The idea of sobriety scares me, and not for the reasons one might assume.
(You all said you wanted more Heather ramblings – brace yourself for this one.)
I’m not afraid to admit that alcohol and I don’t mix, 95% of the time, and I’m not afraid to admit that I’m really, really good at hiding it. You could even say I’ve become an expert. While I’ve certainly learned better coping mechanisms than drinking over the years, I’m not afraid to admit I still love the way alcohol makes me feel, at least temporarily, free from all of my problems.
I’m not afraid to admit that as soon as alcohol hits my system, and I feel my body begin to loosen up, I spend the rest of the night chasing that feeling, not wanting it to ever end. I’m not afraid to openly share that a long line of addicts before me have left me with a genetic predisposition to having a hard time knowing when to say enough is enough.
I’m grateful that the amount of physical activity I do means that an exhausted body is usually what tells me when I’ve had “enough”, and I physically fall asleep before I can do more damage. Without it, I fear that stopping point would be much further away.
I’m not afraid to tell you that while I don’t binge drink in the way often portrayed on TV or in books, I often consume well (well) beyond what is considered “healthy”. And while I can honestly say I never feel like I “need” alcohol, I’m not afraid to admit that frequently, I cannot pinpoint the last evening I went without a single drink…never mind two or three.
Three drinks, it seems, is my magical number. The third, heavily poured one often quietly snuck after everyone else has already settled down with a book or TV in bed. I’m not even afraid to admit that. “Snuck” because while I knew no one would say anything, there has always an unspoken but lingering concern among those closest to me that my relationship with alcohol is always dangerously walking that fine line between normal and “you may have a problem”.
I don’t want them to worry, so what they don’t know, won’t hurt them. Though I may be fooling myself thinking that they don’t already know.
I’m not afraid to share that I know without a shadow of a doubt that alcohol consumption greatly contributes to my anxiety, an anxiety that on any given day ranges from mild to downright paralyzing. I’m not afraid to admit that it affects my ability to focus, and thus be successful at my job. But the way the alcohol makes the anxiety and inability to focus dissipate is entirely too comforting. Drinking both contributes to, and immediately erases, the feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome. It’s a vicious cycle.
I’m not afraid to tell you that more often than not, alcohol affects my sleep, so I lay awake in bed a few hours after having initially fallen asleep, wondering why I keep doing this to myself. Only to forget 15 hours later, and once say yes to a group cocktail hour or pour myself another drink the next night.
I’m not afraid to tell you that the combination of anxiety, lack of sleep, and inability to focus has left me silently struggling and mentally unwell, more often than not. That the self loathing I feel knowing that the decisions I make directly contribute to these things hurts more than words can describe.
I’m not afraid to admit how many races I’ve blown, because one beer with dinner the night before an event turned into two or three. Or how many training runs or rides were less than subpar, because I was still hungover. The number of start-line hangovers I’ve smiled through so no one would know are staggering.
Fortunately, I’m really good at physically suffering.
Athletic performance aside, I’m not afraid to admit that I know my liver, kidneys, and heart have probably already suffered because of the last 20 years of intermittent excessive alcohol consumption. I’m not afraid to admit that despite seeing how chronic alcohol use ravaged my father’s health, I continue drinking in excess.
I’m not afraid to acknowledge the fact that my frequent bloat and stubborn weight gain over the last 6 months is absolutely tied to my drinking.
I’m not afraid of the uncomfortable questions you get when you tell someone you are sober or not drinking, or the awkward moments when a friend orders a drink around you, only to remember that you aren’t drinking, because you’re not good at it. (Or, too good at it, however you want to frame that.) I’m not afraid of the blog readers or social media followers I may lose, because the idea of sobriety makes some people uncomfortable.
I get it. It makes me uncomfortable too.
I’m not afraid to admit we’ve talked about this – my unhealthy relationship with alcohol – multiple times before, and clearly, I’m back to square one. I’m not even afraid for my now teenage boys to find – and read – this post. Hell, I should probably be the one to share it with them, genetic predispositions and all. They deserve to know.
Let’s be honest, they probably already do. While I’ve never let my drinking affect my ability to parent, kids are very observant. More so than we give them credit for.
And most of all, I’m not afraid to admit that I fully recognize that I clearly don’t know how to find moderation in this space, and I’m not sure that I ever will. I like to think that one day, I can. I’m a strong woman, I’ve done some incredible things that many other humans haven’t even attempted. But the reality is, every time I try to get my drinking under control, my success is short lived, before I find myself overconsuming once again.
I’m not afraid of any of this. I’ve grown to recognize that humans are flawed, for oh so many reasons and in so many ways, and this is one of the burdens I bear. I’m not ashamed to admit that after years of dabbling in sobriety on and off, an ultimatum might need to actually occur here. For good? Maybe. I’m not sure, but I’m not necessarily afraid of that either.
What I’m afraid of is the mourning I know that will happen with sobriety when I finally take the leap.
I’m afraid I’ll genuinely miss the taste of alcohol. Maybe not all of it, I’ve certainly had my fair share of “what were they thinking” drinks – like that time my husband thought it was wise to buy low calorie, sugar free, Mikes Hard Lemonade Seltzers. Spoiler alert: don’t ever waste your money (not that you probably had to be warned about that, but I digress. ) But I’ve become a bit of craft beer connoisseur over the years (arm chair level, of course, I’m certainly no master brewer) and I genuinely like the taste of it. And I’m always down to try one of the fancy cocktails my mother-in-law enjoys crafting, full of fancy syrups and herbs, the type that often takes her 10 minutes or more to muddle, shake, and serve.
I’m afraid I’ll miss the “treasure hunt” vibe of trying a new beer or new brewery that I’ve never heard of before. (Likely influenced by a catchy name or artsy label – I’m a sucker for current craft brew marketing).
I’m afraid I’ll miss the social aspect of sharing a cold beer after a hard race or bike ride with friends. Whether people want to admit it or not, alcohol plays a huge part in the off-road, dirt-bag scene. It’s almost always present, a common piece of the atmosphere.
Or toasting to a new year, a holiday dinner with family, or to the memory a loved one gone from this earth too soon.
I’m afraid I’ll miss the way a higher blood alcohol volume lessens my inhibitions in a way that the words and stories flow so freely, whether in a public social setting with people I’ve just met, or simply sitting around a campfire with people I’ve known for years. I like that version of me, and I am afraid she doesn’t know how to exist without a little liquid courage.
I’m afraid to miss how being drunk makes me appreciate the lyrics of songs I love that much more, to the point that I can almost feel the music in my soul. The Spotify-around-the-campfire sessions are one of my most favorite things on earth.
I’m afraid I’ll miss the stupid shenanigans that I get into with grown, adult friends who from time to time, let loose and have one too many drinks together. The hysterical laughter on my front porch with girlfriends, the silly game of “sloshball” with the hash house harriers, the screaming of “CONTAINER SHIP” in the middle of the night on the shoreline of a private island (what is it the kids say these days? “If you know, you know.”). The moments when time seems to stand still and I have not a care in the world, thanks to the numbing effect of alcohol.
The times the hangover was totally worth the fun I had.
It’s easy – even for me – to say or think: “well Heather, then learn to have an occasional drink, so you can still enjoy these things in moderation!” And I wish, more than words can describe, that I was capable of such things. But I know, both deep in my heart and in the logical side of my brain that reminds me that we’ve tried this before, that I don’t seem to be capable of having alcohol AND having moderation.
Many, many people can – but I’m just not one of them, no matter how hard I wish I was or try to be. And frankly? I’m simply not the best version of me when I’m regularly drinking. Not even close.
When one pictures excessive alcohol consumption, or alcoholism, there are often thoughts of people who have ruined their lives while chasing the bottle. And indeed, this is sometimes the case. But the truth is, not everyone who has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol has ruined relationships, drained their bank accounts, woke up in a jail cell, or lost jobs because of their drinking. Not everyone who is technically classified as a heavy drinker is hiding a handle of vodka in their closet, has a DUI on their record, or is showing up to work with booze in their coffee mug.
Some of us are in that strange limbo where we’ve never hit “rock bottom” due to alcohol use, not even close. And so it may be easy to brush it off because we are holding down jobs, and running 100 milers, and overall being a productive member of society.
Yet still, we wake up in the morning, regretting the previous nights drink choices, over and over again. Feeling worse than we know we should, physically and mentally, and knowing exactly why. Promising ourselves that we’ll address the issue…but maybe next week, after this one last camping trip, or holiday, or family visit. Hoping that we never will encounter a rock bottom, or adding a stereotypical alcohol story to our history…but knowing realistically if the pattern continues, it’s absolutely a possibility.
The fear of mourning the parts I love about drinking have often kept me from talking about this more freely, or taking any action to making a change. It feels silly to admit that, but it’s my truth.
But more and more often I find myself wondering if long term sobriety feels as good as I hope it does, as good as everyone who uses the #SoberAF hashtag on social media makes it seem. (I also wonder if it’s as lonely as they sometimes make it seem). I wonder if sober feels better than the buzz I’ve become so addicted to chasing feels.
I wonder if a better version of me exists out there, and if I’ll even like her.
I initially wrote this post on July 9th (and today, the date I’m finally publishing it, is September 16th). I had every intention of writing and sharing this post publicly as a spring board to sobriety. But…that didn’t happen. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had a handful of drinks that very same night.
It would take another two months, many more drunk nights, and a completely unrelated moment in time that was the catalyst for me to finally seeking help, for multiple things. And while my drinking wasn’t one of those things I sought help for, it’s one that the professionals in my life pinpointed and called out almost immediately.
I have a drinking problem.
I always deeply feared a professional confirming what I had secretly known all along, and what those closest to myself likely suspected. But when it actually happened, when a complete stranger (actually two of them, separately) who have all of the experience and professional credentials to diagnose these things, said straight faced to me that I should highly consider quitting drinking, I didn’t feel shame. Instead, I felt an indescribable amount of relief.
Relief to have someone else point out that the reasons I struggle with alcohol are not personal flaws. Relief to hear that my struggles with alcohol are very real and very valid, yet multifaceted, and that convincing myself I could just keep running from them was indeed a losing battle that was only going to continue to deteriorate.
But most of all, I felt relief that I no longer had to fight this battle alone in my head.
Today, I am 20 days sober. Many of the things I feared when I initially wrote this post have absolutely come true. It’s not easy, not at all. I miss drinking, for all of the wrong reasons, but also for some of the innocuous reasons, like the fact that a cold beer just tastes good with a slice of pizza after a long day of training.
But, I’m doing it.
And I don’t know what the future brings. I’m not so naïve to callously say this is the end of this story, because I know that’s not how this works. I fully realize that there absolutely will be more speedbumps on this journey. I don’t know what the ultimate outcome will be.
I certainly don’t expect those of you who have never struggled with addiction to understand, and I’m OK with any judgement that might be passed by me sharing this.
But one thing I have learned over the last decade of being vulnerable and real on this blog is that my words can sometimes help those who are also struggling and might feel alone. So please know this: as hard as this journey has been so far, it’s also been a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. And that even though many of the things I feared would happen when I looked true sobriety in the face have come true, so many other things have become apparent.
I’ve learned that the people closest to me are even more supportive and wonderful than I could have ever imagined.
I’ve learned that waking up each morning and not having the first few minutes of my day become an assessment of how well (or how poorly) my body processed the previous nights imbibements, feels like I’ve finally been freed from a hamster wheel I couldn’t previously escape.
I’ve learned that those really tough moments – they pass. They do. It may feel like an eternity, impossible even, but just like during a 100 miler, if you keep moving forward you will get through it.
And I’m learning that I am strong enough to fight for an existence that hurts a little less than it used to, and that I no longer need to numb myself to achieve that. It takes work, it’s going to continue to take work, but as much as it still scares me…I’m here for it.
If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website to help find resources in your area.