I recently received an email from a reader named Greta, who asked for advice on getting through those first early days of sobriety. “I can’t imagine never drinking again,” she wrote.
If you’ve ever tried to put down an addiction, you can probably relate. Given how hard it is to abstain for even a day, the idea of doing so for the rest of your life borders on the absurd.
You might as well take away my chair and expect me to keep sitting!
The good news is that we don’t have to stay sober forever. We only have to stay sober one day—or even one hour or minute—at a time. When we resist the impulse to project our efforts into the future, we increase our chances for success today.
And here’s more good news. While anxiety, desperation, and misery are completely normal in early sobriety, these feelings are not at all indicative of life in recovery: You won’t always feel this way!
But let’s face it. Reassurances like these mostly ring hollow when you’re facing the thirstiest days of your life. What Greta really wants to know, and maybe you do, too—is how do you make it through even a single day? How do you cope with cravings, anxiety, and the increasingly appealing idea of stopping some other day?
It’s a huge subject, but here are some of the ideas that helped me most.
Meditate on Mantras. At first, I was appalled by the dorky clichés I heard in meetings. Then I discovered that they worked. When you are trying to scale the steep rock face of temptation, these deceptively simple sayings are like footholds to keep you steady. Meditating on, “Let go and let God,” or “The first drink will get you drunk,” can save the day.
Refuse to Romance the Drink. Your addict brain will trick you into remembering only the good parts of drinking—how sophisticated you felt, or how lovely it was to drink while cooking. Counter these visions by recalling—out loud if necessary—the less pretty truth about where drinking finally took you. There’s nothing romantic about guzzling wine while locked in your bathroom or… fill in the blank for you.
Get Sweet on Sweets. Especially if you drank wine or sugary cocktails, sucking on a jolly rancher, sitting down for a flavored coffee in the afternoon, or falling in love with ice cream can help relieve your cravings. I’m not advocating trading addictions, but sugar can be a helpful tool if not overly abused. Besides, ask yourself how many calories you used to drink a day?
Remember H.A.L.T. This acronym stands for four powerful triggers—Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Often, our urge to drink is being exacerbated by one of these conditions. In my early days, I was shocked to realize how often my desperation went away after I had eaten dinner or dealt with a resentment. Self-care is a HUGE key to success in early sobriety.
Drink Bubbles. Many alcoholics in recovery still feel compelled to have a glass, bottle, or can in their hand at all times. Since water is one of the few beverages we can safely consume in such large quantities, a surprising number of us get hooked on sparkling water or club soda. Something about the bubbly texture or a hint of flavor makes it feel more special.
Stay Busy and Connected. It goes without saying that you should attend as many recovery meetings as possible. But you also shouldn’t sit around and let your mind wander. During my first sober summer, Dave and I took up biking and it helped tremendously. Revisit an old hobby or find a new one.
Rediscover Your Knees. As you get out of bed in the morning, slide directly to your knees and ask God to keep you sober today. At night, kneel and thank God for keeping you sober today. If at any other point during the day you are seriously tempted to drink—your knees work then, too. “Help!” is a prayer God loves to answer.
Dedicate Your Relinquishments. What I mean by this is, turn your choice to abstain into a sacrifice you make for God.
This last tip only makes sense if you have a personal God, I admit. But if I had to choose one idea that helped me most, it might be this.
Early in my recovery, the sight of others enjoying drinking pained me—even if I pretended otherwise. One afternoon, I found myself with Dave at a party where everyone was imbibing. Standing there with my ice-tea, I wanted a glass of wine so deeply it hurt.
Then something I’d read earlier that day in a book by Gerald May came to mind. He’d written about how we can imbue our suffering with meaning and purpose by dedicating our relinquishments back to God.
At the time, it sounded like mumbo jumbo. But that afternoon, something clicked. What if I could not drink, “unto the Lord?” What if I could view my choice to abstain as a sacrifice of love for his sake, instead of just suffering for nothing?
I shut my eyes and prayed a short prayer, dedicating my thirst and pain back to God. Almost immediately, my perspective shifted. I was no longer a deprived person at a party. I was participating in a spiritual practice.
For possibly the first time ever, I thought I might understand a little of what it means to share in Christ’s sufferings, and let him share mine.
I’d love to hear from you today. If you have battled any addiction—food, love, alcohol, drugs, or gambling—what ideas or tips have helped you make it through?