What led you to get sober? I know it’s often complicated.
It is complicated. The number one reason was mental health. My biological father was an alcoholic; we were estranged for decades because he was going through his own stuff. My dad’s father died by suicide on my dad’s birthday when he was young, which of course created a lot of mental health issues for my father. That impacted my life, in that I experienced some trauma through him and later through a stepfather.
I was reconnecting with my dad over the phone during the 2019 holidays, then in late February 2020 I got a call telling me he was on life support. The week my sister and I made the decision to take my dad off life support, my workplace made it mandatory to work from home. I was living alone at the time.
I had already planned to quit drinking; what helped it stick was knowing myself well enough to know that if I drank while isolated, with a job that was stressing me out, while the world was falling apart and I was grieving my dad’s death, it wouldn’t be good.
I had been in therapy for several years while still drinking; it delayed my ability to internalize the new concepts I was getting. The therapist I’m with now—who I didn’t start seeing until shortly before the pandemic—told me it would be a lot easier to recover from all the other stuff I have going on if I stopped drinking.
One of the core parts of my therapy work has been knowing that you cannot run away from feelings. It comes down to how you’re treating trauma. I think some of that’s systemic; some of it is the previous stigmatization of mental health, which thankfully is getting a lot better.
Yeah, I really appreciate the way the mental health conversation is going. Someone else I interviewed talked about having compassion for your former self, because drinking was the only tool you knew at the time. Using substances changes your brain in some cases, but I think the core of it is the trauma and self-medicating.
Yeah, absolutely, elements of your brain change. In therapy we talk about how when drinking, it’s much easier to trigger the fight-or-flight response. The part that does logical forethought and decision-making shuts down. You’re living mostly on instinct.
What would you consider your recovery program?
Right now my recovery looks like a therapist, and I’m on antidepressants and as-needed anxiety medication. I was on them prior to drinking, but those continue. The other thing that helped upfront was the medication naltrexone. It cuts off certain receptors in your brain that tell you alcohol is pleasurable. It allowed me to be more mindful of the negative aspects, which helped motivate me when I was tapering off.
Meditation is a big part of my support circle. That practice helps me be mindful when I’m having cravings, or when I don’t know why I’m upset.
There was a point where I was searching for validation from not just my therapist, and the Sober in Baltimore group helped. I also recommend the “stop drinking” subreddit. It’s a lot of the concepts you and I just talked about with being kinder to your past self—a more modern perspective on addiction recovery. When you read stories from people who have experienced horrible cravings or night sweats, but they’re talking about it on the other side of them, that’s huge.
What are some of the biggest internal changes you’ve noticed since you got sober?
Emotional regulation is huge. Distress tolerance is another big one. My distress tolerance was shit. It ruined relationships before.
I’m going to note that it’s not perfect; even in sobriety I have issues with that. But it’s less frequent, and the recovery time is much quicker. You catch yourself catastrophizing. The stuff that I would get caught up in until I was so upset, I didn’t know what to do besides drink it away.
And believe it was truth, not just what your brain is coming up with.
Yeah, “This is just the facts.” I think Demi Lovato said it best when she said that she’s California Sober, but that doesn’t mean the growing part is over. The growing part is never over.
That’s really hopeful to me. It feels more hopeful than, you get to a certain amount of time sober and you’ve figured it all out.
Oh absolutely, one of the things we talk about in therapy is expectations and how that creates upset. I don’t think it’s real to assume I’m going to reach a destination called “happiness” and then stay there as long as no one pulls me out of it. That comes and goes.
Yeah, exactly. One time a couple years ago, my therapist pointed out that once I got the thing I thought would give me ultimate happiness, the target always changed. She was like, “You have a growth mindset and it helps you in that way, but also recognize that there’s not going to be one thing that makes you happy forever.”
Yeah, growth mindset isn’t a bad thing, but if it transforms into perfectionism—or this belief that you should never stop and appreciate the good going on around you—that’s a pitfall. If I had had meltdowns and didn’t stop to think about what was different from the last time, I would have never stopped spiraling. Like, “Oh, this is just my divorce all over again.” It’s like, “No, what did you do differently this time?”
What was it like getting sober at the start of the pandemic?
That first week was so overwhelming, I kind of lost my mind. Animal Crossing had just come out, and I brought my friends together in a Facebook group. The first month I got sober, Animal Crossing was like my quarantine version of inpatient rehab. I’d have virtual therapy with my actual therapist, then check in on improving my island and see an actual friend or two come through the virtual airport to visit me.
But those first couple weeks were intense in terms of emotions, and my body was so used to drinking that not drinking was wild. I could tell my body was like, “I mean we’re repairing, but shit’s gonna be wild for a minute while we fix everything.” But it did progressively start to feel better, and the cravings for the most part dwindled.
I imagine a lot of people in recovery feel like they’ve transformed. I certainly do. Not to say I’m a totally different person per se, but I’m a version of myself I’m happier to see out here. I’ve healed and I’m still healing. I notice I’m not reactive; I’m proactive. That is where I notice growth—and it’s what keeps the fire lit for staying sober.