What happens after you give up drinking?

By Ellen Ratner

This week I was invited to spend time with several women who, combined, have 35 years of sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Although I am not an alcoholic and seldom drink, I found their stories inspiring.

Many said they had a fear of drinking again; and if that happened, they would feel worse than being a loser.

Others said they didn’t feel they would live long if they drank again; that if they used a car, they would “drink, drive and kill.” One person told a story of someone they met in AA who had come to terms in sobriety that he had killed someone when he was drinking.

Other people said they grew up in AA, as they had begun to attend meetings in their early 20s, and they had not had successful role models before coming into the group.

I asked them what they had learned in their years of sobriety. Many had learned integrity, which made them feel better about themselves. Many learned anything is possible. One woman said she had dropped out of high school, but went back and became a lawyer. This was after missing (and drinking) 80 days of high school. She said for years she had shame and it was important for her to go to college. One person knew a woman who, when drunk, had sex with a cab driver and was humiliated. She kept relapsing because she did not know what to do with her shame.

They also said the hardest thing to learn was they could not always get their way, and they had to get over selfishness. They learned to hang in there, as tomorrow could be better. They learned it was important to pause before reacting. The AA expression is HALT: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. They learned to stop saying “I think” and start saying “I feel,” and that the road to denial is quite long.

All of them felt recovering alcoholics were good company, and people who felt they were too smart for AA suffered. Even sober, they all worried about the progression of the disease. Professionals say the disease progresses even if you stop drinking. What would they look like today, in their late 50s and early 60s, if they began drinking again?

In the days of Instagram and Facebook, many women felt it was time to look at the AA tradition of anonymity, and maybe it was time to be more open (although they did have problems with people putting their sobriety dates on Facebook). They said they think AA would be blamed if people had relapses.

Reflecting back on their 35 years of sobriety, some spoke of how they were considered “treatment-center babies” when they first got sober, and now they were looked at as “old timers” in the age of Instagram and Facebook.

Applying the lessons learned in AA to aging parents, they say they learned acceptance, and that they don’t necessarily know what is best for their aging parents’ well-being. They said it was a hard lesson to learn.

Most of the women said they still had dreams of drinking. They want to, or have to, attend meetings so they don’t forget to be a nice person. Many said they’re afraid of anger. One woman said she must work on road rage, and dealing with anger.

Other advice they offered was to stay in the moment. Getting to a place of sobriety where you can stay in the moment – and make plans for the future – is important. All of them recommended the book “Living Sober,” available on the internet. One person offered advice to avoid excoriation by work peers when going out: order a glass of wine, but don’t drink it.

All these recovering alcoholics agreed: The way to long-term sobriety was to think though the drink, and what would happen if they drank. Great advice for 2019!

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