Staying in The Moment Even When The Moment Sucks

Somewhere along day fortysomething of quarantine, I’d had it. Sean Paul Mahoney is here to tell you about staying in the moment even when the moment sucks.

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Somewhere along day fortysomething of quarantine, I’d had it.

I’d had it with baking bread, I’d had with making funny videos, I’d had it with hanging out with myself for 12 hours a day. I’d had it with hearing crap like ‘we’re all in this together” because we are not and especially stuff like “think positively!” because that’s dismissive and inauthentic. But what I had really had it with was not having a way to check out and not feel any of the real-time trauma and global loss we are all going through.  Sure, every streaming service under the sun provided some relief but it wasn’t like drinking and using. Sorry back to back episodes of The Great British Baking Show isn’t an 8 ball of cocaine. Never will be.  But I don’t drink and use any more nor have I for over 11 years. That escape hatch was no longer an option. So how does somebody like me who isn’t a huge fan of reality stay present when drugs or alcohol are off the table?

People always say “just do today” or “stay in the moment” when you first get sober. It’s good advice but good god is it hard. Like sure “stay in the moment” but what if the moment, like the current scary-ass pandemic one, is a terrible moment?  I’ll stay in the moment but can I exchange this one for a different moment? Staying in the moment would be easier if this moment was a little less depressing and more glamorous, to be honest. This kind of thinking is what made such a good drug addict. Having a bad day? Hate your current reality? Simply take three hits of ecstasy, drink some vodka, and who cares if it’s a Tuesday. Regardless, it is true. Staying present and breathing through whatever difficult things are happening gives me a chance to stay sober. If I try a little to wait for some of my discomforts to pass, maybe it will. Or maybe it won’t right away but at least I will still be sober. Therefore, the first thing I have to do is just not drink or use it. I recognize saying “just don’t use” to an addict is kind of like telling koalas to just not be adorable. It feels and sounds impossible. But I swear it’s worked for me. My early recovery was jam-packed with rough moments I REALLY wanted to get wasted over but I listened to sober people who said “don’t use and it’ll pass.” I didn’t always feel great right away but later I felt proud of myself for moving through something hard without my old toxic ways of coping, or not coping as the case may be.

The next thing that helps me is owning the suckiness of the moment. A big part of my drinking using was the dishonesty and delusion that it really wasn’t all that bad. I was the king of singing “I’m fine!’ as I was on the verge of eviction or moments after a cocaine-induced panic attack. What sobriety has gifted me with is honesty. By first honestly admitting I needed help, I blew the doors open to speaking more truthfully about where I was at and what I was feeling. Staying sober required me to continue to do that so I wouldn’t drink or use the parts of life that hurt. Over the years, I have gone through the death of loved ones, divorce, major health dramas, and done it all sober. That’s been able to happen because I’ve talked openly about it to other people. It’s vital and lifesaving to my recovery. As someone who also works in the addiction field, I can honestly say I have never seen people who act like everything is okay to be able to stay sober. The folks who make it are the ones who share about what’s going on. They share like their lives depend on it because they do. 

It helps to have people who I can call when I’m trying to stay in a not so good moment. Not long ago, my sister and I were on the phone. We were lamenting about how everything kind of sucks. We laughed and sort of just owned the horrible moment together. She’s sober too so she gets it. What we didn’t do was try to give each other a silver lining or fix one another with bad advice. We just shrugged and sort of said “yeah everything is the worst right now.” By doing that, things felt a little better. I talked with someone about how I felt so I didn’t have to carry all of this heaviness alone. Let’s be real all of this is incredibly heavy. We’re frail, little humans, not strong, mighty elephants. There’s only so much we can carry. Talking openly with sober people helps me feel lighter, less broken, and not alone. 

The last thing that helps me is undoubtedly the hardest when it comes to difficult moments: acceptance. When I first heard that word in recovery I thought it meant if I accepted something I had to like it. It was later explained to me that acceptance wasn’t about loving your circumstances or the actions of others. It was about accepting the truth of those people and things. With so much sadness, racism, and death in the world currently, acceptance is a tall order. But it’s vital if I want to stay sober. I can change myself and my reactions and I’ve discovered that’s about it. Changing people’s actions, changing the weather, changing global crises? Child. Not so much. Once I accept these things, there’s a ton of freedom that comes. I feel like less of a victim of circumstance, less self-centered. What’s more, is acceptance means I’m not tortured in the moment by things I really have no control over.

 As I wrote the first draft of this, protests raged blocks away from my house. The moment felt scary. It felt heartbreaking. It felt inevitable. But it would have felt worse if I was drinking or using. By accepting what was happening outside my door and not hide in a bottle. Also, this acceptance lets me focus on what I can change: I can help other people struggling, I can listen and I can stay sober no matter what the moment is.

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Sean Paul Mahoney is the author of the new collection of essays Now That You’ve Stopped Dying and the co-host of the LGBTQ recovery podcast Queer Mental Condition. He also works as a recovery mentor and peer support specialist in Portland, Oregon.

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