My life changed drastically when I stopped drinking. I had spent over ten years anaesthetizing my feelings with a steady drip of alcohol, and in sobriety had few tools to manage the anxiety and emotional volatility that emerged when I stopped self-medicating.
In the programs that supported me in getting sober, there was a lot of talk about turning my will over to a higher power, relinquishing control, and having faith. While I initially found some comfort in this idea, I soon felt extensive self-doubt and was having a hard time distinguishing reality from the story in my head—I felt like every person I encountered in my day-to-day life was judging me, or ready to criticize the changes I was trying to make in my life.
My logical mind knew that no one was that focused on me, but the doubt would eat at every interaction I had, leading to anxiety and a general feeling of despair. I also didn’t feel like I could trust myself—that I would never understand how to take care of my own life. I needed to learn to discern between my brain’s interpretation of a situation and the actual facts in order to build a solid foundation for my recovery.
For me, that’s where tarot comes in. Tarot, a deck of 78 cards that has been used for games and fortune telling for centuries, has emerged as my primary form of sobriety support.
The deck is split into two sections: The Major Arcana and the Minor Arcana. The first consists of 22 cards with names you may have heard of like The Lovers and Death. These cards represent the big opportunities and challenges in our lives, including ones that we can try to run away from—like substance abuse—but ultimately must address. The 56 Minor Arcana roughly correspond to a playing card deck, broken into four suits that examine our logic and communication, passion and creativity, emotions and intuition, and work and security. The Minor cards explore the smaller, day-to-day occurrences. Together, tarot tells the story of what it is to be human by depicting universal archetypes that can help us to understand our own experiences.
Together, tarot tells the story of what it is to be human by depicting universal archetypes that can help us to understand our own experiences.
Working with tarot can help to shift the understanding of our life experiences from an entirely subjective inner mind monologue to something with a shade more objectivity, simply by grounding our ideas in a physical object that we can actually hold and examine. Drawing a card like The Fool —which embodies the full breadth of new beginnings and the attendant joy, fear, and stubbornness required to start a journey—for example, may appear to let us know that there is a new beginning available, even if we feel foolish having to start all over again. The High Priestess, for another, lets us know that we already have the answers we seek, and that looking for them outside of ourselves will not lead us where we want to be.
When reading tarot for myself, I like to shuffle the deck while thinking of a question or area of my life that needs clarity, and then pull out just a couple of cards to reflect on. And while there is no religious or spiritual requirement for tarot—no, you don’t have to sell your soul to the devil to use tarot cards—I find a feeling of peace in using my deck to invite inquiry and compassion. It is far more helpful than reverting to snap judgments and breakdowns, my default setting in moments of confusion and crisis.
What I love most about the tarot is that it enables you to check in with yourself, and your understanding of the cards is part of what can shift your relationship to alcohol. In my experience, using the tarot as a way to pause and assess helped me to avoid the old patterns that led me back to the bar; developing consciousness of the present moment through what the deck showed me made it harder for me to choose oblivion.
Using the tarot as a way to pause and assess helped me to avoid the old patterns that led me back to the bar.
In fact, the progression through the cards can be seen as an allegory for getting sober. The Fool (that’s you and me) starts the journey by taking a leap into the Major Arcana. He then works through the opportunities and lessons of each of the remaining 21 card archetypes (including the most famous addiction card, The Devil) before finally reaching completion of this particular journey in the final Major card, The World. There is so much work before we get to the place where we’re ready to change our lives, and tarot reflects that, showing how we move in and out of challenges and joys, mimicking the transformations and setbacks that can be found when we start to question our risky coping mechanisms.
When I was first learning tarot, the stories that the cards offered enabled me to clarify my own story, helping me to feel both empowered and less lonely: the fact that these cards and their stories exist proved that other people have walked this path before me.
In the early months of my commitment to recovery, I pulled the Tower routinely. This card—typically an image of a tower that has been struck by lightning and is beginning to fall— indicates a scorched-earth destruction in our lives, and nothing could have been closer to the truth for me. I had a job that relied on my ability to drink alcohol, and no clear way to remove myself from the very necessary income it provided.
Sobriety was an opportunity to rebuild, and to completely recreate my life. The Tower helped me when I couldn’t help myself.
The Tower—painful as it was to see my life splayed out in collapse—reminded me of the message underneath: The Tower’s destruction occurs only when we cannot make the changes ourselves, and need of some kind of universal intervention. The Tower represents moments when all illusion is removed, and we are knocked back to our foundation to build again. My boozy corporate job did not hold up to the harsh light of day that sobriety shed, and I ultimately left with the faith that—despite having no job lined up or any clear path forward— the change was what The Tower required. Sobriety was an opportunity to rebuild, and to completely recreate my life. The Tower helped me when I couldn’t help myself.
After embracing the challenge of the Tower by leaving my “dream” career and diving into a mess of part-time gigs, I was hooked on tarot. For the first time I was able to understand my present experience, which helped me to regain my agency and become an active participant in creating my future. Now I use tarot through a lens of self-care, choosing to find usefulness in the cards, and ultimately supporting myself by engaging with the challenges in my life rather than hiding from them.
Now I use tarot through a lens of self-care, choosing to find usefulness in the cards, and ultimately supporting myself by engaging with the challenges in my life rather than hiding from them.
Using the tarot to take care of yourself
Below are some thoughts on getting started in using the tarot to support your sobriety. Expect to feel overwhelmed at first—there are 78 cards with different images and specific meanings that you can also read differently when they’re upside down (called “reversals” in tarot speak). After you know the cards, you’ll learn to tell a story with them. It’s a lot, but it’s a great way to occupy your mind in those excessively long days of early sobriety.
Find a deck that you like: No one else needs to buy it for you, and you don’t need to get something specific. There are so many amazing decks these days made by independent artists. A quick search on Kickstarter or Instagram will open up the possibilities for you. The only necessary thing is that it has at least 78 cards—anything less than that is considered an oracle deck rather than a tarot deck, and may not offer the same nuance. If you’re stuck, start with the Rider-Waite-Smith—it’s a classic for a reason, and the pictures will evoke an intuitive response even in the most inexperienced readers.
Bond with your deck: Hold it, admire it, enjoy its company. Don’t be afraid to shuffle your cards and see which ones you are naturally drawn to.
Get some basic guidance: I like Biddy Tarot’s website, as well as Little Red Tarot, or you can download one of my free ebooks. Be selective because many tarot resources will steer you towards meanings that are not useful and may be downright cruel—not everyone chooses to approach tarot with the goal of self-care—so I encourage you to trust your own experience of the cards over anything that you read or are told.
Go slow: Here’s your official tarot-professional-sanctioned permission to set aside the Minor Arcana for a while and just get to know the Majors, as these tend to come easiest to new readers. The Minor Arcana can take more time, and if you find yourself avoiding your deck because it’s all a bit too much, it’s fine to ease in. There is no right or wrong way to learn tarot, and your direct experience will be the best guide.
Put aside predictions: Tarot can be used for divination, or trying to determine what’s coming up, and for understanding where you are right now in your life. Consider what is the most helpful for your sobriety: trying to know the future, or understanding the present so you can build your future. I use divination as a tarot professional and as part of my personal practice, but peering into the future is not what keeps a drink out of my hand. What truly soothes my mind is understanding where I am and how I got there.
Peering into the future is not what keeps a drink out of my hand. What truly soothes my mind is understanding where I am and how I got there.
Remember that the cards are here to help: That means drawing challenging cards, such as the Tower or the Devil doesn’t mean that you’re about to fall apart or relapse. Take them as a sign that you might check in with any tendencies to replace damaging behaviors with others that can also cause harm, or to spend some time on your personal sobriety practice. The same goes with desirable cards, such as the Chariot, which suggests inevitable success. Receive a “good” card with the knowledge that you have earned it, but not as an excuse to stop the rituals and habits that have supported your sobriety. And if the cards seem confusing, don’t give in to the desire to spiral out, call yourself a failure, and assume the worst. The cards are just pieces of paper, and we define the terms of our relationship to them.
Ask yourself one simple question: And that is, “what do I most need to know to support my sobriety?” Look closely at your card and its art, and allow yourself to explore how it makes you feel.
Tarot is not the only part of my sobriety toolkit, but its ability to quiet the story in my head and clarify reality has made it the most critical. Tarot may only be a deck of cards, but there’s a reason we’re still using them to help us feel better after all these years: they work.