Beyond the Pink Cloud
How to stick with sobriety after the novelty wears off.
When I think back across the entire six and a half years that I’ve been sober, two periods stand out as exceptionally difficult.
The first came at the very beginning: The week that I quit drinking. Those earliest days of sobriety were an immense physical and psychological struggle. The cravings were constant, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think clearly, and I was in a truly miserable state.
I’ve had a lot of ups and downs since getting sober, but that first week was still the hardest. The saving grace, however, was that at least it didn’t last long.
By the end of my first week sober I was already starting to feel better. By the end of the first month, I was on top of the world.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but as my withdrawal symptoms faded, I entered a phase of sobriety called the pink cloud. I’ve written about this before (See: “What is the Pink Cloud”), but in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, it refers to a nearly-euphoric state that many recovering addicts enter early in their sobriety.
While in the pink cloud, I felt like my life was perfect. I had escaped sobriety—now it was time to live the perfect life of which I had always dreamed. I would wake up early, get plenty of exercise, eat right, make new friends, and accomplish every goal I ever had.
I felt energized and simply happy to be alive.
Unfortunately, just as the difficult early days of sobriety don’t last forever, neither do the joyous days of floating in a pink cloud. The pink cloud can last for days, weeks, or even months, but eventually, it ends. That brings me to the second most difficult period of my sobriety—the months after the pink cloud.
Struggling With Sobriety
When I fell from the pink cloud, I fell hard.
I touched on this the last time that I wrote about the pink cloud, but in this edition of the newsletter I’d like to focus more on this period that came afterward.
There wasn’t any specific event or change in my life that ended the pink cloud, but the switch back to feeling miserable was still quite abrupt. I remember feeling great for a couple of weeks, and then waking up one morning and feeling crushed by depression.
During this time, I was overwhelmed by the impression that no matter how much I wanted my life to change, it never really would.
I told myself that even after getting sober, my life still sucked. I focused on everything that was going wrong: A job that I hated, my lack of friends, my failing relationship.
Instead of feeling motivated to fix these problems, I dwelled on them and considered using them as an excuse to return to drinking.
I also had a persistent feeling that regardless of what I did, I would eventually relapse. It felt like even if I could stay sober for another couple of weeks or months, there was no way that I could stick with it forever.
I tried my hardest to follow the standard advice of taking sobriety “one day at a time.” But, even then, I couldn’t help asking myself whether it was worth it. What was the point in struggling to get through one day after another if those days didn’t add up to any real change in my life?
I asked myself whether it was worth suffering through sobriety when deep down I knew that I was destined to be a drinker until the day I died.
Learning to Live Sober
Looking back on that period of my life, it’s easy to see that I was going through mental gymnastics to justify my addiction. The reality is that I had already made amazing progress, but I was too busy focusing on the bad parts of my life to see it.
When you’re struggling with depression and trying to live your life sober for the first time in years, it’s essentially impossible to think rationally. Even if it’s obvious to everyone else in the world that you should stay sober, you’re still going to question it.
The good news is that despite all my doubts, I managed to keep going. There were a few days that I came awfully close to drinking, but I never actually did.
If you look through the archive of this newsletter, you’ll find plenty of essays about how I got past cravings. Some of the most powerful changes I made were:
Playing the tape—visualizing what would happen if I gave in to my cravings.
Seeing a therapist to work on issues connected to my addiction, like depression and anger.
Connecting with other addicts.
In addition to all of this, though, to stay sober long-term, I also had to get past the feeling that I was just treading water. I had to learn to make positive changes in my life and to notice those changes.
Noticing is the key point here. It’s far too easy to tell yourself that sobriety hasn’t changed anything, even though you’ve actually gone through incredible growth.
Something that has helped me is to focus on the most easily measurable forms of progress. The most basic example of this is simply counting how long I’ve been sober.
As of this writing, I’ve been sober for six years and four months. During my first year sober, I could tell you exactly how many days I had been sober. Every single day, I made sure to take note that another 24 hours had passed.
I paid attention to the milestones: my first month, my first 90 days, my first half year, then my first year. I celebrated each one, always reflecting on the fact that I had now stayed sober for longer than ever before in my adult life.
Alongside counting the days, two other early, measurable signs of progress were my savings and weight loss.
I was spending a small fortune on my drinking habit, so the difference in my credit card bills was apparent almost immediately. I also started losing weight as soon as I quit, which was very easy to objectively measure using a scale.
I’m not arguing that either of these was the most important change that sobriety brought to my life, but they absolutely were the most easily measurable and noticeable. Latching on to these changes was a way for me to prove to myself that I hadn’t quit drinking for nothing.
In addition to these direct benefits of sobriety, I also started setting goals that were indirectly connected. The best example I have of this was becoming a runner.
I had wanted to get into running ever since graduating college. A few times, I even got as far as downloading the “Couch to 5k” running program, a schedule designed to help beginners get started. I would follow the first week or two, but then burn out and forget about it for another few years.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my drinking was getting in the way. I never wanted to run in the evenings because I would rather have been drinking, and I never wanted to run in the mornings because I was too exhausted from getting drunk the night before.
After getting sober, I finally was able to stick with running. With drinking out of the way, I had the time and energy to run regularly. This time around, I didn’t even need a program like Couch to 5k, but I did make sure to track all of my progress through a running app.
When I first started running, I couldn’t even run a mile, and my pace was barely faster than a brisk walk. As I stuck with it, I pushed myself to longer distances and faster speeds. My original goal was to run a 5k in under 30 minutes, and I remember that when I first hit it, I was overjoyed.
Even though my running progress isn’t directly connected to my sobriety, it has been instrumental in helping me stay motivated. It provides me with a clear, measurable way to prove to myself that I’m making a positive change in my life—in this case, getting fitter.
To move past the self-doubt and stick with sobriety, I had to learn to take note of these improvements—both the changes that were directly related to quitting drinking and those that sobriety indirectly fostered.
I suspect that nearly everyone who quits drinking has experienced at least a handful of positive changes without even noticing it.
Although there were plenty of days that I told myself sobriety had changed nothing, the truth was that I was steadily moving toward a better life.
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