Patiently Growing Sobriety Muscles

The Patience of Arches National ParkI remember bringing my dad beers on the Saturday afternoons of my youth. In exchange for my courier services, he would give me sips. I don’t remember what it tasted like, but I do remember how it felt. It wasn’t about a buzz from alcohol back then, it was about the comfort and love of bonding with my dad.


I remember finding a six-pack of beer hidden in the branches of a tree back in middle school. My two buddies and I each had two, and they were magnificent. I still don’t really remember the taste. I do remember the buzz. It came both from the alcohol and from the mischievous intent. We were doing something forbidden. If  either our parents or the high schoolers who hid the beer caught us, we would have been in trouble.


I remember buying beer in high school. I had to wear a tie for my job at the music store in the mall. When I loosened my tie and went to the liquor store at 5:30 or 6pm, and I rubbed my brow as I walked in like I needed relief from a long day of work, I looked old enough to buy beer without an I.D. The only thing that felt better than being a beer-buying hero for my friends was the alcohol warming me from the inside out.


I remember alcohol becoming the center of my universe in college. Sure, the parties on the weekends were the highlight, but I loved drinking a few beers on weeknights after pretending to study for a couple of hours. We would pack eight or ten guys onto a couple of couches in a ten by twelve room and smoke cigarettes and drink Natural Light while watching TV and laughing about nothing in particular. Those guys replaced my family when I moved to college, and those nights were important to who I was becoming. And the beer was the most critical component.


I remember coming home to my future wife and our first apartment, and pouring a drink before I had even taken off my work clothes. With no kids, no mortgage, no wedding rings and my whole adult life in front of me, I can hardly call that first drink of the evening stress relieving (because I didn’t really know what stress was yet). Still, I remember sitting on our little third story apartment porch and feeling the soothing comfort of the rum make my toes tingle.


I remember drinking Rolling Rocks while working in the yard after we bought our first house. I remember drinking Hazed and Infused pale ales on Friday afternoons after we started our first business. I remember parties and business dinners and Christmas mimosas and college football games and weddings and funerals and romantic dinners and postgame brews with my soccer buddies. And in all of those memories, alcohol takes center stage.


I have lots of terrible memories that resulted from my love affair with alcohol. But I have some glorious memories that just wouldn’t have been the same without beer or booze. Alcohol was ever-present for over two decades of my life. The bond I formed with my liquid wingman was potent and intertwined. Beer wasn’t just a coping mechanism or celebratory accent. Beer was an ingrained part of my persona. Even when I wanted to quit – even eventually when I needed to quit – the physical addiction paled in comparison to the way alcohol was woven into my personality and self-image. Cutting alcohol from my life was like removing a metastasized tumor. Alcohol had spread and taken-up residence in every cell in my body.


A relationship like the one I had with my beloved alcohol doesn’t develop overnight. It has to be nurtured by friends and family. It’s the kind of love that sprouts from persistence and camaraderie, and it grows deep roots so it can hold-on tight. It’s a relationship that we tend to in public to ease anxiety and lubricate conversation. But we also tend to it in private as we ask it to melt worries, conflicts and loneliness. Over years and decades, and with unwavering attention, our relationship with alcohol grows stronger than any other in our lives.


So why are our expectations so unreasonably high when we decide our relationship with alcohol needs to be over?


We think determination and willpower will do the trick. We think going to meetings and staying out of bars will set us straight. We make definitive decisions and expect immediate results. When we change our lives in important ways – when the change is life or death – why would we ever expect the change to be easy?


I quit drinking unsuccessfully at least a half dozen times before I found permanent sobriety. On a couple of those occasions, I made it six months. One time, I stayed sober for nine months. The trigger that reignited my relationship with alcohol differed on each of those occasions, but one thing was consistent each time I relapsed. I just didn’t wait long enough to let my new relationship with sobriety develop.


Anything in life that’s of significant value requires effort and patience. How do I pay off my mortgage? Thirty years of working hard and making payments. How do I reach my career goals? I get up every morning, put my head down and make slow yet steady progress? How do I replace conflict with compassion in my marriage? I talk. I listen. And I wait for wounds to heal. How do I nurture my babies into the loving and cooperative adults our divided and jaded world so desperately needs? I provide the example, I pray they are paying attention, and I wait for their personalities to sprout and grow. How do I develop the kind of faith I can lean on when I need it? I pray, I humble myself, and I do it over and over again until my faith takes on a life of its own.


And how do I cut the cancer alcohol has become out of my life? Is there an outpatient surgery option for that? Can I take a pill or recite some clever dogmas or spend a month in Malibu and call it all good? What option for lasting sobriety is available for a definitive yet impatient alcoholic like me?


Sobriety requires a lot more than changing a habit. Lasting sobriety requires us to change who we are from the inside out. And all fundamental changes – all changes worth the pain and effort – require patience. Lots and lots of patience.


I talk often to the participants in our early recovery program called SHOUT Sobriety about building their sobriety muscles. In early sobriety, the thought of attending an after work happy hour without drinking is paralyzing. When our sobriety muscles are strong, it is effortless and enjoyable. In early sobriety, family functions or sporting events mean white-knuckling and leaving early. When our sobriety muscles are strong, social occasions are either fun or boring, but they are no longer stressful nor tempting.


I’ll bet you Kevin Hart was nervous the first time he told a joke in front of an audience. I’m pretty sure NASA engineers were terrified the first time they launched a manned spacecraft. I remember quaking with fear of rejection the first time I submitted an article for publication. Fear is normal and success is elusive in all parts of life. But if we keep showing up, we keep learning and listening, and we keep getting better – keep getting stronger – we can attain our wildest dreams.


So if you are dreaming of extracting alcohol from your life, don’t be suckered into believing there is a shortcut for your most sacred of life goals. You can do it. I’m living proof.


But if you think sobriety will be easy, it will be impossible.


Growing your sobriety muscles requires you to push past your fear and doubt. Your strength will only come from active participation and a clear knowledge of the size of the challenge you face. And most of all, your lasting sobriety requires abundant supply of that which most of us so desperately lack: patience.


My alcoholism grew strong and seemingly insurmountable with decades of ignorance, and with the help and encouragement of friends and family. I have countless fond memories of my persistent effort to bury the roots of addiction deep. I nurtured a loving relationship with alcohol that was built to last. So, when it was time to quit – when the cons of drinking outweighed the pros – when the pain alcohol caused me far exceed the joy it brought, I had a lot of work to do. I had a brain to rewire, relationships to mend and a persona to totally rebuild.


With patience, my sobriety muscles grew strong. With patience, I learned that alcohol is a deadly poison in any quantity. With patience, meaningful connections replaced buzzed recollections as my top priority.


I am blessed with a life my drinking self could not have contemplated. The euphoria of alcohol-induced stunted brain function is no match for the peace and enlightenment of pure love and understanding for the people who surround me. My sobriety isn’t all unicorns and rainbows as the social media of the recovery community would lead us all to believe. It is much, much better.


If you want it, you’ve got to really want it. You’ve got to be ready for a fight and muster patience you probably didn’t know existed. You’ve got to stop looking at sobriety as depriving yourself from something you can’t have, and start looking at your recovery as a quest for your true best self. You won’t be abstaining, you’ll be exceeding. It will take everything you’ve got and a little bit more. But it is worth it. It is so worth it.


And I want to help you. Three months ago, we introduced SHOUT Sobriety. It’s our six week online early sobriety program. We’ve had dozens of participants in the program, and I’m only aware of one of them who has returned to drinking. Everyone else is working together to grow their sobriety muscles. I’m honored that they let me cheer them on their journey.


SHOUT Sobriety remains absolutely free. That’s important to me, because I don’t think people should have to pay for their freedom. The effort and patience required is taxing enough without an entry fee. The only way we can keep this mission going is with donations from people who believe in this work – alumni and observers alike. To enroll, for more information or to make a donation, please click the SHOUT Sobriety button below. Sobriety is a long road that requires immense patience. Are you ready to get started?

SHOUT Sobriety

Introducing Barbara’s Voice
January 20, 2021
Confirmation Bias: This Is Why Your Sobriety Won’t Stick
July 28, 2020
The Spectrum of Addiction: You can Ignore it, but it Won’t Go Away
April 15, 2020
  • Reply
    August 28, 2019 at 8:54 am

    I like your use of the muscle analogy. I use this analogy frequently when describing all forms of self-improvement. First, we must locate the muscle. Then we must exercise it to improve its strength.
    I am reminded of something also relative to the number of prior attempts toward sobriety. I once heard or read that on average it takes a smoker 22 attempts before successfully ceasing to smoke. Addictions are a b*tch, plain and simple. My son is an alcoholic, which is what drew me to you, Matt. I, on the other hand, have an eating disorder. I dance with my ‘addiction’ every single day. For this reason, your writing is also helping me in the food arena.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 28, 2019 at 9:04 am

      There are so many similarities between different addictions, ML. I have worked with a few people with eating disorders, and it is all about trying to exert control over the uncontrollable.

      Have you read Drinking, A Love Story by Caroline Knapp? It is my favorite alcoholism memoir, and she also goes into detail about her anorexia. I recommend you check it out. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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