From Tranquilizing to Presence: My story of anxiety after sobriety

When I was drinking, I did not have to feel all of the feelings. The first glass of wine in the kitchen while the kids started watching TV took the edge off. I rode the buzz with the second glass of wine at dinner. Once the kids were in bed and my husband and I had settled into our favorite spots in the living room, the third and sometimes fourth glass kept me focused and numb. 

Drinking comes in many forms. For some people, drinking is a way to lubricate social connection and party. This somehow seems sexy, fun, energetic. For others, it’s a quiet passion, enjoyed in moments of solitude. As an ambivert who leans introverted, the solitude was my thing. 

The problem wasn’t the form of drinking – in groups or solo – but rather the fact that I had this nagging voice in the back of my head that was telling me I could do better. You probably know someone who fell head over heels for someone who wasn’t good for them. That was me with alcohol – the ‘lover’ who kept me stuck, kept me from being more of me, who silenced the desires I’d blurt out occasionally by berating me, but also made passionate love to me and took me on adventurous trips. 

I knew drinking was keeping me from being my best self, from living at the “next level,” whatever that was. I finally got the courage up to dump my toxic lover.

When I first left drinking for sobriety, I was elated. I had access to myself more fully. I could do all of the things that I had wanted to but didn’t have time to do because I was giving my love to the bottle. I started taking care of myself in deeper ways, meditating more, hiring coaches, connecting more with the people I loved. I saw myself becoming more aware of the dynamics of relationships in my life more clearly and started working to understand what was and wasn’t healthy and do something about it. It wasn’t like I was totally blind before I stopped drinking, but I had more time and energy to dedicate myself to learn more and make some important changes. 

Now that I’m nearly two years sober, I’m in the thick of my healing and it isn’t easy. 

Anxiety is part of what I was avoiding in all of the years of drinking. For many years as a drinker, I saw therapists. My anxiety was not fully relieved by alcohol (it never was relieved, just pushed down) and I had been introduced to therapy back when I was a teenager. I knew the power of talking to someone on the couch, spilling out my worries and fears, finding ways to deal with the here and now. Of the three therapists I saw during my heavy drinking phase, I never told two of them about my drinking. I hired my third therapist when, at 40, I decided that I wanted to quit drinking by the time I turned 41 and knew I needed someone to kick my butt. Even with her, I didn’t tell her the truth until I had been seeing her for 4 months or so. 

Alcohol was the magic elixir to tranquilize the beast of anxiety. One drink and the tightness in my chest would relax. Two, and I would not have to deal with it all night as long as I kept the buzz going. Three, and maybe four, and I was riding the waves of what felt like peace. When I woke up in the morning with my head cloudy and a half day of wading through the fog of tiredness, peace was more elusive. I didn’t know it, but my anxiety was just there all along, just suppressed. 

It has taken a while to get through the honeymoon phase of sobriety, but anxiety has reared its ugly head in a new and difficult way. While before, I tranquilized the beast, now I am redefining my relationship to it. 

Before, alcohol numbed the experience of anxiety. It didn’t teach me how to be with or understand it. It didn’t offer any other tools beyond silencing it. I had been practicing some of the tools like exercise, healthy eating, and seeing a therapist for quite a long time, and I’m certain that those had helped me. Still, the alcohol kept me from learning at a deeper level. 

Through my sobriety, I have started looking at the definition of anxiety more closely in order to understand my experience of it more fully. One of my meditation instructors, Susan Piver of the Open Heart Project, says that “anxiety is a form of heightened awareness.” Or as Søren Kirkegaard says, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” My therapist concurs and has told me that the people she knows who have addictive tendencies are highly sensitive. Both perspectives have given me a way to honor and hold my anxiety with tenderness. 

What I have been learning and working to do is to be present with and love my anxiety. With the wisdom of my coaches, I have looked at the potential causes of the anxiety and talked through those. I have asked for more hugs, visited the doctor, written, exercised, danced, played with art. I’ve studied and practiced self-compassion (check out Kristen Neff’s amazing work on this), dug deep into meditation through not only practicing on my own at home, but also pursuing learning with teachers in person and online. I’ve made a more purposeful choice to see people and prioritize connection. I’ve read memoirs about people getting sober, listened to stories of how people have moved through their difficult times (check out Jonathan Fields podcast, The Good Life Project, for story after story of people discovering, through deep life challenges, to find their way to live their good life).  I even shared about my most challenging anxious moments to a few trusted individuals. Vulnerability is uncomfortable, people! But it’s key to healing. 

Sobriety is a journey

For about two months, I suffered an intense experience of anxiety due to many factors, the most significant being that I was facing the fact that I was becoming older than my mom had ever been (she died when she was 43). I tried all of the above. I ended up going to the doctor on a regular basis in addition to meeting with my therapist as I faced the idea of my mortality and empathized with my mom’s journey of having to say goodbye to her children at such a young age.

After a few experiences of anxiety produced crisis, my doc finally prescribed a short term anxiety reducing drug, lorazepam. It was shortly after picking up my prescription that I decided not to take it because of its addictive possibilities. However, having it in my possession and knowing that if I ended up in the dark tunnel of anxiety again, I could take it if needed, gave me a sense of control and agency. It was then that I was able to relax. 

Most importantly, now, I am more present to my anxiety, and to the causes of it. Sobriety has given me the gift of more presence to feel all of the feelings. The gifts of this are more joy, more happiness, more of me in my life, more time, energy and presence for connecting with the people I love. 

It is not always easy. I feel ALL of the feelings more. That said, I also have the presence of mind to practice skills that help me be with the feelings. I also take refuge in the hope that learning these skills will make it easier to navigate the tough feelings later. 

If you are considering sobriety, reach out for help. Find a therapist, an Alcoholics Anonymous group (you can go AND still drink! The only requirement is that you have the desire to stop.), or any other sobriety group (check out Hip Sobriety or One Year No Beer). Read memoirs and stories about people who have gotten sober. Sobriety is usually not a one and done kind of deal, so try different things and remember that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. 

1 thought on “From Tranquilizing to Presence: My story of anxiety after sobriety

  1. Sara, so we’ll our. I love this and can totally relate having suffered with anxiety most of my life and took the edge off with alcohol. As I still functioned I denied it was a problem, but also knew I could do better.

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