January 2019: I am sixteen months sober when it clicks that quitting drinking is not actually the life-transforming panacea I’d believed it to be.
I’ve been diligent with my sobriety: I’ve ditched bummer friendships for more authentic ones. I’m in the middle of a Whole30, determined to revamp my relationship with food. I’m sleeping through the night for the first time in years, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. I’m (back) in therapy. I am newly single after ending an eight-year relationship because sobriety gives me the courage to face all the things I thought I couldn’t.
Suddenly I don’t recognize myself: I’m hydrated, I’m considering meditation instead of flipping the bird, I’m wearing matching socks and clean underwear like a grownup, and, best of all, I’m not questioning the decision. Not drinking is easy, obvious, a no-brainer, just one more fact about me like my green eyes, my prematurely graying hair, and my inability to drive within the speed limit.
After a year of aha-moments and tectonic life changes, I am humbled to realize that the work is only just beginning.
And yet. Despite my best efforts to manage my sobriety (similar to how I thought I could manage moderation), life still feels, well, life-y: I’m still low-level miserable most of the time. Even though I know it’s unhelpful I can’t help but compare myself to my peers and despair about being what feels like lightyears behind. I still experience life as more or less unsatisfactory despite all the practices I’ve implemented.
Worst: I still burn with shame most days, convinced there is something inherently wrong with me, believing that if anyone actually saw the real me, they would run the other way. After a year of aha-moments and tectonic life changes, I am humbled to realize that the work is only just beginning.
One morning early in the year, journaling furiously, it hits me: if I do not not learn to be with the parts of myself I am so desperately trying to erase, I will spend the rest of my life missing my life. And since I’ve already spent over half of it borderline anesthetized, I cannot abide by the idea of wasting even one more moment.
I’ve spent the last year devoted to this and other related questions. What would it be like to not hate me? To, as Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield has written, forgive me for not having a different past? What kind of life might I have if I was as devoted to shifting my inner landscape as I was to my external environment?
Sobriety reminds us that we can change our stories. But first, we must believe ourselves worthy of redemption. Here are a few practices to help you make amends to yourself.
Reconnect with the Wisdom of the Body
That first year of sobriety was all about re-establishing a connection to who I was underneath all the societal and cultural influences I didn’t even realize I had been drowning under. Who was I, really? What did I actually want out of my life? What did I even like!? What did I want to call in, and what could I no longer tolerate? Alcohol and other substances kept me for years cut off from my instincts, completely out of touch with my intuition.
That first year of sobriety was all about re-establishing a connection to who I was underneath all the societal and cultural influences I didn’t even realize I had been drowning under.
One of the first steps I took was to learn to listen to my body, rather than trying so hard to manipulate and control it. Yes, part of this was nutrition and exercise. But more than that, it was about slowing down just enough to listen to the messages my gut was sending me, to reawaken that relationship after it had been dormant for so long.
Developing a relationship with anything—a person, a new hobby, a life without alcohol— means paying that thing exquisite attention. The more attention I gave to the messages my body was sending me, the easier it became to make choices that aligned with my goals and to say no to the types of situations I would later question or regret.
Invest in Changing Your Relationship to Your Brain
After the lightbulb moment with my journal, there was no turning off the switch— I could no longer ignore that my inner dialogue was basically a never-ending diatribe reminding me of what a piece of shit I was, and how embarrassed I should be of myself at any given moment. I had suddenly become aware of something so habitual I couldn’t even see it, until I could, and wow, it totally broke my heart. No wonder I was miserable all the time!
Changing these conversations for me looked like getting support with a therapist who gave me strategies to examine these thought patterns. Additionally, I finally humbled down and started a daily meditation practice, something I knew I was supposed to be doing but that up to then mostly had me rolling my eyes. Right, I’d think to myself when people talked about how the practice changed their lives. Good for you, meditator. You don’t know what it’s like to be inside this brain. This time was different. I was finally ready to listen to people who were clearly onto something I so wanted for myself. By learning to sit (and yes, squirm) with myself I began to become a witness to my thoughts, which created just enough space to begin to question, and eventually shift those old stories.
Tell Your Story
I isolated myself inside the things I did while I was drinking — words I couldn’t take back, behaviors that scandalized me in the light of day — certain I would hold these secrets inside for the rest of my days. I used them as evidence for the unhelpful narrative that there was something horribly wrong with me.
Only when I opened up, shared the truth of my humanity, and allowed myself to be seen was I able to integrate both the light and dark aspects of myself.
Once I got sober, I was strangely compelled to air all my dark moments out into the light of day, at which point a surprising thing happened: I didn’t die. Nobody ran away. If anything, I made the best friends of my life, people who reflected back to me my goodness, who shared their own stories and made me feel less alone. Better yet, for the first time ever I felt a sense of belonging. Only when I opened up, shared the truth of my humanity, and allowed myself to be seen was I able to integrate both the light and dark aspects of myself.
You don’t have to go public with your story (though you might!). But I promise: there is magic in finding in telling the truth to someone with whom you feel safe.
Investing in self-forgiveness is a lifelong practice, a series of small shifts that seem insignificant when viewed on their own, but together add up to a quiet, yet profound transformation. This path takes courage. Let it be one more step on your sober journey that surprises you.