Disclaimer + trigger warning: this post contains messaging about substance abuse and addiction, as well as some details that may come across as anti-Alcoholics Anonymous. If any of these themes are disturbing to you, I recommend not reading any further.
Today, I’ve been sober from alcohol for 4 years.
I could go on endlessly about the benefits of not drinking because it is true: the upsides to abstaining from booze are way beyond just waking up without a hangover. It is also true that nobody benefits from drinking alcohol, including non-problematic, casual drinkers and those around them.
I know these things are true because I have sat in rooms around the world and listened, for hundreds of hours, to the experiences others have had with alcohol. I’ve seen what it does to their bodies, families, and livelihoods. I experienced it myself over years of painful accidents, depression, and near-death alcohol withdrawal.
I’ve also witnessed the fantastic potential and empowerment that often emerges by building relationships with people in recovery. Extraordinary magic comes with being in the company of people that are in the process of growing beyond what they knew they could ever be capable of.
Last year, I published my first piece about sobriety with a lot of concern for the response. I hesitated to post it, fearing I’d come across as the preacher nobody asked for. I worried that being wide-open about the inner workings of my addiction and process to sobriety would harm my ability to get new work as a freelance journalist. Rejection for being open about being an addict is common socially and in bureaucracy. So, I had a fair amount of anxiety that I would tarnish my career by publishing content that, to some, seems deeply personal and unfitting to lace into the feeds I regularly post my work to.
The good news is that I was mostly wrong.
In the year since I posted it, I have received dozens of emails and messages on social media platforms with stories, questions, or just a need to share with someone relatable. Yes, there have been instances of people mocking my sobriety or using it against me to make a point about something as simple as a typo in my work. However, the few instances of trolling pale compared to the overwhelming outreach from people seeking help and finding strength in the message.
One of the most interesting things about the overall response is that it has been largely from non-problematic (millennial) drinkers considering sobriety as a potential upgrade, often wanting to know more about its impact on my social life. The most common feedback I’ve received comes from people who want to be sober with others but do not want to partake in Alcoholics Anonymous.
So, for this milestone, I’d like to share some insight about the program of Alcoholics Anonymous based entirely on my own experience. In communicating with people considering sobriety, preconceived notions about AA are the most common point of disinterest in making the change for themselves, and I understand why.
The fundamental belief of Alcoholics Anonymous, which is that we shouldn’t drink alcohol 100% of the time, works. I also think that, if possible, it is a great idea to make amends with the people and things that make you feel regret.
However, I also understand the shortcomings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
I do not believe that AA is a cult. Still, I see the concern with walking into a room with two human men (Bill W. and Dr. Bob) plastered on posters on the walls next to quotes about their sobriety and what they think everyone else should do to be sober.
AA is a program that, at its core, encourages people to let go of their “old ways” and embrace change while not doing much to change itself. The texts often used in AA are undeniably religious, often sexist, and are in serious need of updating. When questioning why the Big Book, first published in 1939, cannot be modernized in a way that doesn’t alienate people from seeking sobriety, die-hard believers often say things like “it just works” or “why fix it if it’s not broken?”
Not only is this core way of being hypocritical, the idea that if something is working for some people means that it isn’t broken is simply wrong.
The program only works for some people, and refusing to change dismisses the larger group of people it doesn’t work for in its current form. If the core of AA is meant to help people get and stay sober, it would adapt to a modern world and/or just stop denying that it is a program of God written by two sexist men that died ages ago.
Many more modern “sobriety programs” exist that are suitable solutions for people seeking sobriety with others without the issues mentioned above, such as SMART Recovery. There are also many online support groups full of friendly strangers ready to cheer you on, answer your questions, and support you without judgment. Shout out to SoberPunks Gang – The Quit Drinking Club.
That said, here are 4 things I have learned that are useful in getting sober from alcohol without AA.
1. Reframe how you think about habit versus routine.
In sobriety, you are growing, which is often uncomfortable. It is common for people to feel like they need to replace one habit with another, like swapping out drinking for some other random thing to fill the space and time. Food, sex, cigarettes, gambling, and AA meetings are the most common habits I’ve seen as replacements for problematic drinking.
Over the years, I’ve found it easier to focus on growing routines and removing the idea of habit entirely. Habits are most often associated with negativity, whereas patterns of being created through routines are more often associated with healthier ways of living all the time. Living in new routines also removes the guilt that often comes with “habit replacement.”
2. Be proud of (and celebrate) yourself.
There is nothing wrong with being proud of yourself for what you have done and are doing now. Being sober is challenging, especially in the beginning. Being open and honest about sobriety also takes a measure of self-awareness, bravery, integrity, and dignity that many people will not understand unless they’ve struggled.
So, celebrate your milestones. Write your blog posts, eat your cake, and put yourself on the pedestal for a while. The people who cannot understand your moments of pride in sobriety aren’t the ones you need around you anyways. I assure you that if you surround yourself with other sober people, they will understand why you feel proud of what you’ve accomplished and (usually) celebrate with you.
3. Remember: one size does not fit all.
As mentioned above, there are many ways to become and stay sober from alcohol; it is not a numbers game. 1000 people attending an AA meeting at a megachurch is just as powerful as a single person becoming sober on their own for one day.
In AA specifically, meeting people who have lived through relapse and recovery cycles is common. It is also common for people to project the one thing that eventually worked for them onto others as the only way to be sober.
This is nonsense.
Yes, we can share in their joy and be proud of their path, but remember that there is no only way to do this. Every single path to recovery, even those that require the assistance of others, is deeply personal.
Keep asking questions and trying new things. Some people do need meetings every day, and others do not. Regardless of the difference in our needs, the most important thing is that we just don’t drink. Your sobriety is your own, and how you do it is entirely up to you.
4. Redefine self-belief.
The internet is full of self-guided therapy, and I am here for it. I love a strongly-worded self-belief post as much as anyone else.
However, it is important to note that these things often take the all-or-nothing approach with messages about self-love and self-belief. Some common examples:
- You must love yourself, or others won’t be able to love you
- You must fully believe in yourself, or others won’t believe in you
At a glance, these messages make sense, but in reality, they are not practical. Yes, trying to love yourself and building routines that empower you with self-belief is essential. However, I know (from experience) that it doesn’t take self-love for other people to love you. I also know that you do not have to believe in yourself 100% for others to believe in what you are doing. I don’t even think it’s possible to love and believe in yourself 100% of the time.
In terms of sobriety, it is essential to know that even if all you want is to believe in yourself, you are on the right track. You might not believe in yourself today, tomorrow, or next week. Still, if you’d like to believe in yourself, you have what it takes to do it. Similarly, if you’d like to be sober but aren’t sure if you can do it 100%, you are already on the right path.
Self-belief is not all-or-nothing, and the approach to it as such is futile. If you’ve got 1%, plant it and grow towards the 100% you’re aspiring to.
For those interested, the post I made for my last milestone (1000 days in 2021) can be found here: https://writingbymatt.medium.com/5-tips-for-staying-sober-from-alcohol-e0560bf98394
If you’re seeking help getting sober, feel free to send me a message via my contact form.