Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Two evenings ago, I was hanging out at home. It was a typical Wednesday. My day had been regular: I worked out in the morning and worked all day and was starting to wind down for the evening. Muffins were baking in the oven and I was colouring (yes, I still do that).
Based on the activities I was engaging in, you can probably gauge that my stress level was fairly low. Energetically, I had been in a strange place for the last couple of weeks but overall, things were going really well. I was having a good month. I had launched my first meditation challenge and not only did I enrol participants but was receiving great feedback from them. I was rolling out another group coaching program. I have a few 1:1 clients ready to go and started with a new client. Outside of the energy piece (which is notable), things felt good.
And then it happened.
Out of nowhere, a thought popped into my head: you should have a drink. The next gaggle of thoughts were fast and furious. What time does the LCBO close? Do I have time to get there? Which wine should I grab? Will they have my favourite bottle? The thoughts were immediately followed by intense cravings. I could literally taste the wine in my mouth and as a result, my mouth started salivating. This was something I used to experience frequently when I first got sober; the mere thought of a drink would result in a bodily response in my mouth.
I was completely caught off guard, both by the thoughts and by the cravings. As of today, I have been sober for 1,284 days which is just over 3.5 years. I haven’t had thoughts or cravings like this in at least 1.5 years. The last little while has been smooth sailing when it comes to my sobriety. That’s not to say that I don’t think about it or shape my life around being sober because I absolutely do. But in the first few years of my recovery, I did A LOT of heavy lifting when it came to creating change in my life, my mindset, my thoughts and beliefs about everything and at this point, have simply settled into those changes.
Over the years - and with a lot of internal work and struggle - I have become a person who simply does not drink. It is no longer who I am nor who I want to be. I am hyper-aware of the fact that this life that I have built, brick by brick, day by day, is utterly incompatible with drinking. I am so deeply in love with the life that I get to live that I am completely uninterested in doing anything to compromise even a second of it. I am crystal clear on my purpose and who I am and how I want to show up in the world. I am clear that alcohol is simply fancy, sugary poison and have dispelled all the myths and lies that we’ve been fed about booze over the years.
And yet I was presented with really intense thoughts and urges to drink.
As I mentioned, I wasn’t especially stressed. I wasn’t experiencing really strong emotions in any direction. Nothing notable was happening that prompted these thoughts and cravings. As one wise friend (who’s also in recovery) pointed out, thoughts of and cravings to drink don’t always come in response to shitty situations, which makes a lot of sense especially because towards the end of my active addiction, I was drinking all.the.time so I have drinking associations with everything. I drank when I was sad, happy, stressed, anxious, frazzled, excited, to celebrate, to numb, to forget. I drank at meals, movie theatres, yoga festivals (true story that happened more than once), hanging out alone or with friends, listening to music, writing, reading, any day of the week that ended in “day.” You get the idea.
I think I got to a place where I almost began to take my sobriety for granted in some ways. What I mean by this is that things have been moving in an upward spiral for a while now so I think I assumed that things would continue moving in that direction. Recovery, much like grief, is not always linear and what I experienced on Wednesday was such a helpful reminder of this. The intensity of the thoughts and cravings was actually also really helpful in taking me back to my early days of sobriety and to remember, vividly, what that looks and feels like. Many of my clients are still drinking or in the early days of their sobriety when we start working together and are in the thick of thoughts, cravings, and urges to drink. Finally, this experience also simply served as a reminder that despite being steady and solid in my sobriety, thoughts and cravings may continue to pop up periodically and that’s okay because I know I can manage them.
So perhaps you’re wondering what I did about what I was experiencing and how I got myself through it? The point of this article is both to share that despite being “further” along in my sober journey, this shit can still happen and also to share the tools I used to support myself through the intensity of this experience.
1) Observe Your Thoughts Without Attachment
Thoughts of drinking came rushing in so a big part of how I processed this was to simply observe that it was happening rather than latching onto it. While this may seem straightforward and obvious, most of us, most of the time don’t take the time to witness our thoughts. They just flow through our heads at a rate of at least a thought a second and we get to decide which ones we attach onto and make meaning out of. So I paused and observed what was happening and simply sat with it, without attaching.
2) Thoughts Are Just Thoughts
I reminded myself that thoughts are simply thoughts. Again, they mean nothing until I decide they mean something. Thoughts are not a reflection of who we are or what we should do and they most certainly shouldn’t ever be assumed to be true. I chose to get curious about where these thoughts were coming from but chose not to make them mean anything. Yes, I was repeatedly told that I should have a drink in my head but when I recognize that this is simply a thought that isn’t true, I am able to leave it alone. Experiencing a craving, at whatever point you're at in your sober journey, says nothing about your sobriety, your addiction, the likelihood of your success in sobriety. Sometimes a craving is just a craving. Don't make it mean something that it doesn't.
3) You Don’t Have to Act on Everything You Think or Feel
Again, this may seem obvious but in those extremely intense, overwhelming moments where everything in you is screaming to bring the bottle to your lips, this is an incredibly helpful reminder. Thoughts are thoughts. Feelings are feelings. They don’t actually need you to do anything. Thoughts, cravings, urges, feelings, etc. will all pass naturally on their own, without you taking any action on them at all, which is sometimes something we collectively forget. I think this might be a by-product of the instant gratification world that we currently live in. Typically, when we want something, we can pretty much have it immediately so we’ve acclimated to this practice.
4) Remind Yourself Who the F*ck You Are
As I mentioned earlier, I am deeply connected to my sober identity. Through all the work, I have transformed myself into a sober person and the only real requirement of being a sober person (for me) is not drinking. Reminding myself that I am a sober person who doesn’t drink and also that drinking does not and cannot exist in alignment with the best, highest version of myself is a really grounding reminder. Everything awesome that exists in my life now has been made possible by my sobriety. Drinking has no place in my life now or in the future.
5) Phone a Friend or in My Case, my Sisterwives
Reaching out is an act of resilience and we know that resilience and healthy coping strategies are key in supporting long term, sustained sobriety. I pretty much immediately texted my sisterwives, letting them know what was happening for me and within a few minutes, we were on the phone together. Reaching out for support when you’re struggling is essential. It’s good to let people know what’s happening for you and to lean on them if needed. They will probably offer new insights and perspectives that you hadn’t thought of yet, they will keep you focused and on track and will also likely remind you who the f*ck you are. My sisterwives are sober. For me, when talking about struggles in sobriety, it's important that I talk to others who know, understand and have perhaps been where I am and can hold space for what I’m going through without judgment.
6) Remember that you have a choice around what happens next
This one can feel tricky which is why this reminder is so important. Sometimes it really *feels* like can't choose what happens next because our behaviours and habits have become so engrained, it seems like the next step is not only automatic but inevitable. I'm here to remind you that you always get to choose what happens next. This is the work of self-awareness, intentional actions and habit change. It's also important to remember that we undo old habits by not engaging in them; conversely, we reinforce old habits when we engage in them. What this means in terms of cravings and drinking is that when you experience a craving and feed that craving (in this case, drink after experiencing a craving), you strengthen that craving, ensuring that it will show up again. If you choose not to feed the craving, you weaken it. In the moment of an intense craving, it might feel like the only next step is drink but I'm here to remind you that you can choose differently and by doing do, you're not only sticking to your sober commitment to yourself but lessening cravings in the future. Remember: cravings will naturally pass on their own, typically within 10-15 minutes. If you find they are lasting longer, chances are you may still be experiencing the stimulus that prompted the craving to begin with. Again, get curious and simply notice what's happening around you. Ask questions of yourself, be present and remember you get to choose what happens next.
Much of what I’ve shared above are tools that I’ve acquired through a regular and consistent meditation practice. Others are based on the intentional resilience-building work I’ve been engaging in for years. Mindset transformations (understanding our beliefs, recognizing and releasing limiting beliefs and getting clear on the meanings we attach to thoughts), mindfulness, and habit change are some of the on-going ways that I support myself and my clients in entering and sustaining sobriety while also designing lives that they love. If you or someone you know is struggling with their drinking and wish to make a change, please reach out. You don’t have to struggle alone and there are lots of things you can do to support yourself in creating change in your life and riding the waves of cravings as they come up. These tools have served me well and I hope they serve you too the next time you experience cravings or thoughts of drinking or using.