Sober sponges (guest post from @SueK)

My darling friend @SueK had a tricky sober night out last weekend. Lucky for us she’s been able to brilliantly articulate what was going on for her so that we might gain an insight into how and why she struggled in this social environment. I know I’ve gained greater knowledge and understanding from reading about her experience.


From @SueK: Last weekend I took myself, two years sober, off to a class reunion — 23 women who started high school together 40 years ago. I wasn’t worried about the drinking thing at all. Most of these people didn’t really know me now, so wouldn’t know my history, wouldn’t wonder why I wasn’t drinking any more, wouldn’t ask. The ones who do know me, know. It was going to be as normal as anything.

Except it wasn’t.

I’m an introvert. I am energised by time alone and quiet. I will happily spend hours or days in my own company. I will happily spend hours with you too, or even a small group of you, doing something meaningful, like cooking and eating dinner, op shopping, taking a walk, talking about something we’re passionate about. But I am drained and stressed by noise and crowds. I am drained and stressed by small talk, especially loud drunk small talk. But if I’m prepared, I can usually handle it for a while.

On Saturday night, it all got the better of me. Right from the start of the evening, I was feeling stressed — physically, in my solar plexus and gut, the pressure was building up and I was hugely uncomfortable. We’d already had a welcome function the night before, we were on day two, in a fairly tight space. Spirits were high, some people were really loud and ‘out there’, the smell of wine was strong in the air, and it was an assault on all my senses.

I felt like I couldn’t leave because I was organising the damned thing! And I realised, plain as day, that I used alcohol in these situations in the past because it numbed out this stress and pain. It kind of got rid of it before it even started, so I didn’t have to deal with it.

On Saturday night the urge to numb was so great I did have a quick thought about downing a big glass of pinot gris. Not seriously — there’s no way I’m setting my counter back from 740 to 1, no way I’m even considering letting myself down that way. But I did think more seriously about numbing alternatives. Go out onto Cuba St and bum a cigarette? (I don’t smoke, but it seemed like a plan.) Watch mindless reality TV on my phone under the table? Suck my thumb? (Seriously, I thought about doing that, as it’s incredibly soothing, but not so socially cool!)

Obviously, these were no-goers, so I had the presence of mind to text Mrs D and share the pain with a sober soul mate, and she got back to me with some wise encouraging words. That was gold. And then I needed to just pull myself together and suck it up for a few hours. Which I did. But it was painfully intense.

That thought of “sucking it up” got me thinking about sober sponges.

Some of us are massive energy sponges. We walk around unconsciously absorbing energy from other people, from weather, from the environment, from buildings or rooms in buildings. It is hugely intense. When we’re kids we zone out or suck our thumbs, have tantrums, or hide under our blankies to deal with the overload. As adults we reach for the more socially acceptable booze to dial down the intensity. I wonder if alcoholism is a family thing because the members of some families have this sponging tendency, which is too intense to deal with and they learn to booze as a way to make it go away.

Actually I have no idea why some people are like this, and some people aren’t. I know I was in an emotionally volatile environment as a child, and I learned to “read” energy and emotion from my parents to gauge how to approach them, how to behave, how to stay out of trouble, how to get what I needed, how to survive. I’ve still got a finely-tuned energy and emotion radar that’s had a lot of practice, and it doesn’t seem to have an off button. Did it lead me to drink? Sure thing! Drinking was a fantastic emergency response to that kind of stress.

On Saturday night though, I realised something important. Drinking was only a temporary relief to that stress, AND boozing through it would have been denying my body its right to express something primal, something raw, something Very Important that it wanted to tell me.

When I drank, I was just shutting up my internal messaging system. I was blotting it out. And that’s dangerous.

I didn’t drink on Saturday night. I sucked it up for a few hours. I didn’t talk much, and hovered on the edge of the group so I didn’t feel so confined. I went back to the hotel right after dinner and administered sober first aid — soft pyjamas, a hot water bottle, a nice cup of chai tea with milk, some quiet. It only took half an hour for the pressure in my solar plexus and gut to release. And then it was gone. I had a fantastic sleep, and woke up fresh, clear, happy.

I did spend some time wondering how I could fix myself so I’d be able to hang out in loud, boisterous, crowded places and feel totally fine and enjoy myself. Frankly, I don’t think it’s something I want to work on. There’s nothing to fix, and there’s nothing wrong with being a sponge.

In fact, I think it’s a gift to be sensitive to the energies around us. I think it’s the key to having a full experience of life. Sure it’s tough when the energy is abrasive. But we also absorb warm positive energy from nurturing people, environments, events, books, music. When I lean into one of the huge macrocarpa trees in the bush up the top of our street and soak up its incredible grounded energy, its warmth (yes, trees are warm), its immense stability, I feel totally alive and connected. When I go outside and look at a flower closely, I get pulled into a universe of magic colour, texture, smells that’s mind blowing. When I’m with a good friend enjoying some genuine communication and connection, I feel incredibly alive and happy.
Drinking kills our sensitivity. It kills the tough energy and the magic, light energy equally. Booze doesn’t care. It just numbs out the whole lot.

Why did my body react so intensely on Saturday night? I think it was having a flash-back, or a short-circuit. Perhaps deep in my cells there was a battle going on. Part of me was sober warrior princess slaying dragons and gleaming in the moonlight. Part of me was terrified by the memory of all the years I’d mindlessly poured wine down my throat to get through the battle. Which one was going to win?

I’m taking my energy raw these days. I’m slaying dragons, and gleaming in the moonlight. I put down my sword occasionally to text for sober support. Then, maybe, I’ll go home and suck my thumb for a bit. Or hug a tree. Whatever it takes.

Reunions, Christmas, weddings, family events… can be incredibly intense for sponges, and even more so for sober sponges. But there’s always a balance. This weekend I had the great joy of reconnecting with a very special friend from childhood. I had a lot of laughs. I had my soft pjs and my hottie. I slept too little and socialised too much. I absorbed way too much other people energy. Now it’s over. I’m home, feeling grateful, quiet again. I’m so glad I didn’t numb out my precious sensitivity. I really need it for this precious life.

© 2014

  1. Lars 8 years ago

    This is beautiful and perfect! Thank you for these words @suek!
    @lizzy, have you read this!?

  2. Geneva 8 years ago

    Dear Sue,
    This is my first foray into the world of Living Sober, and yours was the first blog post I read. When you said, “I did spend some time wondering how I could fix myself,” I so related. I think I have spent my entire waking life attempting to “fix” myself so I, too, could “hang out in loud, boisterous, crowded places and feel totally fine and enjoy myself.” My methods of “fixing myself” have included over-eating and numbing myself with alcohol and/or antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicatino, and it is only now, at 56, that I am beginning to figure this out. Your next sentence seemed to rain down on me from heaven: ” Frankly, I don’t think it’s something I want to work on. There’s nothing to fix, and there’s nothing wrong with being a sponge.”
    I almost physically reeled back when I read that. Nothing to fix… nothing to fix?!? Nothing wrong with being the way I am? Sue, you may have just given me the gift of a lifetime. How can I thank you for this new idea?
    Very, very gratefully,

  3. Emjaycee 8 years ago

    Yes! This resonates with me too. I’m basically a very shy person who has masqueraded as an extroverted person most of my life. When I became a journalist and had to actually ring people I didn’t know and ask them about stuff it was always very difficult – I often wondered by a scared rabbit like me would chose a job like that (when I was a picture framer’s assistant I used to hide in my little cave at the back of the workshop and always cringed when I was holding the fort and had to serve blimmin a living, breathing customer!). I dread that crushing feeling of social unease when I’m out – you feel so exposed. But your post provides a good road map for how to get through. I think I’m coming around to the idea that recognising the uncomfortable feelings and letting myself feel them properly – analyse them even – is good for me… Thanks @SueK .

  4. sophia2 8 years ago

    Great post thanks so much for sharing xx

  5. April 8 years ago

    Love, Love, Love. Love this post. Thank you @suek and all those who have commented… so many ‘cha ching’ moments reading through. Fernando Pessoa sounds like my kinda guy

  6. JM 8 years ago

    Hi Sue! Once again, you articulate ideas that are so deeply felt with me. Reading the comments, I realize this happened a long time ago for you, but it felt similar to my crappy Saturday night, where I stayed too long at a glitzy, wine-soaked shower. I did not drink. I felt I had to say bye to a number of people which added an hour to the night when really I just wanted to go. I burst into tears after leaving, with my 15 year old niece beside me. It felt like too much. I took it too personally when some people were just flat out obnoxious to me. I have to go easy on myself, really carefully choosing social situations. (Well I do already, and spend a lot of time at home with my dog, and I like it that way.) I know I’m an introvert. And there’s that extra vigilance to be self-caring in social situations. Thanks for writing such an insightful post!! xx

  7. booboo 8 years ago

    Thank you thank you Thank you
    I needed that post
    especially the analogy of the Dragon

  8. Scared 9 years ago

    Brilliant, describes exactly how I feel. Thanks @suek and thanks @mrs-d for bringing this post to my attention. Aah, I feel so much better. Xx

  9. Joey 9 years ago

    This post,and the replies have touched on my soul and given me the answers I had been pondering. It is also optimistic and affirming -thank you so much for this wonderful site xx

  10. cleanfairy 10 years ago

    Thanks for your beautiful word Suzy. I have been a sponge lately to other peoples business that I get sucked into. Its made me quite ill and Im only just starting to recover from it. It was good to read about the positives of being sensitive as I often forget. Oh how my alcoholism makes sense to me now. No wonder I used to guzzle my pain away. Love you heaps xxx

  11. thirstystill 10 years ago

    Sue, I just now saw this fabulous post. Wow! I hear you loud and clear (OK, softly, but still clearly!) about that soaking up energy thing you’re talking about. Like you, I get caught by the emotional tenor of whatever group I’m in and it gets to be way too much for me. You articulate what’s happening with this really well. And it’s such a good reminder to see the good side of it, too. Being sensitive to the world really is precious–too precious to waste numbing out, that’s for sure. Thanks for sharing your wise words on this. It’s such a treat to get to read what you have to say! Take care. xo

  12. Gilbert 10 years ago

    Yeah,blankies do rock.I have one in every room virtually.On every bed end, on the back of every sofa.My cats and kids all love the blankies and I get to refold them often.Flick them out,fluff up the pile and fold them into squares of cosy deliciousness ready to be pulled down and snuggled under often with a kid or cat. I can be found patting throw rugs in shops and I am a sucker for the plush,baby soft white ones or the dappled browny ones.Bliss.

    • cleanfairy 10 years ago

      glad Im not the only one thats a shop blanky patter

  13. ItsPerfectIthink 10 years ago

    Such beautiful insight. I notice that there are quite a few introverts here. I have suffered with social anxiety my entire life but only put a name to it after a couple of months of therapy after rehab. The drinking a half bottle before attending any function in my house or out in public loosened me up and I became a social extrovert, party animal of sorts. Beautiful community you guys have here. I am in love, lol.

  14. Freebe 10 years ago

    Oh my goodness, I’ve been away for a while and now I’m back needing some support and I find this post that was written for me (you did write it for me, right?!). You express the sponge concept so well… and I’d never connected my emotionally turbulent upbringing to the fact that I’m a sponge now, so thanks! I also only recently found out I’m an introvert. That sounds strange but let me explain… it was when I did the Myers Briggs personality test, where you come out as an I or an E as one of your four letters. But get this – the I/E is where you get your energy FROM – not how you express yourself. So you can be a total extrovert in a social situation, or a real collaborative thinker at work, but at the same time, be an introvert in terms of needing to be alone to recharge. I thought that was a cool distinction to understand. Thanks for the cool post 🙂

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Hi @Freebe, definitely wrote this post for you!!

  15. Roadrunner 10 years ago

    Thank you Sue for your wonderful post. As a fellow introvert I totally get it, and I have never before read a post which so expressed my experience. I always just thought there was something wrong with me. I too used to drink to get through these occasions, and I’ve started to dread the the inevitable “Boozemas” experience! However, I shall have to schedule in a little “Sober First Aid” and maybe I’ll survive. Thanks Sue it meant alot. 🙂

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Glad to share these experiences. … life throws us all challenges but they are so much easier to deal with when we talk about them and realise we’re not the only freak in the place!

  16. morgan 10 years ago

    I love the way you express this Sue. I have no idea quite how I am going to prepare myself for big, noisy social occasions – I found it difficult enough when I did drink!! Dancing helps a great deal, but that is not always an option. I tried to keep up for a while, when amongst a young group of colleagues. Some were my age too. It was excruciating, & I could never get to the clubbing part of the night, worn out by the earlier drinks & dinner. I would often feel really stupid for not understanding, let alone making, jokes. I’m sure the repartee was very witty, but all my life things have gone over my head & then I feel so hopeless. They thought I was pathetic & over dedicated to my children (often my excuse for leaving).
    Often I would want to talk about the serious issues they, or I was facing – it has taken my a long time to realise the whole point of loud, drinking socialising is to FORGET! Leave the trouble behind for a few hours – then I guess the hangover meant more forgetting as dealing to the pain & immediate sensibility could further dull reality.
    I know your thoughts & ideas will be strongly with me when I face the next event. I will plan, & realise I am a very sensitive person who needs meaningful conversation or escape & quiet. Thank you so much for articulating these things so clearly.

    • SueK 10 years ago

      One of the very best things about getting older is the lessening pressure to be out and about partying. It’s actually perfectly valid to stay home and do something quiet. It seems more socially acceptable to say no thanks or I’ll just pop in for an hour.

  17. poppy 10 years ago

    That was just gorgeously written @suek. I’ve just come from a social work function where I had no problem not drinking but realise how hard it is sometimes to be in a big group and how much energy it saps. I absolutely love the idea of a blankie….although am trying to get my five year old to give his up at present so it might not be a good look for mum to start with one!

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Thanks @poppy — it might not be a great look! But you could always just keep it under your pillow!

  18. B212 10 years ago

    Hehe I also love that sober first aid thought! O how good is it! Well done Sue!

  19. Preparedtochange 10 years ago

    That’s just beautiful. You should be very proud of being you xx

  20. QuietlyDone 10 years ago

    Oh my goodness, your words are my thoughts exactly, thank you so much @SueK.

  21. Rosieoutlook 10 years ago

    Love it! Love it! Love it! Sue, you inspire me. X

  22. ClearRainbow 10 years ago

    I loved your post and relate. I enjoy my solitude and quiet. Love the sober first aide idea and “abrasive energy” is so real. I too have used alcohol to blunt the unease and pain trying to live in the presence of abrasive energy. Being able to recognize that with the consciousness that sobriety brings is life changing.

  23. Flibbertigibbety 10 years ago

    I related to all of this so well. I used to think I was an extrovert, I do love big social situations. At least I used to, I usually drank too much than became obnoxiously loud and tried to “hold court” which of course was probably holding people hostage. If I was in a situation where the people were not people I knew well (like a work happy hour function) I got so uptight and irritated with small talk, I couldn’t get drunk because it was a work function, and I would wait until I got home to get intoxicated. The small talk functions are still the ones I have trouble with, so I do like you did and make an escape plan just as I’m about to lose it. I need to get some sobriety under my belt so I can deal with functions that should be fun, and enjoy them for what they are. My favorite thing is coming home and get on my “comfies” and just spending it alone, or with my husband. I can really relax then.

    • Anonymous 10 years ago

      Absolutely loved your post .Still very worried about social events I think I was what they call a dry drunk (last time sober for a while) can’t recall one social event even with family that I wasn’t wound up & wanted to leave ,angry frustrated telling myself I CAN’T do this without alcohol & poor me .Have not put myself in that position again yet .so thanks for the insight ;0;d

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Thanks for all the lovely comments from all you lovely introverts! I saw a really cute poster the other day:

      (in small groups, just for a while, and only occasionally)

      Made me laugh.

  24. Gerry 10 years ago

    ‘ Sober first aid’ – love that. Can almost feel the softness of you pj’s. Really interesting post. Thanks Sue.

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Thanks for reading @Gerry. I love the sober first aid concept too! Just what we need when we get in the wars out there.

  25. Leaf 10 years ago

    Fantastic, beautiful and insightful @SueK – thank you. Can’t say I’m ever tempted to suck my thumb but oh boy, do I love my blankie!

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Blankies rock! We should see if we can get a blankie gallery on this website… or maybe that’s too much information!

  26. Watergirl 10 years ago

    Thank you @Sue for your wonderful post. I can totally resonate with your story, being introverted myself. I find big functions difficult these days , as in the past I would have had to drink. I find small talk, difficult, and prefer small groups and interesting conversation and a few laughs. So pleased you could text MrsD for support, you did so well. Thank you for sharing, a good reminder for having an exit plan in place for those bigger functions, with Xmas closing in. I’m hoping to avoid most of them. A hottie and pjs sounds like fun and a close friend sounds lovely to me. .:-)x

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Thanks @Watergirl, I think there will be a lot more people going out with their sober toolboxes in tow this year. I do hope that in the future there might even be Chrismas functions that don’t involve booze — I’ve never been to one before, but maybe that was because of my priorities!

  27. behind-the-sofa 10 years ago

    I’m the same as you Sue – essentially an introvert who is happier alone. I can be loud, boisterous and joke about at certain times in certain situations and some people would think of me as anything but introverted -but if I don’t get ample opportunity to spend time alone it sends me into a werl. I think that one of the biggest risks to my sobriety is trying to socialize in a group environment especially where there’s a lot of booze and frivolity involved which is why I didn’t go to our recent staff party, why I’m not going to my boss’s leaving drinks on Thursday and why I’ll probably be spending Christmas alone (bah humbug!!!) I think it was the author Fernando Pessoa who said – for every hour I spend with people I have to spend five hours alone getting over it!! It’s not as bad as it sounds – I like socializing, as humans it’s a basic need for most people, it’s just that I can’t be the same person who would gatecrash any party in the past and get up on the stage dancing now that I’m off the ethanol rollercoaster.

    • morgan 10 years ago

      Pessoa sounds like my kinda guy, that’s for sure.

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Can’t wait to read that!

    • behind-the-sofa 10 years ago

      Fernando Pessoa was the king of introverts and idleness (“Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow and don’t do it tomorrow either”!!)….. I read The Book of Disquiet and it absolutely blew me away. Just about every line is quotable. He found it astonishing that there were other people in the world with minds other than his own!

    • SueK 10 years ago

      I love that quote from Fernando Pessoa — I’m going to check him out. Yes, those parties and hi-jinx are a totally different thing when you’re off the booze. I find too that the older I get the easier it is to say “no thanks” and just stay home. I’m hoping one day it will be not just socially acceptable, but terribly fashionable!

  28. madandsad 10 years ago

    I found this very moving @suek, and can identify with it on many levels. Thank you for sharing your thoughts so eloquently x I was a finger sucker and a hider under the bed clothes when I was little 🙂

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Thanks @madandsad. I love this online community because we can be on our own and connected at the same time. I still have a blankie — it’s a lovely grown-up indigo silk one, but a blankie nonetheless.

  29. Switchedon 10 years ago

    Thank you @suek – that is a very precious post. Really valuable stuff for us to read and contemplate. Watch out dragons here comes Sue! 🙂

    • SueK 10 years ago

      Watch out dragons, here come all the silent sober, marching strong!

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