A Letter to a Friend in Rehab, pt. 2

One of the things that kept me from seeking sobriety was the thought that everyday in the future would be a struggle to not drink. Who would willingly choose this when it’s so easy to just keep drinking? And, as you think about the prospect of returning home maybe you’re having similar thoughts - if everyday is really hard how is it possible to stay sober?

There are some people who talk about their addiction as if it’s knocking on their door everyday and if they let up for a moment then they’re toast. But, many more say that the temptation to drink or use does diminish over time and I’ve never met someone who stopped drinking for any reason and regrets it.

Personally, I don’t think about drinking all that much anymore. Not-drinking isn’t a “white knuckle” experience for me. While there are times where I walk by one of the dozen or so pubs in my neighborhood on a sunny day and think how fun it would be to sit on one of those glorious patios with a good book and an IPA this thought doesn’t really get much traction.

What I am able to realize in these moments is that I don’t really want to sit and have ONE beer in the sun, or even two, but many. Having one or two and being done might be possible for a while, but that number would eventually rise and it would soon be difficult to enjoy a warm summer day and a book WITHOUT sitting on a sunny patio with a beer(s).

In the early days of sobriety I tried to remind myself that this kind of nostalgia was nothing more than my drug-pusher of a brain telling me that weddings, beaches, movies, sporting events, holidays, travel, vacations, date nights, hosting parties - just about every happy and pleasurable event - needed to be paired with alcohol in order for them to retain their joy.

This is a pretty ingenious strategy if you think about it. I’m not sure exactly what the evolutionary advantage is for our brains to have developed this way, but if it gets accustomed to getting stimulated from a particular substance, to ensure that it keeps getting it regularly, it coopts our memories from previous times where alcohol was present and “it” tells “us” that the reason that the sunset was so pretty on vacation wasn’t because sunsets on vacation are intrinsically-pretty but because we had a cold beer in our hand while we were watching it.

It’s important to be honest about the fact that at least in the early stages of drinking, a cold beer makes a LOT of things better. Alcohol does trigger a strong neurological response that can heighten pleasurable experiences and comfort us in terrible ones. So, there’s a real chemical reason that that sunset, or the idea of sunsets in general seem far more beautiful and memorable because we were “buzzed” while watching it.

Overtime however the alcohol induced endorphin rush is experienced alongside a growing list of adverse physical, relational, emotional, and yes spiritual realities which begins to numb and eventually nullify any of the intrinsic goodness and beauty in “sunset” moments. When you’re preoccupied with getting or keeping a buzz you can’t really be present for them or the people you happen to be with.

The sad thing is that at least some of the people sitting on the sunny patios I mentioned earlier aren’t there because they’re happy and alcohol adds pleasure to their lives; they’re drinking in the middle of a workday because they’re stuck. Some of them don’t fully recognize it yet, but others do, and what began as a lovely little vignette - people drinking beer in the sun - will mean a night of regret, shame, anger, emotional volatility, twelve-hundred calories they don’t need, and one more lost morning.

What’s really cool about our brains is that as we encounter these moments of envy and choosing NOT to drink can actually rewire our mental pathways. That’s incredible! In the same way that alcohol made neural connections between drinking and so many otherwise-pleasurable events, not-drinking can starve these connections and overtime our brain can “relearn” how to produce dopamine for pleasurable experiences even when they don’t involve alcohol. (This is my layman’s understanding anyway.)

So, there is reason to HOPE!

I’m just a fellow traveler, but here are a few practical things that I’ve learned that will maybe offer you some encouragement in the days to come:

- You’ve had the AUDACITY to say “I need help” and you have willingly started a very challenging and scary journey. Never forget, YOU decided to take control over your life and that was a very courageous decision.

- Saying “I need help” is at the same time an admission of weakness and a statement of tremendous personal strength. It’s an admission of weakness in that we are saying that we don’t fully possess all the resources that we need for life in and of ourselves. We need other humans in our lives. At the same time, “I need help” is also a very brave statement because we spend a lot of our lives trying to “say” exactly the opposite - that we have life worked out and aren’t dependent on anyone else. It takes strength to say something that pushes against so many of our cultural assumptions and is hostile to our personal narrative of achievement. These words are hard, but they’re essential to any life of flourishing even if we’re not “addicts” or “alcoholics.” 

- Labels like these can conceal and reveal the truth. Maybe you’re not ready to call yourself an “addict” or “alcoholic” and that’s fine if those words aren’t helpful to you. They’re slippery terms and when we say we are “AN ADDICT” it can over-define our problem as an essential part of our identity. It’s not. We’re whole persons who struggle, and though I fully recognize that I was “ADDICTED” I just haven’t found it all that helpful to attach the label “ADDICT” to myself anymore than I would want to label myself a “LAZY-ASS” if I had a problem with procrastination!! Your drinking problem is a part of you - a real part, but it’s only a part.

- Making this distinction may help you to believe that your recent experience doesn’t have to be your reality for the rest of your life. Sure, people struggle for years, and some people relapse after 10 years of sobriety, but your struggle now doesn’t have to co-opt your life forever. You can move forward into recovery - or whatever YOU want to call it in such a way that while alcohol will certainly come knocking again, you can develop the tools and self-worth to say “nah. I don’t need you any longer.” There was a time where you didn’t drink, or didn’t drink problematically, so I don’t think it’s insane to think that you can build a happy life without alcohol being physically-present nor a constant battle. 

- I don’t know if you’ve identified yet the issue or cluster of issues that created the vacuum that alcohol was happy to fill, but often we drink to numb/avoid/forget our emotional difficulties and thus we diminish our experience of both normal AND negative feelings. When we stop drinking the return of these emotions can be like taking earplugs out at a rock concert. It’s just too much stimulation and we can revert to drinking in order to avoid having these feelings. I drank to numb feelings of anxiety, self-reproach, and the frantic brain that comes with OCD so I had very little experience sitting in and moving through these feelings without chemical assistance. Now some of these negative emotions related to something more clinical going on that I needed professional and medical help with, but I also realized that when alcohol was always nearby I never had to sit very long with any negative feeling - even those that are just a normal part of everyday life like boredom. Sometimes I drank because I was bored! But, it’s unrealistic to think we can go through life without boredom unless we are “checking out” in some way so I learned to say “this is a feeling, I don’t like it, but it will pass and I will be okay.” (I’m sure there is some classic male emotional ineptitude going on here which you may not have to deal with, but I find feelings confusing. See this for context.) My therapist was able to help me learn how to differentiate between feelings that are just “part of life” and those that I needed some other assistance with and without which I probably wouldn’t last too long in sobriety.

This is super-long but it sounds like you have a lot of time on your hands so I won’t apologize! But, I do have to get to work. Please respond and let me know how things are going and I promise that you will be in my prayers. You got this!