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My First Five Years Sober
A timeline of long-term sobriety.
I quit drinking on December 31, 2016—exactly 5 years, 3 months, and 19 days ago.
During my first couple of weeks sober, some of the resources that I found incredibly helpful were “sobriety timelines.” These were articles that detailed what it was like for the author to quit drinking and broke down their day-to-day progress.
Reading through these timelines gave me an idea of what to expect from my sobriety. They also provided me with an indispensable source of inspiration and motivation; a reminder that others had gone through the same gauntlet as me, and that they had made it through to the other side.
When I started blogging about my own sobriety a few years ago, one of the very first things that I wrote was a timeline of my first three days sober. Knowing how helpful this type of article had been for me, I wanted to “pay it forward” and share my own experience with others who had recently quit drinking.
Since then, I’ve updated and expanded this timeline several times, and in today’s newsletter, I’d like to share my most comprehensive sobriety timeline yet.
Most sobriety timelines focus on just the first few days or weeks of sobriety. This makes a certain intuitive sense because the early days tend to be the hardest and include the most rapid changes.
However, in my experience, sobriety has continued to alter and improve my life for years, not just days or weeks. Therefore, to more fully capture the experience of being sober, the timeline I’m sharing below starts with day 1 and goes right up until today, day 1936.
The truth is that nowadays I don’t remember my first few weeks sober nearly as well as I did when I first started blogging, so I’ll be relying on my old blog posts to fill in the blanks in my memory. Regardless, I hope that this timeline will be as helpful for you as similar timelines once were for me.
Near the end of 2016, I made a resolution to quit drinking at the start of the next year. I had been a daily drinker for a little over a decade and had been trying to quit for nearly as long.
My first serious attempt to get sober had been around 2009 or 2010 and had lasted just a couple of months. Since then, I had tried to quit drinking countless times with even less success. As I prepared to try yet again, I vowed to myself that this time would be different, but I still didn’t really believe it.
On December 31, I made a last-minute decision to start a day early. I had put off sobriety day by day many times before, and I didn’t want to do it again. I was feeling motivated to quit, and I worried that if I waited until the next day, I’d find an excuse not to follow through.
So, December 31 was my first day without alcohol. I was normally an evening drinker, so the day itself didn’t feel too different than normal, aside from an increase in anxiety as I thought about quitting. Even as the day went on, I still felt unsure about whether I was really going to resist buying any alcohol that night.
That night, I stayed home for New Year’s Eve. I had just moved to a new city a few months earlier, so I didn’t have much to do anyway. As I sat at home, I experienced some cravings for alcohol, but they weren’t quite as bad as I expected. I was also pleasantly surprised not to have any physical withdrawal symptoms yet.
It wasn’t until it was time to go to sleep that things became difficult. I had been drinking myself to sleep every night for years. I had forgotten how to fall asleep without alcohol. I’m sure that my nervousness about sobriety kept me up as well. I had all kinds of thoughts about the future swimming through my head that night.
I was up for hours and then kept waking up throughout the night. This was the beginning of insomnia that would come back again and again for months.
In contrast to my relatively smooth first day, my second day sober was incredibly tough. I was a mental wreck from the moment I woke up, exhausted from my insomnia the night before.
I started to experience many more withdrawal symptoms on this second day. The most frustrating was a mental fog that had descended over my brain. I couldn’t think clearly about anything. Even simple tasks like pouring a bowl of cereal felt difficult. I was constantly confused about what I was doing.
My cravings were much stronger as well. I thought that it would be a good idea to leave my apartment for a bit, but I couldn’t think of anywhere to go. I didn’t feel like I was in a clear enough frame of mind to drive either.
I spent a lot of this day reading and cleaning my apartment. Both helped distract me for a bit. I ate a lot of junk food that day too, which left me stuffed but didn’t ever seem to satisfy me.
My cravings kept getting worse throughout the day, and I frequently visited an online sobriety forum (“stopdrinking”). It helped me to read through posts by other people who were struggling along with me, or who had quit years ago and were now happy.
When it was time to go to sleep, I struggled with insomnia again. I also started experiencing a couple of new symptoms — shakiness and chills. Fortunately, they remained fairly minor throughout my withdrawal. Sometime during these first few days I also woke up in a cold sweat, but it’s been so long that I don’t remember exactly which day it was.
My third day without alcohol was when I experienced the peak of my withdrawal symptoms—both physically and mentally. This is pretty typical for alcohol withdrawal, although it can vary a little from person to person.
I didn’t start having any new symptoms on this day; it’s just that the difficulties I was having on day two were all much worse. I could barely think at all.
During these days, my emotions were all over the place. I was thinking a lot about sobriety, of course, but I was also thinking about everything else that had ever gone wrong in my life. I felt incredibly depressed and angry, and I spent a lot of time crying.
My cravings were essentially constant as well. I remember reading some advice that said to just wait out a craving because they only last for a few minutes. This did not match my experience at all! I think I only had a few minutes without cravings all day. I simply couldn’t stop thinking about alcohol.
I kept trying to distract myself with books, video games, and television. It helped a little, but not much.
Even all these years later, I’m impressed that I made it through those first three days. It was one of the hardest times in my entire life. I didn’t have any great trick for it, but a few things that helped were:
Focusing on getting through the moment, not worrying about the future. (In other words, “taking it one day at a time.”)
“Playing the tape forward” by asking myself what would happen if I gave into cravings.
Reading posts by other recovering addicts on the “stopdrinking” forum.
The Next Two Weeks
Although my third day sober was the peak of my withdrawal symptoms, it’s not as if they just disappeared overnight after that. Instead, they very gradually got better over the next couple of weeks.
Throughout the first week, insomnia, brain fog, and cravings were my three biggest foes. By the end of the first week, the brain fog started to lift. I felt okay enough to get through the workday and to do my routine errands like grocery shopping or getting gas. I was starting to feel more like a normal human being again. However, I still had many moments of confusion throughout the day, and I zoned out quite frequently.
Even as my brain fog disappeared, the other mental effects of sobriety stuck around. I continued having trouble sleeping at night, and the depression that I experienced on the third day got even worse as time went on.
One piece of good news is that the cravings got less frequent each day. By the end of the second week, I could go an hour or so without even thinking about alcohol, which felt truly remarkable at the time.
The Pink Cloud
After about two weeks sober, I woke up one day feeling better than I had in years. As miserable as withdrawal had been, I now felt like I had gone just as far in the other direction.
My depression had suddenly disappeared completely, replaced by an almost scary amount of optimism. I was thrilled and proud that I had made it two weeks without drinking, and I was excited about what was going to come next.
I thought that with drinking out of the way, it was time to start living life to the fullest. For about a month, that’s exactly what I did.
I started going out more, trying new hobbies, and learning new skills. Everything seemed to come easy and I loved doing it all. It was practically like waking up with superpowers.
I also started exercising much more regularly. I had run off-and-on a bit before getting sober, but never with any consistency. During this month, I started running three times a week, building the foundation for a hobby that I still love.
Although the pink cloud felt great, it didn’t last forever. After about a month of feeling like life was perfect, I swung back again in the other direction. I was like a pendulum just going back and forth.
I kept up with running, but most of the other positive life changes that I had made suddenly dropped away. I started to feel much more depressed again and began to question my decision to get sober.
During the pink cloud, it felt like my life had totally changed thanks to sobriety. Afterward, it felt like my life hadn’t changed at all.
I began to develop a very nihilistic attitude about sobriety. What was the point of it? Why was being alcohol-free any better than drinking myself to death? Why was I pushing myself so hard to stick with something that had barely impacted my life?
I kept up my sobriety but continued to get more depressed as the year went on. My job as a lawyer, which I had already disliked, seemed to get worse as well. I didn’t know how to cope with my stress without alcohol, so the stress built every day.
During that year, I often thought about how little sobriety seemed to be helping me. However, at the same time, I often used sobriety as an excuse not to make any positive changes in my life. I’d tell myself that quitting drinking was such a big change that I could let everything else slide.
I even went back to smoking cigarettes about two-thirds of the way into the year. I had quit cigarettes a few months before getting sober, but now I used my sobriety as an excuse to return to them. I told myself that it would help me protect my sobriety by giving me an alternative outlet for my stress. It’s a decision that I ended up regretting for years.
My first year ended with me quitting my legal job for teaching work. It was a great, long-overdue decision.
Without the stress and long hours of my job, I was able to focus on taking a healthier approach to sobriety. I stopped using it as an excuse and started making other positive life changes, such as seeing a therapist regularly.
My depression was still pretty bad during the second year, but it slowly started getting better. There’s a phenomenon in recovery called “Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome,” which I believe I was suffering from. It’s a set of secondary, mostly mental, withdrawal symptoms that last for much longer than typical acute withdrawal. Some recovering addicts report having PAWS for as long as two years.
I also continued to get cravings during my second year, but they became very infrequent. I was sometimes going for entire days without even thinking about drinking.
Near the end of this year is when I began blogging about my sobriety. It’s been a great habit that I wish I had started sooner. Writing out my thoughts helped me to clarify them.
Overall, I think of my second year sober as the year that I transitioned from struggling to enjoying my life. Over the course of the year, I got my depression in check, solidified many healthy habits, and began to finally feel comfortable with my sobriety.
Years 3 Through 5
Compared to what came before, the past three years have been a total breeze. I don’t even remember the last time that I had a craving for alcohol, and my mood has improved immensely as well. Sobriety really does get easier, but it took me a couple of years to reach that point.
These years have had their ups and downs, but when I take a step back and look at them from a macro-level, I can see relatively steady improvement in nearly every aspect of my life.
About two years ago, I managed to re-quit cigarettes, after a lot of struggling. I’ve also been exercising more than ever, and I’m in the best shape of my life, having lost over 50 pounds thanks to quitting drinking.
Sobriety has helped me to save money, improve my social life, tackle my depression, and so much more. These days, everything from my hobbies to my interpersonal relationships are thanks to having quit drinking.
What does life look like for me 1936 days after quitting drinking?
My addiction no longer rules my life. Aside from spending a little bit of time blogging about alcohol, I probably won’t think about it at all.
Today, I’m splitting my work day between tutoring LSAT students and writing. I love both of these jobs. They help me make a small difference in the world without all of the stress and anxiety that I experienced as a lawyer.
I’d also like to exercise today, but the weather’s bad, so I’ll be finding something to do indoors. Normally, I’d lift weights, but last month I got a VR headset, so I’ll probably play a fitness game on it instead.
I’ll spend tonight reading a book in Spanish and drawing, two hobbies that I never had time for back when I was a drinker. I’ll also give my girlfriend a call—a wonderful woman who is also sober and who I never would have met if I was still a daily drinker.
Today is not some super-exciting day packed with thrills. But it is a happy day, a healthy day, and an enriching day. I will go to sleep feeling satisfied with what I’ve done and excited for tomorrow. Day 1936 of sobriety is a good day.