This week’s Sober Story comes from Bell, a 50-year-old living in Freemantle, Western Australia.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Bell: I have been in recovery for nine years, a fact which is both completely normal to me and still wildly astounding.
Mrs D: What can you tell us about the last months/years of your drinking before you gave up?
Bell: The last few months and years of my drinking were exhausting. I was tired. I drank every night and bolted awake at 3am to have an existential crisis. Every. Single. Night. I was a high functioning alcoholic, which is addict speak for still managing your shit. I worked, I managed friendships and a happy marriage, but I was drinking without my permission. I felt powerless. I would decide each morning that I did not want to drink that day, or just have a gin and tonic or two, and not open a bottle of wine. I never managed it and I was filled with shame and loathing. They say that addiction is about denial, and I certainly had years of that, but in the last few years, I developed an inner voice. When I went running in the morning, the voice would say “I know you think you have it all together, but a bottle of wine is 7 standard drinks, 7 standard drinks is alcoholism, just so you know”.
Mrs D: That internal dialogue is exhausting.
Bell: I was constantly ashamed. I worried that I was too loud, too drunk, too obnoxious when I was drinking. I very rarely got drunk because my body was so used to it, but I got tipsy and sloppy. I dropped things and smashed things. I lost things. I started to isolate, which I now know is a common symptom of alcoholism. When our drug of choice becomes our desired companion, we are in a serious place. I remember meeting friends in wine bars and enjoying two glasses of wine. I always drank much faster than other people, another fact that embarrassed me, I could not sip a glass of wine slowly like ‘normal’ people. I would enjoy chatting and then claim that I was tired and needed an early night. I would cycle home to open a bottle of wine and sit listening to music or reading a book as I finished a bottle off, without anyone to notice how deep my gulps were, or how quickly I finished my glass and poured another.
Mrs D: What was the final straw that led you to get sober?
Bell: For me, the final straw was undramatic. I got home, opened the fridge, and poured myself a big glass of wine, and I realized that I had not even put my bag down. In two decades of serious drinking and a lot of trauma and chaos, it was this small moment that made me realise I needed to change. I was fed up with myself, I was fed up with drinking and I was tired. So tired. A lot of people in recovery say “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I cannot put it more eloquently than that. Shortly after that I went travelling in the North West of Australia. We stayed in remote locations, I had to buy enough wine, beer and cider for a few weeks at a time, and it was shocking to see it. I remember a young girl serving me and asking me excitedly if I was having a party. For some reason, I was honest and said it was just for my husband and I but we were travelling for a while, so needed to stock up. She gave me a look I will never forget; it was pity. She was about 20, and she looked at me, for the briefest moment with such empathy, humanity, and sorrow. Dumping two to three weeks of empty bottles and cans was also quite illuminating to me. How could two people drink that much? It is so much easier to slip them into the recycling bin and never have to think about it again. I was becoming increasingly aware that I was locked in a dance with no music. I wanted out. I wanted out a long time before I quit, but it took me years to find the courage and grace to become sober.
Mrs D: How was it for you in the early days? What was most difficult?
Bell: Considering the joyful life sobriety has granted me, it is sometimes hard to remember how terrified I was and how hard the first few weeks and months were. I sometimes say to people that it was easy because I was done. That is true, but it is not the whole story. I was terrified. The most difficult thing was understanding myself as a sober person. I felt my identity was somehow linked to drinking. I remember thinking that I had to quit, but I was not going to enjoy it. I could not imagine having fun without alcohol. The exact opposite has been true, my life is far richer, more joyful, and fun but I could not see the pathway. I was staring into a void. I did not know who I was without drinking. I was afraid of everything. Sobriety, my emotions, and not being able to enjoy a bottle of wine. I loved it. I had a truck of grief at having to say goodbye.
Mrs D: What tool or tools did you use to help you?
Bell: I remember reading that the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, wrote to Carl Jung to ask what would help addicts in the journey to sobriety and Jung recognized that it was community or spiritualty. That has held true for every sobriety story I have ever heard. I found my community here at Living Sober. My mother had gotten sober one month before me, and a voice in my head screamed if she can do it, you can do it! I think there is a slightly narcissistic element to addiction. We think we are so unique. Getting online and hearing my story and my pain in a shared forum of grief, solidarity, triumph, and tears made me understand myself in the lens of addiction. I was not special. I was a garden variety alcoholic but the other thing community gives you is an easing of the shame. In recovery community, I learned that addiction is not a moral failure, it is a disease. Actually, I think it’s a coping mechanism that helps to numb the grief of being alive in the modern world, but we can call it a disease, it’s easier.
Mrs D: And you were still travelling in those early days?
Bell: Yes. In some ways, travelling was a great blessing. I have often wondered how many more years it would have taken me without that trip. I had no social engagements, no job, no stress. I walked on the beach and swam in the ocean and did yoga, it was a camping version of a five-star rehab facility. Nature was a great inspiration and healer to me. At 5.00 pm every day, I would go for a huge walk to get me through the desire to drink. I listened to a podcast called The Bubble hour. I learned so much about addiction and sobriety in this podcast. There are probably much more local podcasts now, but that was one around at the time and I learned so much. I even learned to anticipate the voice that would tell me that wasn’t that bad and could have a few drinks. It took five years for that to happen, but I was ready for it. When it came, I laughed and said, “you took your time”.
Mrs D: What reaction did you get from family & friends when you started getting sober?
Bell: I was travelling when I got sober and returned to my community as a sober person. By that time, I was glowing with health and radiant in sobriety, nobody could really tell me that I should have a drink. My friends had time to prepare for it because I shared my journey in phone calls and letters. My friends were mostly respectful and lovely. It took a long time for my good friends to feel comfortable drinking around me, and that annoyed me a bit. One or two friends dropped away organically. One of my wilder friends actually said “you are no fun anymore, you can’t drink champagne” and in a moment of pure grace, which is unusual for me, I understood that, that was more about her than it was about me, and did not get offended. The universe rewarded my bravery with a host of glorious woman who entered my life from the wings, and they either do not drink, or rarely drink. A year after giving up alcohol I went on a serious health kick and gave up sugar. People were weird about that, so I know how it can be, when you are judged for your choices. Somehow with my alcoholism, I got a bit lucky with my support. After a month of sobriety, my husband who never called himself an alcoholic but was a very heavy drinker, quietly stopped drinking with no conversation, no fuss and has not had a drink since. He told me it was not as much fun without me.
Mrs D: Have you ever experienced a relapse?
Bell: I have never experienced a relapse. I have had several moments where my brain tried to convince me I could have a drink but I know in my heart and soul that it is not true. I am an alcoholic; I destroyed my chances of ever drinking normally (whatever that is).
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Bell: Of all the questions, I have found the most difficult to answer. I think it took at least a year to settle and relax into sobriety. I used to get very anxious and edgy at night. I could really snap, and often had remind my husband that I was in recovery. But also, parallel to that, the first gift of sobriety was sleep. I started to sleep 10 hours every night without moving. This was so unusual for me, my husband would check my breathing. He was so used to me tossing and turning, getting up to go the toilet, switching on my kindle. I slept deeply for at least 10 hours every night for over a year. It was so astounding to me to be able to sleep that I think some of the settling was instant due to the sheer relief of not being an exhausted alcoholic insomniac.
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Bell: It takes a very long time to enjoy socialising sober. I am nine years sober and the honest answer to that question, is that it has taken nearly all that time. I love parties now and sober dancing is one of my favorite things, but it has taken a long time to get there and a few life changes in addition to being sober. In the early years, I was shocked to discover I was not an extrovert, I was a drunk. I had to learn that I was socially anxious and super awkward. I went to parties and suffered through them and went home early. I enjoyed smaller gatherings and dinner parties and started meeting friends for hikes and ocean swims. So wholesome. The gifts of true connection far outweighed the awfulness of parties. But then, as time went on, I forgot I hated parties, or just did some more changing and morphing and now I genuinely get excited to attend a party, especially if there is dancing. The story you tell at one year’s sobriety will not be the same story you tell at ten. This is one of the great gifts of sobriety. Growth and the capacity to change. Addiction keeps us stuck and stagnant.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped drinking?
Bell: I have learnt so much about myself and it has all been a surprise. I learned to like myself and back myself. I learned my drinking was a numbing and coping mechanism and there was a very hurt little girl inside me that needed to be seen. Learning to heal that part of myself is a life long journey and it takes a lot of therapy, journalling, self-reflection, and self-compassion. The greatest surprise is that I am strong. I was pushed to the edges of my resources, but I have everything I need within me.
Mrs D: How did your life change?
Bell: I can not imagine my life without sobriety. At 41 I was tired, overweight, exhausted, spiritually, physically, and emotionally. I knew I was somehow in the wrong life but I had no idea how to change it. Now I am 50, I feel sober, radiant (in a 50-year-old menopausal way) and capable. I returned from travelling and felt a bit lost as to what to do with my life. During Covid I had the strongest urge to give my life meaning. I did a Masters in Social Work and now work in my dream job, working with children with trauma and disability. I outgrew my marriage of 20 years, which felt stagnant and restricting. Like all changes, it was hard but I claimed my independence. I am writing this from a little inner-city apartment which is filled with art and books. I am happy in a deep rumbling volcanic way. I cycle to the beach each morning and plunge in the ocean. I meet friends for dinner, gigs, theatre, movies. Sometimes I slink out on my own to date myself. I have tried my hand at dating, it is terrifying and I am not a fan, but like all things I never thought I could be capable of, I can meet life head on. In all Its glory and mess. I am here for it, alive and awake. I am so bloody proud of myself, I could combust.
Mrs D: All so great. Can you pinpoint any main benefits are have emerged for you since getting sober?
Bell: The main benefit of being sober is the freedom. Freedom from addiction is like being released from a dungeon to a meadow. There are so many good things but it is the absence of shame and pain that is the overwhelming benefit. The absence of the dark despairing pit that is addiction.
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Bell: Oh gosh, this is such a lovely question. I feel like everyone would just say, I wish I had done it sooner. The only thing I would do differently is do it in my 30’s not my 40’s. I am still in the process of making peace with all the loss and waste of my addicted years.
Mrs D: What advice or tips would you have for those who are just starting on this journey?
Bell: Anne Lamott once said her mind is like a bad neighborhood, she tries not to go in alone. This is particularly true for sober people. Our minds cannot really be trusted. Our thoughts are not facts. Be curious, get a community, read everything you can, get ready for the time your brain tells you, you can drink and it will be different this time, and send that thought packing. Whatever it is you need to do, do it. A life beyond your wildest dreams is waiting for you to claim it.
Mrs D: Anything else you’d like to share?
Bell: At the heart of addiction there is a disconnect. Becoming sober is like plugging back in. It Is not easy but the rewards come thick and fast. I feel connected to myself, to my higher power, to a power greater than me. I am not a big fan of man-made religion but I think of God as the line in the Dylan Thomas poem “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” I feel connected to that force, and I feel astoundingly grateful for the grace and beauty of our natural world. I remember reading about the rapper Eminem getting sober, he could not get over how beautiful the leaves were, “the fucking leaves man”. That is the sort of connection that comes from plugging back in and not disconnecting through substances. I was badly bullied at school and the message I received was that I was not welcome and I was not ok. I chose to disconnect from myself because I internalised the message and believed it. When I connected back to myself and the world around me, I was truly staggered by the beauty and grace of it. We are so lucky to bear witness to life. If it we can bear the weight of it. I am connected to my life and the people I am fortunate enough to have in it. That feels like a massive blessing and something worth being sober for. I am so lucky.