In September 2017, after countless Day One’s and nearly two decades spent ignoring that quiet place inside which knew that alcohol did me zero favors, I finally quit drinking.
Looking back, I know that quitting drinking wasn’t an option until it was the only option. And after that last dark night, it was clear: I was done. It was like a switch had flipped inside me, and as the days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, I was motivated by a profound inner resolve that only continued to solidify. Compared to prior attempts at abstinence — a Dry January here, a Sober October over there — this time, something was different. Those early days of sobriety were colored by a surprising sense of willingness: After so many years spent fighting with myself, I was ready for whatever reckoning was surely coming. It was time to face all the issues that had led me to use alcohol as a coping mechanism in the first place.
What I didn’t expect: To be utterly overcome by an all-consuming, near-constant state of blood-boiling rage.
It was time to face all the issues that had led me to use alcohol as a coping mechanism in the first place.
This was confusing. I’d expected my entry into the world of recovery to be a private, quiet, personal thing, and at first it was. Teary-eyed sessions with my therapist, overwrought journal entries, and awkward, self-conscious conversations where I continued to prioritize everyone else’s comfort over my own. So I was surprised when, abruptly, everything started setting me off. I found myself stomping through the city coiled up like a snake ready to strike anyone who might have looked at me any sort of way.
After so much time spent repressing myself, of staying just numb enough, of trundling along in my safe, small, overly-controlled life, suddenly, I didn’t know where to place myself. How to sit in the rage. All the sobriety resources told me to start meditating. To breathe more deeply. To be still. This sounded nice in theory, but in reality, everything was messy and chaotic. The more I tried to control myself — into certain shapes in yoga, or with attempts at wrangling my mind and breath in meditation — the angrier I got. I couldn’t be still with my brain, not at first. I needed to trust the animal wisdom of my body, which, when I was in the thick of my anger, made me long to do things like bare my teeth, roll in the dirt, kick and scream and claw. Fight.
The more I tried to control myself — into certain shapes in yoga, or with attempts at wrangling my mind and breath in meditation — the angrier I got.
At first, I was angry with my dad. Then, I was angry with myself for having spent so much time barely tolerating my life when I could have had a say in it the whole time. As my anger expanded, I raged against the very water I’d been swimming in; the degree to which forces like capitalism and patriarchy had kept me small, complacent, checked-out. I was angry that I too had been tricked into believing that the way a person enjoys life, or gets through life, is by ingesting poison. It was like I’d been looking at the world through smudged-up glasses that sobriety yanked away, and as I looked around, the last thing I could do was sit still. I was ready to blow it all up.
There was nothing shy or demure about those early days.
My therapist urged me to “manage” my anger. But I was done managing myself. I was unleashed, and though I didn’t love the feeling of being angry all the time, I was uncompromising. I would honor however I needed to feel, including anger. If the goal of sobriety was to stay with myself, I would stay for this, too.
I would honor however I needed to feel, including anger. If the goal of sobriety was to stay with myself, I would stay for this, too.
I discovered that the one place where I could rage out with wild abandon was the gym. At the gym, what I thought, or how I felt, was incidental. What I could do was the focus. And I needed something to do. After so many years spent “taking the edge off,” I was curious about what my edge was. What was I capable of?
In the gym, the rules were different. I didn’t have to look pretty. I didn’t have to have any gear, or a trendy outfit. I would walk through the doors and society’s expectations of me would float away. I would lift something over my head and let it (safely!) drop to the ground in a satisfying cacophony of noise. During a particularly heavy lift or challenging workout, no one batted an eye when I would grunt and screech and scream as I exorcised some primal rage, funneling it out of me and through the barbell. Inside the almost-too-loud music, at the edge of movement, the dervish inside me would quiet. Afterward, I was rushed full of endorphins, and just enough motivation to show up again the next day. My sleep got deep. On the other side of a workout, the opposite of rage — calm — awaited me.
Coiled up inside my anger, my skin felt tight. As old habits gave way to new patterns, the gym bore witness to the messiness of my transformation. I now view those early days as sacred time, a space between spaces, a place where I could practice becoming the person I was desperate to believe I could be. Yes, I was getting physically stronger. But I was also feeling my way into a new way of being in the world, one that had me stand up for myself and my values, take up space, and increase my confidence in my ability to take care of myself — all the things I’d longed for but could never seem to achieve while I was drinking. On top of all this, I was practicing staying with discomfort, which, let’s just say, is maybe the most important skill you can learn in sobriety, not to mention, you know, life.
I was practicing staying with discomfort, which, let’s just say, is maybe the most important skill you can learn in sobriety, not to mention, you know, life.
In many ways, lifting weights is absolutely meditative. When you’re pulling something double your bodyweight off the ground, there is no other choice but to be singularly focused. If you’re distracted? In a rush? Trying to beat your slightly stronger friend before you’re ready? The barbell lets you know immediately that you’re getting ahead of yourself, that you’ve gotten wrapped up in your mind rather than the right now.
Prior to sobriety, I was like one of those inflatable dolls blowing around outside of used car lots: I bended and shapeshifted and conformed under even the slightest breeze, even the lightest external pressure. Now, I am unwavering, and I chalk this up to what I practice in the gym. I know how to stand, rooted in myself, no matter what chaos swirls around me. Just like I had to drink every last drink in order to finally be done, I know that in sobriety, I had to let my anger run its course. I’m still angry. Only now, my anger is of the sustainable sort: Rather than a firework that burns bright and fizzles out, my anger is a slow burning ember that keeps me in the fight.
These days, the gym is closed, and I’m doing my best to stay in the practice from home. I dream about wrapping my hands around some iron, of hard-won calluses returning to the palms of my hands, and my favorite feeling of all. When I am lying on the floor, panting after an intense session, knowing that I gave everything I had and can walk out the door and into the world slightly less coiled up, slightly more at ease with my shoulders back, eyes soft, breath deep. Alive.