Sometimes progress is the enemy. Sometimes we gain some comfort from the strides we’ve made, but that comfort only serves to make the unexpected all that more jolting. Sometimes, our efforts leave us in dangerous middle ground – not yet strong enough to claim victory, but not weak enough to feel helpless and hopeless. That middle ground can be the most dangerous place of all.
I had settled nicely into my new routine. When the witching hour struck ever evening, I’d plop into my comfy chair with only the light of a single dim reading lamp, and I’d read for an hour or so. My new nightly pattern took the edge off. If I could just get wrapped up in the story, I’d forget my desire for a drink, and I’d nestle into a connected, soothing feeling. Another day without a drink. It felt awfully good.
But then I’d have an unavoidable social engagement. Going in, I’d feel 90% confident with just a sliver of anxiety. But then standing there, holding my soda water with a lime, I’d just want to disappear into the bathroom and stay there until everyone else was gone. Where did I get the nerve to feel confident in sobriety? I was still the social pariah, and faking it until I made it wasn’t easing my shame from being the only person in the room too broken to drink.
I spend a lot of time helping people through early sobriety. For me, now looking back, the duration is somewhat clear. The challenges of early sobriety last every bit of a full year. At least they did for me. That’s the year to lick your wounds and build your sobriety muscles. Progress is slow and sometimes elusive, and patience is never in adequate supply.
But when I see it through the eyes of my friends fighting for their recovery, the picture is far less clear. It’s as though there is this static period of discomfort between the first efforts to address active addiction, and the imaginary hump we summit sometime after a year of abstinence. This, “middle sobriety,” isn’t really a thing. It’s just part of early sobriety. But just you try grasping the non-existence of the concept when you’re in the throws of it.
It’s like straddling the crack that divides the two sides of the draw bridge as it starts to open. On the one side, you’ve found a groove that feels good. You might be comfortable at home, and maybe you’ve settled into a new weekend routine that doesn’t include overindulgence followed by shame and hangover. That’s peaceful and nice.
But the puzzle is still missing lots of pieces, and your other foot is on scary ground. Maybe you haven’t found a comfort zone with family and close friends who don’t understand your obsession with sobriety. They think it’s a fad, and they scoff about it behind your back. Or maybe it’s those unavoidable social gatherings that still give you a feeling of paralysis. Or maybe you’ve learned to live with the new routine, but the idea of never drinking again is just too big and permanent to grasp. It’s like the depth of the ocean or the vastness of the universe. You understand it exists, but forever is just too big of a concept.
So the bridge is opening, and you’re stuck right in the middle. Things are better, but you are far from “fixed.” You’re far enough along that the cravings – the really intense ones that are strong enough to make you grab your car keys and drive to the liquor store – those cravings are so rare that you’re not ready for them when they appear. It is dangerous to straddle that divide. Progress has shown you a sliver of what could be, but it leaves you vulnerable to the failures of the past.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. It’s easy to think of things about which to feel thankful. Your sobriety, a fresh start, a chance at freedom – clawing your way out of addiction leaves you with goals and strategies and tactics and blessings.
But don’t forget that early sobriety, even middle sobriety, also leaves you feeling unfulfilled, disconnected, uncertain and shameful. That’s just an unfortunate part of it. All of it is. If you could jump from the decision to quit drinking to a year or more of sobriety, the world would be full of recovered alcoholics. Instead, the world is full of failure and shame and countless day ones.
In this season of gratitude, I hope you’ll spend some serious time in a quest for patience. Think about the thing that most worries you about sobriety.
Whatever it is, it will get better. I promise.
Are you struggling to connect in relationships? It will get better. Are you still uncomfortable when surrounded by people hoisting glasses of holiday cheer? That will go away for sure. Is the permanence of it all daunting? Someday, the permanence will be your anchor.
You’ve made progress, so maybe early sobriety feels like a stage that’s in the past. If you are still in your first year or so of sobriety, you’re still in the middle of early. Brain rewiring takes time. Sobriety muscles are weak for a long time until they are suddenly strong. Stop straddling the raising draw bridge. Step with both feet into early sobriety, and prepare for a bumpy ride.
While you are summoning a level of patience you don’t know you have, remember to seek connection at every turn. I would love to hear what’s going on with you. I bet I’ve had a similar experience. I bet I’m familiar with those unwanted emotions. Your struggle is not unique, so don’t struggle alone.
Our burdens aren’t as heavy when we share them.
I hope you’ll share your burdens with me. Reply to this email and let me know how you are feeling. What struggle in particular is making you squirmy in early sobriety? I won’t solve your problem for you, but I bet I can share some of your pain.
If you are struggling to find your footing in early sobriety, you are not alone. I hope you’ll consider joining our SHOUT Sobriety program for people in early recovery from alcoholism. It is an effective alternative to traditional recovery methods, and I hope you’ll check it out. We ask for a $25 per month recurring donation so our work will be available for the next person who needs it. For more information, to enroll or to make a donation, please click the button below.