Getting sober and getting on with it
February 18, 2012 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Getting sober and/or working towards your dreams: before, after or simultaneously?

This is a question about achieving and prioritizing goals and dreams – when one of them is to get sober. (Yes I am in therapy but would appreciate a non-therapeutic perspective too. Not sure if this should go in Human Relations, Travel or Health category by the way!)

I have recently ended an unhappy 5 year live-in relationship. As I have been preparing, procrastinating and working up the courage to do so for a long time, I am not grief-stricken but rather feel a sense of freedom, hope and possibility. I have also changed jobs twice in the past six months and moved house 3 times since September. So there has been a lot of change in my life in the past 6 months - making me realise, strangely enough, that I crave even more change.

What I REALLY want to do more than anything in the next few years is to see more of the world, to travel in a meaningful and engaged way (as opposed to just partying from hostel to hostel, which I have done previously), and to make a new life in a different city from the one in which I grew up. Everything is so familiar, easy and comfortable here, and I am in a bit of a rut.

What complicates my hopes of moving on is – I think – my drinking. As a 28yo female, I have been a heavy drinker for 10 years or so and have made many attempts to get sober, some of which last for months in which everything improves, only to start the cycle again. I am still quite functional but feel as though it's really holding me back.

For example I have identified several great overseas volunteer jobs or internships that I would love to apply for, but am procrastinating massively – I get scared that I won’t be strong enough to cope right now; or able to trust myself in a foreign country, getting into trouble without the support network that helps me avoid the consequences of my drinking here in my home town. I moved to a big city for 18 months previously when I was 22, which I loved and was so exciting, but was also one of the worst times for drinking, drug use and dangerous behavior. I would like to think I have learned from these mistakes but I also know that when I’m drunk, my judgment flies out the window.

Not to mention I am blowing loads of cash on drinking and despite the fact I am lucky enough to have very minimal living expenses right now, have not saved anything and have even gotten into a small amount of debt.

So I am wondering whether I should try and postpone my dreams of moving and travelling until I have managed to stay sober for 6 months at least. But what if I fail to do that? Maybe it will actually help me to get sober to be in a new place with new challenges? This is exactly the sort of procrastination and self-bargaining that tempts me to drink even more out of boredom and frustration – the lack of adventure, the feeling that I’m not really going anywhere, and that life and the world is out there waiting for me to experience it and I just keep postponing cause I'm always drunk or hungover. I wonder if I’m just using the drinking as a sort of excuse not to put the effort into saving up, making plans, and launching myself into the unknown.

I have spent some time in AA , but more than anything want to believe in my own sense of agency and my ability to improve my life, that I can get better and am not destined to a life of meetings and obsessing about drinking (please do not take offence, this is just my personal opinion). I can’t help feeling that getting sober means somehow putting my life on hold. But maybe it’s not really going anywhere at the moment anyway.

Please, MeFites, can you give me a reality check and help to organize all these competing things in my head?
1) What should I focus on first, and for how long?
2) How can I work towards my dreams of adventure & exploring new horizons, without getting obsessed and disheartened by the day-to-day effort to stay sober?

I am so confused and just want some clarity about my goals and direction in life. I would be grateful to hear your experiences with similar situations.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Everything you want to do depends on your being sober, so that's first. It's shocking how much falls in place after you take care of yourself, and that takes however long it takes-- but your life improves very quickly, and you're able to do the things you always wanted to (and never could) in less time than you would think. I've been clean and sober for 4.5 years (cleaned up at 31), and in that time I got everything back that I had as well as everything I never was able to have. I like to joke that it's a country song in reverse, only better. I have many things to say but no time to write them out properly-- please MeMail me, I would be honored to share my story and be a safe person for you to talk to.
posted by mireille at 9:19 AM on February 18, 2012 [10 favorites]

Oh, and I was devastated by the idea of having to go to meetings for the rest of my life too, and I put in my time for two years and took what I needed and left the rest, and while I don't go anymore, I am glad to know that I can go at any time to get a dose of sanity. And the obsession-- that fades. At first I spent every moment (awake and asleep) in obsession. At two years I could go whole days without cravings, and at 3 I could go weeks. Now they're so rare, so "background", and so manageable. Everyone said this would happen and I could NOT believe them, but it is true for me and it's been true for many of my friends.
posted by mireille at 9:24 AM on February 18, 2012 [10 favorites]

Step one, stop drinking. Today. You want to do this anyway, it's independent of any other choices, so just do it.

Take the next six months putting the money you would otherwise have been spending on booze in a savings account, and plan to spend that money on your travels.

That way you're getting sober in a structured and familiar environment, and at the same time making tangible progress towards a life of adventure and fun.
posted by ook at 9:31 AM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

1) As someone who is sober, I would recommend you concentrate on that first. You feel as if doing so will put put your life on hold, but I can assure you that it's exactly the opposite. Getting sober, while tough at first, will open up worlds. It requires commitment and a desire and willingness to change some fundamental parts of yourself, but I would submit that it is your drinking that's got your life on hold... not the thought of sobriety. I can so identify with the feelings of "it's not me, it's the place I'm living. My life is stuck on hold, and I've got to go elsewhere to jump start it, etc..." In sobriety we call this a geographical cure, and they almost never work. Remember, wherever you go, there you are. Unless you decide to address your drinking head on, it will hinder you any place you travel. To use another silly but appropriate quote you sometimes hear in sobriety, "If nothing changes, nothing changes."

2) The key is to pur your sobriety first, yes, but at the same time you have to learn how to live life "normally" again without alcohol as the focus. This is difficult in the beginning, but eventually it becomes second nature. Alcoholism is progressive, yes, but so is sobriety, and as much as it might seem so at first, it's not simply about learning how to white-knuckle your way through day after day. It's more about discovering the causes and conditions of your drinking, addressing those, and getting on with what is for most people a vastly improved life as a result. It's very difficult to learn how to do this alone, however, and I would strongly suggest you get some help in this area. Thankfully, there are tons of places to do so. AA works very well for me and others, but if it turns you off, there are other alternatives (a quick AskMe search will reveal many of them.)

But yes, in summary, tackle the drinking first, however you best see fit. It's just a much easier way to live, and once you do that you're in a MUCH better position to appreciate just where you're at right now, and make progress in other areas of your life. Please feel free to MeFi mail me if you'd like to discuss this further. Good Luck.
posted by Rewind at 9:41 AM on February 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm echoing what has already been said... My absolute first priority in life is not drinking today. Everything else got pretty easy after that. I actually learned how to achieve many of my ambitious life dreams (new city, great job, getting a masters, volunteering, lost 50 lbs, getting out of debt - all at once!) because of how I learned to stay sober... one day at a time, with the help of other people with the same purpose. Its a beautiful thing really. I've never had it so good.

If you can tackle the drinking problem with the help of AA you can literally do anything (except for fly, that's still impossible.) Two years ago at 27 I was depressed, broke, in a miserable job and with a beautiful wife who couldn't stand me. Now... everything is perfect and I wouldn't trade my life for anything. After 9 months of sobriety I literally couldn't recognize my life. Throw yourself into the AA thing with no inhibitions and that success will teach you how to live a fuller life than you could have imagined.

Good luck my friend. It gets easier, it gets better! Keep working on it. Much love
posted by meta x zen at 9:50 AM on February 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

I want to give a second swing at this... the answer to your question really is in the one day at a time core of the program. I used to feel crushed by the "burden" of prayer, meditation, calling another alcoholic, doing good for someone else and going to a meeting every day. It seemed like too much! How could I live life and do all this??

I have to admit, I live a super charged life now. I get up at 6:15am, dress and before I'm off to work its ten minutes of my morning AA readings and a few minutes of meditation and a prayer stating my intention to stay sober for the day. (I'm an atheist, go figure.) Then on the way to work I check in with my sponsor ( we commute around the same time at 7ish.) Then I work a ten hour day, with no lunch. (I'm killing it.) One the way home, I stop in every other day to a hospice patient I do as volunteer work. Dinner with the wife and then I go to a meeting, usually taking a new comer or a friend with some time. Home, study for 30 minutes, read or watch some TV, meditate for 30 minutes and back to bed.

I have this awesome and full life because I learned how to live a passionate and vibrant day from the program. If do a daily creative practice, I call a non aa friend every day to stay in touch with friends and family, I read a page from intellectual's devotional learning something new every day.... If it takes ten minutes I can add it into my day and I can't believe how much I accomplish every day now. Literally in the last year I accopmlished the following things with this one day at a time approach...

1. paid down $20K of debt
2. lost 50 lbs
3. started an MBA program
4. been volunteering
5. got an awesome job and moved
6. learned photography and now I'm starting to paint
7. made about a dozen really close and awesome friends
8. meditated every day and fell in love with zen buddhism
9. been sober and happy despite some rough times
posted by meta x zen at 10:00 AM on February 18, 2012 [14 favorites]

I think what I'm saying is it happens simultaneously, being sober one day at at time, opens up limitless possibilities.
posted by meta x zen at 10:01 AM on February 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Drinking is not all that incompatible with travel. Not having money is definitely incompatible with travel. If you drink it all away, no travel.
posted by telstar at 10:13 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

You'll probably need to begin tackling the drinking first, and then add in new goal oriented things after you feel more stable. Smart Recovery is an AA alternative based on cognitive behavioral therapy. It might be a better fit for you if the 'sense of self agency' thing is holding you back. There are meetings if you want or need, but the core is that they teach you a straight forward framework for walking yourself through triggering situations, to get to the better outcome (finding something else to do besides drinking).

When you stop drinking so much, you'll need to fill that time with new things - that's where goals come in. Good luck!
posted by jenmakes at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Moving to another country will almost certainly inspire you to drink more, because a move like that is a major life stressor, and it sounds like drinking is your way of handling life stressors right now.

Being drunk in another country is more depressing and more dangerous (more dangerous because it's dangerous to do unfamiliar things like drive on a different side of the road when you're drunk, more dangerous because you won't have the same level of knowledge to support your booze-impaired instincts about which neighborhoods aren't safe to walk through in the middle of the night, more dangerous because you aren't likely to have a support network of folks who'll notice when you've got jaundice or alcohol poisoning or whatever, etc., etc.)

Stop drinking first. If AA doesn't work for you, try Smart Recovery, or try doing it on your own with a therapist's support. But if it's a choice between going to meetings and being drunk, I'd say that "going to meetings" sounds like the smarter plan. I've never heard of anyone crashing their car into an overpass, or into a van full of children, while at a meeting.

I don't know how to say this without sounding cruel, but I will be cruel if I have to if this helps this particular message get through: You say you "more than anything want to believe in my own sense of agency and my ability to improve my life." You're not making a convincing case for that with your behavior to date. The way to believe in your own agency to improve your life is to improve your life, not to insult the ways other people have chosen to take steps to improve theirs.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:44 AM on February 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Here's a suggestion -- don't think about a lifetime of meetings. Just think about today and the meeting you go to today.

One of the problems I have, and it was especially bad when I was drinking, is the thought of having to do something for the rest of my life seems really daunting. The more I think about it, the worse it is. Just doing something and not thinking about it is a lot easier.

Take care.
posted by elmay at 11:22 AM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

When you travel, why not simply stay in hotels? There is a strong social element to drinking in hostels (my experience anyway), and it sounds like you really get carried away with it. Sure, it'll cost twice as much to sleep somewhere alone when traveling, but at least you won't feel as influenced to give way to your newfound sobriety, eh?

Same thing applies to moving abroad, try to live alone. Also, learn to hate this annoying thing in your life that prevents you from pursuing your dreams. What a drag. Go to AA or something.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:40 AM on February 18, 2012

You could put it off--but your desire to quit drinking will probably not change, so why put it off? There's is the old adage about not making any big changes or decisions in your first year of sobriety. I've found this notion to be very much based in truth and a wise approach to initial stages of becoming sober. The notion of putting off big life decisions/changes during the first year is a protective measure against relapse because the first year can be very difficult and you are not 'yourself'. As you become sober you continually become acquainted with and accustomed to the new sober you. Another reason to concentrate solely on your sobriety at first is that you will likely have 'brain fog' for months after quitting. Your experience could be many things--but at minimum expect it to be you adjusting to the 'new you', feeling raw and unfiltered, feeling more emotional, dealing with everything in new, seemingly awkward ways, having feelings that you might not have known you had, etc. My advice? Quit drinking first. Research alternative methods as mentioned above, go to a therapist or try AA again (but find a meeting that is a better fit for you). Whatever you do, find support and get started. It's an ongoing process and well worth it.
posted by marimeko at 11:46 AM on February 18, 2012

Nthing this to the nth degree!

Being drunk in another country is more depressing and more dangerous (more dangerous because it's dangerous to do unfamiliar things like drive on a different side of the road when you're drunk, more dangerous because you won't have the same level of knowledge to support your booze-impaired instincts about which neighborhoods aren't safe to walk through in the middle of the night, more dangerous because you aren't likely to have a support network of folks who'll notice when you've got jaundice or alcohol poisoning or whatever, etc., etc.)
posted by OsoMeaty at 12:10 PM on February 18, 2012

"I can’t help feeling that getting sober means somehow putting my life on hold. But maybe it’s not really going anywhere at the moment anyway."

I'm you 2 years down the road- one thing that motivates me not to be a total drunk is that I was never meant to be a total drunk- hell, I'm actually pretty awesome, I have a cool job, a wicked sense of humour, I'm pretty and have a huge heart to boot- but in the last year or so (who knows why) i became a "nasty drunk" and that has been enough for me... I have this awesome relationship that a) I was passed out for 30% of it, or b) yelling and screaming then weeping... aka- ruining it.

My point is, life is either going somewhere and you're there for it- and controlling it- for better or for worse, or its going somewhere that you don't want it to go but its lost in drunken memory- or its going somewhere you want it to go and you're screwing it up. (for me its been different things on different days)

So, what I do is make a plan (and its basically all about my innate vanity ;-)- I will plan to exercise, get some meditation cd's, steam my face, and read a book.... and while doing that- make the big plans. Those plans may never come to fruition, perhaps they are not all meant to be, but the point is that I am a beautiful person- and I intend to meet my life head on and make it as cool as it can be... and weak as I am when it comes to a glass of vino- goddamnit I try- and you know what? Something real (my life) is intact.

So- your life is never on hold, make the small changes and dream about the big ones.

Finally, as far as moving somewhere and focusing on new things while being sober- you'll have to pick somewhere, like, say- the middle east... because everywhere outside of the united states drinks a lot- and its socially acceptable- and even in the places its not- the slightly unhinged fellow travelers will be well into it.... but you should go see these things... and eat some good food- when you're ready (or for a short time before returning to your life and keeping up the sober) For full disclosure- I moved to England, everyone drank (but not as much as me) but there was always someone drunker... not a good thing when you need to get your shizzle together!

You're life is worth living to the full- and that means the minutes, the days, the months and the years... and each needs developing in their own way.
posted by misspony at 12:40 PM on February 18, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of the first things I realized when I got sober was that drinking not only takes a lot of money, it also takes a lot of time and planning. As others have mentioned, sobriety should be your first priority, but once you do get on the wagon, I bet you'll find yourself with lots of free time you'll want (and frankly, need) to fill. A couple of months of sobriety should give you an idea whether you feel comfortable leaving your support base.
As far as wanting to quit drinking on your own, without the help of AA or some other program, I would second Sidhedevil's observation: what you've tried up until now apparently hasn't worked, so if you're serious about quitting, you need a new approach, whatever it might be. Also be aware that your feelings about therapy might just be your brain trying to talk you out of recovery so as to keep you nice and drunk. I know I had plenty of excuses why I didn't need to go to group before I finally gave up on controlling everything.
As you can probably tell, I'm one of the AA folks too, so if you want some perspective a relative newbie, or just want to bounce some ideas around with a stranger who's been there, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by Gilbert at 1:18 PM on February 18, 2012

I work in an substance abuse treatment center. My response is within that framework.

Yours is one of those cool and interesting posts wherein the poster already knows everything she needs. Or. You've already answered your own question.

You've tried without success to stay sober on your own for a long-term sustained period of time. If you could, you would have done it already.

You've already experienced a lot of change. This alone hasn't kept you sober. There is no reason to believe that more change will be any different. In fact, you already know that dramatic change fuels even more drinking. If your response to challenge now is to drink, it seems reasonable to assume that your response to deeper challenges will be more drinking.

You know that you can't save for travel and adventure drink at the same time. The question about quitting while you travel is moot if you don't have the funds to get anywhere.

Your statement that your support network helps you avoid the consequences of your drinking isn't entirely accurate. You spend a lot of money on booze, you don't have a lot of confidence in your ability to cope without drinking. Your drinking obviously weighs heavily on you. These are all consequences. Over time the consequences of use will get worse. This is hitting top. The way things are right now are about as good as they will get if you keep drinking.

You know your life gets better when you stop drinking. This is the exact opposite of "putting my life on hold." Ergo your experience of travel and adventure will be richer and deeper if you're sober.

That there is little use in fretting about a life sentence of meetings if you can't get to just one. I don't believe that AA is the only way to get sober. I also believe that you don't have to like meetings in order to benefit from them - much like you don't have want to quit drinking in order to do it.
posted by space_cookie at 1:30 PM on February 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

If you want to do what you love, you have to stay sober; if you want to stay sober, you have to do what you love.

That's highly simplistic, I know - but it's a good thing to keep in mind that you need to place boundaries on yourself but also not punish yourself.
posted by mleigh at 2:35 PM on February 18, 2012

I kind of did the thing that everyone is telling you not to do: I was a woman in my mid-twenties with a history of dysfunction and an active alcohol problem, and I went off for a grand traveling adventure, because it was something I'd dreamed of and I thought it would save me.

Of course it did not save me. I had all of the same problems in India that I had in the US, only with less of a support network. I also had a lot of extra stress and difficulties, because living somewhere new and trying to find my footing in a foreign place is not the easy ride I somehow thought it would be. I was lonely. I was depressed by the realization that making such a huge change hadn't fixed the thing that felt broken deep inside me. And I started drinking more than I ever had before. Which exacerbated all my problems and created new ones, and scared the people around me. I finally started to feel like I wanted to go to AA, but I was a few thousand miles from an English-language meeting.

In the end, I survived. Things could have gone a lot worse than they did, given the volatile combination of third-world countries and problem drinking. But it certainly wasn't the experience I wanted it to be. I wasted an incredible chance to travel and learn and broaden my horizons, because I spent so much time drinking and so little time actually experiencing the world. I was trapped in my own head, because that's a big part of how alcoholism works, it cuts you off from the world and insulates you and numbs you out. Numbing myself in India was not all that different from numbing myself in Indiana.

Getting sober, on the other hand, has been so much more than what I had dared to hope for.
posted by bookish at 4:08 PM on February 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

You already know that you have to be sober to get out of debt, save enough to afford travel and to be responsible for traveling safely, so you already know getting sober has to be the first step.

You are like most alcoholics; we really don't want anybody telling us to go to meetings and work a program of steps, etc. We think the problem is we just drink too much and all we need to do is stamp it out like a small brush fire so we can get on with our lives. Problem is, we can't seem to do it. We look foolish, even to ourselves, seeing our lives in disarray and getting worse while all our dreams still out there somewhere and we sit here crying in our beer that we are strong and smart and we, by god, have agency and we can straighten this right the heck out.

You don't have to do anything the rest of your life. Give AA another shot and dig into the program. After you figure out how to stay sober, you can do whatever in the world you're big enough to do. Everything that you did drunk, you can do sober, if that's what you want. If you want something even more or better, you can go after that, as well.

While you are learning how to stay sober, pay off your debts, save some money, make some sober friends, research the possibilities for your future. Make files of places you want to go, jobs you might like to try, cities you might want to live in. A side benefit of AA is that wherever you go, you can usually find an AA community which means you're not a stranger anymore.

AA doesn't take away your agency. Every day you absolutely have a choice to drink or not to drink. Right now you're obsessing and you can't imagine it not being that way. When you've learned how to be sober, you don't obsess; you don't think about alcohol. It's just not a problem.

I do think you know the answers to your questions. You know you have to get sober before you can think straight. Good luck. I too am reachable and invite you to memail me anytime if I can help.
posted by Anitanola at 5:48 PM on February 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

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