Reflections on 3 years sober
Three years ago today, I had my last drink. Well…last eight drinks. My dad always said, “If you don’t know when your last drunk was, you haven’t had it yet.” He was right. And I knew June 25, 2013 was it.
I was a year-and-a-half in to a serious, professionally-aided attempt at getting sober after nearly 10 years of alcohol abuse (with 5 years of alcohol dependency). The beginning of getting sober was hell. Learning to live sober was so much more difficult than simply keeping alcohol out of my mouth. Sober-me didn’t know how to sleep, how to eat, how to cope with any emotions, how to connect with other people, what to do with my time or my hands, how to combat the PTSD nightmares and hypervigilance, and the list goes on. I literally could not function without alcohol.
Once I got to the point where I couldn’t live with or without alcohol, I sought professional help. And I’d get a few weeks without drinking, but inevitably something would come up—nightmares of being sexually abused as a child, flashbacks of rape, feeling abandoned by friends, rejection by family—and the only way I knew how to cope was to drink. But I was in therapy and committed to getting healthy, so I kept trying to learn new ways to cope and to heal.
It wasn’t so much about ending an addiction (the physical withdrawals subsided after about a week) as it was about learning to live with myself and in this world. I had to learn to live with my pain—to be able to tolerate it—without trying to make it go away. And interestingly, in doing so, it did end up going away. With sobriety, I learned that pain comes and goes in waves, and in between, lies great joy. But in numbing pain with booze, it never went away—I just couldn’t feel it. And that was the hardest part about getting sober—it wasn’t not drinking, it was holding onto pain. Which is much easier said than done—I mean who wants to hold onto pain? That just sounds awful.
But it’s not awful, not all the time at least. When numbing pain, I numbed out everything, but now I can experience so deeply all the beautiful things in life and love. And one year into recovery, I met my life partner.
We fell in love fast. So fast that I kept telling my therapist, “This must be a red flag, right?” But it was more like a white flag—I finally surrendered to being vulnerable enough to let someone see the real me. And on the day of my last drunk, my partner came home after a day out of town, and I looked at her and felt nothing. I had no desire to hug her or ask her how her day was. My usual anticipation for her return and excitement upon her arrival was dead. I couldn’t feel love. And that’s when I knew that I’d rather feel pain and love than nothing at all. And that was it, I never drank again (again, much easier said than done).
Being the stubbornly, frustratingly, independent person I am, I never wanted to think that it took finding romance to get sober because “you should be able to live a healthy happy life without any help from anyone! You’re all you need!” said my stubbornly, frustratingly, independent mind. But it wasn’t finding romance that helped me get sober, it was finding someone who saw me for who I am and loved me anyway, someone who invested their time in my well-being. And it wasn’t just my partner who contributed to this—I had friends, family, and healthcare professionals invested in my healing, and eventually the balance shifted to the benefit of those relationships outweighing the benefit of numbing my pain.
But it wasn’t just finding those relationships—because what about all the people struggling with addiction who have loving families? Are their families not meaningful and supportive enough to be worth getting sober for? No, I think for me it was more about learning to be vulnerable enough—and knowing I’m worthy enough—to feel the love that was always there, including a love for myself. A big part of my addiction was intentional self-destruction, and that was never going to go away—no matter how many wonderful supportive people were in my life—until I learned to love and respect my own body. Which again came back to being able to acknowledge and hold my pain. Because ultimately, I got sober for myself. I got sober because I wanted to feel love, not because I wanted to give love—which may sound selfish, but we’re all worthy of that. And the giving part came with time.
I agree with Austin Eubanks, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine school shooting, who suffered with years of addiction:
“I’m not contesting the value of 12 steps and I’m not saying that addiction is not a disease, but I’m saying that you have to approach it from a position of empowerment to create a life for yourself that is so great you can’t imagine going back to using substances. Without that, relapse is much more common.”
Unfortunately, creating that wonderful life for yourself can be nearly impossible for people who are trapped in cycles of abuse, poverty, incarceration, and other traumas, and I am so grateful that I had the privilege and the resources to create a fulfilling life for myself. I hope that part becomes easier for more people, but for now, all I can say is that there is hope to living a meaningful sober life and it’s worth fighting for.
Apryl Pooley is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, researching the effects of trauma on the brain and author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir