I had my last three beers on February 17th, 2008. I sat at my desk in the spare bedroom after work, reading through the Alcoholics Anonymous website, not with any intention of quitting drinking, but hoping to find a way to get it under control. It was a Monday, and I was coming off another weekend drunk. Nothing bad happened; no scenes or incidents, no fighting, nothing that would qualify as a rock bottom event, just another hangover, and another day of feeling the same way I always felt, which was shitty.
For a long time, I measured my sobriety by the number of days since my last drink. I could tell you how many days it had been up into the four-year range. Even then, I knew that drinking wasn’t my problem, it was just a symptom of my issues. The real problem was the way I felt about myself, and my complete lack of emotional tools. But as long as I didn’t drink, I believed I was winning, or at least, not losing, and while that might be true, it wasn’t enough.
It’s been thirteen years since my last drink, and I have come many a weary mile in understanding myself, and why I became an alcoholic. My self-awareness has steadily increased over time, and that has given me cause to reevaluate what sobriety means for me. At this point, I’ve been sober just about as long as I drank. It’s not really about alcohol anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time. So how do I define sobriety now?
I used alcohol as a way to escape reality. I rejected myself, and I rejected the world around me, and alcohol changed both of those things for me. But what did I do before I found alcohol? It’s not as if I was a happy-go-lucky kid who just fell apart one day. I was a mess as far back as I can remember. As early as five or six years old, I began reading books alcoholically, which is to say that I used them to escape reality. We didn’t have a television, so books were my only way out. I was reading way ahead of my age group at school, which my teachers commented on regularly. I learned a lot from reading, but the biggest thing I learned was that life was better somewhere else, anywhere else, and that’s where I wanted to be.
Along with my aversion to reality, I also had some major insecurities. I never felt comfortable in my own skin. I was sure that everyone was judging me every second of the day, so I was compelled to prove myself over and over and over. My behavior was driven by my insecurities, and I was convinced that I was failing whatever the expectation was. And when I became an adult in the workplace, I still felt all those same things, and that was a bad headspace to be in. It made me an overachiever with a massive chip on my shoulder. It made me incapable of being a team player. It made every criticism a fight. It made every day a stressful event. And then I would go home and drink it all away: the escape from my horrible reality.
Now that I can clearly see what was happening, I’m starting to think that my sobriety is measured not in the number of days since my last drink, but in whether or not I get hijacked by my insecurities, or if I engage in an escapism behavior. And that’s not something I can measure in days, because I’m presented with a hundred situations every day where I either succumb to a triggered emotion or recognize and override it. And if I’m trying to escape, I’ve probably had my amygdala hijacked repeatedly and I was unable to get out of it. I probably won’t drink over it, but if I’m seeking to escape, it ultimately doesn’t matter if I’m doing that with alcohol, a movie, a tub of ice cream, a slot machine, or any high-risk or escapist behavior. It’s all the same thing: rejecting and avoiding reality.
My goal for today is to recognize when my amygdala is being hijacked. If I can become an observer of my emotions, then I stop being controlled by them. I don’t expect to be successful every time, but I’m shooting for better than 50%. Perhaps as I get better at it, that goal might move to 60% or 70% each day. And it didn’t start at 50%, it started with a goal of recognizing and controlling just one trigger event, and then repeating that. It’s not easy.
For me, the whole point of understanding myself is so that I can change things that I don’t like about myself. Therapy has helped me realize that most of my insecurities aren’t even based on anything real. Behavior modification comes from recognizing when one of those insecurities is triggered, realizing that it’s an invalid feeling and doesn’t actually apply to the situation, and moving forward with control rather than acting out defensively. The more I times I can successfully do that in a day, the better I consider my sobriety.
Today, sobriety is about not being hijacked by my insecurities. It’s about developing emotional tools and self-awareness. And it’s about growth and change, continuous improvement, and becoming my best self. It’s about living, and not just existing. Because I lived the opposite of all those things, and I can tell you from vast experience, there’s a better way.
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Justin B. Long is an author, blogger, website developer, and the CFO of Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic. In his spare time (ha!) he likes to paint, read, canoe, and hike in the wilderness. You can subscribe to this blog in the blue block, and future blogs will be delivered to your email. Warning: Subscribing may increase your awesomeness quotient. Please feel free to comment, and share this blog on your favorite social media page! To learn more, please visit JBoydLong.com.