How Much of My Problem is Stress and How Much is Plain Old Alcoholism?

Is My Problem Stress or Alcoholism?

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When I wake up in the morning, I experience brain activity so rambunctious it feels like there is a rabid animal in my mind that has just come to after being heavily sedated. I awake with a start, usually sparked by minor details that explode into mercurial obsession. My thoughts include, but are not limited to, the following: “How in the hell am I going to finish my work today?” and “Why did my friend not call me back yesterday. Is she mad at me?” or “When will I have time to paint my nails?” There’s also my personal favorite: “AM I SOBER ENOUGH?!” Sometimes I think there really is an animal in there, clawing its way out of my consciousness with every thought it commandeers. Or perhaps I have a mean case of sleep apnea. All speculation aside, my trusted advisers inform me that this animal is alcoholism. If that is the case, that animal can fuck right off. I’m trying to get some sleep.

I’ve suffered from anxiety my entire life. The journals I’ve kept from the time I was six years old document my neuroses and my keen eye for inaccuracies in Mattel toys. Those journals provide me with patent proof of my alcoholism. They also show me that I never learned how to cope with stress. I wrote a lot through a major bout of insomnia that went on all four years of high school. I spent those nights replaying conversations from the day over and over in my mind, trying to soothe my worries about what others thought of me. This was well before I drank, so I had a stockpile of worry built up for when I eventually did. People stressed me out the most at that time, as they continue to now. I am often distracted by thoughts of what version of myself I should show to a friend, an employer or a member of my family in order to control their perception of me. As a sober person, I often wonder how to differentiate between my alcoholism and my anxiety. How do I let go of my anxiety over things (and people) I cannot control?

I am a perfectionist. I thrive off of deadlines, goals, difficult projects and achieving self-help benchmarks. The negative side of being a perfectionist is that I often feel defeated by the things I haven’t accomplished or by the person I haven’t become. In sobriety, I’ve stressed myself out consistently about being properly spiritualized. At the root of all of the perfectionism—and the stress that accompanies it—is my thought that I’m not enough. This mindset has carried over from my active alcoholic days. A few years ago, I spent an hour replying to an email that should have taken me five minutes. I agonized over word placement, tone, possible inferences and logistical details. I must have checked that email 100 times. My boss answered with a one-word reply two minutes after I sent it. Of course, I read into that and spent another 20 minutes obsessing about all the potential double meaning in her reply. No wonder I drank.

I receive loads of inspiration and suggestions from people inside and outside of Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the steps most lobbed at me from well-wishers and loved ones alike is to pray and meditate. When I was about two months sober, I began to meditate regularly and I now meditate the shit out of 20 minutes most days. I pray on my knees. Here’s how meditation originally worked for me: I would obsess my way through my entire 7 am home group meeting, calculating the mental pyrotechnics it would take for me sit down and internally shut the fuck up long enough to get some spiritual healing. I’ll give you one guess about how many minutes of peace that brought me.

True to form, I attempted to skip a few steps in early sobriety to solidify my place at the Head of the Class (somehow, my family owned that board game, which may or may not explain my bizarre excitement for schooling. Well done, parents). Every single time I meditated, I’d fall into a deep, sticky tar pit of depression for the rest of the day—that or I’d fall asleep. It usually took me until my next meeting to feel slightly balanced. I don’t think my brain had reached its perfect chemical equilibrium yet; my spirit certainly hadn’t. I felt two misplaced thoughts away from evaporating into the Rapture. I still get caught in this line of thinking, though it happens less frequently. After many sober days so markedly different from all the days I drank myself stupid, I continue to struggle with how to harness the same power that brought me surrender in the first place.

I require constant reminders through friends, motivational memes, AA literature, meetings and my sponsor, that my power in this shit show of recovery is limited. These days, the relief I feel is finite and often fleeting—but it is there. When I’m feeling hopeful, I believe that perhaps my anxiety and stress are the harbingers of peace and serenity. Without my consent or permission, I often find my Higher Power working in spite of the Olympic-caliber gymnastics that take place in my head. My sponsor is especially helpful to me when I am reading into conversations or concepts. She is a healer by practice, so she knows how and when to coo real talk into my ear that somehow bypasses my brain and strikes my heart with the clean precision of a heart-seeking missile. I get a lot of help from other sober people to develop unbreakable trust in my Higher Power. Thank God for them and thank God for God; otherwise this shit would be impossible.

I feel much better when I am reminded that I do not have to play limbo in a laser field of thoughts like some international spy would to capture whatever diamond got heisted. I seek a power other than myself to show me my spiritual blind spots. I need one that I can sense with my eyes and ears, who can quiet the mental noise. I seek, therefore I am?  My hope is that I’ll transcend the optical illusions in my brain to come out a slightly more mellow person. In the meantime, I gather my strength and peace from love, mixed with the musical acrobatics of David Bowie. Next track on deck: Sound and Vision.

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3 Comments

  1. Brenda Silbernagel on

    THIS IS ME, I could have wrote this WORD FOR WORD. These days I have so much anxiety when asked to share at meetings, I’m obsessed all day about it at work until 800 o’clock at night when I go, about what will I share, who will be chairing, will I sound stupid, maybe Ill just pass blah blah blah.

    • I relate Brenda! I’m 2 yrs 2mths sober now & have experienced that same mental anguish around meetings. I just kept showing up, giving myself permission to pass a share if I needed to, did a fear inventory around meetings, worked the steps and most importantly practiced compassion for myself! Good news . . . Anxiety (self obsession) finally decreased! Not gone completely . . . Progress not perfection .

  2. Louise Warren on

    thank you for this. for your honesty and openess. i felt as if i was reading about myself. i call the reeling thinkings in my head Gremlins… just add water.

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Lucy is a writer, recovering politico and sober alcoholic following her bliss. She lives in Virginia with her husband and manages Pop Up Write Up, a creative, supportive online space for writers to share new ideas.