By Julie B.
“I feel like a baby bird,” I said during a meeting when I was newly sober. I felt shaky and unsure of myself and like I didn’t know how to do anything as a sober person. I was happy to no longer be a slave to my addiction, but I also had no idea who I was anymore, or how to function in the world as “Sober Julie.” It had taken me a long time to attain sobriety, but once I’d managed to string a few sober days together, I kept going.
Throughout the process, I recall feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, all the time. One day in a women’s group I was attending, someone asked, “So, we’re just supposed to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable?” and the answer was “Yes.” With that in mind, I set out to do just that, and eventually I started to feel less and less discomfort. So what did I do exactly? Well, the first thing was coming to believe that I deserved a good life in sobriety, even at the times when all I wanted was to run away and escape from reality. I decided to fake it ‘til I made it.
Now that I was sober, I could read books again—something I’d been unable to do while drinking daily. I found I had a lot of free time, and no social life in early sobriety, so I spent my time researching how addiction affects the brain. Going to the library regularly also helped me to start socializing with people, even if it was just a short exchange with the librarian while checking out my books. It gave me a small sense of purpose each day, which helped me to keep going.
In my research on addiction, I learned that I didn’t need to believe that AA or sobriety would work for me; I just had to act as if they would, and do the work. My brain would catch up with the idea later. I sometimes thought that I was on that classic “opposite” episode of Seinfeld— at every opportunity I would just do the opposite of what I would normally do, since what I’d been doing in the past was definitely not working in my favor. At the time, I didn’t believe that this approach would work, but now that I’m approaching my fifth year in sobriety, I can see that it helped me to stay on track, especially in the beginning of my journey.
The next thing I did was to utilize my support system. I attended Agnostic AA meetings regularly, and mostly listened to what other people were doing to support themselves in sobriety. I met people and went for coffee after the meeting. I noticed that I felt almost comfortable in those few hours I spent in the company of fellow recovering alcoholics. I also attended groups at my local mental health center. If there was a group offered, I attended it. This helped me to get out of the house and learn how to interact with other people again.
Throughout my addiction, I spent most of my time drinking alone at home. I had an addiction doctor, an addiction therapist and a cognitive behavioral therapist. I attended a mindfulness meditation group as well. I learned how to sit through a feeling or a craving and let it pass. This was excruciating at first— I felt like I wanted to jump out of my own skin—but I kept trying and eventually it became easier. Today it’s automatic.
Physically, I was not in good shape. I was underweight from not eating, and also bloated from all the alcohol I’d been consuming. I had to learn about nutrition and actually plan my meals and snacks in advance so I wouldn’t let myself starve while I was trying to figure out what to eat. I couldn’t sleep at night, and when I did fall asleep, I had difficulty waking up at a reasonable hour. To help, I developed some sleep hygiene rituals. I went to bed at the same time every night, ate a snack of carbohydrates and had an herbal tea before bed. It took a while to get my sleep regulated, but with the help of some meditation techniques, I eventually developed regular sleeping habits.
This might sound like a lot of effort, and it may seem overwhelming to someone in early sobriety, but none of this happened overnight. There were long periods of time when the only thing I accomplished during the day other than eating, was taking a shower and getting dressed. I actually had to write “take a shower” on my to-do list and talk myself into it on many occasions.
I told myself to just “do the next right thing” about a thousand times, and that helped me to bathe, dress and feed myself every day. I felt like a loser who had to learn how to do everything over again from scratch. But I remembered that I’d done it before when I broke both my legs in a car accident when I was 15 years old and had to learn how to walk all over again. I remember that first step I took after spending a month in the hospital. I moved my foot about an inch, put my weight on it, and then fainted from the effort. But I was walking around the halls of the hospital within a week or two. What I learned was that the first steps are the hardest, and if I kept going, things would get easier.
I also had to learn how to have compassion for myself. I was not a loser who couldn’t get it together enough to take a shower—I was a person who was doing a lot of work to constantly fight an addiction in order to have a better life. All the work that was going on behind the scenes (in my brain and body) was exhausting, but I could already see how my life was changing in small ways over time.
After I’d (more or less) mastered bathing, dressing and eating on a daily basis, I delved into some deeper interpersonal work. I’d spent the greater part of my life in a drunken haze, and now that I was sober, I had no idea who I was, what I liked, or what I wanted to do with my life. I started by making a list of things I liked to do as a child and what I would like to try out now. I thought of it as an experiment in discovering myself, my likes and my dislikes, without judgement. I decided I would try things that I was interested in, and if it turned out that it wasn’t for me, I would move on to the next item on my list. For example, I tried knitting, and although it helped me to pass the time, I discovered that I didn’t like it, so I stopped halfway through my project. I tried gardening, and joined a garden sharing group. I found I enjoyed gardening immensely, and I’ve continued to do it for the past 5 years. Other things on my list that I’m still doing are performing stand-up comedy, and going to university.
All of this self-discovery was not easy. I was scared to be part of a community, I was intimidated by learning new skills, but I kept at it, and it became easier every time I tried something new. I’m sure that anything I do to embarrass myself in sobriety is not half as bad as the things I did when I was drinking. I guess the difference now is that I can’t blame it on the booze. One tool that helped me to become more comfortable was reading the book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, by Susan Jeffers. I learned that it’s not the end of the world to make a mistake, and I can be afraid, but keep going anyway. So far, none of my fears about trying new things have come to pass. The worst that has happened was that I was bored at some workshops and I left early. I’m now the type of person who will say “yes” to all sorts of things. I’ve traveled to Belize, been interviewed about my garden for the local newspaper, and have received numerous scholarships and awards at school.
Living a sober life has given me options and choices. I enjoy the freedom to make my own choices about how I’m going to live my life. I now look forward to every new experience I encounter. As I get older, I notice that new experiences are not as common as they were in my youth, and I’m grateful to be awake to my own life and fully alive. Alcohol was killing me physically, mentally and emotionally. I may make mistakes or feel awkward at times, but one thing I know for sure is that I never want to be a slave to a substance again. I may have felt like a baby bird in early sobriety, but the thing about baby birds is that they grow up, and learn to soar through the skies.
About the Author, Julie B.
Julie B. recently celebrated 5 years of sobriety, is finally finishing her undergraduate degree, and is active in Toronto’s Indigenous community. She believes in the power of story as a tool to help people connect and recover from addiction. Her story has been published in Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA. She enjoys spending time with her two cats, gardening, and taking hilarious photos of chipmunks.
Artwork by Jan A.
Thank you Jan for the beautiful photography used for today’s featured article.
The audio story was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, you may reach him by email at email@example.com