Sobriety is not as simple as making a decision to no longer drink beverages containing alcohol. For me, for most people who have drank hard enough, long enough, alcohol has twisted and tangled into every aspect of our lives from drunken antics, to our sober, warped brain dysfunction. Sobriety, therefore, is not a simple choice of beverage. Sobriety, if successfully accomplished, changes everything.
Once I got over the hump of my first year of sobriety, that’s when I really started to notice the changes. Most of the cravings for alcohol were gone. Most of them. A clear sunny Saturday afternoon when all of my responsibilities were covered for the week could still make me long for an IPA on my back patio, but the pull to drink was rare and weak.
After a year of sobriety, small joys of life started to actually bring me pleasure. My neurotransmitter function was returning to near-normal, and the fog of alcohol-induced depression and anxiety began to lift.
After a year of avoiding social events, my sobriety muscles had grown strong enough that I could stand in a crowded room of friends and drink soda water with a lime without feeling shame about my sobriety. That was huge – alcoholism is the disease of shame and stigma, so moving past that into, “I don’t care what others think of me,” territory was a big transition.
Here’s the biggest change that took place for me after about a year of sobriety: I stopped being an asshole to my wife (mostly, at least). All the vile and manipulative things I said when drunk, those thoughts and sentiments were nowhere to be found. I was really nervous that sobriety would only give me enough control to suppress my evil thoughts. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my long-term sobriety washed the evil away. I didn’t have to hold back those terrible expressions of hatred. They no longer existed. They were products of the poison I drank for all of those years. I still had so much work to do to recover my marriage, and it was a complete blessing that I would no longer make matters worse with new nastiness.
Also, a lot of the people with whom I associated drifted away in sobriety. This is the biggest fear of many who are considering leaving booze behind, and I’m here to tell you the fear is valid.
Listen to my explanation of the loss of friendships to sobriety in the latest episode of the Untoxicated Podcast:
I’ve lost a lot of friendships in sobriety. First, I lost a lot of superficial relationships that really only existed as an excuse to drink. A lot of these people are really good people – upstanding citizens with families and impressive jobs and nice houses. There is nothing wrong with them. I just don’t have much left in common with them now that I’m not standing next to the beer cooler trying to help them empty it. These relationships dried up as fast as did my thirst for alcohol.
Second, my wife and I both lost social contact with friends and neighbors. These are people we still see at our kids’ school events, at church or on walks around the neighborhood. They are still friendly, and we still enjoy each other’s company. But when it comes to socializing, there is an uncomfortableness, more on their part than on ours. We no longer get invited to a lot of booze-heavy events. Sometimes, our friends fear putting us in an uncomfortable position because they know how heavily the other attendees will be drinking. Other times, our friends are uncomfortable having sober people around them, so they just omit us from the invitation list. Either way, we understand. By leaving us out, they are trying to avoid discomfort. It stings, but there is some nobility there.
Then there are the many people I have offended with my writing and speaking on the subjects of alcoholism and sobriety. I often talk about the enlightenment of recovery. I am thrilled to have learned so much about brain chemistry and the subconscious mind. Understanding that there is no safe quantity of alcohol consumption is huge for me, because it releases the jealousy I used to feel for moderate drinkers. Now I know that people who only drink two or three a night are still damaging their brains, just at a slower rate than I was doing damage in my active alcoholism.
There is no envy. In fact, I feel pity for in-control, responsible drinkers. I’ve never shied away from saying so. And that has insulted my moderate drinking associates. It has cost me friendships.
But I keep sharing this message that alcohol is a poison with no redeeming qualities for two reasons: It is true, and people like me need to know it. You can drink your whole life without understanding the biological or neurological impact of alcohol on your life. You can have anxiety, depression, a need to be in control, a short temper and distressed relationships with loved ones, and chalk it all up to a thousand factors other than the toxin you drink on a regular basis. I did that for 25 years. It brings me great comfort to have evolved into a healthy relationship with this truth.
Even more, I write and talk about the dangers of even moderate drinking because high-functioning alcoholics like me benefit tremendously from hearing me share. Every alcoholic I’ve ever met longs for the ability to just drink one or two. The jealousy we all feel for moderate drinkers when we are trying to yank our alcoholic lives back on track is thick and palpable. We want something so badly that we can never attain. When we realize our greatest desire is not actually esteemable – that drinking poison is still drinking deadly poison even if we can moderate the volume – that’s a life changing piece of knowledge.
So, it’s true and it’s important. But it is still a huge turnoff to a lot of my friends who drink (and think they are drinking responsibly). I didn’t understand this for a long time. I thought that if they were my friends, they should support me even if what I was saying was insulting to them. I realize now that I was asking too much. You can’t insult your friends over and over again, and expect them to remain your friends. I get that now.
Listen to my emotional conversation with my wife about friendships lost to the battle to defeat the stigma of alcoholism:
But the truth is still the truth. I bet a lot of early adopters of the truth about cigarettes probably lost friends while trying to avoid cancer. I know how annoying I thought sugar-phobes were until I became one myself. I can stand back and picture how uncomfortable, angry or dismissive I make my drinking friends feel toward me. I get it, but I can’t shut up.
The message is too important, and this message is my mission. I’ve lost a lot of friendships along the way, some insignificant and some that really stung. But I’ve gained way more than I’ve lost. Through our SHOUT Sobriety program for people facing the challenges of early recovery, I’ve made some of the best friendships of my life. It is amazing the bond that can form between people with a common challenge, a common enemy.
If I was offered an opportunity to be a moderate drinker with no adverse effects from alcohol, I would reject that offer. I am so blessed to have evolved into sobriety, and the friendships I’ve made with others on this journey of enlightenment are unlike any relationships in my life. I cherish them. If you’d like to learn what I mean, I invite you to enroll in SHOUT Sobriety. Knowledge is power, and we should never have to find permanent sobriety alone. See what we’re all about, and consider joining the fight to end the stigma. You’ll gain far more from the truth than you could ever lose.