In years dot to four of sobriety, I learned how to do the basics. How to breathe, socialise, date, dance, kiss, go to weddings, do Christmas, do life without alcohol. So here, we’re going to cover that which I haven’t told you about: years five, six and seven.
Once we’re over three years sober, we’re officially in long-term recovery, says popular opinion. The reason? A landmark eight-year study found that relapse rates plummet once we celebrate three years alcohol-free.
In the first year, 36 per cent sustain sobriety. It’s a slippy-slidey time, and there’s no shame in that, for the record. It took me five months of stop, start, stop, start, stop, to finally nail a Day One that stuck. Then, in year two, the success rate becomes 66 per cent. Great odds! After a three-year soberversary, we’re looking at a magnificent 86 per cent staying sober.
Phenomenal; only a 14 per cent falter rate. But hang on, pipes up the negative-seeking drone inside me; that’s not zero, is it? That’s still 14 per cent. And the central theme of my last few years has been about that number, if I had to be a reductionist. About casting around for ways to feel as protected from it as humanly possible. Not living in fear, but being productive in protecting this rainforest from deforestation.
Early to mid-term recovery is an absolute blast, but also a terrifying tightrope, whereas from year four on, you’ve totally gotten used to not feeling like an extra from Walking Dead on a Saturday morning, so the gleam of that wears off. Making 9am yoga class feels less like a revelation, and more routine. ‘So what?’
The congratulations for clocking up sober year after sober year, previously gobsmacked and awed, become bored. ‘Oh, it’s been six years?! Great!… *Looks at menu*. So, are we having starters or no?’ It’s your new normal. It’s the new normal for everyone around you too. It’s not a magnificent triumph any more. It’s just how you live now.
Staying sober from year four on became, dare I say it, easy. But the less obvious yet more profound work began. I started finessing life skills that seemed like they were nothing to do with sobriety, yet they were totally related. I learned how to do things like say no (regularly), set boundaries (hate boundaries), ask for what I needed, preserve my energy for the parties I wanted to spend it on and learned how to open the chamber of shame (the things I’d done) in safe company. I’ll be frank, much of this was less fun, but ultimately more transformative.
It was as if in years zero to four I’d learned how to dive to 18 metres, but from year four on, I started becoming a divemaster who could go to 30 metres. It was a bit darker down there at times, and the gear to get there was more awkward and advanced, but the experience was equally as exquisite.
I was already happy as a sober. Happy as a clam, happy as a camper, happy as Augustus Gloop in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory. I had a brief spell of feeling bored, but that was soon torpedoed by a clever therapist who cleared his throat and said, ‘Maybe you’re just bored in general?’ ‘What do you mean?’ I asked? ‘Maybe you’re just bored with your life right now, rather than bored with sobriety?’ Hot damn, he was right. So, I went out and got a more interesting life. YouTube is your free friend, whether you want to learn to sea-swim or make a soufflé.
So I wasn’t unhappy and I wasn’t bored, but my challenge in long-term recovery was this. How to finally feel safe. Safe from myself, safe from others, safe from my memories, and last but definitely not least, safe from alcohol and the ultra-pressurised culture around it. That’s what we’re going to explore here. My first book was about finding the ‘happy’. Here, we’re going to plunge into the ‘ever after’.
THIS IS AN EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM SUNSHINE WARM SOBER BY CATHERINE GRAY