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Staying Sober in the New Year

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I was never one for New Year’s Resolutions.

I think New Year’s Eve, the celebration, and the general resolves that are expected on the following day are a bit contradictory.

This line of thinking is dangerous to one who suffers from addiction. Cold Turkey, in my opinion, is not the best way to recover. We place the drunkard’s holiday, New Year’s Eve, next to the “I swear I’m done with this” holiday, January 1st. Not a recipe for success, in my opinion.

It was Saint Jerome who said it best: “When the stomach is full, it is easy to talk about fasting.” The real challenge is keeping your vows when temptation knocks at your door. And you know it will. Alcohol and drugs seem to grow more socially acceptable and more easily accessible by the year. Addicts and alcoholics need more than a vow. We make vows all the time.

I remember waking up from a blackout, vowing never to drink Jagermeister again. On a weekday at least. While couch surfing in Venice Beach. Under a full moon. After winter solstice. My vows were like Playdoh: stretchy, supple, easily broken.

I even did it with tobacco.

Transitioning seamlessly between smoking, dipping, and vaping does not mean I’ve quit tobacco. The only thing I quit during that long spell of tobacco sampling was the hope of ever pinning down what my real problem was.

And maybe that’s the reason resolutions aren’t normally for addicts. 

They don’t solve the real problem.

I mean, if I were told that my body has a problem with peanuts, that if, like so many other people with the allergy, I could die if I eat another Planter’s, I would stop eating peanuts. Right then, right there. I wouldn’t ever think twice about it. Eating peanuts is something I can go without. The problem is, if you’re like me, drinking and drugging is the one thing I convinced myself I could never go without. I needed it the way fish need water. It was more of a matter of survival than a choice.

“New Year’s Resolutions put the emphasis on our will power, our ability to overcome our shortcomings.

This is why I cannot treat my drinking and drug use like it were a weight-loss affirmation. So then, what to do?

If you are reading this, and you think you might have a problem with alcohol or drugs, seek help, please. New Year’s Resolutions put the emphasis on our willpower, our ability to overcome our shortcomings. This makes addiction sound like a moral failing, not a mental illness. But the medical community, and an increasingly larger body of legislators, see addiction as an illness, not a defect of character.

I remember vowing to go without my drug of choice for the month of September. I withstood the mental onslaught of withdrawal for a good four weeks. I suffered internally, battling with myself in an endless war to avoid picking up. It wasn’t a battle I dared to let other people know about. I was going to go clean that month. And I was going to do it alone. And I did. Almost. On the 27th of September, I reasoned that four weeks was a month in all good practicality. And four full weeks occur at midnight on September 27th. And then I tried to remember the last hours of August. Did I give myself a grace period? Would it technically be a month clean in the afternoon of September 27th?

Staying clean for those 27 days did nothing to my resolve to be a sober man. It only demonstrated that in a battle of attrition, my addiction wins, every time.

I think the fundamental difference between making resolutions and recovering comes down to one word: surrender.

Resolutions are made by winners. Joining a gym to get in shape, installing an app to curb screen time, reading a book every week—these are wins. And our culture sees most gains in this binary, so it is very tempting to view sobriety the same way. It would be a massive accomplishment to go sober for the new year. But if seen only as a victory, won’t it be tempting to celebrate? And, if your like me, there’s only one way to truly celebrate.

Recovery, in almost every form and program I have come across, begins with a faithful and honest admission: we have a problem. The best practice is to surrender to that fact. It is far better to accept I suffer from addiction than it is to fight with that monkey on my back. He’s a tough one to get a hold of, that monkey. But if I stop struggling to seize him, he can become one of those friendly monkeys that sits peacefully up there. Maybe that monkey becomes my friend.

“Resolutions are made by winners. Joining a gym to get in shape, installing an app to curb screen time, reading a book every week—these are wins.

That has been true in my experience, anyway. By surrendering, I can make my addiction work for me, rather than me working for it.

Knowing that I am an addict, that I will become slavishly dependent on whatever mind or mood-altering substance I ingest, I am certain that I cannot drink or use drugs safely. I also know that it is the first drink—or pill or smoke or snort—that gets me drunk. The drinks that follow are only a result of that first drink I picked up. So I don’t pick up, not because I am reigning victorious over my problem, but because I have surrendered to it.

Just because I don’t pick up that first drink or drug, doesn’t mean I won’t experience addiction. I’ve been hooked on an assortment of behaviors in lieu of those bad habits I broke in getting clean. The truth is I get hooked on most anything that makes me feel good: exercise, chocolate, even writing. What I have learned is that taking on these lesser addictions—some of them, like house cleaning, can be fairly productive—I have been able to shake those awful cravings that dogged my first year sober.

So, my advice, if you’re looking to be sober in the new year, is to make the most of what is left of this year. Find your new habits now, so that January 1st becomes just another day for your sobriety.

A future free of addiction is in your hands

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Mark David Goodson is a writer whose debut novel is in the works. He maintains a popular recovery blog called the Miracle of the Mundane, which celebrates the simple sober life. His writing has been featured in The Fix, After Party Magazine, and Recovery Today. An English Teacher by day, he lives with his wife and soon-to-be three children in Maryland.

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