One of the best things about getting sober was no longer waking up sick to my stomach with a throbbing head and major regrets about the night before. I was thrilled to put hangovers in the rearview mirror. That is, of course, until I experienced my first emotional hangover in sobriety.
After I stopped drinking and using cocaine, I traveled along on a puffy pink cloud for the first few months. I thought that getting clean and sober would solve everything. And the truth was, it did solve a lot. Sure, I had moments of frustration and anger along the way. I moaned about the fact that I had to change my routines with my friends. I whined about not wanting to go to a meeting when I knew I needed to. But after some complaining to my sponsor, screaming into my pillow and smoking an extra couple of cigarettes, I usually got back on track pretty quickly. For the vast majority of the time I was grateful and, dare I say, happy.
It wasn’t until midway through the holiday season of my first year of sobriety that I woke up one morning feeling different, and not in a good way. It was a Friday—the morning after my office holiday party. Nothing horrible had happened. Quite the contrary, I had used every tool in my kit to get through it without suffering. I called my sponsor before going to the party, arrived late and left early, made sure I ate before I went and called my sponsor again on the way home. I hadn’t had a drink, nor had I even been tempted by one.
Despite making it past a major obstacle, when I woke up the next morning my head and my limbs felt heavy. I didn’t want to get out of bed. A palpable gloom had come over me and there was a lump in my gut. Even after I took a shower, I felt exhausted and clammy. It reminded me of how I used to feel when I drank heavily the night before. There was the dreaded sense that I had done something awful, but my brain hadn’t yet come around to tell me exactly what it was. In those days, checking voicemail scared me because there was always a good chance I’d learn about some humiliation from the prior evening.
But I hadn’t done or said anything stupid on the night of the office party. I clearly remembered coming home—a first for one of these events. Tucked away in bed before 10:00 p.m., I had been proud of myself. So why did I feel terrible? I took this question to a meeting.
“You’re having an emotional hangover,” one of the women said to me after the meeting. Seriously? I thought. There’s a new kind of hangover I have to deal with? What could possibly make me feel as bad in the morning as having downed 12 vodkas and a gram of blow the night before? She explained that even when we get through challenging or emotionally powerful situations without drinking, we might be left with a residual mental and physical reaction that feels alarmingly close to a booze hangover. It doesn’t matter whether the trigger is related to work or family or anything else, we can have that same miserable feeling.
That morning, it was the combined effect of the suppressed dread about going to the party, the fake happy face I had to put on to get though it and the time spent watching a bunch of people getting drunk. I was so busy trying to breeze through the night as if it were no big deal that I failed to recognize the toll it was taking on me. The inevitable crash left me feeling as if I drank hard the night before.
I’ve had the same kinds of emotional hangovers on mornings after having a vivid drunk dream or spending psychologically taxing times with family or friends. More often than not, I can look back and see that I could have taken better care of myself. Usually it was about the HALT triggers—I let myself get hungry, angry, lonely, and/or tired.
Sometimes I can take myself out of situations I know are likely to leave me emotionally vulnerable. For example, I don’t go to the office holiday party every year. When co-workers cajole me, my answer is, “Sorry, I can’t make it this year.” I try to bow out of conversations that get gossipy, too, because I know that later I’ll feel like I drank two bottles of wine on an empty stomach with no sleep. (I know this because I keep doing it. I’m far from perfect.)
Other circumstances that trigger me are unavoidable. For instance, I still hate parties. Being among a group of people holding wine and cocktails in their hands does something to me that in 11 years of sobriety, I haven’t gotten past. Maybe one day that will change, but for now, it is what it is. So, while I do my best to avoid them, there are occasions when I can’t be the hermit and I need to show up. One of my worst emotional hangovers happened the morning after my wedding. At the party, I was thrilled that everyone was having a great time and I didn’t resent their pretty glasses of wine. But, the next morning, I felt like a beast that had been poked and prodded overnight. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I had seen fangs in my mouth when I looked in the mirror.
For me, the fact that emotional hangovers are occasionally inevitable, the same way that drunk dreams and resentments are inevitable, helps me to accept them. If I can do that, recognize what’s happening and try to work through why, pretty soon it will pass. It always does. At least this kind of hangover doesn’t require three Bloody Marys, four groveling apologies and a fistful of Advil to cure.