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If I Had to Quit Drinking Again, This is What I'd Do Differently
Reflecting on the mistakes I made when I got sober.
It’s been over six and a half years since I quit drinking. Although sobriety is going great these days, it didn’t start off so well.
My first year sober was rough, and the first couple of weeks were nearly impossible. I made it through, but I made a lot of mistakes along the way.
The people who read this newsletter are at all different stages of their recovery. Some have been sober for decades, others are just beginning to think about getting sober. In today’s addition, I have that latter group in mind.
I’d like to reflect on some of the things that I did wrong while getting sober, how those mistakes hurt me, and what I’d do differently if I had to quit drinking again.
I’m not trying to claim that this is universal advice that will help every addict, but I do hope that if you’re trying to quit drinking or planning to try soon, today’s edition of the newsletter will at least give you a few strategies to consider.
My first day sober was New Year’s Eve, and I chose the date not only because of the symbolic significance of the new year but also because I had a few days off work. I thought that the break would give me time to get through the worst symptoms without any outside stress.
This was a good idea in theory, but my mistake was that I didn’t think about what I’d be doing all day instead of work. So, for the first few days that I was sober, I just sat around the house. It was mind-numbingly boring.
Boredom may not sound like a serious problem, but when you’re trying to quit drinking, it truly is. There’s a great line from Clerks 2 in which the recently sober Jay warns that boredom is the first step on the road to relapse. He’s absolutely correct.
Sitting around in my apartment, feeling bored out of my mind, I couldn’t help but constantly think of alcohol. I was giving myself too much time to dwell on my addiction and too much time to talk myself into a quick trip to the liquor store.
Those first few days were some of the longest days of my life. Nothing held my attention, and I found myself literally just staring at the walls for long stretches of time.
I got through those days, but by just sitting around at home, I made sobriety far harder than it needed to be.
If I was getting sober again today, I’d immediately come up with a plan for how I could spend my time. I’d even come up with backup activities in case I got through everything too quickly. I could, for example: go for a hike, take a drive to a nearby city, visit a museum, go swimming, go running, shop for new clothing, or visit a movie theater.
The list is endless, but my focus would be on activities that get me out of the house. Sitting around by myself simply wasn’t conducive to sobriety. I know this because when I started going out more, I stopped spending nearly so much time dwelling on my addiction and recovery.
One of the places that I really should have gone during those first days sober was a recovery group. When I first quit drinking, I felt extremely reluctant to talk to anyone about it.
I was worried that if I told anyone I quit drinking, it would make sobriety feel too real and inescapable. I didn’t want to go to meetings and then feel the pressure to return the next day. I worried about meeting new people, telling them I was getting sober, and immediately disappointing them.
On top of that, my social anxiety got in the way. I imagined going into a room and feeling too overwhelmed to speak. I thought that the stress of a meeting might be counterproductive and drive me right back to drinking.
These were all valid fears, but the trouble was that the other option—trying to get sober without any help—was even worse.
When I stayed in my apartment, alone with my thoughts, I found myself locked in constant internal debates about whether to stay sober. This burned through my energy and left me mentally exhausted.
When I finally started talking to other addicts, I quickly realized that externalizing my feelings was a great way to work through my emotions. Instead of dwelling on everything wrong, I could start to move past it. I was also able to get great feedback and advice.
If there’s one single “hack” that made my sobriety easier, it was learning to ask for help. It wasn’t about receiving a single piece of life-saving advice, but rather receiving support and encouragement through one of the most difficult periods of my life.
If I had to get sober again today, one of the first things I’d do is to look up recovery groups in my area. Previously, I had enjoyed AA, but I think that I’d use SMART this time around, because I’ve heard such great things from friends, and it seems to fit better with my way of thinking. Ultimately, I’m not even sure that the specific program matters as much as simply having some type of support network.
The last big mistake that I made when getting sober was underestimating how huge an effect it would have on my mental health.
When I quit drinking, I became incredibly depressed and anxious. These were problems that I had struggled with in the past, but they were worse than ever during my first year sober.
For a long time, I tried to ignore my worsening mental health. I assumed that if I stayed sober, it would simply get better with time. Unfortunately, it didn’t.
My mental health only improved when I took active steps to address it—steps beyond merely getting sober.
I started to see a therapist each week, and with his help, developed strategies to address my depression and anxiety. Alongside the therapy, a regular exercise regime worked wonders.
If I were to get sober again, I’d work with a therapist from the very beginning. Therapy isn’t magic, and I don’t believe it can solve all of our problems, but it can act as a great aid in helping us through sobriety.
The last point that I want to make is that even though I made many mistakes early in my sobriety, I was still able to stick with it.
At the end of the day, none of us are perfect. We’re going to make mistakes along the way, and the important thing is to learn from those mistakes and keep moving forward.
The mistakes that I made early on ended up making my sobriety harder, but they didn’t drive me back to drinking. As long as we stick with sobriety, we can continue to refine our recovery process and figure out which solutions work best for us.
If you’ve recently quit drinking, or are trying to quit drinking right now, good luck! Sobriety often begins as a rocky journey, but it gets far smoother the longer you go.
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