…but what will we do when we're sober?

“Sober” by LORDE

Last year, in 2019, I found myself turning to alcohol as a means of faking the sensation of dopamine in my body.  For me, the mentality always was, “Let’s do shots!”  Rarely did I feel like I was good with a beer, let alone sticking to water.  At clubs, I would drink until the world started spinning and I walked with a waddle like a penguin.  For all these reasons and more, I had convinced my mother that I was an alcoholic.

This was most definitely not something I took easily.  I was simply trying to feel happy. Let go and have a fun time. Surely drinking was a better choice than … other substances? 

Regardless of whether or not I was ─ or wasn’t ─ an alcoholic, something had to change. It did: I got my medications adjusted, adding 20mg of Prozac and 2mg of Abilify (which makes the Prozac stronger) to my prescriptions. With my long-lost optimism and confidence renewed and restored, I decided to take my life back. To me, that process implied introducing myself to the Transitional Living Program (TLP) and apply for the program. Three days later, I was accepted. On the 25th, I would have my first case manager meeting. The case manager said that if I was trying to cut back on the drinking, I should consider SMART Recovery (SR), a non-religious alternative to the Alcoholics Anonymous program.

HIERARCHY OF VALUES

Later in the day, I promptly went back into the art room at one p.m. and  sat down with a leader who also struggled with alcohol use.the first assignment I received was called Hierarchy of Values

“How appropriate,” I thought. At the beginning of my TLP journey, I was going to inspect my values and goals, and see where I am at in life. 

My values were straightforward: I treasured my friends and my family and the invaluable relationships we’ve created. Having meaningful conversations with these trusted humans is even more important. I love the power that writing gives me. But more than anything, I wanted to make sure that I was always growing and striving to be a better person. I cannot afford to go back to who I felt like I was in 2019.

After writing down my values, the worksheet asked me three straightforward questions that were going to be a bit challenging to ask:

What do I want for my future? That question is simple: I’m wanting to see growth, improvement, happiness, independence, and success.  I want to conquer this program and be proud of the hard work I’ve put into it at the end of my year. 

What am I doing now? I’m enrolled in the TLP and I’m doing my best to talk with the leaders about how I am doing and feeling. I’m also meeting with a case manager about how to move my life forward.

How do I feel about what I’m doing? I feel extremely optimistic, even right now ─ about a month and a half into the program ─ about how I’ll do. Thus far, I’ve been getting a lot of good reports back from the leaders, and I have been told I am a delight to have as part of this TLP community.

I will admit that I was nervous about this SMART Recovery program, and the necessary changes I would need to make, but nothing could damper my optimism. If I was going to make changes, I was going to have to talk about my struggles to trusted allies. Being open and honest about my feelings to others is a direct result from the feelings of despair that came from ignoring my problems altogether in 2019.  Simply put, I know what happens when I don’t talk about my problems ─ I ward myself away from others and I feel alone. Hence why I thrive off of meaningful conversations with loved ones.

CHANGE PLAN

On the second day of December, I was at SR once again, filling out a “Change Plan” worksheet. The changes I wanted to make were straightforward: Get better sleep, avoid smoking and using alcohol, and talk with my leaders more often about my wellness. My confidence to achieve the goals was a bit staggering, but it was detrimental that I put aside my nerves for change. I wasn’t doing this for my health, but my wellness. 

One key thing I was forgetting at the time of filling out the Change Plan worksheet was the fact that I had friends and family there to help me whenever an ally was needed.  It was time to confide in my true allies and finally do away with anyone holding me back. The friends whose only ambition was to smoke or drink all the time have been nixed from my close friends circle. And although I don’t think they’re bad people, I only have time for people who are going places with their life instead of to the store to waste their money on sweet nothings.

MYTHBUSTING

On the 16th of December, the SR leader handed me a list of unrealistic expectations we can have about urges. I underlined the points that stood out to me:

  1. Urges are uncomfortable, but you can bear them.  If you keep telling yourself that you can’t, you’re setting yourself up to use.
  2. Urges always go away. Your nervous system eventually stops noticing stimuli. You can teach yourself to ride out urges; it does get easier over time. (Wait one hour)
  3. Using is always a choice. When an urge hits, you have two choices: to use or ride it until it subsides.
  4. Urges are a normal part of recovery. They may be stronger at first, but you can have a life without urges.
  5. If you scratch a rash occasionally, but use healthy remedies the rest of the time, the occasional scratching still increases the healing time. Likewise, if you occasionally give into your urges, you simply prolong your dependence on the substance or behavior as a way out when you believe the pain is unbearable. 
  6. You cannot control urges, but you can control how you respond to them.
  7. Our brains are hard-wired to seek out things that provide pleasure. Substances and behaviors that light up the pleasure centers in our brains can be destructive if the desire for them turns into a need.  Oh, and as human beings, we all do stupid things.
  8. Your rational brain can’t ignore that the short term “pleasures” are incompatible with your long-term goals.

MY BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS I wrote down were simple. A lot of material was covered (I summarized the material as it was over a page long), but a few points stuck out. 

Having urges is a normal part of recovery. We are addicted to things that make us happy, which would explain why alcohol became my go-to drug of choice when I was deeply depressed. Another point the leader made was to consider the cost, as my beloved mixed drinks easily went for $8 a pop, or $30 by the time I was drunk.

Having urges will always be annoying and uncomfortable, but that next week, we would be learning how to handle urges.

“DEADS”

It was just two days before Christmas. As it was Monday, I marched myself into SR. this time, the worksheet he gave us was an acronym: DEADS. On the second page, I wrote my notes I had in response to each part of the acronym.

Deny/Delay/Don’t give into the urge

  • Urges last for about an hour before they’re gone, or I can ignore them.  I have this common false mentality that urges are “impossible” to get through. That is not the case. I can distract myself with an activity, such as playing a game, and then I can also have a caffeinated beverage instead.

Escape the trigger 

  • Do I really need to have a drink? Is there an alternative to drinking I can pursue instead of something with alcohol? Or is there someone who always pressures me into using?

Avoid the trigger, attack the urge, accept the urge

  • Give yourself limits and be staunch about it. Acknowledge the stressors you have going on in your body, and find healthy, alternative ways to cope. Say no passionately, and tell your friends about your choice to stay sober for this event. Identify places where you know you will use.

Distract yourself with an activity

  • Read a good, engrossing book, or write a letter to a loved one. Play games with your friends. Write something for your blog. Do something productive, such as complete your chores.

Substitute for addictive thinking 

  • It’s okay to be addicted to something that makes you “happy.”  But because alcohol is extremely addicting, and it can make you feel weak, it’s best to avoid it.  Recovery is a project, and it’s okay if you mess up sometimes.

TO DRINK, OR NOT TO DRINK?

AS I WENT THROUGH all my SMART Recovery notes, I started noticing a reoccuring theme:  I don’t abuse alcohol; rather, I was using it as a crutch for my depression. My goal for myself throughout these courses has always had an underlying theme: Establish a healthy relationship with a substance that will always be present in life. Especially as I enjoy going to drag shows and nightclubs.  My goal was to simply learn how to enjoy alcohol instead of drowning my intense emotions with it.

This is exactly what I’ve been trying to do: I have limited my alcohol intake to just a few drinks per month this far. Just the other day, I had a shot of blueberry vodka with lemonade. Two hours later, I had another cocktail with food. At my grandma’s 80th birthday celebration, I enjoyed two glasses of rosé ─ it made me feel light and bubbly all throughout the party. (Mom made sure that this was the only alcohol I consumed.) 

In each scenario, alcohol was never a drug, but something that made me feel happy and relaxed.

WHEN I TALKED TO MY MOM over Facebook messenger, I was almost certain she would hate my plan. To my great surprise, she was all for it. “It’s your choice!!” she said to me. 

“I believe that I need to teach myself to have very limited drinks per month. Otherwise, I’m going to grab a liquor bottle the second I get away from the program,” I replied.

“I think in all aspects (eating, drinking, sex) it is [about] focusing on being healthy. My goal for the rest of my life is to make choices that help me be healthy ─ emotionally, physically, spiritually. I’m taking it moment by moment, day by day.” 

I’m not sure what reminded me that I had bodily autonomy ─ okay, it probably was the first time my mom saw my new hairdo and said, “I don’t like it, but that doesn’t mean you can’t love it.” 

I want to drink. This doesn’t mean playing “shots” by Lil Jon while I drink an entire glass of Fireball in one go. It just means that I want to enjoy a cocktail every now and then.

Say what you want, but I truly think this is the right way to look at it.

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