Marcia Ullett, MA


I’m not 100% sure I know what I expected from early sobriety, but I don’t think I imagined the complex picture that presented itself to me. I guess I expected life to clean itself up, just like that. I thought all my problems would magically disappear. Instead, my life was full of the unexpected. Some of it was wonderful, but so much of it was a tangled and confusing mass of emotions, a journey into the unknown that, without the aid of alcohol and drugs, terrified me.

There were two fears that I remember distinctly when I first got sober. The first was that I would never “get it.” On the one hand I felt like everyone else in the meetings I went to was happy and knew each other whereas I, newcomer that I was, could barely talk to anyone. Add to that the fact that I was really angry—about everything. Was this what my life was always going to be like? My whole life I had struggled with the feeling that I didn’t belong anywhere. And here I was, in a room full of alcoholics like me, still feeling like I didn’t belong. On the other hand, I was suspicious that these people couldn’t possibly be that happy. They had to be lying or at the very least pretending. It was like they had all drank the same cool aid and had been brainwashed. I was scared and discouraged. My own life in recent years had been very dark, and it was impossible for me to accept that there was this much light anywhere on the planet. Despite these feelings, I was afraid to leave. I had tried and tried to get sober on my own, and it didn’t work. I was feeling desperate—afraid to live and afraid to die.

One of my sober friends says this about his early sobriety, “I had lived a life where no one wanted me for me. They either wanted drugs or something else from me. I learned not to trust anyone. When people reached out to me in early sobriety I saw them as phony. I felt alone. I also experienced feelings of loss for the drugs as well as the lifestyle. I didn’t know how to act; my normal belligerence was gone and I was terrified in the world without it. None of this was obvious then, and I just floundered around, unsure of how to act–unsure and untrusting of everyone and everything around me.”

The second fear I remember was that I would never have fun again. It’s odd when I think of this today. At that time I was forgetting that the end of my drinking and using life was miserable. Everything I was doing at the time was a struggle. I was sure no one liked me, maybe because I didn’t like myself. I used to have to drink and/or use to “have fun.” But was it really fun? At the beginning it was definitely fun, but at the end, it was just crazy, and so was I.

I was resistant to any change, because I was scared of whom I would meet if I really got to know myself. I had escaped myself for many years. We do that. We live in a haze, hiding from life by anesthetizing ourselves through the use of substances. We forget who we were and what we really cared about. Stopping the alcohol and drugs makes us feel like we’re on some ledge, about to fall off.

Another of my friends says this about her early sobriety: “I felt lonely, scared and trapped. I tried over and over to take back my admission that I was an alcoholic. It was important to me that I remain different from others; it was an identity thing. I thought they hadn’t had my experience. I refused to connect to the feelings of others and kept rejecting sobriety because the stories didn’t match. I thought I’d never be creative or have a great sense of humor again. When I was drinking I was popular and funny. When I got sober my friends at work no longer invited me to their parties because I wasn’t the fun drunk I used to be.”

Looking back after all these years, I realize that my feelings, as well as those of my friends, were normal. Getting sober is a huge change. In the beginning, it was hard to believe that almost everyone in those rooms had experienced something similar to what I was going through.

The feeling of vulnerability that almost all newcomers experience is frightening. We sometimes think something is wrong—that this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be. We imagine that everyone else is doing great and that we are unique in our uncertainty and anxiety.

Part of the problem could be a condition known as Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome or PAWS. PAWS can occur one to two weeks after stopping alcohol or drugs, once detoxification or acute withdrawal is over. It’s a collection of symptoms that result from some combination of damage to the nervous system caused by the use of alcohol and drugs and the stress of living without alcohol and drugs. The symptoms can include anxiety, emotional outbursts or lack of emotion, lack of energy, difficulty sleeping and coping with stress, memory problems, trouble making decisions or thinking clearly, and depression. Other symptoms can be an inability to concentrate for any period of time and problems with physical coordination. Any of these symptoms can make us feel scared and “not okay.” For these reasons, we need to know that this situation isn’t unusual. PAWS has been known to continue for weeks or months, sometimes up to a year or two in the case of longer and heavier use of alcohol or drugs.

The best news about PAWS is that with healthy living and a solid program of recovery it gets better. However, it takes time and patience, but the symptoms will likely recede if we hang in. The facts are that we are not going crazy, nor are we inadequate or deficient. This stuff is what they call the wreckage or our past. When you think about it, it makes sense that patience is needed for us to heal, to learn to live in this new way. We need time for our brains to return to normal, to restore our bodies to health, and to develop new coping skills. After all, any problem prior to this time was usually met with alcohol and/or drugs.
Obviously, the journey into sobriety is no cakewalk. However, the good news is that there are several solutions available that turn these difficulties into exciting discoveries about ourselves and about life in general. If we commit ourselves to these changes and stay the course, we get to be pleasantly surprised by what we find.
Here are some tried and true solutions that will eventually change the pain of early sobriety into a rich and rewarding life.

1. Find 12-step meetings and attend them regularly.
Addiction is a disease of loneliness, and learning to be among other sober people, making friends, and sharing experiences is crucial to recovery. Many of us find laughter again in meetings.

2. Be willing to take direction from someone who has been there.
Trust is difficult in early sobriety. Partly because of our own mistrust of ourselves and partly because of problems with others. Finding another sober human being who is willing to talk and listen to us is an important part of healing. This person can be a sponsor.

3. Work the 12-steps.
The 12-steps outlined in the book Alcoholics Anonymous methodically take us down a path of learning the principles we need to recover and learn to live “life on life’s terms” so that we can fully embrace our new lives.

4. Be open-minded.
Some of the suggestions we receive are new to us. If we are willing to change, we can find new ways of living and being in the world that may surprise us. Examples are prayer and meditation. At first, it may seem strange to do these things, but they are life changing and are worth a try.

5. H.A.L.T.
This acronym is extremely helpful if taken seriously. It means:
Don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. If you do, you risk relapse. Any of these conditions can set us up to feel like life sober isn’t any good, and we might as well pick-up a drink or drug.

6. Get phone numbers and call.
Most people in meetings are anxious to talk to and help newcomers, especially ones who have the courage to call. Often we are wary to talk to others. For this reason, reaching out isn’t easy; however, it can help change lives.

7. Keep busy and socialize.
The last thing any of us need is to sit around and think. Most of us come to sobriety without many friends and having become isolative. It’s painful to be willing to say “yes” to coffee and other forms of fellowship with groups of strangers, but it can make a huge difference in our recovery.

8. Drink plenty of water.
Water is a great purifier. Drinking and drugging isn’t good for anyone’s health. Plenty of water will replenish dehydration and clean us out.

9. Clean up your living space.
You might be one who came to recovery with a house, apartment
or car that is a mess and reflects how things were when you were drinking. Just cleaning up can make you feel like a new person.

10. Eat healthy and exercise.
Even a walk around the neighborhood or out in nature can make a person feel refreshed and energized.

Another of my sober friends states that at first she was afraid to drink and afraid not to drink. She goes on to say, “I looked at sobriety as LIFE 101. I became the total student so that I could learn all that there was to learn. I’m still the total student, an attitude that continues to help me live a powerful life and be of service to others.”

Marcia is on a passionate journey to help people find their purpose and create a powerful vision that inspires them for years to come. As a licensed psychotherapist, she has helped thousands of people in her private practice and her work at various treatment centers, both as a clinician and a clinical supervisor. In 2006, she studied to become a certified professional coach through the College of Executive Coaching. Marcia’s 25 years of clinical experience have been of great service to her clients whom she approaches as a partner, helping them focus on their strengths and deepest values. Her amazing life story is an example of how to move out of darkness and chaos into a life filled with purpose, light and gratitude. A popular speaker and workshop leader, Marcia shares her personal story and wisdom in articles published across the Internet as well as in this book.