As a young girl, the fear I had wasn’t so much the monsters under my bed. It was the 80s in Los Angeles, and there was a serial killer, the Night Stalker in the news. I would watch the shadows of the trees outside my window blowing in the wind when I was feeling scared, and I’d worry about getting snatched. Eventually I would fall asleep. There were some real reasons to feel scared.
Now, there are other more things to feel worried and terrified about. For a long time, I numbed myself from the anxiety of life – the emotions of facing my personal shortcomings, dissatisfaction, worry about the future got smoothed over through a few glasses of wine, at least temporarily. Five years ago, I committed to sobriety, and slowly things began to change. I began to see that I didn’t need to let my fear of reality control me.
Recently I was in line to get lunch and a coffee while at a fitness conference in Vegas, and the guy standing ahead of me and I got into a conversation.
He was telling me how he really wanted to buy one of the pastries but that he needed to watch his figure. “I am an influencer on Instagram, after all.”
I asked him if he was there for the fitness conference, and with a surprised look in his eye he asked about it. Then he proceeded. “I was just diagnosed with HIV. My mom just died. My Instagram followers called me out for using drugs. I’m homeless. I want to quit using.”
Floored, I expressed care for him and mentioned that I was sober and could understand the challenge of using. I threw in that it had helped me to hear the stories of others who had quit using to motivate me to stop. Regardless of what was true or not in our conversation, he was hurting, and some kind of addict. At the mention of Narcotics Anonymous though, he seemed less interested. Plus it was his turn to order. “Caramel Frappuccino, please.”
A week later, it is my 5 year sobriety birthday, and I am thinking of him.
That quick exchange brought me back to the challenge of quitting. It took me so long, nearly 10 years, to decide to commit to sobriety. Those 10 years were marked with periods of denial, grief, angst, guilt, the pleasure of the numbness and the fear of what it would be to stop drinking. It was easy to judge me. Like the guy in line, I knew deep within myself that I needed to quit. I knew it, and I didn’t want to all at the same time. I beat myself up for not wanting to quit.
When I finally committed to quitting, the relief of waking up without the hangover of guilt and regret was nearly immediate. I started finding more people who I wanted to align with. And with clarity, I began to see that the practice of sobriety was a practice of wakefulness. What does that mean? It means being willing to be with the difficult feelings, all of the ones that I had been avoiding by drinking in the first place. And in order to do that, I had to learn new skills.
There was no clear road to sobriety. I worked to get there, and though I didn’t believe it at the time, the work that I was doing was me slowly waking up. For a while, the idea of getting sober would pop up occasionally, and then I would tell myself that I didn’t have a problem. I didn’t know then that one litmus test of addiction is the inner wisdom that tells you that you have a problem. That idea kept popping up more and more often, especially after I had my first child.
Still I kept drinking. Alone. With others. Only in the evening, but all evening long. Small sips and sometimes quick doses. My hyper awareness of my drinking started to tire me out. No matter where I was, I wondered if people could tell. And as I worried about it more, I became more aware of where I bought my alcohol, how often I bought it, where I drank, how much I drank in each place, and more. I hated waking up with a hangover, which didn’t always happen. I often felt tired in the morning.
I set a goal to quit drinking by the time I turned 40. So when that goal post passed with no success, I hired a therapist. It took me a while to tell her why I was really there, and then the work began. Many of our sessions, when I brought up the drinking, focused on the downsides. We talked about the slow death of addiction. I worried about the health repercussions and the effect on my relationships with my husband, my kids, and in the integrity of my work.
The more I talked about it, the more I realized that I was not living aligned with my values. Something clicked when I woke up to that reality. That was the beginning of the end. I started reading memoirs of people who had gotten sober. I started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and listening to the stories of the attendees. It was uncomfortable, and yet I didn’t feel so alone. I started to see that there were ways to assuage my fears and worries – and sobriety was a necessary step.
The guy in the line shared some deep regrets. Maybe it was for show, but there was something more profound than his Instagram pose and life story. I ordered him his coffee when he learned his Starbucks card wouldn’t work, and then he stole the sandwich I had ordered for me. He ran away. It was then that I knew how much he was suffering. The sandwich was nothing. I wished I could do more for him, knowing that he must be in such hell. His monsters were bigger than he could handle.
I am grateful that I was able to hire a therapist who helped me slowly climb towards sobriety. I am grateful for the time I could spare to read memoirs and attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to listen to the stories that would eventually lift me out of the hole I was in. I am grateful for the practices I have continued that help me to open my eyes and heart to what is happening in my life and in the world. Exercise, meditation, people I admire, the love of my family and community, self compassion, wonder, and learning how to love myself and others keep me awake and less overwhelmed.
I am learning that when I look the monster in the eyes – whether that’s the current day realities of climate change, racial injustice, the challenges of my relationships, my self judgment and so many more uncomfortable realities – the monster becomes smaller. I find other ways to be, to accept that the monster is there. I am learning to stop running away (as much) and to face the monster. And by doing that, I am also more awake to the joy, the pleasure, wonder, contentment, and peace.
Today I celebrate 5 years of opening my eyes and waking up. I celebrate the challenge of doing something that seemed unlikely. I celebrate it for me, and I celebrate it out loud because it’s likely you know someone who is caught in their guilt, their fears, their self judgment, and we all need to know there’s a way out.