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.