Last week, I saw dozens of social media posts from people experiencing their first sober Halloween. As is customary when using the communication tool designed to allow us to compare our lives to the lives of hundreds of others, the posts were cheery and positive, with captions like, “First booze-free Halloween, and I feel great!” or, “I can’t believe what I was missing when I used to drink my way through Halloween.” Two things went through my mind when I saw so many of these posts last week, and in this order. First, I thought, that person is full of shit or trying really hard to convince him or herself. Second, I thought, wait a minute…maybe something is wrong with me because that’s not what my first sober Halloween was like at all.
My first sober Halloween was a form of hell on earth. Not a spooky, festive, haunting experience at all. More like a deeply depressed and severely defeated drudgery I wasn’t sure I’d live through. I remember walking the neighborhood with my kids, for the first time ever without my travel coffee mug full of IPA. I remember one house a few blocks from ours in particular. A retired couple sat at a small bistro table on their front porch. The man was drinking a brown liquid from a tumbler, and I could see the bottle tucked behind the leg of his patio chair. The man smiled and laughed as he filled candy bags and admired the costumes that approached. I remember my catatonic stare as I dreamed of morphing into one of the ice cubes clinking around in his glass.
Candy in one hand. Tumbler of whiskey in the other. Ass comfortably locking into his chair for the evening. Trusty bottle by his side. And he was oblivious to the darts of jealousy I was shooting at him from the street.
I was in no position to take to Instagram and brag about the awesomeness of sobriety. My disease was nothing to celebrate. In fact, at that moment, I didn’t really even care if I survived that night. I was inconsolably convinced that continuing to be a drag on the limited resources of my family and the planet earth was a selfish endeavor. Death would have felt like a lateral move that Halloween night.
But I made it through. I survived. And the next Halloween…wait for it…cue the facebook rainbows and unicorns…that next Halloween…I felt only slightly less compelled to try to paper-cut myself to death with Snickers wrappers. Yep, that second sober Halloween sucked, too.
This is how sobriety works. We have to reprogram our subconscious minds with new patterns and experiences. Until we do, our old groove is our only groove, and sobriety feels like sandpaper on a scab.
By the time my first sober Halloween rolled around, I had almost eleven months of sobriety under my belt. I had week after week of sober Fridays and sober Saturdays. Sober weekends had become the norm, and the pull to drink was barely more than an annoying little tug. I felt accomplished. I felt like I was winning the most important battle of my life. I felt like it was the dawn of a new existence. Then October 31st appeared, and I was completely unprepared for the wave of inadequacy and shame.
It turns out, all those weekends I had abstained had nothing to do with Halloween. October 31st was its own monster (how about that pun), and my subconscious mind had only the prior year’s drunken embarrassment to reference when preparing for the evening of trick-or-treating. Months of sobriety don’t lead to success when a holiday rolls around. Only success in navigating that very holiday sober leads to success for that holiday in the future. It is diabolical. It is unfair. It is also basically universal with all the hundreds of alcoholic stories with which I am familiar.
I know what you’re thinking. Halloween is over Matt. That story would have been timely last week. What’s your point in sharing it in the first week of November? I’m glad you asked. Maybe you survived Halloween sober. Maybe you relapsed. Either way, you are probably glad it is over, and I’ve got some bad news for you. Your struggles are just beginning. This is one of the best possible times I can remember to relapse.
As soon as we experienced the depressing abnormalcy of a sober Halloween, then we had to go through the most contentious and stressful presidential election of our lifetime. And even though November 3rd has come and passed, nothing is over. No matter how you feel about the outcome of the voting, no immediate change is forthcoming. The pandemic is still killing people. School, careers, extended family and socializing are still the great, unsatisfying unknown. The country is still divided. There is still tremendous work to do to dig ourselves from the deepest hole of my lifetime.
Are you ready for some more good news? Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are coming to reignite the flame of cravings for alcohol based on memories of holidays past.
And now that you’ve experienced the cravings of Halloween and the depressing shit-show of this campaign season, you know how hard these next two months are sure to be.
Nobody said sobriety would be easy. But still, it doesn’t seem fair that it should get harder as you make progress. You are building your sobriety muscles. You are logging the days, weeks, maybe even months or years. And yet, you find yourself on the thinnest of ice while the heat on the fuck-it machine is cranked up to maximum.
We all know the mantra about taking it one day at a time. But in a time like this, we might be better served to look at what is barrelling down the road toward us, full speed ahead.
Picture yourself in mid-January. The pandemic is still reigning over us. The cold, dark days of midwinter have settled in. The festivity of the holidays are in the rearview mirror, and spring seems years away. What will you have about which to feel joyful? Some meaningless social media memes that don’t even inspire the people that write them?
But…if you maintain sobriety between now and then, you’ll have a massive accomplishment to celebrate.
I write and talk a lot about the tools in my sobriety toolbox that have served me so well these past four years. Bibliotherapy, understanding brain chemistry, addiction nutrition, patience, connection, emotional maturity, and recovering out loud are all big parts of my sober enlightenment.
But sometimes – times like these – you’ve also got to hold on tight like your life depends on it. White-knuckling gets a bad rap. It is not a solution that will work in the long term. But commitment to health and healing can get us over some potholes in the road. Well, buckle-up buttercup, ‘cause the rest of this God-forsaken year is going to be a bumpy ride.
And if you make it – if you are looking back from the middle of January with a couple of months, or more, of sobriety under your belt – well that will be some kind of an accomplishment. Pride in running this gauntlet is exactly the kind of success that propels a person into a sober 2021. Think about it. Can you hunker down and bear down and sacrifice the next couple of months for the sake of the pride that will open up the rest of your life?
Inspiration. It comes in many forms. I’m not very good at telling you early sobriety is wonderful in hopes of masking the trauma. I’m a little too grounded in reality to excel at the game of likes and shares. And sobriety is not about taking things one day at a time for me. I need a little more to shoot for, and a little more of a sense of accomplishment when I reach a lofty goal.
Sobriety through this particular post-election holiday season is just the kind of accomplishment to inspire permanent change.
Are you ready to hold on tight?
If you’d like some support in making it through, we have two options for you to consider. Our new book, soberevolution: Evolve into Sobriety and Recover Your Alcoholic Marriage is available now. Click the button below for details.
Our SHOUT Sobriety program provides connection and support for people in early recovery. We’ll be leaning hard on each other to get through this season. There is room for you to join us!