This Japanese proverb is the lighthouse of my sobriety.
The longer I stay sober, the more I realize that the maintenance of sobriety has very little to do with abstaining from alcohol.
That part becomes easy after a while.
Rather, it’s the healing of the many wounds that led you to drink in the first place.
In the past, I’ve made the mistake of oversimplifying my sobriety. Just don’t drink. Done. But that’s only the first part. There’s a lot more to it.
If you neglect those other parts, you’re far more likely to wind back up at the bottle.
Learning Grit Through Sobriety
I used to be a quitter.
Not of anything I should’ve quit, mind you. I was fiercely consistent in my daily effort to destroy and demean myself.
But everything else?
No chance. My resilience factor was hovering around zero. I quit everything I started and let those failures stack up until I felt crushed by their weight.
If that weren’t bad enough, I routinely wrapped myself in a blanket of my own misery. Oh, I failed again? Time to nurse those wounds with alcohol, cigarettes, and social isolation.
Forward momentum is hard to muster when you’re like this.
It’s easier, and oddly comforting, to play it safe and drink yourself into oblivion rather than deal with things. You can build an entire identity around your bullshit.
It wasn’t until I started making grit a priority in my life that I was able to break out of this cycle and not only stop drinking, but change my life completely.
I picked it up on a whim and ended up building an entire ethos around what I learned from it.
This book will help you understand HOW people become great (it’s much more boring than we imagine) and the mindset you need to cultivate the ability to succeed in your own life.
And sobriety is part of that.
What we often get wrong about success and sobriety.
Understanding how resilience works is a key step to breaking down our illusions about how people get there. It demystifies the process.
Oprah wasn’t transformed into a tycoon overnight.
We become so enamored by the outcome that we forget about the process. In this modern world of instant gratification, it’s become increasingly easier to do that.
Nobody likes to shine a spotlight on the hard stuff – the daily eating of chicken breast and broccoli, the 4 AM wake up calls in blustery weather to head to the gym, the countless hours meticulously redoing a piece of writing, getting rejected, and starting again.
No, we want the glory without the hard parts.
Sobriety is the same.
We want to be free of alcohol, happy, gorgeous, and revel in our Insta-worthy redemption story! And we want it now.
We quit drinking for one week or one month and think, “Why haven’t I transformed into the sober butterfly I’d envisioned when I took this on?”
All the difficult stuff is still there, hanging around. Except now, you’re not drinking.
Applying “Grit” To Sobriety
I want to take some time to go through some key takeaways from Angela Duckworth’s Grit and show you how you can apply them to sobriety.
If you’ve struggled with sobriety so far or are looking to up your game in other areas of your life, these insights can help.
What happens when you lack grit?
Some of my biggest failures in sobriety (and life) are rooted in the following:
- Letting mistakes define me
- Beating myself up over everything
- Taking comfort in my own misery and believing I was powerless to fix my life
- Giving up control of my life to drinking
- Not taking personal responsibility
Hopelessness is a dangerously powerful thing. It is the weight tied to your feet when all you want is to find the surface.
“It isn’t suffering that leads to hopelessness. It’s suffering you think you can’t control.”
When you no longer believe you have control over your own suffering, you start to identify with it.
I’m depressed. I’m a loser. I’m a piece of shit.
“I am” statements are powerful things in both directions. Say them enough times and you’ll start to really believe them.
“I am” devolves into “I can’t” which slides further into “I’ll never.”
We become paralyzed by this belief we’ve created that nothing can ever change, including ourselves.
Occasionally, we get inspired to try again, but inevitably quit. And every time we do, we internalize that failure.
Instead of saying, “Why did I fail? What can I do better next time?”, we say “I failed. I always do this. This is who I am.”
Cultivating Hope In Sobriety
“Grit depends on a different kind of hope. It rests on the expectation that our own efforts can improve our future. “I have a feeling tomorrow will be better” is different from “I resolve to make tomorrow better.”
I think we often conflate hope with wishing.
You cannot wish yourself well. (I mean you can, but it won’t work.)
I read a lot of probably well-intending books that told me if I just “want” it badly enough, ask the Universe for it, manifest, affirm, or whatever hocuspocus, that I would have it.
I THINK what they’re trying to get at is that you have to shift your mindset and belief systems in order to change what is difficult about your life. (At least, I hope that’s what they mean.)
But that requires action to be effective.
When we talk about hope in sobriety, it is a very specific kind of hope.
It is the belief that things can be better and it requires the determination to make it so.
My life did not change overnight. This has been a journey, y’all. In sobriety, things get better and then BOOM!
There is nothing linear about sobriety. One minute you’re up and the next, you’ve been knocked to the floor.
The remedy is to cultivate habits and coping mechanisms to deal with life’s many curveballs without falling apart and drinking.
This, my friend, requires daily work. One of the most influential nuggets from Duckworth’s book for me was the following:
“When you keep searching for ways to change your situation for the better, you stand a chance of finding them. When you stop searching, assuming they can’t be found, you guarantee they won’t.”
I’ve taken this one to heart, truly.
Every day, I commit to making something just a little bit better. In the early days, I had no idea what that looked like for my sobriety.
I had a VERY good idea about what it did not look like thanks to years of relapse.
So I read. I became a student. I learned everything I could from people who had the outcome I wanted.
Instead of lusting after their lives and getting down on myself because I hadn’t achieved their level of sober exuberance, I committed myself to the process of getting to whatever MY version of success was going to be.
Succeeding In Sobriety
You have to understand that this is a process and even if your process looks different from mine, the thing we should all have in common is our fierce loyalty to the daily grind of getting there.
“Grit is about working on something you care about so much that you’re willing to stay loyal to it.”
For me, that had to be sobriety.
And once I’d gotten a good chunk of sober days under my belt, I had to keep finding things to work on with the same level of dedication.
I chose writing. Some people choose fitness, or healthy nutrition, or a new passion project. The WHAT matters far less than the impact it has on your wellbeing.
What drives you to keep going? What pulls you out of bed in the morning?
The best safeguard against relapse is having a life worth staying sober for. I had no idea what that could be in the beginning, but it was my job to discover it.
And that’s what I set out to do.
It’s not always fun. Some days, the process sucks.
There is nothing glamorous about the path to success and sobriety.
I used to go online or read books and see these radiant women posing for pictures in light-saturated kitchens with a cup of steaming hot lemon water in hand, ready to start the day and think, “Ohhhhhh I want that!”
So I’d bounce out of bed in my mostly well lit Brooklyn apartment and make the hot lemon water, sipping it on my couch. It was supposed to detoxify, purify, yada yada.
Then I’d do some dry brushing or have a green smoothie (bleh) and do some overly elaborate visualization exercise.
I’d carry on like this for a few days and then stop. This sucks and it’s not doing anything for me.
I was in love with the outcome. Or rather, I was in love with my interpretation of the outcome. I have no idea if any of the women in these images actually did any of the stuff they were selling me.
What I DID know was that I did not enjoy any of these things. Not even a little bit.
You have to fall in love with the process.
Sobriety is very different from a lot of self-help transformation goals because it’s often life or death for us. In that regard, we’re lucky.
Not dying or completely destroying what’s left of your life is very motivating.
But it’s not enough to be successful.
People who lose massive amounts of weight and become super fit aren’t successful because they want to look good in a bathing suit more than you do.
They’re successful because they love the process. They LIKE the challenge of measuring out food and getting the meal prep combinations just right.
They ENJOY finding the perfect protein powder and keto-friendly pancake recipe.
They like pushing through the pain in the gym and beating their previous week’s reps or weight.
Sobriety requires the same commitment and enthusiasm.
The Process of Sobriety
In the beginning, there isn’t a lot to it. Just don’t drink.
Every day, you make that commitment and you muscle through until you’ve got enough sober days under your belt to start to grapple with the mechanics of how you plan to proceed from here.
Here’s where your process comes in.
You have to commit to sobriety and then find joy in seeking out the best way to maintain it for the long term.
I’ll use myself as an example:
I didn’t do AA because I was unable to access it, but I was able to do cognitive behavioral therapy with a counselor, so that’s what I did.
Did I love every session?
Definitely not, but I took an interest in it. I learned and studied. I told that little Negative Nancy voice in my brain to shut the hell up and allowed myself to get uncomfortable. To try new things.
Then I devoured books related to sobriety. I always loved that.
Meditation works for me. So I committed to practicing every, single day. Were there days I didn’t want to meditate? For SURE.
But because I love the benefits of meditation so much, I push through the tough days and keep going.
I love writing so I journaled a lot in the early days, even days when I was essentially unloading chicken scratch garbage onto the page.
Did I love having an existential crisis inside of a notebook with Ryan Gosling on the cover before work?
No, of course not.
But I was committed to the process. I wanted to be sober and I knew this would help so I did it. Some days I loved it, some days I rage wrote until my hand hurt.
Purchase Angela Duckworth’s book Grit on Amazon.
Committing To The Process
If going to pottery class every Wednesday night helps you stay away from happy hour, then get your ass to pottery class every Wednesday night, rain or shine.
Loving the process doesn’t mean it’s easy and comfortable every day. It just means you’ve found a path forward that is beneficial and/or enjoyable for you 80% of the time and the other 20%, you’re willing to rally and push through.
Angela Duckworth had a wonderful section on this in her book. She writes:
“How often do people start down a path and then give up on it entirely? How many treadmills, exercise bikes, and weight sets are at this very moment gathering dust in basements across the country? How many kids go out for a sport and then quit even before the season is over? How many of us vow to knit sweaters for all of our friends but only manage half a sleeve before putting down the needles? Ditto for home vegetable gardens, compost bins, and diets. How many of us start something new, full of excitement and good intentions, and then give up—permanently—when we encounter the first real obstacle, the first long plateau in progress?
Many of us, it seems, quit what we start far too early and far too often. Even more than the effort a gritty person puts in on a single day, what matters is that they wake up the next day, and the next, ready to get on that treadmill and keep going”
Creating a process that supports sobriety.
If you read the breakdown of my process for maintaining sobriety and thought to yourself, “Yah, I’m not doing that,” it’s totally fine! Create your own process.
Or maybe you don’t see the connection between forcing myself to write and meditate every day with sobriety.
A lot of the processes are about repairing your inner world so that you won’t want to drink.
Meditation and writing help me process my inner demons in healthier ways. It keeps my head on straight, so to speak.
For you, going for a run every morning might do the trick. Or perhaps, attending church or other religious service.
The process you create in sobriety will vary. There’s a lot of trial and error. You just have to commit to finding what works for you.
What habits or hobbies can you add to your life that will help you evolve into that glowing, happy, sober person you dream of becoming?
Get excited about finding the right process. That’s really the key.
Do Better Than You Did Yesterday
“One form of perseverance is the daily discipline of trying to do things better than we did yesterday.”
― Angela Duckworth, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Sobriety requires discipline. It might even frustrate you.
If you thought you were going to freestyle your life and maintain sobriety, you may discover that you just can’t do it.
Successful people have routines and discipline that keep them focused on what needs to get done. Sobriety is no different.
You may enjoy journaling 5 out of 7 days per week, but the key to sobriety is making yourself do it the other two days.
The act of committing to something, even when it sucks will help you get to the personal breakthrough moments you need to transcend that drinking, hopeless person you used to be.
So while yes, you need support and systems in place for dealing with the drinking itself, you also need to be simultaneously building a life that supports your health and happiness. Every. Single Day.
There are no days off.
Finding Your Sober Tribe
Do you need to form a gang of chronically happy teetotalers?
But you do need to change up the scenery.
If your friends are heavy drinkers and partiers who may not support your sobriety, then the reality is, you gotta find new people to hang with.
It doesn’t mean these relationships are over, necessarily, but the dynamic will change. If you’re truly friends, you’ll be able to hang out and do things together that don’t involve alcohol.
If that’s not possible then you need to re-evaluate what these friendships are really predicated on.
The bottom line is you can’t hang out with people who have a drinking problem if you want to fix your own drinking problem.
Willpower can only get you so far, remember?
You are who you hang out with.
There are a bazillion iterations of this sentiment, but the one I like best is from Dirk Wittenborn in Fierce People. He writes:
“We are the sum of all people we have ever met; you change the tribe and the tribe changes you.”
Everybody we interact with changes us in some way.
You can either use this to your advantage or detriment. It’s your choice.
Early sobriety can be very lonely, especially if your entire world seemed to revolve around drinking. Finding a new tribe is HARD.
But it needs to be done.
It doesn’t mean starting over from scratch. Maybe an acquaintance who was always on your periphery becomes a new confidant. Or perhaps you strike up a rapport with the folks at the cooking class you’ve been attending and decide to get together.
In the beginning there’s a lot of “me” to work to be done anyway, so take the time to be a little selfish and introspective.
The people will come, eventually.
And they won’t necessarily be sober people. They most likely will be folks who don’t drink heavily or often, however. Most importantly, they’ll be more aligned with the new direction you’re trying to take your life.
Duckworth also touches upon the importance of finding your people. She states:
“Over time and under the right circumstances, the norms and values of the group to which we belong become our own. We internalize them. We carry them with us. The way we do things around here and why eventually becomes The way I do things and why.”
If you’re not a healthy food loving, meditation junkie but want to be, then hang out with people who are! If you want to do more writing and pick up your passion for getting published, hang out with other writers (Careful with this one. We are a notoriously addicted bunch.).
Rather than envying and comparing ourselves to these people, why not join them? In the end, they’ll start to rub off on you.
Getting Gritty In Sobriety
In the immortal words of Coldplay, nobody said it was easy.
Once you move past the expectation that getting sober will be produce X outcome by Y date, you can start to do the hard work.
There is nothing magical about people who survive their drinking and go on to maintain sobriety. They are not innately different from you or I.
Like any other successful person, they possess a fierce commitment to the process and take advantage of their access to the tools they need to get there.
I’m NOT suggesting that those who can’t seem to get sober want it any less than those who do.
During my relapse days, there was nothing I wanted more in this world than to be healed – to not drink, or be sad all the time, or suffer panic attacks, and hate what I saw in the mirror.
But I also didn’t want to trek through the muck to get there. It overwhelmed me. Instead of getting help, I tried to white knuckle it. I was struggling, but I wasn’t doing the work.
So I failed. And then I let that failure define me and pummel me all the way back past the starting line.
When it got hard, I gave up. I didn’t learn from those mistakes and try again. No, I wallowed and sunk deeper.
It wasn’t until I surrendered my pride and allowed a therapist to help me and start truly prioritizing my recovery that I was able to stop the “try-fail-quit” cycle that was destroying my life.
Which is why every single day, I am grateful for the process.
For extra motivation, here is a fantastic video from Impact Theory. When you have a significant chunk of time, have a listen.