Filling Hole With No Bottom

Why I can’t be Cali Sober

In Fitness And In Health


A Hole With No Bottom, Artist’s own image

There is something about California that feels otherworldly to a native east coaster. Thoughts swirl in yellows and bright blues. The feeling of warmth tickles your skin. The ever-present sun changing you at a cellular level. Gluing together the frayed nerves caused by living in freezing temperatures several months out of the year.

It evokes images of tanned lythe figures playing beach volleyball and surfers shaking the water off their wetsuits as they saunter out of the water with the ease of ducklings. And of people lazily perusing abundant farmer’s markets offering up a bounty of fresh, locally grown produce while Christmas carols play in the background.

It is entirely possible to imagine, in the middle of February, the sounds of the Beach Boys providing a dreamy running soundtrack to people riding tandem bikes on boardwalks, jogging on the beach, and doing yoga in the sand.

The smells of citrus, salty ocean air, and Hawaiian tropic combine to form an intoxicating scent. The air must feel buoyant. Bodies and spirits soaring and floating in the salt air. But there is another smell in the air — weed? So much weed! And that is not just a feeling; it is a hard fact. In 2020, the highest number of cannabis consumers in the United States was located in the state of California, amounting to approximately 6.7 million, almost as much as NY, FL and TX combined. And it has the 2nd largest number of marijuana dispensaries in the country, with over 1400.

So I wasn’t surprised when I first heard the term ‘Cali sober’ a few years into my ‘Pennsylvania’ sobriety. Of course, they would do ‘sober’ in a more relaxed, pleasant, and gentler way. Not like my east coast version with fingernails bitten down to the quick, binging on chocolate cake, crying in my car, and constant visions of punching people in the face that were drinking mimosas at brunch.

What a great idea! To abstain, or mostly abstain, from alcohol but use other substances (like cannabis and psychedelics) in moderation. Sign me up! Part of sobriety is embracing a mindset of respect and grace, both for yourself and others. And as such, I respected all pathways to sobriety — including abstinence, harm reduction, moderation, and medically assisted treatments. Maybe I owed it to myself to explore this concept of being ‘Cali sober’ and reconsider my hardline all-or-nothing approach to sobriety.

After five years of entrenched physical sobriety, I continued to work on my emotional sobriety. It was a process of learning to accept and tackle uncomfortable feelings without running to alcohol. For many years, I used alcohol to numb all the feelings I didn’t want to feel and even some I did want to. When alcohol was an option, I was not capable of choosing healthier coping mechanisms. Once alcohol was a choice, I used it to answer all questions — What would make this conversation with my boundary-less parents easier? Drink! How do I decompress from a long day at work? Drink while making dinner! How do I stop obsessing about work on the weekend? Drinking at brunch! How do I not feel completely out of place at this wedding? Drink before, during, and after. How should I celebrate my birthday? Drink all day! And so that is how, for me, alcohol became an addiction. I used it to make everything better, brighter, and more pleasant until it started to make everything harder, more painful and began desaturating my life of its vivid detail until it (and I) blacked out.

But it is hard work to feel all the feelings all day, every day. Maybe there was a little non-addictive reprieve in the form of a natural plant. I had never been a pot smoker, but the people I knew who smoked seemed relaxed, content, and laid back. Very California. They didn’t seem to sweat the small stuff. I was constantly sweating things big and small! So what would happen if I smoked a little weed after a rough day?

I wasn’t that familiar with anyone who had successfully navigated the murkier waters of moderation. I came from a long line of professional problem drinkers. They typically fluctuated between periods of abstinence and full-tilt binging. During these periods of abstinence, I vividly remember hearing phrases like:

“I can’t just have one drink,”

“One will lead to the whole bottle,”

and “If I have one today, you won’t see me for a few weeks.”

These sentiments seemed to be born from experience.

I had also seen them attempt to set boundaries around their drinking. These never lasted more than a few months. Specifically for my older brother. For decades I watched and listened to his attempts at sobriety:

“I’ll drink only after 6 pm on the weekends,” over time turned into “That doesn’t include holiday weekends,” and then “Or Sunday.”

‘No hard liquor,” except “Tequila doesn’t count!”

“Only social drinking” evolved to “I’m not drinking alone if someone else is in the house!”

My own attempts at moderation were not as nuanced. I would commit to drinking less volume, less often, almost every morning. These promises never lasted more than twelve hours. When I began attending recovery meetings, I understood that the paths to and from drinking were as varied as the individuals walking them.

I had lurked in the back at various sobriety meetings over the years and heard about a technique called ‘playing the tape forward.’ You imagine that you give in to your craving: what happens that day? What happens the next day? And after that? It can be a very effective exercise if you are totally honest with yourself. Which is difficult when you are readying your fingers to scratch an itch.

So, I played the tape. What if — my tiny dog keeps me up all night with his stomach issues; I have an 8-hour zoom the next morning, I do laundry during the breaks, sign off the zoom drained, make dinner, and by the time I sit down, I am exhausted but still not relaxed. It’s 8pm, I take an edible, lie down on the couch, and blissfully binge-watch The Great British Baking Show. I don’t check my email, I don’t think about the leaky faucet I need to deal with, and I don’t worry about what I need to do tomorrow. Well, this sounds great! No hangover, no forgotten online purchases, and no regretful text messages sent! Success! The next day, since things went so well the day before, I take an edible right after my last zoom of the day. Walking the dog and making dinner seems markedly more interesting and enjoyable. Here comes Sunday, and I feel the scaries creeping in midday — take an edible…ok. I get it. I will eventually use any mind-altering substance that I give myself permission to use, as a crutch to ‘manage’ any negative emotions. I will inevitably stop using my other coping mechanisms. Then, the threshold becomes lower, and even the anticipation of discomfort becomes a valid excuse to use. Over time, will create wide brush to paint all my emotions with the same gray color. Apparently, I still had work to do on myself. I began to think that regardless of the amount of journalling, meditiation, recovery meetings and nature walks, I would never be able to have an amicable relationship with drugs and alcohol.

But why? I screamed in my head while stomping my feet and raising a fist in the air. Was there a genetic component, some generational trauma that prevented me and seemingly everyone in my family from moderating their drinking? The answer was probably. Abundant evidence indicates that alcohol use disorder is a complex genetic disease. Meaning a combination of genetic and environmental factors go into its expression. And when someone is diagnosed with substance use disorder (SUD), it’s more than just the drug of choice that’s the issue. I knew that addiction issues were rooted in underlying, often trauma-based experiences. It was the consistent mindfulness of and acceptance of these circumstances that I considered to be emotional sobriety. And for me it was emotional sobriety that was more difficult to achieve than physical sobriety.

NYU addiction psychiatrist, Collin Reiff explains, “I have to meet my patients where they’re currently at.” As an entryway to recovery, “harm reduction works,” he added. “But harm reduction does not work when someone has a history of relapsing, getting themselves in life-threatening situations, or compromising others.” He notes, “Ambiguity is a restraining force that holds the individual back from sobriety…it takes courage to be specific.”

Looking back, I was resistant to label my relationship with alcohol for years leading up to quitting drinking. I could not be honest with the effect that drinking was having on my life and my lack of control over it. My denial took many forms and had many rationales, from the mundane to the ridiculous.

The excuses ranged from:

“I have a really stressful job! I don’t have time to exercise, meditate and practice mindfulness,”

“I had a horrible childhood! I should be happy I don’t have a more severe drug problem,”

“I don’t drink nearly as much as anyone else in my family,”

“I don’t even drink hard liquor,”

“I really enjoy the taste!”

My rationalizations about the consequences of my drinking were equally as problematic:

“I’m predisposed to having ulcers,”

“It’s probably better that I ripped off the bandaid and said (insert secret/terrible truth here),”

“I meant to fall asleep before (insert important event here),”

“I bruise easily!”

However, luckily, at some point, the justifications fell away, and I looked down to see the bottom, like a chugging train, slowly but persistently rising up to meet me. I could no longer deny that hangovers were starting to feel like a chronic illness, blackouts were becoming more embarrassing, and ultimately, I was not proud of who I was becoming.

The hardest part of my decision to quit drinking was accepting that I was never going to drink again and that moderation had failed in all its forms. It was a staggering thought that took time to process and was the greatest challenge to my choice to stop. Would I have quit drinking earlier if I knew there was an alternative, less harmful, less addictive substance I could have used to ease the transition away from alcohol? Could I have eliminated those last months or even years of heavy drinking? Maybe, but I also risked substituting one dependency for another if I didn’t firmly set sobriety as the goal.

Deep down, I knew I craved oblivion, not a gentle respite. From the first sip or drag, I was working towards something that could not be achieved by moderation, something that didn’t even live on the same planet as moderation. It was in my body’s deepest spaces that could only be reached by risking total devastation. For most people, the concept of trying to fill a hole with no bottom sounds completely foreign, but it was a typical Tuesday night when I was still using. If I give myself the option to smoke weed, most likely, I will eventually enter into a Groundhog Day scenario that I will need to dig my way out of.

There are so many nuances of substance use disorder and so many possible versions of ‘sobriety’. The concept of a ‘cure’ or ‘remission’ does not quite accurately describe the journey of recovery; which is emotional, physical and spiritual. Anything that makes you healthier, gives you peace and allows you to live in your truth is a move in the right direction. Abstinence isn’t necessary for everyone to prevent a self-destructive spiral of behavior, and I am a little envious of that. For me, it is as necessary as breathing.

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In Fitness And In Health

We provide online small group recovery meetings with compatible peers who support each other in their personal recovery. A safe space for honest conversation.