If you’ve been toying around with the idea that maybe your drinking has become a problem and maybe you should consider quitting, let me first say that I have been there. A lot of people have.
In fact, there are an estimated 208 million people suffering from alcoholism worldwide.
If the word ‘alcoholism’ or ‘alcoholic’ seems really big and scary, I totally get that, too. The good news is you don’t have to identify as an alcoholic to want to get sober.
There is no single universal experience when it comes to sobriety. But there are some things you will likely experience at one point or another in the first 30 days of your sobriety.
On December 19, 2016, I promised myself that I was finished playing around. No more relapses. No more bi-monthly bingeing.
I was going to take my sobriety seriously and go all in. The thirty days that followed were a roller coaster filled with lessons and insights.
And now, with nearly six years of sobriety under my belt and a wealth of knowledge gained along the way, I want to help you understand what lies ahead and how to keep going.
This is a bigger article, so if you want to skip ahead, feel free to use the table of contents below.
- The First Week of Sobriety
- Week 1 Physical and Emotional Symptoms
- Week Two of Sobriety
- Mental Health and the First 30 Days of Sobriety
- The Pink Cloud of Sobriety
- Week Three of Sobriety
- Week Four of Sobriety
- Staying Sober After 30 Days Of Sobriety
The First Week of Sobriety
The first week of sobriety was a mixed bag. On the one hand, I was excited to embark on a new journey. On the other, Christmas was around the corner. That was going to be challenging.
After work, you could reliably catch me in the gym. I was writing again. I behaved like many of us do on January 1st as we tackle New Year’s resolutions.
Hope is a helluva drug – as is novelty.
Our brains are wired to love new things. It’s why traveling or moving to a new place can be such a rush.
So when we decide to do something bold and daring, like quitting alcohol, we are met with one of two emotions (normally) – fear or excitement. Physiologically speaking, there isn’t a huge difference between the two of them, which is what makes anxiety such a rollercoaster.
You’re either riding the wave by doing all the things or you’re freaking out at the thought of dodging the liquor store on your way home from work.
Anxiety is normal in the first week of sobriety.
I attempted to quit drinking alcohol several times before succeeding and experienced both emotional extremes.
There were times I tried to quit and became so riddled with anxiety I didn’t make it past the first 36 hours.
I’ve also experienced the opposite when the first few days were surprisingly “easy.” (Although that bubble does burst eventually.)
Your experience will depend on a number of factors including how much you drink, how long you’ve drank, height, weight, tolerance, and genetics.
Alcohol disrupts your brain chemistry and impairs your ability to regulate mood and stress. One way it does this is by flooding your brain with dopamine when you drink.
Your brain likes balance. Alcohol disrupts that balance. To compensate for the chemical flood of dopamine, your brain produces less of it on its own. This is why you might experience hangxiety or depressed mood after a night of heavy drinking.
When you quit drinking, especially after having drunk for a long time, it takes a while for your brain to adjust. And sometimes that looks like the week from hell when you are riddled with anxiety.
It goes away, but if you are struggling to manage it, don’t be afraid to talk to your doctor about medication for anxiety.
Managing Cravings in the First Week of Sobriety
Towards the end of the first week, I came back down to reality and was woefully unprepared to deal with it.
There were so many moments when I flirted with the idea that because the end of 2016 was fast approaching, and it had been somewhat of a shit year, I deserved one last boozy hurrah.
I call this the negotiation phase, and it is likely you will experience it, too.
I spent way too much mental energy going back and forth with myself over this last holiday hurrah. Just one more time! Using the holidays as an excuse to drink is a terrible idea, but it haunted me for the rest of that first week.
That first week is really important if you’re going to make it 30 days without drinking. It’s an important milestone. Although I wish I had a magic solution to dodging cravings that first week, the truth is it boils down to some basic best practices:
For a comprehensive look at the first week of sobriety, including reframing your mindset and becoming emotionally prepared for the task at hand, take some time to watch this video:
Week 1 Physical and Emotional Symptoms
The first week was mostly about finding my feet and staying focused on sobriety as the big goal.
For some, you may experience heavier withdrawal symptoms, especially in the first 48 hours. These include sweatiness, shaking, tremors, and feeling like you are miserably hungover.
As a very important aside, if you do experience shaking or tremors, please seek medical attention immediately, as this can be a sign you require a medically supervised detox.
It’s also common for people to feel depressed in that first week.
When you eliminate alcohol, you allow yourself to feel things you’ve been blocking out.
As I previously mentioned, you’ve also stopped giving your brain its primary source of dopamine, and because (again) what goes up must come down, you may feel out of sorts this week.
For more resources on the physical effects of quitting alcohol, check out any of the following:
- How Long Does It Take The Liver To Heal After Drinking
- What Is Wet Brain Syndrome?
- Delirium Tremens: Risk Factors For Experiencing DTs During Alcohol Withdrawal
Don’t let that stop you from continuing.
Everyone’s first week varies. Some get lulled into a false sense of complacency. They ride that adrenaline high and somehow get it in their head that sobriety is “easy.”
For others, it feels like the worst decision they ever made. It’s hard to keep going. Is it even worth it?
You’ll probably have a mix of both, which sucks, I know.
Nothing you are going through that first week is permanent. All of it will go away eventually.
Week Two of Sobriety
The second week of sobriety can sometimes feel more challenging than the first. In the first week of sobriety, you’re dealing with many of the physical effects of quitting alcohol. But in the second week, the psychological effects can start to ramp up.
My second week of sobriety coincided with New Year’s Eve!
(I truly picked a difficult time of year to get sober.)
The angel and demon routine playing out in my brain during the first week finished with a (barely) sober New Year’s Eve in which I opted to binge-watch Jane the Virgin with my husband while pounding Diet Pepsi and chain-smoking cigarettes.
On the one hand, I was happy with myself for getting through the holiday season sober. On the other, why was I smoking cigarettes again?
If you are a smoker and heavy drinker, this next section is especially for you.
Should you quit smoking and drinking at the same time?
For many smokers, drinking and cigarettes go hand-in-hand. It was certainly the peanut butter to my jelly. I rarely did one without the other.
Smoking made me feel like shit, and so did drinking. I wanted to quit both but in moments of tear-my-hair-out weakness, it overwhelmed me.
So I made a choice.
Willpower is a finite resource. Getting to 30 days sober is largely a matter of willpower in the beginning. Trying to tack on a second addiction may be too much.
If you are a drinker and smoker a week or two in and feel like you’re going to go insane, consider focusing on one addiction at a time.
Which one, though?
Start with alcohol.
Some people advise you to start with whichever addiction is worse, but my personal opinion (this is in no way medical advice) is to get rid of the alcohol first.
The reason is that alcohol affects your judgment.
It is harder to commit to not smoking when you’re three pints in. There was no way that drunk me was not going to hop on down to the store and grab a pack of smokes.
Smoking is serious and significantly damages your health, but it may be a battle you wait a couple of weeks or months to take on.
Get a little more solid in your sobriety, and then take on the next thing.
Mental Health and the First 30 Days of Sobriety
The second week can be full of psychological battles. We’ve touched on a few of these already.
If this is you right now, it is completely normal and in no way permanent.
I know that’s not comforting, but some days just knowing that what you’re going through is temporary is enough to get you to the next day.
As far as mood goes, things can take anywhere from 3 to 6 weeks to stabilize. If that feels unbearable, don’t hesitate to speak with your doctor.
You will likely need additional support systems to get through the first month sober, so have those resources identified at the start of your sober journey.
I read a wonderful piece of advice about quitting smoking recently:
It gets better. Not soon. But eventually.
And that’s true of sobriety as well. Here’s why that advice is so incredibly powerful.
But First, The Stockdale Paradox
Let’s get a little wonky with some psychology, shall we?
The Stockdale Paradox is named after James Stockdale, a prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years. During that time, he experienced physical and psychological torture that you and I can only imagine.
Yet, he survived.
By accepting the harsh reality of his present circumstance without giving up hope that one day it will be over.
When asked about which prisoners didn’t make it, Stockdale said, “The optimists.” These are the soldiers who would keep their spirits up by saying, “We’ll make it out by Christmas.”
After that didn’t happen, they said, “Okay, by Easter! We’ll be rescued by Easter.” And when that didn’t happen, they set a new deadline. The cycle repeated itself until they became crushed by it.
“They died of broken hearts,” he said.
Stockdale survived by accepting his current situation, making plans to survive it, AND keeping faith that one day, he would make it out. The paradoxical thinking here is to balance the reality of difficult situations with optimism.
Applying the Stockdale Paradox to Sobriety
Whereas no one is torturing us at this moment, it can feel that way. The early days of sobriety can be full of mental anguish and nobody knows for certain when that part ends.
We can ballpark it for you, but let’s remember the Stockdale Paradox for a minute.
If I tell you I felt great after one month, you may think to yourself, “Okay, I just have to hang on for one month.”
What happens when one month arrives and you still don’t feel great?
You run the risk of ditching sobriety because you tried like hell to get to 30 days sober and you still don’t feel strong in your sobriety, so it must be you. Perhaps you can’t do this. (Of course, you can.)
Things will get better.
So just as James Stockdale didn’t know when he was getting out of the “Hanoi Hilton,” you don’t exactly know when the shitty parts of sobriety will stop.
The pessimists will take this uncertainty and become so dragged down by it that they convince themselves the answer is “never” and quit. The optimists will place unrealistic expectations on this process and crumble when reality fails to live up to it.
The trick, then, is to accept that right now things are tough.
Make plans for navigating the rough waters and sobriety triggers you’re in right now. And then keep faith that one day, and you don’t know when, but one day, you will come out the other side a happier, healthier human being.
You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
The Pink Cloud of Sobriety
Here’s the flip side of that coin.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, “What is she talking about? I feel great!”
First, that is amazing! I hope you continue to feel fantastic for as long as possible. There’s just one thing.
Beware the pink cloud.
Pink Cloud Syndrome is a very unscientific term used to describe the initial excitement and exuberance people experience in early sobriety.
What’s wrong with the pink cloud in sobriety?
Nothing, but it won’t last forever. It can’t.
Life doesn’t work that way. There will come a time when sobriety smacks you square in the face.
If you’re caught up in pink cloud bliss and avoiding the more difficult emotional work of sobriety, you may find yourself ill-equipped to handle the hard parts.
It’s a bizarre honeymoon phase.
You quit drinking and you feel AMAZING. Fixed, even! Unfortunately, this is the point where a lot of people relapse.
The pink cloud can give you the illusion that you are “all better” now (whatever that means to you) and can drink like a normal person. Unless you are a statistical anomaly (you’re not), that’s not going to end well for you.
Soak up the good vibes, but tread lightly and continue to do the work.
Week Three of Sobriety
The first week of the new year, I was on top of the world, baby! I was writing and exercising, riding the resolution high, feeling invincible. Pink cloud central!
At least, that’s what I thought.
That all came crashing down. Towards the end of the third week, an old familiar friend re-emerged.
I started feeling agitated and off-balance. Remember what I said about the brain needing to rebalance?
This was that.
The giddy feeling had dissipated and I found myself wrestling with apathy. I couldn’t write and stopped bothering with the gym. At night, I had to take Xanax to get enough sleep.
I was in the throes of depression and not managing it well.
Because I’d been dealing with mental health issues for a while, I hoped that I could white-knuckle it and watch it pass after a few days.
Part of me wanted to drink but settled instead for several packs of smokes and diet soda. Every day was a minute-by-minute struggle.
- Related Post: If I Had To Get Sober Again, Here’s What I Would Change
This is why you need to make a plan when you get sober.
What’s the saying? A failure to plan is a plan to fail.
I did not make a plan. That made it a much more difficult 30 days sober than was necessary. None of us needs to suffer in silence.
There is an entire community of people who have been through the same thing.
Whether it’s attending AA or another recovery program, joining a support group, or counseling – this is the time to start doubling down on your commitment to sobriety by getting help.
I tried to tough it out and very nearly relapsed by that third week.
Not because it was so excruciatingly difficult, but because I was lost. Going it alone. I had no idea what I was doing, other than resisting with every fiber in my being the urge to drink.
(Horrible way to do it, by the way. Do not recommend.)
It’s also important to reconnect with your reasons for doing this in the first place.
Here’s a great video from Men’s Health UK following a writer’s journey to quitting alcohol for 100 days in the face of some worrying health concerns.
Week Four of Sobriety
All that anxiety and depression from the third week? It didn’t pass.
By the fourth week, I was unrecognizable to myself. My mood swung back and forth between depressed and despondent to apathetic.
I began mimicking old alcoholic behavior, sitting outside on the balcony with my husband binge drinking Diet Pepsi and chain-smoking. I did this every night, as soon as I got home from work, much like I did with alcohol.
Obviously, booze wasn’t the only problem.
I had these little rituals I knew were bad for me, but continued to indulge, even in the absence of alcohol.
Dealing with Overwhelming Feelings in the First 30 Days of Sobriety
In my drinking days, when I felt overwhelmed, I would abandon social commitments, cooking, and fitness for the mindless satisfaction of the binge.
There I was, doing it again. The only difference is that I exchanged copious amounts of booze with copious amounts of diet soda.
It’s not uncommon for people in early recovery to substitute alcohol with sugar, which is what I was doing with the diet soda.
My brain was changed by alcohol and craving activity in the pleasure receptors again. The diet soda was my solution.
This was a red flag and should be for you as well if you’re experiencing something similar. If you’re feeling lost, miserable, and considering giving up, it’s time to ramp up your sobriety game and find a recovery tribe to get help.
Hop online and reach out. Which is what I ended up doing.
I woke up on a Tuesday morning gripped by an anxiety attack that made me feel like my heart was going to explode.
At that point, I knew that I was going to have to do something, lest I spend the next four months wallowing in depression and abandoning all responsibilities (and my lungs) to the balcony.
After careful consideration, I realized that I was going to need more long-term care and made an appointment with my therapist to go back on daily medication to manage my anxiety.
From there, it was a slow but steadfast crawl out of that little black hole. But, in retrospect, I’m proud of myself because I did what had to be done.
Anytime you reach out for help, you’re doing it from a place of power.
There is absolutely NO SHAME in seeking the help of a therapist. If you’re showing signs of depression or anxiety, and have the ability to get counseling, make an appointment.
I do online counseling with BetterHelp and it has been one of the best experiences with talk therapy I’ve ever had. Many people find they get on better with traditional in-person therapy or group programs, and that’s great, too!
Do what works for you.
You cannot white-knuckle your way out of addiction or mental health problems.
If you’re feeling lousy or hopeless, please know that this is normal, you are on the right path, and it is going to get better.
Not soon, but eventually.
Staying Sober After 30 Days Of Sobriety
The first thirty days of sobriety were challenging for me, to say the least.
It was harder than the first thirty days of any other time I managed to successfully stay away from alcohol and cigarettes for a few months or more.
But I did make it, and that’s what I want for you!
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tips for staying sober beyond 30 days are similar to those that got you through the first weeks.
There’s no magical trick to staying sober. It’s about staying consistent and prioritizing your health, even in the face of extreme stress, trauma, tragedy, and temptation. It’s one of the hardest things we’ll do.
But there is a future version of you who is happy, healthy, and doesn’t drink. Wishing you all the support and strength on your journey there.
Please note that a version of this post was originally published in January 2017. Below, are my thoughts after my first thirty days of sobriety.
It’s been eye-opening going back after a couple of years of sobriety to see my thoughts and struggles from those first thirty days.
Huge surprise, though!
Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was newly pregnant.
It’s no wonder my mental health took a major downward spiral. Pregnancy hormones mixed with early sobriety emotions? Yikes!
So in that regard, my first month was probably atypical (whatever that means).
But I survived it and got the added motivation I needed to quit smoking as soon as I saw those two little lines on the pregnancy test.
It’s been a couple of years now but I think that I was definitely at high risk for relapse by the end of those four weeks, especially since I was living in a country with little to no access to addiction therapy.
In many ways, my daughter saved me.
If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, here are some resources to help get you through.
- USA https://www.alcohol.org/
- Canada http://www.ccdus.ca/Eng/Pages/Addictions-Treatment-Helplines-Canada.aspx
- UK https://www.adfam.org.uk/help-for-families/finding-support/call-a-helpline
- Australia http://www.recoveroz.com.au/how-to-find-help/help-lines.html
- NZ https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/helplines