Thank you to Lauren McQuistin for this excellent guest post. She runs the @BrutalRecovery account on Instagram, which is very much worth a follow.
On the 6th of March 2018 when I was 25 years old, I was ready after years of dangerous and irrepressible drinking to truly commit to sobriety. Being in my twenties, female, and a graduate student at a prestigious university, I felt like it wasn’t possible for me to have a drinking problem – I seemed to skate by just enough and was convinced that everyone was drinking and self-destructing with a similar intensity.
This misconception led me to that March morning, when before I even had a chance to down my morning vodka, I was admitted to hospital with complaints of shortness of breath, palpitations, and psychosis. On that first day I grimly resigned myself to a life of being a non-drinker, convinced the only thing that would change was that I couldn’t engage in the one thing that made being a human bearable.
Contrary to my initial ideas of a sober life, I could never have anticipated the level of change that was introduced to my life as I knew it. Some changes were enormous and obvious, and others gradually made themselves known as time progressed.
Mornings are an entirely different experience.
Not every morning was as dramatic as the one that created the pivot point for me to turn my life around, but there was not one morning during the last three years of my drinking where I woke up without an increasing dread. The anxiety felt unmanageable on the best of days, and near fatal on the worst – which I thought that was just the reality of mornings. Whilst I am still not a morning person, I know there is a chance at a positive beginning to the day, and I am not scared of the moment my eyes open.
You will realise what you’re capable of.
For most of my life my only priorities were to get drunk and stay drunk with as few people noticing as possible. I was in grad school at Yale working for my Musical Arts Master, but genuine ambition seemed like a luxury product I had to keep on the shelf, due to my perceived worthlessness. Sobriety showed me that my drunken behaviour was partly a maladapted coping mechanism to deal with my fear of trying and failing. Eventually I became willing to actually aim for something, with the hope it would be successful and acceptance that it might not be. Alcohol no longer served as a toxic friend, telling me I needed to keep myself small.
How you handle stress is different.
My old relationship with stress was to find the closest thing to putting it into the attic, and drink was an instant solution. With sobriety I faced the reality of stress as something unavoidable, but definitely manageable. I discovered the choices of distraction or crisis management. If it was truly something that I couldn’t look in the eye, I found more healthy ways to ease its presence (connection with humans, a walk in nature, dancing around crazily to music). With crisis management I could actually get to the problem-solving aspect of the stress’ trigger – something I could never do drunk.
Mental health issues become clearer
When feeling like you’re going to die every morning is your daily truth it’s hard to decipher where your hangover ends and your depression begins. The truth was that I couldn’t handle my depression until I quit drinking. It didn’t disappear with sobriety, and its presence in my life doesn’t mean that sobriety “isn’t working”, it simply means that I have allowed it space to be dealt with daily, and am not trying to treat it with a literal depressant.
Your weight will change and that’s ok.
Since my first drink I have weighed everything from 103lbs to 230lbs. With my history of eating disorders coupled with alcohol abuse, for my body to still function is a miracle in itself. From reducing my body to a number on a scale, to considering it a vessel to dump substances into any time I experience any stimulus – my body hasn’t really had much of a chance to just exist and serve me as it is designed to do. My weight is currently healthy, with occasional fluctuations, and I’m learning to be ok with that. Now I can consider what is best for it, and rewarding it for hanging in there despite all my best efforts to tear it down.
Sex will change
I could count on one hand the amount of times that I had sober sex. In the most vulnerable of situations I could only proceed if I felt bulletproof, so alcohol became my convenient solution to not deal with something I found scary. Being touched intimately as a sober woman brought back a lot of my sexual harm, that I would only have kept numbing if I kept drinking. As a result of facing and processing that, I have been freed of tensions, traumas and pains I had no idea were inhibiting me from enjoying something profound, personal, and really fucking fun.
Trauma becomes clear
Drinking through most stressful situations rendered me deaf to powerful signals my body was sending me when I was overstimulated or triggered. I had been continuously exposing myself to things that grew my trauma, and was giving myself zero opportunity or environment to heal. Being sober meant I had no buffer, which brought many painful experiences to the forefront, in unexpected times and places. This was hard to deal with, as feeling the trauma was what I had been avoiding in over a decade of drinking. However, feeling it for what it was allowed me to hear, and free, those parts of myself. It has taken away years of inexplicable pain that kept me reaching for oblivion.
I had no idea I was an introvert, because my entire social life was constructed around drink, something that made me feel like a louder, sluttier Lauren Bacall. Going on dates and making friends sober seemed like the final frontier, because I had nothing to depend on apart from my fledgling sense of self. Working through that initial discomfort allowed me to find true connections, and made me realise I was very funny, quite kind, and not a bad date – even without the Dutch courage. I also realised that bars need to do better with non-alcoholic options, but I also learned that I was an adult who could leave whenever she wanted.
Hobbies are actually really fun
The cost of my drinking dependency meant I never had the money to have hobbies, never mind the time or the mental clarity. As a perfectionist, I refused to partake in anything I wouldn’t be absolutely excellent at – so hobbies felt like an exercise in futility, and time I’d much rather use angrily drinking in a dive bar. When I became willing to try something I’d fail at on the first try I opened a world of laughter, low stakes, and enriching experiences. If I wasn’t sober I’d have no idea I loved canyoning, pole dancing, and researching Berlin in 1961.
The capacity for love, it gets wider
This time two years ago my knowledge and capacity for love was as narrow as the lip of a glass. Most of the people in my life were beloved friends who worried endlessly about me, and enablers I kept close to me because they were easier to have around than people who loved me. It’s hard to let love in when you’re harming yourself so profoundly, and completely blind to your own worthiness. Of all the things I’ve gained from sobriety, my new relationship with love is the most precious to me. No longer another a high I chase, or another wave in the tension/release cycle of alcoholism and addiction – it exists as something whole and nourishing, for myself and doubly for other people. I heard a priest once say about God’s love – “If you find a better deal, take it, but you’ll be hard pressed finding one” and I couldn’t find a more fitting way to describe what sobriety has done to my life.
Lauren McQuistin is an opera singer and a vocal teacher and coach in America – watch her singing soprano at www.laurenmcquistin.com