Sobriety is Easy: Just Add Anchors
Feeling temptation to drink alcohol is very rare for me these days, now over three years into my permanent sobriety. I do occasionally, however, feel momentary pangs of desire for the elixir so woven into my life for all those many years of drinking. On a recent warm and sunny Saturday afternoon I felt such a craving as I turned onto my block heading home with all my goals accomplished for the day.
I was done. It was time for some well deserved relaxation. Reclining on my sun-drenched back porch with a golden-amber IPA in my hand sounded, for a moment, like a well-earned reward.
I was alone in my Jeep, and I actually laughed out loud at that fleeting thought. I can’t drink. Just imagine how many people I would disappoint and how many bridges I would burn. My wife – I can’t even fathom her reaction – more anger and pain than the human brain is capable of managing. I’ve preached to my kids for years that alcohol is a poison dangerous in any quantity. What about all the people I’ve grown to love who participate in our SHOUT Sobriety program. And the fellow writers in the addiction and recovery space, and other sobriety badasses with whom I interact on a regular basis – what would they think? I’ve spent three years gaining the trust of thousands of readers – I can’t lose my credibility with them. And then there are my friends and extended family – their respect as I win this battle with addiction brings me such comfort. If I lost it – if I lost any of it – I wouldn’t know how to go on. One beer might as well be a thousand gallons of whiskey. Drinking has become an impossibility.
I laughed again as I pulled into my driveway. That which used to be the pinnacle of the week – the goal toward which all my other activities pointed – that first beer when all the work was done on a Saturday afternoon – that no longer exists as an option. And I’m indescribably thankful that my life is so restricted, my very favorite reward for decades has now been placed off limits and forever out of reach by the life I’ve built.
Do you think I write to help you? I wish I was so generous. I write to anchor my sobriety. Any benefit you receive when you relate to my story is an unintended consequence.
Anchors for my sobriety: they are everywhere and relentless, and they limit my freedom in such a blessed way. That’s right – they limit my freedom. At the same time that sobriety and the ensuing enlightenment bring me freedom from the brain hijacking and restrictive grip of addiction, the people in my life to whom I anchor my sobriety make the decision to drink or not a decision that is no longer my own. The ying of the freedom is accompanied by a yang of restriction. I couldn’t drink if I wanted to. Here’s the minimum of the repercussions if I did.
- I would be a failure as a father. I’m not claiming that I’d feel like a failure, I’m explaining that I’d be a failure. I have spent years now explaining the dangers of alcohol and other drugs to my children. I have shared everything I’ve learned about brain chemistry, the development of the prefrontal cortex and the relationship ramification of alcohol and other drugs. My kids believe what I’ve told them, not just because I’m their father, but also because they remember how different I was as an active alcoholic. They have experienced the recovery, and a return to the pit of despair would obliterate my hard-earned credibility. Their father would be a failure at my most important role in life.
- I don’t know what my wife would do. I really don’t think I’m capable of considering the consequences of my drinking on my marriage. I know the relationship would be over, but I’m not sure we would both remain alive. Don’t read anything specific into that morbid statement. I don’t know what would happen. I just know we’ve both worked harder on our marriage than anything else in our lives, and If I was to return to drinking, no terrible outcome would be beyond the realm of possibility.
- I would need to get a new career. I’ve focused all of my energy on ending the stigma associated with alcoholism. We run a nonprofit, we are growing our SHOUT Sobriety program, I write thousands of words a week, we have a podcast, there is lots of speaking and community engagement – this work life I’ve sewn together would be completely ripped apart. Starting over at age 47 with a resume that could politely be described as interesting and transient is not a challenge I’d like to soon face.
- I would have to move. Notice I said “I” and not “we” (see points one and two above). All my friends, all my contacts and community associations in Denver would be destroyed if I drank. You can’t make such a big deal about your sobriety, then turn your back on it, and continue with business as usual. I don’t mean to be overly dramatic, but there really wouldn’t be a place for me here if I was to drink. I would basically be kicked out of Denver.
Let’s talk physics for a second. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, right? So those four negative points, which are just the tip of the consequences iceberg if I was to drink, are the opposite of what I can expect from life if I continue in sobriety. Loving and healthy kids, rebuilt trust with my wife, a thriving career in a field where I have unlimited passion, and a community thirsty for a change in how we quench our thirst – all of those are the anchors for my sobriety.
I can’t drink. It isn’t a matter of choice anymore. Drinking for me would be as devastating as jumping from an airplane without a parachute. Russian roulette would be a safer option for me than returning to my drinking life. That’s not an exaggeration. It is morbid again (sorry for the ghastly imagery) but it is also accurate. I have inextricably linked my sobriety to the most significant anchors in my life. By limiting my available choices – by limiting my very freedom – I eliminate that which was, just a few years ago, my most likely inevitable demise from the list of possibilities.
This is really important. I talk to people every single day who tell me they couldn’t possibly be open about their alcoholism and goal of sobriety. The shame and stigma are simply too daunting, and the truth is too painful to share. Those people admire me because my willingness to be vulnerable and share my story is helping so many people. They call me brave. They just don’t get it.
Anchoring my sobriety to so many aspects of my life is the most selfish of actions. I did it, much of it subconsciously, because it protects everything I have. This isn’t about you. It’s about me. Humans are selfish, and in that one characteristic, I am an exceedingly proficient example.
Mother Teresa was extra-selfish, too. She realized how good it felt to help others, and dedicated her life to that little dopamine hit. She is revered as a saint for her acts of kindness, and I’m not disputing that point. But consider what she gained from all that sacrifice. She was as blessed as she was a blessing to others.
Do you ever think about drinking again? Do you wish or dream of someday resetting your brain and becoming a moderate, social drinker? Do you compare your drinking to others, and internally debate your alcoholic status because you are not as bad as a gutter drunk?
I don’t. Not anymore. And it feels wonderful. If you do have such thoughts and questions, do you realize you are justifying your chaotic life because you are, “not as bad as a gutter drunk?” Is that as aspirational as you want your life to be?
Get selfish! Anchor your sobriety! Eliminate the decision to drink or not to drink from your long list of available decisions.
Reduce your freedom as a way of breaking free.
There are a couple of people in our SHOUT Sobriety program who have welcomed new babies into their lives in the past year. I have talked to both of them about the blessing of anchoring their sobriety to those precious new little lives. The babies don’t have any experience with their alcoholism of the past, and they can build a loving and exemplary relationship with the children from the very beginning. They can be there for the babies. They don’t have to miss a moment to hangover, and they never have to feel the guilt of choosing a bottle of wine over time spent nurturing. Giving their full, best selves to these babies is a selfish act of pride and love that will create an unbreakable bond. And if they can just manage to tie the knot tight enough that anchors their sobriety to these babies, they increase their chances for permanent success exponentially.
You don’t have to rearrange your whole existence in order to anchor your sobriety to your life, and you don’t have to SHOUT about your sobriety in the first weeks or even months of your recovery. But every time you crack open your secret, every time you reject anonymity as an incomplete answer to a complex problem, every time you make the extra effort to connect despite exhaustion and fear – every time – you selfishly improve your chances of success.
My story isn’t about you. It is my selfish way of protecting myself from my own bad decisions. My story can’t protect you. But your story can.
If you are ready to stop walking the perilous tightrope of early sobriety, full of slips and relapses and unbearably white knuckles, let us help you find your anchors. Join our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery. If you want it, you’re going to have to be selfish enough to take the future you deserve, and we can help you get there. SHOUT Sobriety is a donation-based program, and we ask our participants for a $25 per month recurring donation to keep our mission alive. If ever it doesn’t feel right, you can opt out and stop donating without any questions. For more information, to make a donation or to enroll, please click the button below.
What about when the anchors aren’t enough to make the person stop? What about when they tell you that you’re their everything, they love you so much, they want to change their behavior and they know it’s hurting them (and you) … And then nothing changes? What about when they can be fine with drinking for a good while and then explode in an awful episode? What about when you watch them cry and see them in such pain and shame … And then they STILL don’t stop?
I know the answer … I left … But what about those stories? I wish so much they weren’t real.
I totally feel your pain, Leemore. Thank you for sharing. There is so much to this diabolical disease. A therapist friend of mine once told me there is only one thing that makes humans change their behavior. Pain. Our own pain, not the pain we inflict on others (that is never enough). He just wasn’t in enough pain to quit. His tie to his anchors weren’t enough. For me, as described in this piece, the pain involved in tearing away from any one of those four anchors would be enough to crush and devastate me. I’m not willing to go through that, so I don’t drink. I hope that makes sense. I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through!
Well written truths, Matt! The quote that your post reminded me of is from Russel Brand: there isn’t just freedom for pursing our desires; there is such a thing as freedom from our desires.
Ooooh, I like that, Anokhi! Thanks for reading and commenting.