There’s a joke in AA: “If you do the 12 Steps and your life gets better, you’re probably not an alcoholic. If you do them and things only get worse? That’s how you know you’re definitely one of us.” For those of us who spent years messing up, and getting messed up, it can be hard learning how to cope with problems in recovery. If you’re up against the wall, sober, rest assured: you didn’t take a wrong turn. Sometimes, this is how things go.
When The Pink Cloud Isn’t Enough
Anyone who’s been dragged through the mud and razor wire of active addiction knows that there’s more to addiction than just unpaid bills, unhealthy relationships, legal problems, and deep, dark secrets. In fact, some people say that the real work in recovery begins when all those other issues have been taken care of. It can be hard to imagine a life without these problems, in the first few years of sobriety. Even the legendary “pink cloud,” that feeling of happiness and euphoria that many people experience in early recovery, doesn’t erase the problems of real life. As much as we may wish our lives were simple, easy, and pain-free, that’s just not how it is. All kinds of things can go wrong for us—even when we didn’t do anything to create a problem.
Early Recovery Is Sobriety Boot Camp
In this period, people who want to stay sober learn to adapt to the new stress. Their old coping mechanisms—getting high, hiding out, blaming someone else, or asking family to deal with their problems instead of taking ownership—aren’t available anymore. “Did I get sober just to deal with this mess?” they may ask themselves. The short answer is, “Yes.” In fact, staying sober may be the only way those problems will ever get better. With the support of our family, friends, and community, we get the courage to clean up the messes we’ve made. We face the music! And through it all, we don’t get loaded.
And, little by little, things do improve. We face immense obstacles in early sobriety—and it’s not just putting down the drink or the drug! Imagine getting sober and getting slapped with divorce papers, or being evicted, or losing your job. Some people get sober and then have to deal with the consequences of choices they made while drinking and using. That could be everything from bankruptcy to hepatitis to homelessness. It’s a rude awakening, and for some people, there is no pink cloud. This can be a hard idea to accept: that sometimes, sobriety isn’t a magic bullet for our other problems. Just being sober is a gift, especially if we’ve suffered through active addiction. However, being sober, conscious, present, and aware can make our struggles excruciatingly painful. We don’t have the option to numb out or leave the planet. We feel everything. Sometimes, those feelings are exhilarating. And sometimes, they just suck.
Wanna Stay Sober? Be Honest
There’s a common misconception in the recovery community that if you’re struggling, or unhappy, or dealing with life problems, you’re doing something wrong. That is not true at all. In fact, feeding that misconception is hurtful. The reality of recovery is that sometimes, it’s really hard because life is hard. Everyone will face challenges in recovery, if they stay sober long enough. Having good recovery doesn’t mean you don’t struggle. It means that you’re able to face your struggles with grace and courage—or, at the very least, get through them without picking up a drink. That’s true for the person who’s been sober for one week and for the person who’s been sober for forty years.
How Do I Handle My Problems Sober?
Often, the difference between the person who relapses when the going gets tough and the person who is able to keep their recovery is whether or not they are honest about what they’re struggling with. The temptation to “look good” is always strong for addicts. Why wouldn’t it be? Many of us spent years as disappointments, screw-ups, and drama magnets. Now that we’re sober, we want to look normal, healthy, and capable. That means we might not mention it if we’ve fallen a little behind on the mortgage, or decided to add an extra hour to our timesheet at work, or got an attractive person’s number but didn’t tell our spouse. We might be ashamed to say that we’re struggling, even to our therapist or pastor or best friend. We might start keeping secrets.
The person who can honestly say that they’re struggling is the person who avoids the head games of active addiction. They avoid falling back into the “double life” of the addict. That doesn’t mean that every personal problem needs to be shouted from the rooftop. It just means that there’s no reason—aside from feeding our ego—to hide the issues we’ve been having. Sometimes, all we need to do is tell a friend what’s going on. Instead of hiding our fears, we share them, and that makes them go away. We don’t have to handle everything ourselves.
Recovery is an incredible gift, and most sober days are wonderful. Struggling or having difficulty is a normal part of life, which makes it a normal part of recovery. In the rough patches—and there will be rough patches—it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. You don’t have to be perfect. You just have to be honest.