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A lot is written about this topic and even more is talked about during meetings and in therapy. But what does “emotional sobriety” really mean? Our sobriety, our recovery, our emotions and the ways we all deal with those things vary very much from person to person. Because of this, I came to believe that emotional sobriety must have a different meaning for each individual. I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist or anyone who has studied that matter. I am not a wise person, such as the Dalai Lama or somebody else in that category. I can only speak based on my personal experience and the thoughts that I have on the subject.
It is one thing to start the journey and get sober by simply thinking “Don’t drink.” But this is only the very beginning. Very quickly, cravings can set in, triggers can confront us, emotions can get overwhelming and problems can make us want to have a drink or take a drug again. At this point, I was dry but not truly sober. I understand today that my drinking was just a symptom, not the disease itself. So to get total sobriety in my mind and body, I have had to work on the whole package of misalignment, fine tuning my thoughts and my body to get better, instead of just fixing or treating one symptom.
Distraction was the magic word for me for a while. Living dry was still a bit easier than everything that I tried before as a true alcoholic and addict. It turned out for me that complete abstinence from all mind-altering substances was easier than perfect moderation, which I tried numerous times in every possible way. I had no other choice than to stop. But I did not want to be miserable all the rest of my life. I read once that mourning your abstinence from alcohol is like mourning the loss of an enemy who would happily see you die. That’s so true! I needed the distraction from the substance itself first because it was mentally and physically hard to stop. But then it was time to quit whining and do something to get better. I do not have a personality of self-pity and whining. If I don’t like my situation, I want to change it. Being dry and even being distracted was not what I wanted. Distraction at first meant being busy as a bee: running to a lot of meetings, doing lots of house work, reading a lot, going shopping, meeting sober friends, being active and being tired at night.
I learned that the true emotional sobriety in simple words is to not drink or drug, to live abstinent of mind-altering substances and to be happy about it! For me, it is also to acknowledge my feelings and to stay sober no matter what. I can tell you that I was NOT happy at all in the beginning! A relapse was waiting around each corner for me to just stumble a bit or let my guard down for a nanosecond. I had to be constantly alert of my situation, feelings and surroundings and live in the present day in order to not become vulnerable to my disease. It was a hard time. It needed a lot of awareness, a lot of concentration and even more self-honesty and willingness. Happiness looks different! I would not have survived in this stage on my own for very long. I had nightmares and daydreams. Even the strongest willpower is weak some days, and the most watchful person gets careless at moments. It was very important at this early stage of recovery for me to go to many, many meetings and daily intensive outpatient therapy to keep me on my toes. I did everything that was suggested and took my recovery seriously. I knew I had to change or die!
“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.”
I was totally certain that I would never laugh again in my life at the beginning. I thought I would never be happy again, never be with friends again and never do anything that is any fun. For the sake of living, I was almost ready to accept this hopeless stage of frustration and depression for the rest of my days. I wanted to live, not to die.
But then I learned another way. There were lot of things that happened to me during my therapy sessions and meetings. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about why I was drinking and got to see my immaturity in life’s situations compared with a lack of coping skills. In treatment, I learned many tools, and people told me how to get more inner peace and stability. Re-building my spiritual relationship with my higher power also gave me more calmness and confidence as well as trust, honesty, love and respect toward others AND myself. My meetings helped me to make peace with my past and taught me what honesty is all about in this process. I learned to use DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) and how to live in the present. I learned to accept and tolerate feelings, even if I think they are bad. I allow today myself to be angry. It is ok. I do not have to react to it but I can tolerate it. I sometimes today even can laugh about myself in that situation, if I look at it from an outside perspective. I can be sad without gliding into a depression and into a drink. You may have heard someone say that the good thing about your sobriety is that you can feel now and that the bad thing about your sobriety is that you can feel now. This takes a little practice to handle and is a bit confusing at times. I had help to sort it out and still need help sometimes.
Yes, I grew up, but that happened only lately! I learned things that some people may know as a child but I was missing out on them. My life was in shambles with little fragments of good and bad that I could not piece together myself. It was an unsolvable puzzle of catastrophes, health problems, pains, tribulations, sorrows, fun and life. Whenever I got hold of a positive piece of joy or happiness in that pile, I held onto it and tended to ignore the rest for a while and brush problems under the carpet. I had to sort my life pieces, put them together to make peace with them and let go of the past. We can dust ourselves off and start a new life today. I keep the experiences from the past with me but leave their weight behind me. It is a very long process! I really missed out on certain behaviors. I was a child with a key around my neck at age 11. I lost my mother at age 14 to alcoholism, and my father was seldom home due to his job. I raised myself, only did my will, moved out at age 18 and was a fighter all my life. I had to fight for everything that I needed and wanted. The more I had, the more I wanted. I did not feel content a single day.
Do you know that feeling of sleepless nights? When you are tired and want to sleep, but the hamster in your head keeps running in his wheel like crazy? At some times, I could not get a complete sentence of a thought together. My mind kept bouncing around in subjects, in worries and in headaches. Five topics fought in my head over priority status, and it felt like a stampede from all directions. Alcohol or drugs made a temporary peace up there. The phrase “What if” seemed to be my favorite start of a thought at the time. My fantasy was endless, my worries grew often into panic attacks and my anxiety was limitless. I found out that many alcoholics and addicts have the same problem. All of a sudden, I was afraid of situations that will never occur. But I thought long enough about them that I manipulated my own head to believe they would come true. Fear sets in, and my solution was to seek any kind of substance that deleted or postponed the thoughts. When I became sober, my head still did the same things to me, and I had no remedies in liquid form to stop it. I needed to learn a different way to get control over my own thoughts and feelings.
Today I know that I better stay in the present and not worry what is going on in the future. I have to care about what I am doing today. Today I want to stay sober, be a little bit better person every day, strive for true happiness and try to help others. If I don’t try to be happy and joyous today, why should I want it tomorrow? Today is a great day for it and for everything! As I discovered, there is happiness in my new life, and it even exceed all my imagination and everything I had before. I got really excited about learning more and practicing it.
My recovery required a whole new way of thinking. At first, I thought of nothing but pushing the thought of a craving away and distracting myself from having a drink or drug. Today I try to deal with it, whatever might cause me to crave. I do not white knuckle through my addiction. I have accepted that it is there and that I will have to live with it until the end of my life. This acceptance was hard. But my focus changed. Today I am happy to HAVE a life! I am very truly grateful for that. I am not upset or mad that I have to spend it without drinking, drugging or pills. The obsession seems to be gone, at least for today. I do my best not to let it wake up again.
There is another big thing that helped me to deal with my emotions and get me to some emotional sobriety. I learned a way to rethink my expectations at times. This includes expectations I have toward myself and toward other people. First off, I always wanted to be perfect. Perfectionism is a killer. When I catch myself today with a thought like that, I remind myself that I am only a human being and I can and should make mistakes. Second, I cannot expect anything great from other people. I have no influence over them. I have to stop manipulating things into my direction and don’t expect too much from others. Both situations make me angry, and anger is threatening to my emotional stability and sobriety. I used to be very flexible when things went exactly my way. Today I accept that others have a right to do things how they want to, whether I like it or not. Most of my life I have thought that I am truly a genius and that others who don’t think like me must be stupid. I know today that it is not that way. And I can accept today when somebody has a different opinion without judging somehow his mental capability. Besides that, I tried my best over the years to destroy more brain cells than most people. How can I ever imagine that there is enough left to be of any intelligence? Today I always say that I have two brain cells left, and on lucky days they both work at the same time.
Furthermore, honesty plays a big role. You may have read “To thine own self be true” in Hamlet or at meetings. I have to be truly myself and honest to myself in order to be happy. If I wear a mask or lie to myself, I face discrepancies about who I am and who I want to be. I try today to be happy with who I am and where I am in my life. I feel that I deserve it. I am even totally OK being an alcoholic and addict and I admit it in public. I do not have to hide it. It is not contagious, even though it is a disease. It does not make me to a second class human. I can be proud not to drink or drug.
Honesty toward others is also a milestone. If I do not lie, I do not have to feel guilty at night. I do not fight with my pillow at night about things I have done today. I feel comfortable. But you must decide for yourself if you want to be open with your recovery in public or want to keep it to yourself. There is no right answer on what is better. I chose my way and I am happy with it.
I consider freedom to be part of my emotional sobriety today. I reached a freedom from drugs, alcohol and self. I am finally free to do what I want to do. I can go anywhere without shame or guilt, drive a car at any given time, and be free to make choices without my brain being permanently in a fog and dealing with illusions. I have a choice in the morning to drink or not to drink. Some years ago, there was no choice, no freedom. I had to drink! Today I choose not to drink and I hope it stays like this for a long time. But I do not worry about tomorrow. I do not drink today at this moment and this is the only important thing. If I do one day make a wrong decision on this choice, I will lose my freedom, my choices, my honesty, my emotions, my sobriety, my happiness, my joy and a lot more. I will immediately go back to experiencing shame, guilt, headaches, sleeplessness, worries, sorrows, pain, catastrophes, fights and a lot more. This is not a good choice in my opinion. My thoughts and my emotions tell me clearly to leave it as is and stay sober.
I am very far away from reaching any kind of perfection in my tools. But as I explained before, I don’t need perfection today. I am happy about the progress I make each day. There is much more to emotional sobriety that may not have entered my way of thinking yet and I am looking forward to discovering all that in the years to come. This article could be endless as there are so many little things that can contribute to emotional sobriety. I am happy to learn and I know that this process never finishes. What I shared today with you is only my personal experience up to my stage today. I feel very comfortable in my sobriety. My highs are not so high anymore and my lows are by far not so low. I work like a little pendulum and try to find a middle ground with little bounces and avoid reaching the edges anymore. I am still often overrun by my feelings but I just try to remember how I was taught to keep the bounce within limits. I always want to be five steps ahead of my game in my life, in my job and in everything. But sometimes it is better to stand still or even to step back and look. Practice gives happiness! I try to be mindful and avoid an emotional supernova. I would rather deal every day with a little here and a little there and avoid a big bang.
Emotional sobriety is a great gift. But as with everything else in recovery, it did not come just flying to me without effort. I had to work for it. Praying is great. I pray a lot too. But if I sit in a closet I can pray hours and hours for ice cream. The chances that I get one there are pretty small. I better get up and go DO something. I have to work to get my ice cream. It took time, effort, willingness, honesty and giving a lot of myself to be where I am today. But everything was worth it! The bad fight is over when this situation is reached. Enjoy your new sober life. It can be wicked at times, but I love my terrific new existence on Earth. I try to make the best out of every day and walk positively through life. I hope you can make the decision to walk that path with me now. Please don’t hesitate any longer to ask for help. So many places and people are waiting to help you. I will be glad to help you choose one, if you call or write. It’s free, confidential and efficient. Use the ‘Contact’ link above for your first step into a better future and toward emotional sobriety and peace of mind. 23 million people need help each year for addiction, but only 3 million actually seek any treatment. Don’t be one of the 20 million who don’t seek help due to the stigma, shame or guilt. You deserve it. Your life is important! My friends and I here at Heroes in Recovery will be glad to assist you to find your way to it.“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”
~ Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray