol-warped brain hurled at her from time to drunken time. She still braces for my overreaction and fury in the face of stress and disappointment. Sheri can’t shake the flashbacks to me sulking around in drunken depression. She can’t feel the calm I feel from sobriety. Not yet, anyway. But she is opening her heart to me. She is sharing her feelings and confiding in me again. She is starting to look to me for comfort sometimes. Our relationship is far from perfect, but it is better. I am good with that.
I feel better – both physically and mentally. I do not swing violently between the overwhelming desire to drink to ease the stress and pain of life and feelings of overwhelming shame from overdrinking. Most of the time, I feel pretty good. Stress, pain, worry, suffering and sadness are still a part of my life, of course. But I no longer drink to find relief. Instead, I deal with my emotions. After decades of self-medicating, my coping skills are woefully underdeveloped. Now, in my mid-forties, I am learning how to deal with life when life gets messy rather than drink until I no longer care. Learning sobriety feels very much like learning a new language. When my gut tells me to do what I know to do to ease the stress – pour a drink and wait for relief to wash over me – I now have to find other ways to cope. When one of my kids misbehaves or a vital piece of equipment at our business breaks or my flight is delayed or I find a hair in my soup I no longer run to the comforting embrace of alcohol. The contentment I have found in my sobriety gives me the strength to work through challenges. Often, I just have to wait patiently for the stress and pain to subside. Eventually, I feel better again. I am good with that.
As a high-functioning alcoholic, I often took two steps forward then one step back. After a weekend bender I would sulk and self-loathe for a day or two with minimal productivity at work and in family life. Then, once I climbed from The Pit and rejoined the functioning world around me, I would be hyper-productive and work extremely long hours to make-up for my slothfulness. It was manic. Except for Sheri, those around me – friends, business associates, family and neighbors – saw me accomplishing things and making progress toward my goals. Business initiatives were completed, the lawn was neatly cut and my kids were happy and healthy. What they didn’t see, however, was that the wild swings from debilitating-depression to exhausting-overcompensation was draining the life out of me.
Today, as a sober man, I am finding my balance. I am productive most of the time on most days. Sometimes I am stagnant – I rest or contemplate or watch TV or stare at the ceiling fan. What I don’t do anymore, however, is take steps backwards due to bouts of panic-filled depression and destructive over-drinking. I don’t waste chunks of my life. Knowing that chapter is closed is nice. I am good with that.
My kids are young, but they are growing and learning and absorbing the environment around them. My oldest is in high school. Her personal relationship with alcohol is about to begin. I hope to provide a good example. The maturation of my children is in no small part responsible for the timing of my decision to permanently quit drinking. My daughter is old enough to know the difference between when her father is having a bad day and when something more insidious is going on. She can distinguish between her dad being tired and her dad being drunk. My kids mean everything to me. The thought of disappointing them or providing them with a poor example of what it means to be a loving and responsible man makes me physically ill. Now my kids have a healthy, caring and nurturing father. I am very, very good with that.
My list of expectations related to sobriety was long and lofty, but I thought those benefits were necessary to counter the feeling of missing-out on oodles of drinking fun. As it turns out, the opposite is true. The only things my abstinence leaves me missing out on are regrets, foggy memories, wasted money and shame.
My life is better. I am fully present to experience the twists and turns. I stress and cope. I stumble and learn. I listen and share. That’s all. My sober life’s not perfect.
I am good with that.