Questions In Early Sobriety

I want to share a letter I recently received from a guy in early sobriety, along with the response I gave.  The letter is SO typical of the cares and worries of people in early sobriety that I think most folks will be able to relate.  I edited a bit for brevity, believe it or not.  So…

Hey Bill,

I talked with you once before  when I was about 43 days clean. Today is day 68 and don’t get me wrong I am happy so far.

I have been exercising quite often, mostly running and some weight lifting in the days past, but I still have trouble sleeping at night; I have to wait till like 3 a.m to be able to fall asleep and then I sleep like a hibernating person. At times anxiety comes and attacks me just as depression sets in. From what I have read and researched it seems to point to p.a.w.s. I just really want to be back to normal and never touch the stuff I used to.

Even deep down inside I feel tremendous strength and confidence that I won’t go back to using, some people I know tell me not to be fooled by this deception. I know you have a lot of experience with your own sobriety so I am hoping things will eventually get better for me.

Every day that passes I realize how nice it is to just be alive in the moment even though I have lost everything I have ever owned to this drug. People I have known for ages have distanced themselves, acting as tho they have never known me. I will admit this does hurt, but I try not to let it get to me. Someone once told me that the day we start being clean is the day we start growing emotionally.

Never in my life would I ever think I would be sitting behind the screen typing this and actually counting the days that go by. I count each and every day because it serves me as a reminder of the time I have dedicated towards fighting this disease.

All I want to ask you Bill is if things will eventually get better because depression seems to always be around the corner. There are days when I am happy for most of the day and then there are those times when everything seems dull.

Peace, love and happiness. Take care.

Joe

Hi Joe,

Good to hear from you again, and congratulations on the 68 days and 136 nights!

Sorry you’re having trouble sleeping, but that’s pretty normal in early sobriety. You feel draggy, but rest assured that no one ever died from lack of sleep — at least not when they’re able to “sleep like a hibernating person” once they fall off. It sounds like you’re suffering as much from a disturbance in your sleep pattern as from actual lack of sleep.

Try limiting heavy exercise and caffeine to mid-afternoon at the latest. That may help. Also, never force yourself to stay awake. If you get sleepy during the evening, forget about TV or that book. Go to bed. Sometimes a little discipline on the waking side is all it takes. If you can’t sleep, get back up and do something: eat a light meal or snack, low on carbs with a bit of fat and protein (peanut butter on crackers works well for many) and then read or do something non-stimulating until you think you can sleep again. Lying in bed awake just accustoms you to lying in bed awake.

Your mood swings, likewise, are pretty typical. As long as the depression doesn’t become severe, or last for more than a day or so at a time, I wouldn’t be too concerned. Your brain is adjusting to an entirely new balance of neurotransmitters, and your dopamine production is almost certainly still below normal. As long as you’re not having thoughts of worthlessness, life not worth living, etc., you’re likely just going through normal swings. They will become less severe over time, as your brain chemistry slowly returns to normal.

HOWEVER, if the depressed feelings get worse than just feeling blue, you need to take them seriously and talk to a doctor. You might need an antidepressant for a while. Antidepressants won’t interfere with your recovery.

On the other hand, watch out for antianxiety drugs. The most popular ones are benzodiazepines (Ativan, etc.) and they are poison for recovering addicts. They will prevent your brain from recovering properly, and are highly addictive in themselves (regardless of what your doctor may think). Trust me: I spent three weeks in medical detox for benzos. If you need medication for anxiety, there are plenty of non-addictive alternatives. Mainly, though, you need to keep to your program of healthy living and meetings.  In most cases the anxiety will ease off as you begin to feel more comfortable in your recovery.

Your friends are right: overconfidence has killed many an addict. Relapse is a recognized symptom of addiction, and it can happen to anyone, even us old-timers. I know plenty of people with 10+ years who have relapsed — almost always because they got overconfident and stopped doing the things that kept them sober to start with. Don’t get too confident; it leads to carelessness.  That said, as long as you're working a program and doing what you need to do, you needn't worry.  Just remember that recovery is a process, not an event.  It's a sliding scale, and sometimes it's more slippery than others.

The person who told you about emotional growth is correct as well. If our emotional development wasn’t interrupted by some sort of trauma before we started using, it was most certainly brought to a screeching halt when we began getting high regularly. Then when we get sober — and just when our nerves are at their most jangly — along come all those suppressed emotions that we haven’t learned to handle. It can be unnerving, to say the least. This, too, shall pass. Therapy helps, as do the steps of the program. So does experience living clean and sober.

Recovery takes time, Joe. We spent years messing up our brains and (to a degree) our bodies. Because we’re addicts we expect immediate results when we stop using, just as we got them when we used, but it takes our bodies months to get back to something like normal. That’s what PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome) is — the period of healing. It takes time, but it does get better.

Hang in there, and

Keep on keepin’ on!

Bill

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