The Fix // By Victor Yocco
Getting sober is one of the hardest things you can do. Staying sober is even harder. Most alcohol abusers hit some type of bottom before gaining the motivation to attempt a sober life. This temporary jolt doesn’t mean people will maintain motivation over the long term. We see that in the frequently cited National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism statistic showing an up to 90% relapse rate in the four years following treatment.
I’ve accomplished four years of sobriety as of this April. While I’m still considered early in my sobriety, I’ve done the past four years completely dry. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve needed the help of in-person and virtual support groups, peers, family members, and counselors to make it this far.
I scoured the Internet for information on sobriety before making my leap to alcohol abstinence. I occasionally came across guidance mentioning you have to choose sobriety for yourself. Do it for yourself if you want sobriety to work out, I’d read on a blog post or comment. Of course, I thought, who else am I doing it for? But I was lying to myself. I knew from my many previous false attempts at sobering up that I had never done it for myself.
There were a number of occasions I found myself on the wrong side of women I was dating after an alcohol fueled argument. Sometimes things would get so bad they would threaten to leave me. My codependency would kick in. There was no way I could live without a girlfriend. Being single sounded worse than being sober. So, I’d do something to make it seem as if I wanted to make amends for my drunken behavior: something like attend an AA meeting; something like drinking water instead of beer on a weeknight. These things looked like a big deal to outsiders. Like I was trying hard to be a better person.
There’s a huge difference between attending AA and swearing off drinking for a month because you’ve hurt someone, and going to AA and swearing off drinking because you see no other options in life. When I swore off drinking in the past I was motivated by fear and guilt. Fear of losing the people in my life. Guilt because I had done something to hurt a loved one. But my loved ones would eventually forgive me. The fear went away as soon as I made amends. The guilt went away as soon as I started drinking again.
I always found a way to go back to drinking. That was my plan: I wasn’t quitting to find a better life, I was quitting to find a way to get back to my old drinking life. My mindset was focused on the temporary nature of the sobriety. I wanted to reduce the chaos my drinking had created, so I read material on sobriety and I acted sincere. I might even occasionally trick myself into thinking I was really changing for the better.
But I had no intention of staying sober, only of proving I could be a decent sober person in order to go back to being a terrible drunk person.
Most of the times I quit drinking I had a pre-determined date I intended to start again. Towards the end of my drinking, I’d tell my fiancée I’d quit drinking for a week if I said something mean. I’d offer 30 days sober if I did something extremely terrible while drunk. My mindset was not about getting sober for myself; I was focused on manipulating others with my temporary sobriety.
It wasn’t until my successful attempt at sobriety I realized what doing it for yourself means. I gave up drinking four years ago because I didn’t see any alternative. My relationships were in a state of turmoil; yes, I wanted to save them. My work life was in turmoil; yes, I wanted to save my job. My health was deteriorating and I was frequently blacking out; yes, I wanted to feel better. But I was stopping drinking to save myself. For me, doing it for myself meant getting sober, no strings attached. I no longer felt I could control the outcomes with my relationships, work, and health.
How did I do it for myself? Looking back, I see that what happened was I stopped making “if-then” statements. I stopped saying: if I stop drinking then my girlfriend will forgive me. If I stop drinking for 30 days then I can start drinking again. I don’t think I consciously said I was becoming sober for myself, but I hit bottom and naturally lost all other reasons for seeking sobriety. Saving my life became the only reason: If I don’t stop drinking then I will die.
Fear played a pivotal role, initially keeping me from getting sober for myself. I was afraid of what change would look like. I was afraid of leaving my old life, old friends, and old hangouts. I had this same fear tenfold when I realized I had to get and stay sober. I had to find a way past this fear in order to succeed at sobriety.
This isn’t the part where I tell you how to get over your fear and just do it. All I felt was fear as I truly accepted sobriety for the first time. I was afraid of the consequences of becoming sober and I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t. I no longer thought there was a way to continue my drinking. Fear consumed me.
Fear is an evil thing. If you’re like me, fear manifests itself physically. You might feel a ball of anxiety tightly wound in your stomach. You might have thoughts of loss too distracting to let you focus on your work. You might drink coffee and smoke cigarettes till 3 a.m. and then get up at 6 a.m. to start it all over again.
I didn’t lose my fear in order to become sober. In fact, fear didn’t leave my body and mind for the first months of my sobriety. As time progressed, fear of being sober was replaced by fear of losing sobriety. The longer I was sober, the more I feared losing sobriety and the good things that came with it.
Fear eventually left me as I began to have a better life all around. I first noticed I felt less fear one Saturday morning a little over two months into my sobriety. I was walking to an AA meeting and I planned to have breakfast with a few members afterward. Yet another Saturday waking up without a hangover. Even better, another Saturday I wasn’t forced to apologize to a friend or loved one for what I had done the night before. I appreciated life in a new way. I wanted to keep this life.
Later, I sat eating breakfast with my newfound peers. I realized how much I’d changed over a few months, how my thoughts had shifted from what I was losing to what I was gaining. I realized that I finally understood what doing it for yourself means. I had to stop holding on to my old way of life before I could become sober for myself. I had to stop putting expectations on the outcomes of sobriety. This allowed me to open up to receive the true rewards sobriety brings.
I agree with the advice I read: You do need to get sober for yourself, not someone else. We each make decisions where we often have an intended outcome; we want to control others and have them act a certain way. Entering sobriety with the expectation you are making up for something wrong you’ve done is not doing it for yourself. Letting go of this expectation is a major step in embracing sobriety for yourself. You will still have to face fear and uncertainty at each step. But you can overcome fear as you mature in sobriety and realize the power doing it for yourself gives you.