My first few months of sobriety were tough, very tough. The benefits of quitting alcohol started to appear as promised — I lost weight, slept better, my skin looked great, eyes were clearer — I saved money — and yes I even learned to love mornings. Yet in spite of all that good stuff, life felt rather flat. I seemed to have a lot of time on my hands — time I wasn’t quite sure what to do with.
There were no despair-fests at 3 am — but there were no highs either. I felt like I was facing a void. I decided I was suffering from anhedonia which is the inability to enjoy everyday pleasures. Sunsets, walking on the beach, meeting up with friends just didn’t hit the happy spot.
I worried that this dull and miserable place was “sobriety” and was on the verge of giving up many times — if this was sobriety I wasn’t sure it was for me. I decided to hang in there for a few months in the hope that the low would pass. I also felt just a bit “trapped”. Everybody was so “proud of me” and my sober buddies urged me to stay strong and keep going.
So I did, I just kept going, day after day but the low mood continued for at least three months. I tried to smile and use the “fake it till I make it” strategy. I agreed with my sober buddies that yes sobriety was awesome whilst thinking — really? Then one day everything changed.
I had a light bulb moment. I decided I would design and facilitate a workshop for people who wanted to quit drinking. After all, I had 25 years of corporate experience in training and development. That was the day that tribesober.com was born… That’s when the magic happened.
Creating a website, designing the workshop, setting up a membership, starting a podcast, and connecting with other people on this journey kept me busy — and happy.
Six years later growing Tribe Sober still keeps me happy! Hindsight is a wonderful thing and at six years sober I can look back and analyse just what happened and hopefully this article will help others to understand and avoid that early low that can hit and often derail us in early sobriety.
Thanks to a podcast interview I did with Dr. Loretta Breuning I now have a much better understanding of just why I felt so low a few months into sobriety. Although at the time my impression was that my low mood had passed of its own accord that was not quite true.
My low mood had passed because I had set a new goal (to start Tribe Sober) and was working in stages to achieve that goal. Working towards and achieving another step every day was keeping those happy brain chemicals flowing. Loretta explained to me that my upbeat mood (aka pink cloud) during those first few months was triggered by the fact that I’d set myself a goal to get sober and was making daily progress towards that goal. A few months into sobriety my brain had ticked off this goal as “achieved” and now I was in limbo as there was no longer anything to aim for.
Thanks to Loretta I now understand that our “happy chemicals” don’t just start working on their own — we have to do something to stimulate them. Rather than anhedonia being a step on the journey that we have to put up with we can avoid it completely — how cool is that?
Our brains are not wired to make us happy all the time — our brains are wired to motivate us to survive. They motivate us to take a step towards a goal and feel happy when we achieve it. Of course, that good feeling is transitory and we’ll need to take another step to release it again. Think of our ancestors who were wired to look for food and got a dopamine hit when they spotted an animal they could eat. So just as our ancestors had to go hunting to activate their happy chemicals we have to have something to aim for — a goal.
So I no longer advise people to brace themselves for a touch of depression in early sobriety. I advise them to set a goal and start working towards it. The great thing about the clarity and energy that come along with sobriety is that you start to examine other parts of your life. It’s the Domino Effect that results in setting goals around our nutrition, fitness, creativity, friendship, family, career, etc.
There is nothing like learning something new to release those happy brain chemicals. Learning that anhedonia can be avoided hit the spot for me — thank you, Loretta!
You can listen to my conversation with Loretta on Episode 55 of the Tribe Sober podcast.
Janet Gourand, founder of Tribe Sober.