I have been clean and sober now for more than 16 years -- In fact, I haven't had a drink or drug in 6,106 days, or for you math geeks out there, 146,544 hours. Over the years, there have been days when I've felt secure with my sobriety, and there have also been many days when I've white-knuckled it from minute to minute. With the holiday season rapidly approaching, I thought I would share the "10 Lessons I've Learned in Sobriety" in case you or a loved one is struggling with addiction issues.
1. Fill 'Er Up Please
I firmly believe that some people are just born with an "addictive personality." For years, I thought this was my curse, but now that I have some sobriety under my belt, I'm starting feel that this personality trait can be harnessed and put to good use. When I stopped drinking, I needed to "fill up" all that time I spent drinking or recovering from drinking, so that meant I needed to find a healthier addiction. I took up competitive long distance running 14 years ago, and more than 80 marathons later, I'm happy to report that I'm a running addict.
2. Leave an Impression
I remember Christmas approaching in my first year of sobriety, and feeling complete angst about having to be around all that alcohol. My sponsor at the time gave me some great advice that's been a lifesaver many times in my sobriety. He said: "Get in. Get out. Leave an impression." So, that's exactly what I do whenever I need to go to a party or get-together where there will be a lot of alcohol. I keep my visit brief. I talk to everybody I can. I make sure I'm lively and engaging, so people will remember I was there.
3. Two Dozen Cookies To Go, Please
When I sobered up, I discovered that I had a wicked "sweet tooth" that must have been lying dormant all those years through my drinking. Sugar affects our brain by elevating levels of dopamine. This is the same chemical that gets released when an alcoholic consumes excess alcohol. There is also a direct link to sugar increasing levels of serotonin, the chemical that elevates our mood. I have been known to eat two dozen of my wife's homemade chocolate-chip cookies in one sitting. I should probably add that when I eat too many sugary treats, I'm left with that hungover feeling I used to get when I was an active alcoholic, and it's usually accompanied by feelings of deep remorse. So, if you're ever visiting someone in a treatment center, bring a chocolate bar. You may be doing him/her a big favor.
4. Be an Armchair Traveler
A significant factor in my being able to stay sober for this long, one day at a time, has been my near "religious" adherence to routine. In AA, you often hear the acronym H.A.L.T., which stands for "hungry, angry, lonely and tired." Whenever one of these is out of balance, I'm more susceptible to a relapse. I try to inoculate myself against that by keeping my sleeping and eating patterns very regimented. Whenever I travel, I try to take in an AA meeting if I'm feeling out of sorts, and I always keep an energy bar on me just in case my meal time gets out of whack.
5. Come Out of the Closet
Right from the very beginning, I discovered that it's so much easier if I just tell everybody I'm with that I'm a recovering alcoholic. It puts an end to the inevitable "Are you sure I can't get you a drink?" comment. As an added bonus, hosts will bend over backwards to offer you expensive fizzy water that they would normally never keep in the house.
6. There's Life Beyond Church Basements
In my first two years of sobriety, I went to a 12-step meeting almost every day, and I learned to stomach some of the worst coffee ever brewed! I know how important it is to maintain my connection to others in sobriety, but I'm also well aware that there is a "big world" that exists outside of church basements. The happiest people I've met over the years in my sobriety are those recovering addicts who have learned to rejoin the real world and avoid getting stuck in the "sobriety club."
7. Get Zen With It
One fact I know for certain is that 12-step meetings teach you patience. The typical meeting gathers people struggling with many substances, people with mental health issues, and people who might be in the early hours of their recovery. Learning to sit still for 90 minutes, while allowing others to share, vent, cry and inspire has been a skill that I can use in many other parts of my life.
8. Lean Into the Tsunamis
About a month after I sobered up, I began to feel so much healthier physically, but I quickly discovered that I was not on a smooth upward trajectory to a life of blissful serenity. My advice to anyone new to sobriety is to expect waves -- and sometimes tsunamis, as emotions are apt to be all over the place when we are no longer numbing our feelings with drugs or alcohol.
9. What? It's Not All About Me?
I've written before that if you get to really know any addict intimately, you'll uncover a megalomaniac with an inferiority complex. The best way I've learned to keep this unsightly part of my personality in check, is to sit down and talk to another struggling addict. It really is magic how being present for someone in crisis and giving my time to be a sounding board for someone else, allows me to escape my own "monkey brain" for a while and realize life is not all about me.
10. And the Award For "Most Stubborn" Goes To...
The most important lesson I've learned in my sobriety is that I am a lot stronger than I give myself credit for. Call it stubbornness, pigheadedness or just plain belligerence, but battling to stay sober one day at a time forges a huge sense of accomplishment and inner strength.
Each of these lessons has held various levels of significance throughout my 16 years of sobriety, and at times, they have been my superhero cape that allow me to escape the downward spiral of addiction. If you know someone struggling, pass this message along, and let him/her know that there is indeed hope, and it is distilled one day at a time.