Stress Drinking Almost Took Me Down

As I finish my second year of sobriety, I am profoundly grateful for my survival instincts. Drinking kept me in such a fog. I was unable to think clearly or make decisions about anything significant. Somehow, I found the strength to stop. For good. For myself.

Day One was April 21, 2020.

If someone had told me that I could be happy in the life I was already living–without any external changes, I’d have rolled my eyes. I could only see the problems. My marriage was on the rocks, my kids were screwed up, my friendships were superficial, and my career was stagnant. It seemed I was living the wrong life, in the wrong place, doing the wrong things. Not to mention Covid. Trump on Twitter. California on fire. Economic uncertainty. Eminent social collapse. Noise. Chaos. Fear. Extreme everything.

Fuck. All of it.

Two years later, the end of the world still looms. Yet I’m happily married (to the same person!). My kids are adulting—they have landlords, crypto balances, and Wordle scores. I am connected and engaged with friends all over the country. My coaching practice is fun. And growing.

I love my life. Also, myself.

Nothing has really changed. But everything has totally changed. Because I’m different. My sobriety is emotional. I am no longer addicted to negative thought patterns that fuel anxiety and depression. I no longer use substances to pick me up or bring me down. I no longer need certain people to change (or disappear) so I can feel better. No one has to tell me I’m okay (occasional pats on the back are still appreciated).

My sobriety has nothing to do with alcohol. I don’t say words like, “I don’t drink.” Because I do drink—lots of drinks. I don’t drink poison, which includes alcohol, pop and paint thinner, but that should go without saying. That should be the default assumption. People have expressed SURPRISE! and concern for me because I am now owning the fact that I had a problem with alcohol—while holding their own glass of alcohol—. They should educate themselves. Alcohol is an addictive, neurotoxic, class one carcinogen. Alcohol is ethanol. You’re literally drinking hand sanitizer, people.

Stress Drinking Fuels the Fire

But alcohol was not even the problem. It was a symptom of the problem. The real problem was that I got out of the habit of dealing with my emotions. It was easier to make myself feel better at the end of the day by ringing the bell for Happy Hour than to inventory the sources of my stress and do something different. More and more, I drank to reduce stress—going for the easy and temporary fix.

Stress drinking is like buying something because it’s on sale and using a high interest credit card to pay for it. Alcohol feels good temporarily because it releases an unnatural amount of dopamine. But it also triggers cortisol. Regular drinkers have chronically elevated levels—they feel MORE stress on a daily basis than non-drinkers, regardless of circumstances. Plus, the extra neuro-receptors created to process the excess dopamine lay empty in the absence of alcohol, which generates feelings of agitation and dissatisfaction.

The brain responds differently to alcohol based on why a person is drinking. In fact, the belief that alcohol reduces stress has been shown to accelerate addiction. The mind is powerful; the placebo effect is real. Any drinker can get addicted (would anyone argue that a daily smoker isn’t addicted? Or that some people can use opioids without issue? Yet we think of alcoholism as genetic destiny).

Alcohol temporarily anesthetizes pain. But it makes it worse over time. The more you drink, the less you’re handling the situations that make you want to drink. Eventually, your credit card is maxed, and you can’t even make the minimum payment.

That’s what happened to me, anyway.

The more I drank and the worse I felt, the more my default approach to life included people-pleasing, approval seeking and pretending to be fine. That’s exhausting. Instead of taking the time to understand why I was so reliant on what other people think (or more precisely, what I think they think), I just kept going.

And that really pissed ME off. Because I was being ignored and abused. Also by ME. I was exchanging my dignity and integrity for another glass of wine. Even though I was still able to manage my responsibilities and commitments, I knew I was full of shit. And that anger grew. But I didn’t want to stop and deal with it, so I only told myself the stories that would justify another drink—I’m angry because. My husband. My kids. My friends, My career. Trump.

Fuck. All of it.

The real problem wasn’t alcohol. It was because I didn’t know the foundational principle of emotional sobriety: feelings are triggered by thoughts—not external circumstances. This is a huge paradigm shift. People and situations aren’t responsible for your feelings. How you think things relate to you fuels your emotions.

For example, I don’t get mad at my daughter for staying out too late or spending too much money. I ask myself why I’m afraid to hold her accountable. When my husband asks me to do something that interferes with my workday, I don’t moan that he is inconsiderate. I ask myself why I am uncomfortable saying “no.” When I don’t have enough time or feel overworked, I ask myself where the pressure is coming from and why I’m not setting boundaries. The pressure—the problem–is ALWAYS a product of my thinking.

Great news: If you’re the problem, you’re also the solution.

From Stress Drinking to Emotional Sobriety

Emotional sobriety is the ability—skill—to separate what’s happening in the outside world from what’s happening in the mind. It’s taking 100 percent responsibility for everything you think and feel, developing the coping skills to process emotional discomfort (by examining your own thoughts), and exploring your options for thinking, feeling and acting differently.

Emotional sobriety is self-sufficiency.

Two years after my Day One, my coping skills no longer include the use of chemical substances to feel better/different. Not even coffee. According to our culture, that makes me a dork. Boring. Basic. But I swear to God. I feel better than I have ever felt in my whole life. Because any substance that gives you an unnatural high leaves you in an unnatural low. And any substance that makes you unnaturally chill will leave you unnaturally jacked up. THAT’S HOW DRUGS WORK. Withdrawal is the opposite of onset. There is always a price to pay.

It feels great to be off that hamster wheel. When I feel good, it’s real and true and sustainable. When I feel bad, there’s a reason. I pay attention so I can self-correct.

I’m not saying that drugs (including alcohol) are bad. Most are fairly neutral—with pros and cons. In fact, nine months into sobriety, I had to reintroduce a psychiatric drug that I’d wanted to be free of. Because my experience with post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) was really bad and I needed extra support. Going back on the drug allowed me to move forward–to do the emotional work I might have otherwise been too depressed to navigate. Doing that work cleared the depression. And then I didn’t need the drug anymore.

Best day ever.

Happy 2-Year Sober-versary to me.

My transformation has been a lot of work. But you know what else is a lot of work? Avoiding the work. Life is now getting easier for me. Feeling good is a worthwhile high–I’m still chasing it. I’ve just finally found a sustainable delivery device–wellness.

If you’re ready to cut the chains that bind you to bad habits and negative emotional patterns, schedule a free consultation with me. Trying to do this alone is like trying to do your hair and make up without a mirror. The hesitation, uncertainty and fear you feel?–I deal with that ALL DAY.

You can do this. I can show you how–one step at a time.

 

Recovery University Logo

Like this article? Sign up here for more.

* indicates required

How to Overcome Alcohol Use Disorder

To overcome alcohol use disorder you must admit that alcohol is causing more stress than it's worth. It's not fun anymore. Drinking too much is a form of self-neglect, not self-care.

group think sobriety

Don't surrender your autonomy to group-think sobriety. Exchanging one set of limiting beliefs for another won't set you free.

Internalized oppression

Is your inside voice a bully? Internalized oppression from patriarchal, elitist and racially-biased "standards" causes fear and shame.

Becoming a Non-Drinker

What's the difference between "recovering alcoholic" and a non-drinker? The words you chose have a big impact on your experience of sobriety. If you don't like what you feel, change what you think.