We all know that going through a breakup sucks, but none of the other challenges I faced in early sobriety prepared me for just how tricky it would be to navigate my first heartbreak without alcohol.
When I first stopped drinking, I was already in a serious relationship. I thought initially that giving up alcohol would clear up some of the issues between us; as it turns out, it only served to more clearly illuminate our incompatibilities and the toxic nature of the relationship. By the end of my sixth month in sobriety, I made the difficult decision to leave him and was thrown headfirst into my first sober breakup.
Historically, drinking was an integral part of my process after any traumatic event, but especially one like a relationship ending. Going out with friends till early in the morning, keeping my feelings at a comfortable distance by using alcohol as a buffer, and drinking as a means to feel like I was “busy” all the time felt like necessary components of my getting-over-it process.
Let me tell you the good news first: I got through this time in my life without using alcohol as a crutch, and you can too. As for the bad news: Well, it wasn’t easy. But breakups rarely are. And the silver lining here is that if you keep forging ahead without alcohol, I really believe recovery from heartbreak happens faster than it does otherwise.
The resolution to your pain and a sense of clarity arrive more swiftly when you’re not dampening your inner voice with constant drinking. So, if you’re heartbroken and trying to stay sober, here are 11 tips for getting through your breakup and reclaiming your power.
1. Get physical space as soon as possible.
If you cohabit with your partner, it’s time for one of you to move out. Every day that you continue sharing a space is another day of potential arguments and delaying the inevitable. The nights that we were both still sleeping at the house were pure hell, with thick tension hanging in the air and one of us uncomfortably sleeping on the couch.
In my case, I couldn’t move out of our place immediately, so I left town for a week to give us both some space in the meantime. Getting some physical space between the two of you might not be what you want to do right now but it’s the best way to start the clock ticking on your healing process.
2. Distractions are your friend.
I’m usually an advocate for trying to get away from our capitalist society and go-go-go mindset but throwing myself into my full-time and freelance work in the direct aftermath of my breakup probably saved my life. If you’ve got a job or other responsibilities, keep showing up every day for them. It does help to take your mind off your heartache and racking up successes (or at least consistency) in other areas of your life can help bolster your confidence.
3. Keep up your routine, even if you’re just going through the motions.
If you usually cook a nice dinner once a week or if your routine is to hit the gym every Tuesday and Thursday on your way home from work, don’t stop doing those things. Again, you might not feel like it (truthfully, you probably won’t feel like doing any of the stuff I’m recommending), but maintaining your routine is super important right now. A major part of your life has shattered, so any semblance of normalcy in other areas is helpful.
4. Put your feelings to the page.
I finished Julia Cameron’s three-month The Artist’s Way program in early 2019 and doing the morning pages (three pages of whatever you want to write, every morning) was surprisingly helpful and much less of a chore than I’d imagined. Writing is a proven way to process trauma, and it also gives your support network a break from being your on-call support system.
5. Spend time with loved ones.
Speaking of your support network, I highly recommend making plans with friends and family. One of the most important things I did a couple of months after the breakup was schedule a week out of town with my best friend and her family. I clearly remember feeling like myself again on that trip; it was the first time in a long while that I remembered I had an identity outside of my ex, and that the way he’d made me feel about myself wasn’t necessarily who I really was.
6. Schedule time for things you enjoy.
At first, I tried to schedule a couple of things a week that I enjoyed but, as I began feeling better, I started to aim for something “just for me” every day, or at least every other day, of the week. My favorite activities during this time were working out (this was crucial for managing stress and helping me feel grounded in my body), going to the sauna, getting acupuncture, dancing myself into a sweaty mess at hip-hop class, and attending Al-Anon meetings.
Here are some other ideas, in no particular order: Listen to music or podcasts, browse at your local flower shop, visit the library or an independent bookstore, learn a new craft, take a class in something that interests you, go on a long drive, attend a concert, walk around the park, etc.
7. Consider support groups.
There are a ton of support group options. During this time, I went to Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Codependents Anonymous, Women for Sobriety, and many other meetups before I found my home with a women-only Al-Anon chapter. I loved how positive and focused on growing the group seemed to be and hearing everyone’s stories became a bright spot in my week.
8. Find a counselor you can trust.
Therapy can be prohibitively expensive; if you’re struggling financially, try Open Path Collective, which is a group of therapists who offer discounted visit rates to members who can’t afford traditional therapy.
I personally had more success with a feminist-oriented life coach, as she was more focused on solutions and was much more direct with me than my therapists had been (she was the first person to tell me I absolutely had to leave my ex). Having that regular source of unbiased support really helped me keep going when I felt my lowest.
Volunteering has been shown to fight depression and give you a sense of purpose, both of which are crucial during this time. Getting out of the house and helping others will benefit both you and your community. What kind of causes are you interested in supporting? Do you know anyone in your network who volunteers?
If you’re not sure what you want to do, explore different opportunities until you find one that resonates with you. I got involved with my local ACLU and Big Brothers Big Sisters chapters and found both to be rewarding in different ways.
10. Be creative instead of chaotic.
A couple of years ago, I read an Ask Polly column where she said this: “You are spilling over with fire and brimstone, and you’re using it to set trash cans on fire. Find a place to put this intensity, this rage.” I thought about that a lot: How could I harness my pain to create something good or useful instead of creating more chaos?
When I felt overwhelmed with emotions, I sat down and tried to get creative. I started making textile art projects for friends. I wrote short poems. I colored. Most notably, I launched a weekly jobs newsletter for women of color I’d been sitting on for a year, which has been a major source of joy in my life since I started it.
11. Make a list of pros and cons (emphasis on the cons).
This is a good thing to do when you’re angry, as your memory will be stronger when it comes to the bad stuff. Don’t censor yourself; let it all out on the page. Then later, when you’re wearing the rose-colored aviators and feeling sorry for yourself (or worse, wanting to rekindle the relationship), revisit this list and remember all of the reasons why your ex-partner was not a good choice for you.
Every time I read my list, I’d find myself feeling mad instead of sad; `I was angry that I’d wasted so much time and been so blind to the situation. I mean, there were over three typed pages of bad memories and red flags! Over time, I even started to feel grateful that I was no longer in the relationship and that I had the opportunity to move forward without all of the drama.
12. Don’t rebound if you know you’ll regret it.
This is such a commonly doled out piece of advice: “The best way to get over someone is to get under someone new!” We’re told over and over to rebound, and I obviously get the appeal. But I also know myself and I understand that while some people can absolutely handle casual sex, I’m more likely to get embroiled in another confusing and emotionally taxing situation. If you’re like me, you should probably opt to stay away from dating or hooking up until you’re feeling more clear about your emotions.
Ultimately, as cliche as it sounds, the main thing that helped me was time. For so many days, I felt like it would never get any better or that the weight in my chest would never lighten, but ever so slowly, I got there. It didn’t happen overnight by any stretch but I do think I got there faster because I continued to show up and take care of myself, even when I felt like I was fighting against myself to make it happen.
It also helped me to be honest and share my story with others, much like I’m doing now. When I talked to people about what was going on — even relatively new friends — I was very direct about what I was going through and it helped me connect with a lot of people. So many women told me they had been in similarly abusive dynamics and while it hurt to hear that, it also made me feel seen and reminded me that there are so many universal threads running through our experiences. We’re all flawed. We’re all looking for love. We all suffer, and we all feel joy.
If you’re heartbroken now, I fully empathize and I do believe it will get better. Remember that pain is an inevitable part of our lives in so many ways and while few of us naturally embrace it, it remains an opportunity to learn a lot about yourself and about life.