How to stay sober – part seven


I am going to close with a simple statement that is my overarching meta-principle and touchstone for my sobriety, so i will do the final house-keeping now and leave on that sentiment.

I snowed you with words and advice and observations here. I DO NOT want you to get overwhelmed. You DO NOT have to do all or even any of this stuff immediately, or on anyone else’s schedule – ever. Even on your own schedule, you don’t have to do the stuff on this list. You can make your own list. These are simply some things that helped me or that helped others. NO ONE does all of this at one time. NO ONE possibly could. Don’t feel bad, don’t get bogged down. Find something that resonates with you and try it. If nothing resonates for you, let me know and i will give you a new avalanche of other things to try. Stay positive, and just don’t drink 🙂

Disclaimer 3 – This is another area where official treatment opinions and results vary. My own personal experience has been different with regard to this issue over time. When i got sober at 19, i could not think about the big picture. I would never have made it. I needed to be a “one day at a time” guy. This last time, getting sober at 38 – i had a different relationship to myself and the world. You have to pick what is right for you. Disclaimer ends.

The final truth. I got sober three times. I relapsed twice. The first relapse lasted from 1995 to 2013, 18 years. The second relapse lasted for two weeks. Only one time did i say to myself (the important part) and out loud to others – “I am done drinking alcohol forever. I am never touching another drop. I am never having another drink.” The difference it makes in my sobriety is indescribable. Having made that solid commitment to myself, thinking about drinking just does not even happen for me anymore.

How to stay sober – part six

Hard Choices continued or Outcomes Assessment Applied

Analyzing these choices about what is right for you with regard to living and loving with a drinker, this is another place where you can use the bucket approach from the earlier Outcomes Assessment example. Make two buckets and be brutally honest. If it is complicated, make 4 buckets, with the second two buckets labeled “justification” and provide specific and honest reasons for why an item is listed as it is. For instance, something that might go in the “Good Bucket” – “physical intimacy”. In the “justification” sub-bucket maybe you have a positive thing like “when we touch it is empowering”, but maybe you have “i only feel good because i am being touched and it really has nothing to do with Pat specifically or any true intimacy between us”. The bucket thing may not be complex enough, or it may be too complex. The system does not matter. Making an honest assessment does, and in this case, you bear the burden of proof for why it is right to stay. I don’t want to belabor any points. If this is not clear or requires further explanation, let me know and i will provide more, and more detailed, examples.

I can’t say whether or not you need to leave wherever you are, or go to your parents, or your sister, or your best friend or whatever. One of the reasons that this is often recommended is that most of us stumble quite a bit in the first year. Lots of people have trouble maintaining a job in the first year, or paying their bills, or meeting their court obligations, or whatever. On the other hand, many people cannot and/or should not go back to their families for any number of reasons. This is definitely an area where there are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions. Careful reflection, soul searching, honesty, and a brutally frank analysis of the foreseeable outcomes – these are the only things i know of that can really help sort out which is the right path to take.

How hard is it to choose the proper path?

I got sober the first time living in a house full of drugs, playing in a touring metal band, in and out of bars all the time. After almost two years sober, I had my first relapse living in a house with the only guy i knew who was clean longer than me, and another guy who grew up with an alcoholic parent and does not abuse any substance – ever.

I got sober the second time living with my parents who are responsible drinkers who have quite a bit of alcohol in the house and who drink a glass of wine several nights a week. I relapsed that time while on vacation away from my home.

I got sober the last and final time back at my parents’ house.

There are exceptions to every rule. Every case is different. The exact path you chose with regards to where you live and with whom is not at all as important as that you 1) make a conscious choice 2) you make that choice having fully and truthfully considered all the angles to the best of your ability.

Next – Conclusion

How to stay sober – part five

Hard Choices – as with the rest of the parts in this series, any and all identities have been obfuscated.

Here comes some of the hard stuff. This is also stuff that i have less personal experience with and that there is even conflicting information about among treatment programs. I am going to call your love person Pat. I don’t know if Pat is an alcoholic. That is not terribly important in terms of the statements below.

– You know you can’t make Pat quit. You know that if Pat quits “for you” that is less than worthless on many levels. If you don’t know these things, tell me and i will expand and clarify the points.
– It is very dangerous for you as a newly sober person, to be in a relationship with someone who drinks at all – even a non-alcoholic who drinks very responsibly. It is a whole other dimension of bad for you to be in a relationship with an alcoholic who is drinking.
– It is very dangerous for you as a newly sober person, to live with someone who is still drinking at all – even a non-alcoholic who drinks very responsibly.
– The rule of thumb is “do not date or have any romantic or sexual relationship in the first year of sobriety”. For most, this is a matter of “do not start anything” in that year, because very few people get clean still having any kind of “romantic partner” in the picture.
– Another rule of thumb, given that most newly sober alcoholics are emerging from underneath a huge pile of flaming crap that was their life, is to “go home”. Go be with any family member (by blood or choice) that will still have you and love and support you.

I can’t tell you what is the right thing. In part, i truly do not know enough of the specific details of your situation to even pretend to have those kind of answers and it would be naive of me to present this advice in that light.

I am not saying “you have to break up with Pat”. I am saying that you really need to look closely at breaking up with Pat – at least for now.

I am not saying that “you can’t live with Pat.” I am saying that you need to very closely evaluate not living with Pat – regardless of whether or not you break up with Pat.

This is a lot of stuff to think about. All of these points will be examined further in the next installment.

(I know i hit some controversial ground here. As always, i welcome any comments, even disagreements, as long as they are civil and presented in the spirit of true discourse. I will explain more about all of these points in the next part.) 

Next – Hard Choices continued or Outcomes Assessment Applied

How to stay sober – part four

General Health

General stuff i do and also recommend to all. This all falls into the basket of (3) “health”. Particularly under 180 days, you don’t want any of these to become distractions or burdens. Under 90 days, don’t do anything else in life that is troubling or difficult if you can possibly avoid it except for not drinking. But these things absolutely will help, and you will need to begin addressing them *soon*. This is not meant to be comprehensive or a list of action items. The point is not to overwhelm you with “LOOK AT ALL THE THINGS YOU DO WRONG!” – but to provide you with a list of stuff that you can reference and pick and choose from when it is the right time for you to do something.

A) Look at your diet. Are you eating? Are you eating regularly? Too much? Too little? The right stuff? The wrong stuff?

B) Are you exercising regularly? You don’t have to join a gym, or become a marathon runner, or do anything specific or meet anyone else’s goals or ideals. This is not about what you look like or body type. This is about physical health, and the relationship between physical health and mental health. Without regular exercise, your heart won’t work properly. Without regular exercise your brain does not get the natural chemicals it actually needs to operate effectively. This can be anything – walking, badminton, fencing, rollerblading, bowling, whatever. Something physical that you can do frequently, and that you can come to enjoy. I hated the gym when i started going. Now, if i miss one day, i can tell the difference in how i feel and even how i react to less positive experiences throughout the day.

C) Hygiene – you may be in ship-shape here, but for most drunks that is not the case. Most of us are depressed. Most depressed people quit taking showers regularly, quit washing their clothes regularly, quit worrying about wearing clean clothes. Here agin – i don’t care what your personal style or chosen aesthetic is – just do it well, and do that with purpose.

D) physical environment – most drunks are depressed. Most depressed people do not have the cleanest homes. You don’t need to be Martha Stewart, but you do need to create a safe, comfortable, clean, clutter-free environment. This is not simply my preference, there is real science behind this. I am not talking about the extremes of “artists are more creative in a cluttered work space.” I am talking about dishes in the sink, dirty stoves, dirty bathrooms, piles of junk around, that kind of thing. This may not be you – i am just making a list of the things i tend to encounter – and have lived through myself.

E) Sleep. This is way too individual and complex to detail here, but you gotta start to get good true sleep and to get on a real sleep schedule that works for your life.

Next  – Hard Choices

How to stay sober – part three

More on Habits and Outcomes (note – unless i am talking about myself, i employ made-up examples that do not correspond to any specific human beings)

1. Make new habits. The “destination cure” is as much a fallacy for alcoholics as anyone else. Just going to a new place doesn’t do anything to change you, you have to change you, but doing whatever you can/need to in order to break your old habits is fully a good idea. Different places, different people, different habits. Obviously this is not 100%. You don’t have to stop loving cats, or reading mystery novels, or playing tennis, but you should avoid restaurants or bars or liquor or grocery stores that have played a big role in your bad behavior. Maybe those types of places do not impact you. Maybe your thing is cars and backroads or a deserted train tunnel. One of my “triggers” is one of my favorite books, The Sun Also Rises, and to say that alcohol plays a role in that book would be an understatement. I read some other Hemingway, but i still do not go back to visit TSAR unless i am in a really good and positive place mentally and emotionally. Whatever these things are for you, create some physical distance from people, places, and things that are part of your old patterns. Let me know if you need any more on this topic.

2. Outcomes. I really love this metric. It is so simple. We do it naturally in many aspects of life, but somehow, we have avoided turning this tool inward – at least inward and pointed at alcohol. It is not only a fantastic immediately useful tool to stay sober, it can help you with every aspect of the continuing journey towards becoming a better person. I don’t want to say much more about that here now. You don’t need to be digging too deep right now. You need to focus almost exclusively on staying sober until that is not hard to do. Once that part is really and truly under control, then we open up the hood and start doing some more in-depth work. For now – just don’t drink.

Disclaimer 2 – I don’t want to come across as perfect life answer guy either. I don’t have all this down perfectly – by far. I don’t know anyone who does, alcoholic or not. I made a dumb mistake in my process of dealing with making amends and seeking reconciliation very recently. I did not recognize it as a mistake when i did it, but the feedback i received showed me pretty quickly how my logic was flawed. Then, even more recently, in my business, I MADE THE EXACT SAME MISTAKE. Disclaimer ends.

Getting sober, even staying sober doesn’t fix everything. It fixes very very little. But you can’t even sincerely start fixing all the other stuff until you get the sobriety down. This is why i am holding some observations back, and holding some other advice back. For at least the first 6 months, if not the first whole year of sobriety, don’t worry much about the other stuff. There is a reason making amends is a later step. Whether or not you do an actual AA program or something taken from many sources, you need to really master sobriety before trying amends – for lots of reasons. We can talk about that more later too if you like.

Next Up – General Health

How to stay sober – part two

Outcomes Assessment

I really only have one true drop of gold. I have lots of good things to say and share, but this is my sobriety a-bomb. Different phrases have helped different people unlock this and internalize it for themselves, so i will give a few looks at it for you here. (2) Consequences. Outcomes. Results. If i am being driven to drink, or thinking about it, or lusting for it, or wanting it, or needing it, or dreaming about it (which can totally happen), or (insert your thing) – i ask myself this –

(2) “What do i hope to gain?” We all know what many of the immediate and unavoidable consequences of a relapse of any kind or any length will be. Self loathing, anger, resentment, hurt, fear, pain, grief, and on and on and worse. These are just the known consequences that happen inside our own heads. There are usually obvious, known and immediate external consequences; losing the few people left who still are willing to even talk to us after the lies and hurt our self-centered path of destruction has brought to those around us, getting fired, DUI, jail, divorce, losing custody of the kids – all of that is right there at the bottom of the next first glass.

Given all of that – known terrible results – let us add up the benefits, the positives, the things we will gain by taking even one sip.

I got nothing

I tried (above) to simulate a serious attempt to consider the question. All I ever get is crickets. Even when i do try to put something in the positive group (not for humans in general, not for “normal” people without our troubles, but for me) i fail. “It will feel good.” No it won’t, and i know that very well. “I will have more fun.” No i won’t. I have proven that. “At least i will feel better if only for a moment.” Completely 100% false. In fact, the opposite is true. You get the point. If you do think you have something to put into the “positive outcome” bucket, and you can’t find a reason why that instinct is wrong, give me a call and i will help you shoot it down. This is my biggest golden nugget. This is my singular guiding truth about sobriety –

There is not a single positive outcome to having another drink.

Next up – More on Habits and Outcomes

How to stay sober – part one

Housekeeping: I promise myself and you all that this blog is not going to become exclusively about alcoholism. That said, this entry is the first in a seven installment series, roughly one page each, to be released once a day until complete. I have had a lot of feedback from other people who face similar challenges to those i described. Several people have asked me directly, “how do you stay sober?” Maybe there are people out there who can’t ask that yet. It is an important question, and i am so very proud of everyone else out there making better choices, or even trying to do that. The following is a collection of the best advice i can offer the newly sober taken from my own experiences – some direct, some tangential.

I am going to blend two approaches here – things I do to stay sober, and advice I would and do give to anyone else getting sober with remotely similar circumstances to what you describe. In both cases, the point is not to copy my actions or advice in exacting detail, but to understand the truths behind these things and apply that – the golden sparkly truth – to your situation the best you can.

Disclaimer – I am just going to keep it simple and write *you*. I am not assuming that i know your circumstance completely or have magic vision into your life. Some of my assumptions will be totally wrong. Please don’t let that stuff, my lack of writing from a perfectly neutral space, slow you down. Please do assume the best intent, the helpful intent. Please don’t do what i tend to do with recovery language and fix on a detail and say “that ain’t me” and throw out the rest. Disclaimer ends.

One of the many hard things for me to understand was people saying “getting clean is the easy part, it is life that will kick your ass.” One more cliché. One more staggeringly true cliché. I can’t know where you are at this moment in terms of your chemical relationship/dependency on alcohol, but 30+ days should have most people over the worst of the actual physiological aspects. That really just leaves the mental stuff. Whatever got you started, long-term/heavy/abusive drinking has changed how you respond to almost any scenario. Your body doesn’t really need the drink anymore. Your brain doesn’t either, but you have “Pavloved” yourself. Pain = drink. Difficult = drink. Hard = drink. Happy = drink. Celebrate = drink. Emotion (good or bad) = Drink.

This is the first part of the mental battle – (1) making new habits. The first time i got sober, i still lived in heroin house and i only had one human in my daily life who was clean. This is part of why i spent so much time in meetings. I was not in a position to move immediately, but i needed to create new behavior patterns. You have heard “fake it ’til you make it”. The psychology behind that is re-conditioning – breaking the existing responses we have conditioned ourselves with and building in new responses. You don’t have to believe it, but you do need to do it – it works despite being actively disbelieved.

I will come back to this later. For now, think on it. New habits.

Next up – Outcomes Assessment

Interlude – keeping time

Today is one month smoke free for me, and it feels pretty good. It is nice not to be this guy anymore…

Smokey Fatty - Doha 12/18/04
Smokey Fatty – Doha 12/18/04

And it is nice to be about 40 pounds lighter than this guy…

El Capitan and a large hairy guy - 03/18/09
El Capitan and a large hairy guy – 03/18/09

I made it through two hurdles in this first month. I thought about it a lot while planning and on the drive up to Harper’s Ferry, but i did not stop anywhere to buy smokes before my recent hiking trip, not even a bag of Bugler for roll-your-owns. In the prep phases, thinking about having a smoke at the end of the day in the woods sounded super in my head. But i made it through just fine and had a great time in the woods without smoking. It was so cold that i did not even want to have my hands out of my sleeping bag far enough to hold a book – why on earth would i want to have to deal with the cold just to smoke? My folks went out of town for about week around Thanksgiving and i stayed home alone. This was not as great a challenge for me as it was with the drinking, but still, i survived a week alone without going back to the smokes.

What does any of this have to do with keeping time? Early milestones in abstinence are tricky to track in a way. The first time i ever sought abstinence, i attended Narcotics Anonymous. I was a young dude (two years clean and sober before i turned 21) and the lessons i learned there stayed with me (well some of the lessons, some of the time). The recommended path for newcomers to NA or AA (and probably the rest of the As) is to do 90 in 90 – attend 90 meetings in 90 days – and i did. The early days can be so difficult there are more anniversaries celebrated early on the path to abstinence. Your first day, or first 24 hours clean, sober, whatever, is a milestone. Your next anniversary is 30 days, then 60, then 90. It varies from group to group, but after 90 days, there is usually only an acknowledgement of 6 months and then annual clean time.

I have that system hardwired into my brain when it comes to tracking clean time. I am also a tech guy and love the digital calendar. This presented a stumbling block when i went to set-up the frequency reminders for my sober date and my quit smoking date. At first, without other thought, i entered custom and 30 days on the recurrence. Only later, looking at the calendar and thinking about announcing some milestones did i recognize that the world at large might be confused by my timekeeping when i celebrate 1 month at 30 days instead of the calendar month. Probably folks would not notice or think about this stuff, but the thought still bugged me. I went back into the calendar event, canceled the custom setting and switched to monthly. After one year, i will switch it to annual.

No great insights for today. I just wanted to share the happy news that i am one month smoke free and share some thoughts about keeping time. While we are here i will also set the record straight. I have talked with a very small handful of my tiny readership about this, but on the topic of anniversaries, this is as good a place as any to do it.

I did drink some about two months ago. No crisis set things off. No terrible events occurred as a result. I have even found a way to view this in a positive light. After being sober for about 8 months, i thought i might enjoy the beverage again, and thought i might have better perspective and control. I re-learned several things. I did really hate it. From the first taste of the whiskey and beer, i hated it. I also re-learned that it is not about perspective or control for me. I repeat, i hated it, but i still drank for several days in a row on this mini binge before snapping out of it. I was not afraid to tell you guys, i just didn’t want to talk about it. I was disappointed with myself and it took a little while to even out again afterwards. The most positive thing about the experience is this – i don’t need to repeat that experiment anymore. I believe that the results are in – i am still an alcoholic and have a much better time not drinking than i do drinking.

I was thinking about time and anniversaries and the fact that without the stumble, January would have made it one year sober. I don’t expect or need any of you guys to be keeping track, but you never know. Anyway – one month smoke free, coming up on two months sober (again).

To end on a more positive note – i have started exercising again. I have not yet hit the groove and made it part of a regular schedule as in the past, but i am doing my stretches and floor exercises a few times a week. Two of my favorite real life and digital friends, Kelly and Karen, are both runners and their consistency and dedication is helping me to get back into the running as well. I went out for a one mile run last night about 10:45 and knocked out 2 miles instead. Not back to my desired pace of under 8 minute miles, but having not jogged in months, 9:20 is not a bad pace.

PA - 12/4/13
PA – 12/4/13

Anyway, i wish you luck and offer support in reaching your goals. Tyler Durden said that self improvement is masturbation. He said it like that’s a bad thing. He also got Bob killed and blew up buildings. A lesson i am learning far too late in life, you gotta pick your heroes carefully. I will end with one of my favorite quotes. Sadly, despite the warning, i have lived both sides of this one. If you can identify this one without using the googles you get digital props.

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

PS: back to the hiking and gear stuff next.

PPS: I did buy a groovy domain name for myself and am still planning on moving this blog. There will be warnings and notice and such. WordPress just started showing me placeholders where they may have ads on my blog. I don’t want that. I also hope you are using Ad Blockers so that you would not see that stuff anyway.

Rock On!

Interlude – or where the Frack is Renfroe?

Howdy Folks! I am popping back up after an unexpected absence from blogging. For the most part, i just got busy – which is good. There were some more personal meltdown style events as well, but these were small and brief and navigated if not well, at least better than in the past.

Mother's Day near Holtwood Dam
Mother’s Day near Holtwood Dam

I am still developing my new project for India that i can’t talk much about yet, except to say that things are coming along nicely. I am nearing completion on the initial research and validation stage, working on briefing materials, and hope to begin shopping for seed funding in the next 4-6 weeks.

I have not reactivated the running program, though both that and quitting smoking are on the agenda. I have managed to remain sober, hitting the four month mark at the end of May. There have been few difficult times, but more than i expected. I have not been greatly tempted, and it has been fairly easy to avoid drinking, but i hoped that it would be further from my mind by now than it is. Meaning, i do still think about it, and with more frequency and intensity during stressful times. I am enjoying sobriety. I have not slept this well in years. The biggest and most obvious benefit so far is all about mental health. As alluded to above, i have had one or two trying times, but i have not been depressed since January. With a sober head, it is so much easier to assess what is happening when i start to feel bad, and if not turn things around immediately, at least stop the process of declining into repetitive negative thought and behavior patterns.

A quick example. I had some exciting travel plans around memorial day. The plan fell apart for the first leg of the trip, and for reasons i am still not entirely aware of, that threw me off my game. I started to feel anxious and nervous and a bit agoraphobic. I did not manage to snap out of it and continue with the rest of my plans. I did stay at home, mostly inside. I did struggle with not wanting to see or talk with people when i did go outside, but – that is as bad as it got. I did manage to go grocery shopping and run some other errands. I did clean the house, tend the garden, and do other home based chores. I didn’t wallow too much – and i didn’t drink about it. In a few days, i felt better and jumped back into the swing of things.

Preparations are well underway for the presentation my friend and i are leading for LYP next week, and i am excited about the event. I have made good progress on securing a local paying consulting gig that is also exciting. That i will be able to tell you about, but i will wait until we finish negotiating the details and sign the contract.

I will finish the last few entries for the Apple tech series and get those posted – hopefully this weekend.

Next Up – i think i will probably write about addiction and mental health for a while. The whole picture has not taken shape yet, but i can see how i would like some of the pieces to go. Initially, i will do a bit of a recap of why i decided to get sober this time. I would also like to write about the three other times i have quit drinking. There will most likely be several historical look at various phases of substance abuse covering how and why i got there among other things.

Nick and Jake - JMT start
Nick and Jake – JMT start

Today is the One Year Anniversary of Jake and I starting our John Muir Trail Adventure! I should probably get on the stick and finish the JMT movie project, perhaps to coincide with the one year anniversary of completing that hike…

Hello. My name is Nick…

Hi Folks.

Disclaimer: Normally i write all my blogs in a separate word processing suite and edit them and ponder them and then post. Today, i am just gonna freeball it and we shall see how it goes.

I don’t like breaking promises or creating false hope, but sometimes that is how it goes. When last i wrote i expected to finish a serialized piece on relationships and self discovery as well as complete the John Muir Trail video. Neither of those things happened.

I went to do some dog-sitting with Mickey and Max and despite their loveliness I started to get very depressed again. A few days into my small-ish pity party, i got some bad news from my adopted hometown Richmond VA. One of my buds and mentors, the fellow i apprenticed with to learn how to lay tile, committed suicide by hanging. Yah, he hung himself.

I was shocked and confused and hurt and angry. I spent a day on the phone with various friends, making sure other out of town folks knew and sharing memories and feelings with others. Over a few days there was a huge outpouring of various kinds on the facebooks, and lots of it was crap. There were many people that had not said a kind word about this guy in a decade talking about what a tragedy it was and how awesome he was and how much he will be missed – and that really pissed me off. Later, as i looked back, maybe there were a few attention whores out there, but probably this was people trying to find their own way to deal with grief and shock and in many cases guilt.

This was a difficult human being. He was brilliant, a master craftsman, and a guy who could build or fix anything inanimate. But he was also not the most gifted at interpersonal relationships and communication. Like many tradesman i know, he was a recovering alcoholic and had lifelong battles with depression. Over the past few years, it was obvious that his mental health was deteriorating. He went on and off the wagon again a few times. He wrote more and more bizarre things on the internet, and was difficult to get ahold of in person. Sometimes i would try to visit him when i returned to Richmond, and other times i avoided him and spent time with people who are easier to get along with. I think lots of people had a similar arc in the past few years of doing a little bit of reaching out and a lot more of avoiding or ignoring him. And i believe that is where the feelings of guilt come in. I don’t feel responsible in any way, but i do wonder if i could have done anything to make a difference.

The anger is harder to comprehend. I am angry at him for giving up. I am angry at him for choosing hanging (though i don’t know that any method would be easier to tolerate). I am angry at the outpouring of what feels to me like fake false crap from “mourners”. I am angry at myself for feeling that way about other people’s reactions. I am angry at me for being angry. And i am angry because i am terrified – because of how similar we are in so many ways.

I have felt myself slipping mentally since December. I have taken a few minor steps to try and get a handle on things, but i made no serious commitment and took no decisive actions. I have even avoided several things that i know are good for me including finishing the piece i started months ago on relationships. I have had the backstory part finished for at least 5 weeks, i just got stuck on the conclusion – the “so what” – the “what have you learned” parts.

And off and on since December, i have not done very well with controlling my drinking. I spent wasted a few more days at the bottom of a bottle after hearing the news about my friend and then i realized that it was time to suck it up. I don’t know what all my problems are, and i don’t know how to fix all the ones that i do recognize, but there is one that affects all the others. I have not said these words in a long long time, but here ya go.

Hi, my name is Nick and i am an alcoholic. It has been 11 and a half days since my last drink and today i want to be sober and live more than i want to get drunk and hide. Thanks for letting me share.