As a woman in recovery who happens to have a generalized anxiety disorder and is an Enneagram 4, contentment isn’t exactly something that comes naturally to me.
After getting sober in 2009, I felt like I had to make up for the time I wasted while drinking. Without the veil of alcohol standing between me and my goals, I thought I needed to press forward with full steam, ticking accomplishments off my to-do list.
I enrolled in a night program at one of my local colleges, continued to work full-time, and attended recovery meetings regularly, all while raising a child, attempting to tend to my relationship, and fostering sober friendships.
Within two and a half years, I’d obtained a bachelor’s degree, got married, and took a job in my field of study. I was often lauded by family and friends for my perseverance, tenacity, and ability to multitask so well.
What they (and I) didn’t realize at the time was that my anxiety was running my life. I thought that if I completed and achieved all those things I “missed out” on doing before I got sober I’d find contentment.
I chose a life of sobriety so that I could live fully — so that I didn’t have to run from my feelings, mental health, or obligations.
Slowly though, my physical health began to deteriorate. I’d get in the shower and run my fingers through my long, thick, curly brown hair, and fistfuls of hair would come out of my head. I was dizzy all the time. I was also exhausted all the time. It took a trip to the hospital and a bit of mental health crisis for me to slow down.
But the minute I slowed down, I found myself antsy to get started again, even though I knew the fast-paced life I was living wasn’t sustainable. I got a therapist and started doing some deep work. After a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder, I realized that I was constantly running from one thing to the next, attempting to add another accomplishment to my list, because — even as a sober woman — I didn’t know how to manage how anxiety made me feel.
It’s been a few years since I sought help for my anxiety, and it’s made all the difference in the quality of my sobriety. I’ve come to the conclusion that contentment is more valuable than achievement. I chose a life of sobriety so that I could live fully — so that I didn’t have to run from my feelings, mental health, or obligations. Finding contentment is a big part of living fully.
1. Intentionally Practice Gratitude
I learned about a gratitude practice early on in sobriety, and it’s always provided me the opportunity to ground myself. For me, physically writing down a list of things I am grateful for is most helpful. Something about the scrawl of the pen on the paper and the intentionality in the notion draws me into the feeling of gratitude more deeply than silently rattling off a list in my brain.
When all that I have in my life is laid out in front of me, the desire for more dissipates.
2. Stay in the Present
Okay, staying in the present is a bit ambitious. I have learned how to bring myself back to the present though, and I find the most contentment when I’m able to stay in the day. My anxiety wants me to look into and worry about the future in an unhealthy and unsustainable way, so I have to really practice existing in the present moment.
Sometimes this looks like me taking several deep breaths. Sometimes it’s meditation. Other times, it’s grounding myself through my senses — taking stock of what the pendant around my neck feels like in my fingers or how the sun feels on my face.
3. Take Stock of How Life has Changed
Before sobriety, I woke up each day, white-knuckling from the time I opened my eyes until the moment I went to bed. Survival was the best I could accomplish. My mind raced constantly and I felt trapped in my own skin.
Sobriety gave me a life I wanted to live, anxiety and all. In the age of social media, consumerism, and productivity, it’s easy to forget that the simple gift of sobriety is enough. It’s often worthwhile to take a look back and see how far I’ve come.
4. Let Go of the Shame and Guilt
Before recovery, I did many things I would never do now. It’s true that I was emotionally absent during the first few years of my oldest son’s life. It’s also true that I spent many semesters signing up for and failing classes in college. I had trouble holding down a job. My relationships were marred by codependency and unrealistic expectations.
Alcohol stood in between who I was and who I wanted to be. Now that I’m sober, I have the ability to choose a new, beautiful, engaging life, every day. Sometimes though, it’s easy to fall back into the past, wondering how things might have been different. This is especially true when I think about my children.
But if I stay in that space where shame and guilt have the power to overcome me, then I can’t live in the present. If I’m not in the present, the contentment evades me. Yes, it’s important to remember where I came from and what I did, but I only need to use my past as information today. It doesn’t have to hold me hostage.
5. Ask for Help
As someone who deals with mental health issues, it’s important for me to ask for help. Sometimes, the pressure of the world and of life is too much, and asking for help is 100% okay. Mental health is just as important as physical health. I take care of my body through proper nutrition, exercise, and good sleep hygiene. It’s as important to maintain my mental health through therapy, self-care, and medication if necessary.
If maintaining my mental health isn’t one of my top priorities, contentment is impossible.
Today, contentment for me is an intentional practice. Most days, I don’t just wake up feeling happy and satisfied with my life. I have to find it through gratitude and presence. I do have days where the world is beautiful and I’m perfectly satisfied with everything, but I don’t think that’s the norm for any of us.
Engaging in and living a sober lifestyle provided me the foundation on which to find contentment, though. It wasn’t possible while still drinking. Every day that I wake up sober is a new opportunity to see the beauty amid the chaos.