The morning after my last drink brought with it both a mammoth sized hangover, and an impossible to ignore, starving sensation of wanting. I had relapsed from my first, short-lived attempt at sobriety, and I was waking (dead for the most part) after an 8 month bender that could put Betty Ford to shame.
I wanted to never feel that awful again. I wanted to stop having to beat myself up every morning over my weakness the night before. I wanted to stop once and for all the lying about how I “wasn’t ever going to drink again.” I wanted to be in control of my actions and my decisions, for a change. I wanted off the ride that was only making me sick, over and over – and over – again. I wanted all the losses and hurts to stop. I wanted everything to cease being so hard, because I was always so drunk. I wanted to stop wanting all of this.
Every. Damn. Morning.
I had finally reached the decisive tipping point of wanting freedom more than I was willing to deal with the suffering that came with addiction. I was finally willing to do the hard work (whatever that was, because at this point I wasn’t too sure) – and change.
No matter what it involved. No matter how uncomfortable. If I didn’t change, I was going to either have a stroke, have an accident, or take my own life – physically or figuratively. I was 8 months into my relapse, and life was again starting to feel like I was racing full speed ahead towards a busy intersection and not sure if I wanted to slam on the brakes, or just fly headlong into and under the transport trucks in my path.
And yet, every time, I’d hit the brakes just in time.
I’d hit the brakes because somewhere, something inside me, however small, was still conscious and beating hard enough to know that I didn’t really want to die.
All I really wanted, was to change.
And the most important ingredient for change is willingness. Change is born from the very core of dissatisfaction. Change comes from that place where you want something more than what you already have or what you are getting. This also helps to explain why I relapsed so very magnificently.
What I always wanted most was the temporary pleasure that drinking gave me, and I kept ordering it like it was my favourite appetizer before the same meal every night, knowing full-well it was going to poison me and leave me ill just like it always did. The alcohol always won when it came to what I wanted more, because there was nothing I wanted more than the fastest route to blackout possible.
The next most important ingredient for change is inspiration.
Throughout my drinking career, I was seldom in the company of the sober. Barely anyone in my family drinks (other than my Dad and Uncle, both of whom are dead now – ironic), and only a handful of my close friends drink at the gold-medal-Olympic-level that I did. However, my social circuit still flowed religiously on bubbles of Prosecco and bottles of Becks.
What I needed was to be in the company of the recovered, not simply the sober, or those bizarre anomaly’s of nature who are somehow able to moderate (I swear they are aliens). I didn’t have access to that intimate, life changing inspiration from others in recovery, the kind who can see your spark and pour their own success story on it like fuel to ignite you. I sought them out in books and podcasts, AA and Refuge Recovery rooms, and by lifting rocks wherever I could to see if maybe the right person or idea was hiding there waiting for me, but I kept coming up empty.
I needed someone or something outside of myself to help put my recovery into practical action, as though I had been reading how-to books on swimming but had never stepped foot in a pool.
“I did it, and so can you” are possibly the 7 most inspiring, motivational words you can string together, especially for a despairing addict. I needed someone to come along and hand me that seed, but I also needed to open myself up to the very attainable possibility that I could grow into sobriety just as they had, too.
I needed the wanting, the willingness, and the inspiration to come together in one powerfully decisive moment of desire and courage, like a trio of superheroes ready to swoop down and carry me to safety. I was stranded, and I needed all three of them to arrive and coordinate my rescue.
Post-Rehab / Pre-Relapse
When I came home from rehab in the winter of 2017, I truly felt as though I was doing it alone. It was impossible for me to feel any other way about it – I was being handled with white gloves and people started tip-toeing around me because I went to rehab, and because I have a problem – it was hard to feel anything other than different from everybody else.
Looking back now, I’m sure it was all in my head.
My close friends and family were encouraging and supportive, but I always felt outside of the tribe. I was unofficially the sober pariah, sitting on the sidelines. There was always that one thing separating me from all of them: the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have a drink.
In the same way I had no control over my drinking, I now felt as though I had no control over my not drinking. As we never really got to the why of my drinking in rehab, they sent me on my way with one very specific rule, and that was simply that I was not allowed to drink.
Leaving rehab left me feeling as though my new normal meant I had to go without, and from that day on I’d forever be window shopping, but never buying. Socializing with friends felt like showing up to the party with a contagious disease; I may have arrived, but I probably shouldn’t have been there, and no one really wanted me near them anyhow. This probably isn’t how everyone else saw things, but it’s how I felt them. Everything felt like a sacrifice. A sacrifice that I was making by not drinking, or a sacrifice that everyone else was making in my honour, by not drinking around me.
That was a recipe for disaster, and disaster it surely became.
As long as I felt that I was doing this alone without any real accountability, and that I was making a sacrifice and going without – it was only a matter of time before I started drinking again with the thirst of a man long lost in the desert. You can only chase a carrot that’s been dangling in front of you for so long until you eventually stop running, grab the damned thing and slam ‘er back like Thanksgiving Dinner. My entire sobriety was being propelled by willpower, and the propellers were tired and starting to get jammed.
I had been sailing fatefully through sobriety like the Titanic, and I was heading straight for an iceberg.
I sank 8 weeks later.
One of these days, I’ll fill in the gaping 240 day hole in this blog about my relapse (short story: insert at least 960 bottles of wine, true story) because I think it’s as important to understand where things went wrong, as it is to celebrate everything that went right.
This Time Around
I’ve never been more grateful for such a crippling hangover in my life than I am of my last and final one on February 4, 2018. I certainly know how to go out with a bang, even though I had no idea it was my final performance of Leaving Las Vegas, Shawn Edition. I quite literally drank myself to the point of my body and soul demanding sobriety or else.
I’m grateful because it brought with it the sincere wanting and willingness to change. It also stamped itself in my memory the same way as if I been hit by a speeding car and left for dead or trampled by ten thousand running bulls in Pamplona. You know, the sort of life-changing thing you don’t simply just forget about.
The kind of thing that leaves a scar.
I had officially grown tired of my own bullshit, and I believe my relapse was absolutely necessary since my first attempt at sobriety was thrown together with unsustainable pieces that never really matched up. Without my relapse, I would never have arrived at the point of desperate sincerity that I did that. The point where I finally learned that my success could never be built on willpower and feelings of going without, but needed to grow from a place of wanting better.
Wanting better more than I wanted a drink.
The Right Kind of Wanting
My first attempt at sailing the sober seas, I did indeed want to change – but it was more out of a hope for redemption than it was an aching desire to live fully. And, there’s an important difference. The former was hoping for and grasping at the forgiveness of others, and the latter was
wantingneeding to forgive myself. It’s cliché, but my first attempt at getting sober (where I failed gloriously) I was doing it for everyone else. I was doing it for all the people I had hurt, as a demonstration of my commitment to no longer being everyone’s round-the-clock handful.
This time around, I wanted more than anything to finally be introduced to my authentic self. To be whole-hearted and fully alive, so that whatever I put my head and my heart into (like this blog), I was putting all of it in. If I could get to that point, I could finally become someone who doesn’t need forgiveness or approval, because there’s no room for self-destruction in authenticity, unless it’s in the tearing down of all the parts of you that aren’t you. It comes with it’s share of messes, when all those complicated real parts of you start spilling out – but as they say – better out than in.
My best advice: be sure you are doing this for yourself first. In taking care of yourself, you can better take care of literally everything. It’s not selfish, it’s shameless. And there is no room for shame in recovery.
Writing My Way Right
I penned my days through rehab like a child writing home from summer camp, then stowed it all away like my dirty little secret the day that I left. One of the most ill-fated mistakes I made was overlooking how journalling was in fact the most effective medicine for me and the closest I had found to a cure outside of meditation and mindfulness. This time, I’ve kept writing. I write like I need it to keep my heart pumping and to keep my blood flowing. It’s become as much a part of my day and recovery regime as breathing air and drinking water. I’ve found true accountability to myself and all of you, which is both inspiring and motivating. When I stopped writing last year, I always had one eye on the emergency exit, knowing I could relapse quietly without anyone knowing, slipping out the side door where no one could see.
This blog keeps me honest.
My best advice: find something that keeps you accountable and keeps you moving through recovery. Never become complacent in your sobriety, as that’s the first step down a very slippery slope.
I Did It, And So Can You
Accountability is critical because it makes me want to show up – for myself, for everyone who wants me to succeed wildly, and for everyone who just like me was looking for someone to hand them a seed and say “I did it, and so can you.”
I’ve thrown myself into recovery like it’s my full-time job. In my opinion, there is no other way, especially at the beginning.
Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.
– Ron Swanson, Parks & Recreation
I’ve chewed through the memoirs of countless alcoholics, and joined as many online support groups as possible. I’ve hunted down my mentors and favourite authors and follow them everywhere on social media as though they’re my daily bread. I try and give as much energy and attention to my sobriety as I did to my drinking, and try and dedicate time each day to support others on the journey along with me. I treat recovery like going to the gym or working out: you will never build stronger muscles if you don’t use them.
And, I’ve found workout partners. Others just like myself on this road of recovery – some at 3 days sober and others at 300 days, or 30 years. Being inspired by, and inspiring others, has remedied the fault in my approach the first time around. I feel the absolute opposite of alone. I’ve been adopted into a massive family of warriors to learn from, share with, and support in both directions. It truly has become a family, and the fear of disappointing my family trumps any drink I could have.
Having a 24-7, round the clock lifeline to celebrate with and support, is in my opinion, better than any room you can sit in once or twice a week.
My best advice: find your tribe and dance with them daily.
Permission & Preparation
Lastly, (I know, this is such a long post) I found a method that works for me. Just like the same outfit doesn’t look good on everyone, the varied paths and roads to recovery aren’t designed for every vehicle. I had to find a method that makes sense to me, a system that just clicks – and I found it through Annie Grace’s “This Naked Mind” and her 30 Day Alcohol Experiment. I was able to transform my belief that I wasn’t allowed to drink into whole-heartedly not wanting to drink. I turned all my unconscious cravings on their head and rationalized the shit out of them, calling them out as the liars they are, and demoting them below the growing list of everything I truly wanted.
And that list is filled with things I know without a doubt I want more than any drink.
This time around, I have given myself permission to drink, and in doing so put myself in the driver’s seat. And now that I know I can have the drink if I chose to, it makes it that much easier to simply choose not to. We always want most what we can’t have. The magic happened when I was learned (with some stumbling, practice and consistency) how easy it is to justify my way out of a craving, and it always comes back to asking myself the same question that kickstarted my newly sober life: what do I want more?
Did I want a drink more than I was willing to deal with the waves of getting tired, frustrated with myself, losing control and blacking out, to wake up flooded with regret and a hangover? Did I want a drink more than I wanted to make myself proud? Did I want a drink more than I was willing to abandon my accountability to myself, my family, my friends? Did I want a drink more than I was willing to be a hypocrite?
The answer is always a loud and confident no.
I had to unravel literally every belief I had (and didn’t know I had) about alcohol in order to get to this point, and it’s the most important work I’ve done. I meet every thought and every urge with the question: Is what I’m thinking true? And how can I know if it’s really, actually true, or just something I believe to be true? The more I do this, the more
surprised overwhelmed I am to discover how many false-truths about alcohol and drinking culture I carry with me.
My best advice: know without a doubt your non-negotiables, and ask yourself with every craving if you’re willing to give into it more than you want what made you stop drinking in the first place.
The glaring difference between last year’s short-lived and unstable sobriety and this time around is that my first attempt wasn’t sustainable. It was built on willpower which inevitably runs out. It was built on isolation and sacrifice, both of which bring depression and gut-churning feelings of going without. It was built using the same bricks I used to imprison myself in addiction. It was built on the wrong reasons, and because of that, of course it all collapsed in on itself.
This time, I’m not going without or making a sacrifice – I’m getting rid of alcohol.
This time, I’m not alone – I’m immersed and involved.
This time, I’m not wishing for the best – I’m demanding it, and making it happen.
This time, I’m not doing it for the forgiveness of others – I’m doing it for my own acceptance of myself.
This time, I’m not just dipping my toes in – I’m diving deep.
This time, I’m reminding myself every single day, with every passing craving, how badly I wanted my sobriety before I made it happen.
And I’m more certain than ever before that I want to keep this feeling of being sober and in control more than any drink you could ever give me. I’ve turned the benefits of my sobriety into a currency that I’m unwilling to spend, especially on bottles that only leave me drowning in emotional debt.
This time around I’m not only saving all those emotional dollars, but I’m finally saving myself.