Experts in the Media

Sarah Rusbatch – SMH & WAToday

Grey Area Drinking coach

Four years in, giving up alcohol just gets easier and easier

Opinion Editorial by Sarah Rusbatch.

I’m a busy lady who gets so much joy and fulfilment from the work I do that I rarely stay still for long. But today is a day I’m pausing, slowing down and reflecting on the past four years.

I’m writing in the hope it helps any of you out there reading this and silently thinking, “How the hell do I get to four years? I can’t even get to four days.”

The first few months of living life alcohol-free are hard. And all-consuming. We see alcohol everywhere, we experience emotions we’ve been shoving down for years or decades. We ride the rollercoaster from grumpy to happy to angry to sad. We think about drinking all the time, we negotiate with ourselves. I could have just one, would anyone really know? We get through one day at a time. Each is a battle.

But it’s really not like that forever. Gosh, if it was, I wouldn’t still be sober.

Gradually and subtly, we stop thinking about booze so much. Before we know it, we’ve gone two or three days without it being forefront in our thoughts. Then those 2-3 days begin to stretch out.

But the problem is that​ most people think that sobriety will be what those first few weeks are like. For the rest of their lives. And so, they return to drinking. But then returning to drinking feels hard too. It’s hard waking up full of shame, regret and self loathing. It’s hard constantly making and breaking promises to yourself. It’s hard only feeling a 5/10 level of energy level, mood and motivation (and that’s on a good day). So then we try again because returning to booze didn’t deliver what we hoped. A merry-go-round of breaks, boozing and attempting (and failing) moderation.

Clare Pooley’s book The Sober Diaries has a brilliant analogy of this called the obstacle course, comparing the early part of sobriety as being like an obstacle course where the beginning is full of really difficult obstacles, really close together but, over time, they start to spread out to an easy, flat walk with just the occasional hurdle.

Most people never get to the easy part because they keep repeating the hardest part.

I repeated that hard part multiple times between 2017 and 2019. In the end, I had to accept that moderation would never work for me and that I had a choice to make. Carry on destroying my health, energy, sleep, self-esteem and motivation, or choose to embrace a life without alcohol. Finally, four years ago, I made the choice.

After the first few months, the physical and emotional ​cravings, is the second stage of sobriety. The deeper work. This is where, I believe, the work is done that ensures we don’t return to alcohol.

The biggest mistake I see people make in their sober journey is thinking that it’s just about removing alcohol and keeping everything else the same: social life, hobbies, how we spend our time, and who with. In many cases, mine and others, this leads to us returning to booze. We must look at why we were drinking. What we were getting from alcohol.

For me, it was a few things:

Connection. “I love yooooooooouuuu” screamed into my ear by a random woman I’d met two hours earlier was music to the ears of someone who experienced a lot of loneliness in childhood.

Loneliness. We drink to make those horrible feelings disappear.

Stress. There is no denying that in the initial moment of having that first drink, we alleviate the symptoms of stress because alcohol is a depressant. The problem is that we then go on to create more stress and anxiety in the body as a result of drinking.

Boredom. I could get a great big dopamine hit from sitting on the sofa watching Netflix. Alcohol made me lazy when it came to adding fun and joy into my life.

I had to work hard to addresses these underlying reasons.

Once we do that deeper work, it becomes about what we are adding in to our lives to create more meaning and purpose.

For some it’s not until the second year of sobriety that we feel ready to start exploring what else we are ready to add in. Going back to uni, changing jobs, setting up sideline businesses … discovering what activates that fire in our bellies. It’s incredible to witness what sober people can achieve.

Which brings me onto my final point of what has become quite an essay (thanks for staying with me if you’re still here!). Alcohol keeps us small. And it really keeps women, in particular, small. We all deserve a big, fulfilling life. But in so many ways, alcohol prevents us from achieving this.

We live a life of unfulfilled dreams, unmet needs and disillusionment when we constantly turn to the bottle.

Who​ can go on to achieve all they want in life if they are constantly hungover, tired, anxious and unmotivated?

Yet we live in a world where this is marketed to us constantly. Just watch out for all the Mother’s Day cards and memes this month that sell alcohol as self-care and relaxation. We are up against a beast of a machine. I read recently the marketing spend of Big Alcohol in the USA in 2023 will be $7 billion. That’s $7 billion to sell us the belief that we need alcohol to have fun, socialise, relax, be liked, be successful and be an adult.

In fact, for so many of us, sobriety delivers everything alcohol promises. We just have to do the work to make it happen. And then your life is yours for the taking. And I am forever grateful that I made that choice four years ago.

So for those of you reading this now, know that the hardest part – the cravings and the fighting – does disappear. And then the fun begins. All it takes is time.