Sick in sobriety – How to avoid the triggers

sick in sobriety

sick in sobriety

Early on in my sobriety, I remember hearing around the rooms people complaining about how hard it was being sick in sobriety .  At the time I couldn’t figure out what one had to do with the other.  Of course, at that time I didn’t have any children.  I had no idea of the biological warfare that is daycare germs.  And as I sit here, having been sick for over a month with one illness after another, while I don’t necessarily want a drink, I have started to understand the problem.  It’s not that I think a drink would make anything better, that’s a guarantee in every situation.  It’s more that my defenses are down, and that little addicted part of my brain, which is usually a pretty good napper, sees its opportunity and starts whispering to me.

This feels familiar

My mouth feels like sandpaper and my head is pounding.  What does this feel like?  A hangover. This is completely unfair.  Because this was part of the deal – I stop drinking, and the hangovers stop. That’s the deal.  Who is messing with the deal? ??

It states clearly in paragraph four.

Though I don’t want to admit it, there is some part of my brain that thinks “If I’m going to feel hungover, I should have gotten to drink!”  This is completely different than how I actually view drinking.  I don’t think of it as a privilege that I am denying myself.  I think of it as something that doesn’t work well with my body.  Kind of like Lean Pockets.

Side note: I got food poisoning from a Lean Pocket once. Why I was eating one in the first place is beyond me.  Alcohol was definitely a part of the decision-making process.  It was horrible and to this day the sight of one turns my stomach.  But when I get the stomach flu I don’t automatically think, “But I didn’t get to have a lean pocket!” Yet feeling sick with hangover symptoms triggers my “No fair!” alarm system.  And what was the one thing that could take the edge off a hangover? Yeah.

A pound of cure

balloon head
I may be sick but I still know how to rock

I do not have a high threshold for being uncomfortable.  If I don’t feel good in some way – either mentally or physically, I want to bomb it out of my body by any means necessary.  A big part of sobriety is learning how to sit with big emotions you’d rather block out.  I have learned to do that for the most part but still haven’t mastered it on the physical side.  So I drag myself to urgent care where they prescribe all manner of pills and potions.

When I still have a cough days later, the doctor wants to prescribe Tylenol with Codeine.  I explain that I am in recovery and would prefer not to use anything with opioids.  (This is a personal choice.  If your doctor prescribes it and you take it as directed, it is not considered a slip, but for me, I just don’t want to mess with it, especially since in the past they haven’t worked well.)  The doctor orders me some other prescription cough medicine which makes the room look slightly melty and makes my head feel like a helium balloon.  But it does help me sleep.  It makes me uneasy though.

So I try the health food store.  A man in a white coat but does not necessarily have any sort of medical or pharmacological degree sells me fifty dollars of tinctures that taste like an ogre’s jockstrap.  50 drops every three hours.  After taking it twice I read that tinctures are usually extracted with alcohol.  Great.  The ones I bought apparently do not, which is a load off, but that’s also a pretty easy way to accidentally ingest alcohol.  I am lucky to have avoided that.  My head is fuzzy and I am not being vigilant.


As alcoholics, we need to be careful about the temptation to take anything that lets us turn off the world for a while.  And just to put it out there – don’t take Nyquil unless it’s the alcohol-free version. Make sure to check everything you take.  Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good for you.  Hemlock is natural too but I wouldn’t recommend taking it.

This never used to happen

drunk rhesus monkey
I can’t even feel it

“I never got sick when I was drinking!”  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this.  I have even thought it myself a couple of times.  My logic was that the alcohol killed whatever germs were in my system, though science doesn’t really back that up.  If you’re a rhesus monkey trying not to get smallpox it might help slightly, and to be fair, when drinking I never DID contract smallpox…  But beyond that, there is no proof to suggest alcohol boosts immunity.

What’s more likely?  I did get sick, I just figured it was a hangover. Or even more likely, I didn’t get as sick as I do today, because back then I didn’t have children, and could actually REST when I was sick.

No rest for the mommy

I barely remember what it was like to be sick before having a child.  It sounds like it was almost enjoyable.  I could lay down all day and watch bad tv and drink overly salty soup and ginger ale and sleep until I felt better.  I don’t have that option now.  I continue to trudge through my days as if I were healthy, thereby making myself sicker and sicker.

hospital patient
Why aren’t you logged into the VPN?

Part of this is my fault, in that I don’t ask for help early enough, but this isn’t because I am being stoic.  It’s all about the very real issue of balancing child care and the goodwill of our family’s employers.  Do I want to ask my husband to be late to work and come back early so he can do daycare duty, thereby saving me the mile walk each time?  Nah, I should probably save that for when I REALLY can’t do it myself.  Should I take a sick day?  No one really does where I work, since we all work remotely.  It’s considered lame.

Can my husband get up with my son when he starts screaming at night?  Yes, and he does.  And my son will have none of it.  I am getting no more sleep lying in bed hearing him scream “I want Mamaaaaaaaa!” than I would if I just went in there and rubbed his back.  Maybe this puts him back to sleep.  Or maybe he is up for the day at 3AM.  Does he care that I am sick?  Hell no.

Am I done relaxing yet?

Something I have noticed among most people in recovery is that we are high achievers.  We aren’t great at sitting still.  Maybe it’s because of all the years we wasted, or maybe it’s because we learned to function with a handicap of being drunk so much, it acted much the same way as a baseball player swinging multiple bats as practice – a single bat feels like a feather after that.  So for us, sober life feels lighter and easier.  For all these reasons, we do not want to stop and rest.  We hate doing nothing.

enough tranquility
Okay it’s been an hour. Enough tranquility.

Don’t get me wrong, I love a duvet day.  In theory.  But I usually can’t stay at it for more than a few hours.  My mind loves the idea of relaxation right until it gets bored.  So when it comes time to rest because my body is forcing it on me, I might take a half day to abandon my everyday chores, and then I get frustrated.  Why aren’t I better yet?  Now I’m still sick and the house is a disaster and I have twice as many emails to return.  This is bullshit.

The Mom Cold

You know how there’s the “man cold”?  Where some men get the sniffles and all of a sudden they act like they’re dying, and insist upon being waited on hand and foot?  My problem is that I THINK I’m behaving that way.  I think I have a man cold, when in fact I have a MOM cold.  This is where you are ridiculously ill but act like you are fine and do everything anyway.  I was certain I just had a persistent chest cold and found out it was really walking pneumonia.  It wasn’t until a doctor told me that and gave me a serious talking to that I allowed myself to call in reinforcements and just rest.

hotel room
Your sickbed awaits madam.

I have a fantasy in which I could just go to a hotel when I get sick.  Because at home, even if I try to rest, there is always something that needs to be done, and I can’t help myself.  But if I could just remove myself to a hotel, order chicken soup and sleep with no one yelling, I could recover.  Alas, I cannot afford it.

Back to reality

This is one of the many ways in which I feel like I should get a gold star for just showing up, while others seem to handle temporary illness with much more grace and little to no maid service.  So what can I do?  I can ask a friend who lives nearby to walk my son to daycare, and promise to do the same for her when she gets sick.  I can make giant mugs of herbal tea with as much honey as I want and drink them all day.  I can order chicken pho from the amazing Thai place nearby.  I can block off an hour on my work schedule and use it to take a nap.  I can go to bed at a very early hour even if I’d rather stay up and watch tv with my husband.  And I can remember that just because it FEELS like it will never end, that doesn’t make it true.  This too shall pass.

Anyone else?  Bueller?



Eating Disorders, Alcoholism, and Motherhood

eating disorders


My first love was not alcohol. It was food. Starting around age 8, in response to a myriad of stressors, I started bingeing. So I did what far too many ten-year-olds do. I started a diet.


Which led to an eating disorder.


Then I fell in love for the first time and felt better about my body and was able to slowly learn to eat again.


It’s purely a coincidence that I started drinking around then.


Then I quit smoking.


And stopped eating food, saving my calories for drinking instead.

Mole. Mole.

I tried to beat back the eating disorder and get sober at the same time.

Whack! Whack!

But was asking too much of myself at once. I couldn’t keep it up and started drinking again.


Three and a half years ago I got sober.


And stopped eating again.


And started exercising 2-3 hours a day.


Then I got pregnant and had to seriously knock that shit off.


My arms are exhausted.  I don’t want to play this game anymore.

First Things First?

Around the rooms, this is known as “Whack-a-Mole”. You take care of one problem, and another pops up.  I have often heard the advice – work on what’s killing you fastest.  But food and alcohol are tangled up together for me, in that they both try to solve the same problem –anxiety.

The first time I went into a recovery group and was reading the Big Book, I kept saying to my sponsor, “Oh, I totally relate to that.  Only about food…”  It happened so many times, she eventually said to me, “You know, I don’t know that alcohol is your real problem.  I think it’s food.”

My reaction was twofold:

  1.  No shit, Sherlock.
  2.  Yippee!  That means I can go DRINK!
But I’m not overly excited about it…

And that’s exactly what I did. For the next five years.  It didn’t occur to me that I was using alcohol in the same way I had used dieting in the past – as a numbing device.  But because I tended to bounce back and forth between the two, it didn’t make sense to me that BOTH could be a problem until much later.

Coping mechanisms

I don’t know why I seem to ping-pong between the two.  I can’t seem to find a point of total balance. There is something in me that is overwhelmed by the daily minor messes of life. I feel too much and it’s embarrassing. I realize this sounds either terribly angsty or depressed. If it’s angst, I should just get over it, grow up, slap a smile on my face and get on with it. And that’s generally what I do every day.

If it’s depression, I ought to take meds for that. And that’s also what I do every day. In addition, I am active, take vitamins, meditate, and do the things I am supposed to do. But somehow there is something in me that wants to check. The fuck. Out. It’s not that I want to die. Not at all.  I just want a break, to not feel. That is probably the thing I miss the most that my addictions gave me – the numbness.

It also has something to do with reinvention. I have this image in my head of someone poised and cool, who doesn’t sweat the small stuff. Who doesn’t talk too much or too loudly, and isn’t weird.  I thought I could starve the loudness out of myself. If I made myself small enough, and sharp enough, then all my excess would be gone. I wouldn’t have these squishy emotions that can’t be contained. And with alcohol, I could feel like the confident easygoing girl in public. And make her disappear alone at night.

The problem with these coping mechanisms is that they eventually stop working.  I kept drinking more or eating less to try to get that old feeling back, long past the point where it stopped working.

What? I just feel my feelings

I remember talking to a friend one of the times I was trying to get better. I asked him what he did when things in life were bad, to cope. He said, “I don’t DO anything. I just live through it, do what I can, and eventually, it sucks less.” I stared at him thinking, “We are a different species.”

In early sobriety, I remember trying to put this sort of thing into action after someone at work had pulled a particularly obnoxious move. I handled it perfectly well in the moment, making sure I didn’t show any anger or point any fingers. But inside I was furious. I am not comfortable with anger. Not then, not now. I want it gone, immediately. I have some better tools now, but at the time I had no idea what to do with this when I couldn’t stun it senseless with alcohol. My sponsor told me to take a bath. I complied. 20 minutes later I texted her, “Okay, so now I’m wet and I’m mad. I don’t see how this is better.”

I have made a good amount of progress in the three years between then and now. I’ve gotten better at doing things the way my alien friend does, trying to go the acceptance route, and for the most part, I’m successful. But I am also aware that nothing particularly bad has happened to me in those three years. (Coincidence?) I did go through a period of being unemployed that was no treat, but I knew there would be an end to it. I don’t know how I’ll deal though when I lose anyone important to me or if there’s a natural disaster. But the program gives me tools, for which I am thankful – meetings, fellowship, prayer…It has a  general direction which is helpful.

The food issues have been harder to part ways with than alcohol.  I am an all-or-nothing person. With alcohol, it is a great relief to know it’s off the table completely.  I don’t have to think about it.  But it doesn’t work that way with food.  I am uneasy with having to find a middle ground and I still struggle with it. Another big difference is that I never miss my alcoholism. I don’t miss being drunk or hungover. But I miss my eating disorder.   I don’t know why.  I hated it. But it made me feel powerful. The mental obsession has never been lifted for me. I don’t go a day without getting on the scale. I record everything I eat. I constantly wish I ate less and weighed less. I hate that I want food. I know I need it, but I hate that it is more than a necessity. These thoughts float through my head in the same way I remember, “Oh, I should pick up the dry cleaning.” They have become mundane.  My body has been cured.  My brain has not.

Recovery communities

While this might not make sense to anyone who hasn’t struggled with eating disorders, this thought is far from unusual. I had to stop going to message boards for eating disorder recovery because too much of it was women talking about how they “wanted their self-control (aka the eating disorder) back”.

Alcoholism recovery is a chummy experience. People drink coffee together and eat doughnuts and laugh about their shared history of disaster. There is just a sense that we are all in it together — relying on and helping each other.

Eating disorder recovery meetings always have a thread of competition running through them. There is always the very immediate yardstick of who is the thinnest in the room. If it’s you, you have to stay that way. If it’s not you, you aren’t working hard enough. This is not really helpful in changing your thinking.

She’s thinner than I am. Something must be done.

Why I am afraid to fully recover

The thing I don’t want to admit is that I know I probably could be better, but I’m terrified that if I don’t think this way, then I will gain weight.  A lot of it. I’ve been overweight, and I’ve been underweight and it’s ridiculous how different I was treated.   Not by everyone, but by a lot of people.  When I was underweight I was treated better than I ever have been by both men and women.   When overweight, I frequently either invisible or a punchline. I couldn’t bear to live that way. I don’t have thick skin. There are those who are body positive and healthy at a higher weight, but I don’t have that kind of self-confidence. I want to be admired, but if I can’t be admired, I want to blend in.

Everything about my recovery from alcoholism tells me this is bullshit. But it has been my brain since I was eight years old.  It’s how I understand the world.  That’s hard to rewire.


You couldn’t have ordered a burger?

Nearly every woman I know who is in recovery from an eating disorder has also had a problem with alcohol.  Not exactly the scientific method, though there have been numerous studies that seem to suggest this.  It makes sense to me. There is an unspoken battle between many women for who can eat the least at a given meal. When I go out to lunch, I can’t help but notice all the women with tiny salads and large glasses of white wine. I remember how the alcohol killed the hunger pangs and the lack of food made the buzz stronger. It’s a very powerful combination.  In my early days of recovery, I confided to a friend that I had stopped eating again, “It feels like being drunk.  I can’t feel anything else.”

It’s also socially sanctioned. No one ever asked me for tips on how to become a drunk.  But I have lost count of the people who pulled me aside and whispered conspiratorially, “What EXACTLY do you eat?”  As if they could make a meal plan out of a mental illness.  Though I get it.  I often miss being that thin because of how oddly revered it is in our culture.  I have to remind myself daily that it’s better to be happy and normal than skinny and miserable.

There are so many more women suffering with these issues than the numbers tell us. It is incredibly common to have an eating disorder and be a “normal” weight.  The scariest thing about writing this is doing so at a normal weight.  I worry that people will sneer or roll their eyes and think I’m pretending to be something I’m not.   Even at my worst, I never felt like I was a good enough anorexic.

Pregnancy and Eating Disorders

There is one time in life where many of us feel free from these shackles and that time is pregnancy.  For once we are EXPECTED to eat!  We are praised for it! “Oh don’t mind if I do have that Twix bar… It’s for the baby!”

Baby loves KitKats too.

Though circumstance dictated that I quit beforehand, I always figured I’d get a handle on the drinking when I got pregnant and had to stop for nine months.  I just needed a hard reset, I thought.  Now that I have spoken with so many women who have quit through pregnancy, only to ramp right back up to their prior consumption once the baby is born, I’m so grateful that I was lucky enough to get sober beforehand.   But I did sort of do that with my eating.

While some women struggle to gain enough weight due to their eating disorders, I found it to be an oasis. Beyond being culturally “allowed” to eat, my body no longer seemed like an unwanted appendage that I had to drag around everywhere. It was actually doing something. It was making a person. That was amazing to me.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommend that women gain 25-35 pounds during pregnancy, but most women I know with a history of eating disorders tended to gain closer to 50 or 60.  Sometimes more. This is not because we “pig out” but because we are never really sure what an appropriate amount of food is supposed to be. And even if we are getting the correct amount of calories for pregnancy, our bodies aren’t used to processing a normal amount of food.


Becoming a mother can be a double-edged sword.  I have friends who have started drinking again in order to feel like they belong in today’s wine-soaked mommy culture.  But I have a lot more friends who have gone back to their eating disorder soon after the baby is born.

I narrowly avoided it but definitely felt the temptation.  Aside from the insanity of postpartum hormones, and the panic to lose the weight, there was an intense pull to have something of myself that wasn’t “mommy”.  I felt consumed by motherhood and wished for some part of myself that was just mine.  With all its secrecy and manipulation, my eating disorder seemed to fit the bill.  But I resisted.

I have learned enough over time to know that it has nothing to do with me.  Like alcohol, it slowly takes away who I really am.  Something had already taken over my life, and it was a more positive force.  I’m not saying in any way that motherhood has cured me, or that I am cured in general.

True, whenever I’m tempted to go back to my old ways, I look at my son and think about how he needs me to be here for him.  I can’t give him the focus he deserves when I am sick.  But isn’t that a little unfair?  That’s a lot of pressure to put on a two-year-old.

There are questions though that hold promise.  Like why am I only willing to treat my body kindly when it affects another body?  What if I treated my body with the same respect I gave my growing baby?  When I was pregnant I certainly didn’t get five hours sleep a night, drink a pot of coffee a day and live on crackers and Swedish fish (aka my average weekday). Of course not! I wanted this kid to be as healthy and happy as possible. I wanted to give him a chance.  But don’t I deserve one too?

My ultimate goal is to have that same attitude towards myself all the time, not just when I’m pregnant. To insist on my own wellbeing, and to nourish myself. Because even though I’m not a growing child, I’m also not dead yet. My body isn’t a hopeless wreck that I am barely keeping going on caffeine, though it feels like it some days. It deserves a chance too. I sometimes wonder what my body could do if I let it.

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