That I got sober at 22, and that it stuck, is still a little surprising to me five years later. Most of my partying occurred on a liberal arts college campus tucked away in Connecticut, and when I tried to continue that radically permissive lifestyle six months after (barely) graduating, it failed beautifully. Sobriety didn’t happen in one fell swoop, but over those six months of slipping: cue demoralization, despondence, and despair. This is not meant to be a cautionary tale, but rather, an exploration of that first year: its confusing messiness and simultaneous clarity. I was mostly curious about what life would look like when I wasn’t hijacked by the pursuit of substances at each moment of every day. I see what I learned and what I’d do differently. My sober time (>5 years) now surpasses the number of years that I used (~4.5 years), and the longer I keep at it, the more I realize certain recovery slogans resonate, while others feel irrelevant and require a kind of precise unlearning. “Take what you like, and leave the rest,” is one of my favorites. Sober living isn’t easy, but it’s easier than the runaway train of using and its inevitable wreckage.
From Unmanageability To Sobriety
I woke up in Bellevue in July 2013 after yet another blackout episode, thinking I’d discreetly slip out of the hospital gown and vow to never, ever, end up in this scenario again. It was my fourth drinking-related ER visit in four years, and it felt like Groundhog Day. I’d rationalize each trip by saying I should’ve eaten more beforehand or hung out with the friends who would’ve put me to bed instead of calling 911. The pattern of involuntary institutional visits didn’t indicate a problem to me until the Bellevue intake person suggested I check in instead of having my parents pick me up that night. With dramatic hand gestures and mascara running down my cheeks, I pleaded to be released but there was a was a moment of grace in which I knew something had to change; I checked in and experienced my first seven days sober for the first time in over five years. I felt a kind of freedom in having no access to my purse, which carried my then-sacred accoutrements: a small plastic bottle of booze, a glass pipe, some pot, pills. Upon discharge, continued abstinence was suggested to me, which brought up utter dismay I was enrolled in an outpatient program, assigned a substance abuse counselor, and encouraged to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Avoid People, Places, and Things
Without the crutch of substances, and armed only with a ward gown and crayons at Bellevue, I felt a sense of freedom but also a fear of relapse upon discharge. I took many suggestions but one of the many I disregarded was to avoid people, places, and things that remind me of using, and it led me to my first relapse around 30 days sober. At a summer backyard party, a college friend (who had struggled with substances himself) convinced me that AA was for the simple-minded, those who couldn’t think for themselves, and that we were of a certain kind of intellectual pedigree, so sobriety was most certainly not for us. I swiftly bought this rationale and went back to using. I figured I was now armed with tips and tricks on how to drink safely (initially I thought I would find these tips in meetings). When I woke up in at the ER, yet again, during my 6-month relapse, I fully understood what I’d heard at meetings: nothing changes if nothing changes.
Addiction-Recovery Support Groups
I sat in AA meetings full of wonder yet skepticism about what all this would lead to. I couldn’t believe how omnipresent these anonymous gatherings were, including a handful a few blocks from where I grew up. I felt allergic to the words “God” and “Higher Power,” as I’d been raised in a strict, religious household that sold me ideas of a punitive God, but I kept an open mind. Although I experienced a “pink cloud,” or “high,” in sobriety, it bothered me that no one at the meetings resembled me physically. I started going to more diverse meetings in Manhattan, where I saw people as young as 15 getting sober, people of color, as well as students who had a similar educational background as me. This assured me that I wasn’t alone in my process; substance use disorder did not discriminate.
On Dating In Early Sobriety (Men & Women)
I got into a nearly year-long romantic relationship at two weeks sober despite being told to refrain from dating in the first year. The rationale behind this suggestion is that one vulnerable in early sobriety, learning about who they are without substances. Romantic involvement can be an easy deterrent from having one take a look at who they are alone. Also, if the relationship goes south, one is more susceptible to the likelihood of relapse.
Someone I met in AA suggested I check out a local yoga studio, where I could volunteer in exchange for classes. Looking back, this was a crucial part of structuring my days in early recovery. Unemployed, my diet of daily meetings and yoga classes, and doing service and building support systems in both communities, grounded me. It was at the studio that I met my now-ex, a fellow who went by the name “Pineapple.” As his name might indicate, he was a whimsical fellow, a spiritual hippie. Our friendship quickly escalated into romance and looking back, I don’t regret it as the relationship was a strong pillar in that first year of sobriety. I learned how to let a person in and trust that I could be loved when I was sober and that I could embrace my body, whether on the beach or during sex.
However, in that relationship I realized that appearing spiritual and actually doing the work of healing and recovering are two different things. I chose to ignore a few red flags in this person, such as being told he was a felon who had been caught with a backpack full acid, had been to a few AA meetings but “was fine now,” or that he needed to smoke pot every morning if he had it on him, or even that he couldn’t really be with me long-term because I was on antidepressants at that time. These topics increasingly became sources of conflict and the woes of the relationship began to outweigh the positives. When I was broken up with, my sponsor suggested I enforce my first external boundary in sobriety: asking him not to contact me. It was painful, but necessary in ushering me into my second year of sobriety fully single and unattached.
Co-Occurring: Eating Disorders and Substance Abuse
Prior to alcohol and drugs, I struggled with disordered eating towards my senior year of high school, which included anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating. I falsely believed that sobriety would somehow “cure” those disorders, but it exacerbated them in a new, disillusioning way, which now makes sense. However, I’m grateful to food/body behaviors for keeping me sober in those moments I needed another substance to escape into. People at AA meetings suggested I allow myself whatever food cravings I had, but I knew that suggestion wasn’t for me (not always, anyway). My AA sponsor recommended I look into a food support group, and I eventually encountered a new level of recovery in that fellowship. I learned that harboring shame is like the Siamese twin of addiction; in sharing about all my secretive substance behaviors, I could finally begin to feel a new level of unburdening.
Learning To Trust Women In Sobriety
In my first year, I learned I could have a trusting relationship with a woman and that first woman was my sponsor. We spoke multiple times throughout the week and I realized I could be vulnerable; it was a fresh feeling to feel seen, heard, and told repeatedly that I was, in fact, doing OK. Whereas I have historically been wary of female friends, I learned that a large part of that was due to conditioning, which I had a chance to unlearn in recovery. In the spirit of the slogan “Go where it’s warm,” I sought out all-female meetings and felt a level of comfort that I hadn’t felt before. I prioritized female friend dates over romantic dates and got in touch with a new kind of intimacy and candidness I thought would only be possible after years of getting to know someone, especially a platonic friend.
Approval-Seeking Slipping Away
In early recovery, realizing the extent to which I sought approval was sobering. As I learned to love myself a little more, I took better care of myself. I felt more comfortable in my own skin, literally. I put down wearing a full face of make-up and realized I was still lovable underneath. I bought my first bathing suit and learned to embrace the scarred body I so easily criticized and tugged at years prior. I could walk away from the people who weren’t meant for me, who hindered my efforts at healing. Though these actions were incredibly uncomfortable to take at first, they became more intuitive. I was collecting “sober references.”
Part of unlearning approval-seeking was learning how to think for myself and readily disagree with adages that were handed down to me. Two slogans that once worked for me but no longer do, are “Don’t trust the neighborhood in your head” and “Feelings aren’t facts.” While I understand that early sobriety is a precarious time and one should be wary of the veracity of their internal landscape, I believe this model breeds codependency with others instead of learning to trust one’s gut. I was told that when I had intense feelings, I should do more service or get out of my “selfish” self and help a newcomer. Today these slogans seem like marching orders to self-gaslighting and self-denial. True healing has come for me in trusting that all feelings are an internal compass, value-neutral indicators of where I need to place my attention and what boundaries, whether internal or external, to uphold.
Boundaries With Family
My relationship to my family of origin, who I moved back in with after college, initially improved during early sobriety. The lies lessened. Gone were the nights of returning home inebriated with wine and urine-stained clothes. However, shortly after my one-year anniversary, my AA sponsor suggested I seek out yet another support group for childhood trauma and dysfunction based on some details I’d shared with her in my recovery work. In those support groups, I learned that as a person who struggles with substance use disorder, I’ll subconsciously seek out similar qualities in romantic partners, because it will feel familiar. Though it was overwhelming to attend so many support groups in that first year, it was ultimately a gift that planted seeds for more nuanced, deeper levels of recovery. I learned that my urges to dissipate and numb out were fueled by the emotionally and spiritually abusive, dysfunctional environment I was raised in. I rarely felt safe to sit with emotions as a little girl, or I was shamed for having feelings, so I constantly sought escape. In elementary school, it meant being effectively ensconced in books and overachieving at school. In high school, it looked like eating disorders or fantasizing about unavailable people. At the 1.5 year sober mark, I moved out of parents’ house, much to their dismay, to walk away from toxicity. I had the fear that I’d relapse but my foundation was strong.
Beyond The First Year
Receiving my one-year coin of sobriety remains one of the great highlights of my life. The sense of achievement was immediately met by a sense of fear: will it ever feel this fresh and exciting or will it quickly become the new normal? The answer has been that no subsequent year of recovery has matched the internal, physiological, and external shifts that the first year saw me through. The changes in my subsequent sober years are no more or less intense, just different. What’s important is to remember what it was like and ultimately remembering that sobriety is a radical act and the slogans ones chooses to follow can radically shift over time, too.
Marina R. for Avenues NYC