My dog, Penny, will go to the front door, scratch it and then sit expectantly, waiting for someone to reluctantly stop the very important stuff they are doing, to go and let her out. We will open the door for her and she will sit there, sniffing, but not go out. And then, she will trot to the door to the garage and scratch there, and sit again. And we will go to that door and let her out the garage, and this time, she will go out. Both doors lead to the front yard – so no matter which door she goes through, she will end up in the same spot. And yet, she does this every day. For the last 6-7 years. If you think about it, it is rather insane. Frustrating, a cute idiosyncrasy, and absurd.
A year ago today, I started on my own journey to quit doing the same stuff, expecting, or at least hoping for, different results. After a couple of years of trying different routes, only to end up in the same place, I realized, on December 6, 2015, that I had exhausted all options and it was time to get off the hamster wheel before the nonstop insanity took me closer to disaster, or at the very least, to becoming more of who I wasn’t.
Today marks one year of an alcohol-free lifestyle. I did not set out to be a long-term teetotaler. I had simply reached the end of my rope, physically, mentally and emotionally, and I knew that my alcohol consumption was the greatest and most toxic symptom of my dis-ease. Deep-down I had known this for awhile, and as I delved deeper into mindfulness, meditation, yoga, authenticity – the cognitive dissonance became more and more apparent. In mindfulness, we practice tuning into our body, noticing stuff like fatigue, sleeplessness, restlessness, bloating, immunity issues, skin irregularities, aches, cravings, etc. We also pay attention to our emotions, with an intention to practice curious, non-judgmental, compassionate observance. Physically, my commitment to regular exercise and whole foods and high quality supplements, helped me, I guess, because there wasn’t much deterioration that I was aware of. Of course, one can only assume that on a cellular level, drinking several drinks a week starts processes only visible once the compound effect takes place. But mentally and emotionally, I knew that what I was doing, even though in many circles is considered normal and even deserved (hey, work hard, play hard, right?) was not something I could continue, without eroding my own sense of integrity, honesty, authenticity and self-compassion.
So, after having the worst momtrum of my life, which was a result of my being completely exhausted in every way – although I was completely sober when this happened, I knew that alcohol was a major factor in my exhaustion- I decided I needed to give my body, mind and soul a break. I quietly decided to “detox” by avoiding alcohol for a week or two. Not even a sip. Bill came home from his business trip, it was Friday a few days after my decision, and I declined the glass of wine he offered. I explained I didn’t want to drink for awhile, because the ugliness of five days ago still haunted me. I still didn’t know where I was going with this “detox” – how long – but I knew I would know the plan when the time was right, so in the meantime, I would abstain.
Now, keep in mind that most people who decide to abstain from alcohol (or sugar, another big source of addiction) regard starting during the holidays as impossible if not terrifying. But that is exactly what I did. That is how sick I was of myself – or rather, of the person I had become. I did at times wonder if this was the right time to start this abstaining thing, but at some point it hit me – this is the perfect time. Alcohol, which is celebrated for its ability to take off the edge, ease our stress, enhance a festive occasion, reduce inhibitions and facilitate connection – well, at this point I knew that all of this was a bunch of crap. Alcohol wants me to believe all of the above. But I was no longer believing it. I knew that to be the mom and wife and human that I want, and need to be – I need to have a clear mind, and a clear conscience. I need to be available for my loved ones. And ESPECIALLY during an important time of year such as Christmas.
About three weeks into my little detox experiment, I decided to come clean, so to speak, publicly, because of the role I play as a coach and mentor to many adults and kids. I was done with feeling like a hypocrite, wearing a running shirt that says “Kale Queen” and feeling like people were misled into believing I lead a totally healthy, balanced existence. I figured, if I share my own realization and experience, the pedestal people may have placed me upon will hopefully be knocked down, because it turns out, it’s pretty scary when you think people know you as being a certain way, they hold you to a certain standard, when you know you are not worthy of that standard. It was my way of staying authentic. Even more so, I suspected that there were (are) a lot of people just like me out there, and maybe my story will help someone else feel less alone, and perhaps even nudge them toward creating change, and getting help if they need it.
My revelation led to some pretty amazing stuff, which I guess happens when you are willing to be vulnerable, with the intention of being truthful and of service. So many of you reached out in support – so many of you said “me too! Welcome to this awesome journey!” – so many of you said “me too – I think I need help.” I created a private group on Facebook that has grown to a number I would never have expected (please let me know if you would like to join us). I started to realize that this was much more than a “detox” for me. I loved the mental clarity, I loved being available to my family. I started to explore recovery beyond simply abstaining from alcohol. Online resources such as blogs, recovery communities, as well as local meetings, and podcasts (see list below). I now have a whole shelf dedicated to books on recovery. I am in a text thread with five other women all over the country, who are on the same journey as me, and we have become like sisters.
One of the reasons I delayed facing the truth about what I needed to do to clean up my act and be the person I really am, is I was really scared that by not drinking, I was going to close off many areas of my life. I was going to reject certain parts of myself – the fun, wild, spontaneous parts. Alcohol is a huge part of our culture, and I was afraid that I was now going to be a boring teetotaler who was surely going to be a social outcast, even more of a square peg in a round hole than I already often felt. I was afraid that living in suburbia sober was about as tedious as life could get, and I would go nuts.
As I think over the past 365 days, and now, as I write the paragraph I just wrote, I cannot help but think, holy crap, Susanne, look how wrong you were! To say that my life has opened up is a gross understatement. I have met some amazing people. Every day, when I think of the people who only a year ago were not in my life, or who I knew but did not know at the time were also living in recovery – I am amazed. A lot of people who are susceptible to addiction or problematic drinking (it’s a spectrum), I am convinced, are extremely gifted – many are brilliant and have tons of energy – which when sober, will be channeled to starting businesses, non-profits, running marathons and finishing Ironman triathlons or longer. Many are extremely sensitive, so they are keenly aware of what’s going on around and within them – which when sober, can be expressed by reaching out to others through creative endeavors, and helping other lost souls find their mooring. There is something magical about being in a room, or at a table, with people who live every 24 hours with deep gratitude, and who really do their best to accept the things they cannot change, have the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The serenity is real.
I have heard there is a lot of stigma (certainly a huge amount of fear of stigma) out there about people in active addiction, as well as in recovery, which is a big reason many choose to remain anonymous. But I can tell you – if I hear that a doctor, therapist, lawyer, teacher, business person, or potential friend, is in recovery and actively working on recovery, in the way that works for them, I will probably choose them over someone else any day. I am a big fan of personal development, and I really believe that a recovery program is the best personal development program out there. A crisis is an opportunity to change, and when we embrace the opportunity, and work on recovery, which really is the less-traveled path, we are choosing to let go of mindless living, do the hard work, move through things instead of away or around them, while helping others do the same. When someone is judged, or stigmatized, for doing this, it is clearly out of lack of awareness of what it really takes to be in recovery. I don’t blame people for harboring fear (which basically is at the root of stigma). Most of what we know about addiction and recovery is the over-sensationalized trainwrecks in the media, or the relapses that end in tragedy. And, yes, those cases are real, and awful. And I hope that as more people are open about their recovery, people in general are less judgmental, and also, less afraid to ask for help. There is a lot of misinformation and misguided assumptions, regarding how to best support someone who needs or is asking for help. There also really is a huge lack of resources, and information. I have learned that when someone is ready to ask for help, the path is far from clear-cut. You can’t go into your doctor’s office and announce, “I am ready for rehab” and start the process of recovery. Well, unless you’re wealthy and/or a celebrity. For most people, it is a complicated, frustrating process, which I hope will begin to change as the awareness grows that alcohol is the most dangerous drug out there.
Something else I have learned this year, is how many shades of grey there are on the, shall we call it, problem drinking spectrum. Only about 10% of the people we would consider alcoholics are the ones you may think of as a typical alcoholic – drinking all day, life in a shambles, bankrupt or homeless, etc. The reality is that it can be much more subtle. I know of professionals, parents, in recovery, who drank maybe once a week, but often to excess and would hate themselves for the next few days. I know people who drank every day, be it one glass or five, sometimes more, sometimes less. I have come to the conclusion that since alcoholism is basically a self-diagnosed disease, and we all have such different lifestyles, biological makeup, values and priorities – if and when we decide to ask ourselves, “do I have a problem?” these are the real questions we need to ask:
When asking ourselves these questions, if we feel uncomfortable, this may be our gut telling us, look closer. I think if we try to evaluate our problem, or lack thereof, based solely or mostly on amount and frequency of consumption, we are missing the mark. We are enabling our justification to continue. The eating away at our soul is not something that can be measured in number of ounces of days of the week.
Somebody asked me the other day, how have I done it? And have I faced a lot of challenges? From the get-go, I told myself, alcohol is not an option. Just like, selling my child on Craigslist or allowing my children to dock their iPhones in their bedrooms at night. Sometimes tempting (well except for the iPhone thing), but totally off the table. The other thing that I think has been really important for me, is not to compartmentalize sobriety. When I talk health in any way, be it running, fitness, mindfulness, nutrition – I urge people to avoid compartmentalizing. If we want to become fitter, we can’t assume that a one-hour workout class followed by sitting for eight hours will do much for us – we need to move throughout the day. And let’s look at your food & drink consumption. And how you manage stress. And your sleep habits. And so on. I see my sobriety the same way. I abstain from alcohol but that is just the jumping off point – I also need to do the work to get to the root of the problem, the dis-ease, and create a framework that stops it from happening again. Life is hard, we get thrown so many challenges through incidents, circumstances, and people – and a solid recovery program helps us learn tools such as recognizing triggers, planning for known challenges, being connected with a tribe that gets us, and having the humility to accept that we are not always in control, and it’s a very courageous thing to ask for help. Alcohol is a powerful, highly addictive drug, and consuming it problematically (which, by the way, 51 million Americans do) is a symptom. When we truly live a life of recovery, which to a great degree means, prioritizing self-care, we start to move away from the person we had become, and toward the person we, deep down, really are.
Several years ago, an acquaintance on Facebook posted a status that said something like, “By the grace of God, five years today.” I suspected that must mean, sobriety. I was intrigued. A beautiful woman, a mom, always so put-together, as far as I was concerned, had it all. I thought – her??? That opened up something in me, some new level of self-awareness and inquiry. A couple of other people I know who have been sober for a few decades, would also post on their soberversaries. I was in awe, envious. Further self-awareness. A mom blogger whose theme was something like the “3 Martini Playdate” announced she was getting sober, Elizabeth Vargas came out as an alcoholic… all of these seeds were being planted and my journey of self-discovery in this area was starting to gain traction.
I am using this occasion of my first soberversary, to hopefully plant a seed in someone else’s journey. I know our culture glamorizes alcohol, and the current normal is to flaunt our alcohol consumption on social media. At the risk of being the biggest buzz kill in people’s newsfeed today, I urge you to consider that alcohol is the most addictive drug there is, and the main reason it is allowed so much freedom and publicity and legality is because it is a huge industry that makes a fortune off of people’s habits and addictions. More often than you probably realize, alcohol use leads to poor parenting, accidental deaths, diabetes, cancer, domestic abuse, violence against loved ones and against strangers, problems with the law, obesity, anxiety, depression, opiate and cocaine and other illegal drug use disorders, and all sorts of other personal and public dis-ease. I am hopeful that the tide will start to change, and more and more of the cool kids and adults will start to embrace a sober lifestyle. Many of them are – in fact, my relatively short time so far in the recovery world has given me a glimpse into a fascinating, compassionate, loving and grateful - and totally cool - world I didn’t know existed.
Below, I am listing some of the resources I would recommend to anyone who is wondering if sobriety is something they should consider, or if you are currently in recovery and want to add more tools to your kit. Please feel free to suggest others I may have left off, or haven’t come across yet.
I am deeply grateful, to all of you (you know who you are), for being incredibly supportive and generous this year. I thought I was starting out on the road less-traveled, and it turns out that I have never felt more accompanied.
Finally – I have a request of you. I started a Go Fund Me page (www.gofundme.com/sobriety-healing-recovery) specifically to help two incredible sober warriors who are struggling financially, and I want to help them attend a recovery conference that I know will be an enormous source of support for them. If you can spare $5, $50, whatever you can do, that would be amazing.
Okay, time to let the dog out.
Thank you for staying with me this far.
Drink – The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol (Ann Dowsett Johnston)
Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Breaking the Cycle and Finding Hope (Sarah Allen Benton)
Kick the Drink… Easily! (Jason Vale)
The Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous)
Websites & Some Favorite Blogs:
Women For Sobriety
Crying Out Now
The Bubble Hour
Tommy Rosen Recovery 2.0
The SHAIR Podcast
That Sober Guy Podcast
Wellness coach, athlete, mom, entrepreneur. I love helping people mindfully reboot their health & joy.