Emotional Sobriety

Emotional sobriety is a term thrown around recovery circles. It implies that we have more to recover from than just the physically addictive properties of alcohol. When I first got sober, I thought that it was the physically addictive properties of alcohol that kept me sick. I thought if I could get into a program of abstinence and learn how to never pick up that first drink then the physical addiction would be gone and I could be a happy, sober part of society. I did not realize that it is emotional sobriety that makes recovery so difficult for me.

I learned that I used alcohol for an emotional escape. When I was molested, abused, neglected, and made to grow up too early, I found that the effect produced by alcohol gave me that sweet release that I needed.  It allowed me to bypass emotions that I was not ready to deal with nor mature enough to understand.  This belief was helped by the teachings from the people that were supposed to keep me safe. The teachings that emotions are not to be talked about. The just get over it, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, figure it out and tell me when you are done, stop whining, you are not that important; mentally sealed the deal that a bypass of emotions was not only okay it was expected.  

During my first three months of sobriety, I dealt solely with the physical parts of sobriety. I was allowed to be hyper-focused on just not using. I could allow myself to let other things slide and focus minute by minute on just not picking up.  It was a physically draining and physically painful part of my recovery. Withdrawal, shaking, fatigue, painful internal organs, and the skin-crawling sensations were an agonizing period of my early recovery. I thought if I could just get past the physical pain and the mental obsession I would be in the clear. I was unaware that soon I would be reminded of the things that I drank to forget.

It was then that emotional sobriety became my experience and dodging the painful emotions, the repressed thoughts, memories, and situations became my new reality. Except for this time I did not have my safety net of alcohol, no oblivion to allow me to be released from my mental hell. I had to sit in those emotions and find a different way to get through it. This was the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life. And it continues to be the most difficult thing I have to do in my recovery. In fact healing past traumas of sexual, physical, and mental abuse and managing those emotions, feelings, and memories without alcohol IS my recovery.

A few years into my recovery my 14-year-old son told me that he started making contact with my biggest abuser. An abuser that I cut ties with when I got sober because I needed those boundaries for my emotional safety. I needed those boundaries to be able to recover, I needed them to breath. So, when my son told me that he sent my abuser a contact letter and that they had started to text back and forth because my son wanted a relationship with him it was like he had punched me in the gut like he tore out my heart and shattered it into a million pieces. I felt as though I was re-traumatized all over again. It left me alone again with my raw emotions.

I was once again confronted with the importance of my emotional sobriety. At first when my son told me about his need to have contact with my abuser, that little voice, that powerful alcoholic whisper got a little louder. It was as if the line in which my addictive mind was constantly throwing out finally snagged me and it was reeling like hell to attempt to reel me in completely. It hit me within all of my senses. I could feel that drink, smell it, taste it, and in my mind’s eye, I could visualize that first drink that promised the tender touch of oblivion. 

But I didn’t drink.  I sat in the totality of my new reality. I sat in it, I just sat. I could feel the emotions coming to the surface, just like I used to feel the spins coming to the surface during my benders.  I was sad, angry, confused, overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless, scared, I was broken.  

I went to a recovery meeting the next morning and shared. I shared my emotions, my difficulties, and my situation. I shared because I try to live as though I am no longer alone and isolated in my darkness. I don’t have to do this on my own anymore. I shared and shared until I got so choked up that I could not share anymore and then I broke down. I was heard, I was understood and I was not alone.  

You see recovery, for me, was not an ego puncturing proposition. As an alcoholic who had survived childhood incest, abuse, and neglect and I came into AA without an ego. What I needed was empowerment, what I needed was healing. I needed to bring into my consciousness that which I had stored for so long in my subconscious. I began to open up about what had happened to me, I began to trust and allow a therapist to begin the long journey of unpacking the unimaginable pain that I had been hiding and carrying in my essence for so long. I allowed my clarity to empower me to become clear on what was theirs and what was mine so that I no longer carried around other people’s baggage as though it was my own. My heart began to heal and my recovery began to flourish.

I continue to work on recovery a day at a time never really knowing the exact path my recovery will take while living in the moment. I do know though, because of the clarity of a sober lens, that I will seek help from others along the way, I know that I will try to act upon situations rather than react. I know that I will try to lead with love, honesty, integrity, courage, patience, and hope because those principles are what I implement in my life on a daily basis. I know that I will continue to seek my truth in my recovery.

And I know that no matter what, I will NOT pick up that first drink.

About the Author

Mathew is a sober member of the recovery community since January 1, 2017. He is a father, a husband, and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and trauma. He has found hope and beauty in the moment, looking through the lens of recovery.

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11 months ago

Exactly why I couldn’t stop drinking for so long

The thought of my life’s traumas sober is enough to run and hide

Sobriety ain’t for the weak

1 year ago

Great recovery story! Keep on telling it! Me too, I did not benefit from the AA program’s intended ego deflation because I am not the egomaniacal kind. Instead, my journey to humility started from a position of Meekness, rather than the assumed position of the Pride of Self. AA ’93, saved my life. ACA ’05: I found the ego-building path; I found that “other half of what I needed,” an expression I’d heard so many times through the years from our fellow AA-Alanon double winners, but … but I’m not codependent. I’m not codependent, like zero, not at all, so… Read more »

Robert B
Robert B
1 year ago

Thank you. I too thought focusing on abstinence would ‘fix’ me. I think even focusing on ‘fixing’ rather than healing is telling. I was 7 years sober and 7 years in counseling before I acknowledged physical abuse I experienced and bore witness to as a child as traumatic. I talked about in AA meetings, AL Anon meetings and Adult Children meetings. But I never acknowledged it as trauma. Stories like yours and others expand my palette of healing.

Bob K
1 year ago

A friend of mine speaks a lot in AA — he’s good at it. He unfailing mentions the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Many years ago, I asked him why he revisited that painful experience when carrying the message. The simplicity of his reply left me feeling like a bonehead — “Because it might help somebody.”

There will surely be “somebodies” who are helped by this stirring message. Great job. I love the diversity of writers appearing here will well-crafted messages. This was a particularly good one.

John M.
John M.
1 year ago

Oh Matthew, what an extraordinarily succinct and sensitive piece on emotional sobriety — one of the best I’ve read. Dealing with the “causes and conditions” of which our alcoholism is but a symptom is so perceptively narrated by you.

By the way, I love your phrase “the tender touch of oblivion” to describe what compels us to (re)turn to the comfort and security of the first drink.