The Pink Clouds of Early Sobriety

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At one point or another, almost every alcoholic passes through a pink cloud phase of their recovery. For some people, it starts after a few days or weeks of sobriety. For others, it kicks in after a few months. But no matter when it occurs, it seems to be a universal experience that can be both exhilarating and dangerous.

The most accurate way to define the pink cloud is “false euphoria” or “synthetic bliss.” This is the time when our heads begin to clear, we’re getting more rest, our senses are reawakening, and we feel like we’re floating on fluffy pink clouds of joy and happiness.

It brings a fantastic sense of optimism and hope because we finally feel like we’re free and clear from the chains of our addiction that held us captive for so long. We start to think: I’m good. There’s nothing to worry about here. I’ve got this. I’m in the clear now.

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One of the things I noticed the most in my pink cloud phase was how good everything smelled. It was strange. It seemed like I could smell everything in the world, and each aroma brought a flood of pleasant emotions and memories to my mind. A specific type of flower would remind me of my grandmother. Freshly cut grass brought back fond memories of my childhood. It felt like I was sharply attuned to all the intricate details of the world, and that I would live in peace and joy for the rest of my life.

Ironically, the pink cloud phase of recovery is very similar to the experience of snorting cocaine. We snort the first line, and there’s the rapid upward swing of exhilaration when the world seems magnificent. Then there’s the inevitable crash as the blow runs out. We fall rapidly from a pink cloud of bliss to the brown mud of depression.

The pink cloud in recovery can be similar. One moment we’re floating on a cloud of optimism and hope; the next moment, we descend into depression, irritability, and frustration.

Early recovery for me was filled with peaks and valleys. I would be on top of the world one day, and the next day I’d be drowning in misery. It sucked and left me confused and desperate for emotional consistency.

There was a constant war raging inside me; do I stay sober and fight through the emotional swings, or do I take the easier way out and pick up a drink. Stay sober or drink? Stay sober or drink? Stay sober or drink?

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I realized early on that if I could just manage to make it to a 12 step meeting every day, my chance of surviving twenty-four hours without drinking increased exponentially. Something about these meetings seemed to resonate with me. I still didn’t WANT to go to meetings or particularly enjoy them. But every single time I went to a meeting, especially at night, the urge to drink went away almost entirely. Was it the stories I was hearing people share? Was it the prayers they were always reciting? Was it the fucking hand-holding at the conclusion of each meeting (I hated that part)? What was it that left me feeling better after each meeting? What was it about the meetings that diminished my urge to drink?

Honestly, many years of sobriety later, I still don’t know the answers to these questions (I don’t mind the hand-holding anymore, either). What I learned early in my recovery was that if I could just make it to a meeting every day, I might survive without picking up a drink. And that’s all I wanted. I didn’t care about anything else, not the prayers or the hand-holding, nor my mood swings or depressions. I only cared about one thing: NOT DRINKING!

The pink clouds came and went. My emotions went up and down all the time, an endless rollercoaster of highs and lows, euphoria, and angst. But I kept going to meetings because I knew that’s where I needed to be.

Eye Contact

I’ve always been a blusher. Since childhood, I’ve experienced a maddening rush of blood to my face whenever I feel awkward or embarrassed. The most frustrating part about being a blusher is that when I blush, I become more embarrassed by people knowing I’m blushing, which then makes me blush even harder. When the blushing increases, the blood rushes into my ears, making it difficult to hear. Once my face flushes hot, and my hearing is impaired, I become confused and begin to stammer and stutter. It’s a vicious cycle of humiliation that I’ve struggled with ever since I can remember.

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Over time, I worked hard to avoid any type of situation that might embarrass me. Socializing in large groups, approaching a girl I liked, speaking out loud, attending parties, dancing, all made me feel incredibly uncomfortable and awkward.

Booze changed everything for me.

I realized early in life that many situations that induced embarrassment could be easily conquered with a few drinks. By my teens, I rarely engaged in any type of social activity without downing a few beers whenever possible. Drinking gave me the courage to look people in the eye, speak out loud, joke, dance, and, most importantly, talk to girls.

By the time I got sober, I was almost entirely clueless when it came to socializing without liquid courage. It felt like I was starting all over again, reverting to my childhood when I blushed and stammered so often. It was awful and left me feeling discouraged. Who the hell wants to revisit the most painful parts of their childhood?

In many ways, getting sober is about starting over from the place where it all began. If I began drinking at age 12, then that’s when I stopped maturing in certain parts of my life. Essentially, I stopped growing up at age 12. Now at age 43 (when I began my sobriety), I was being forced to return to the starting gate, relearning what I had tried to escape through alcohol.

The early stages of my recovery included a lot of blushing and stammering.

It was discouraging to realize that I was unable to look people in the eyes without turning my gaze away, my cheeks flushing beet red, words getting stuck in my throat. Trying to talk out loud and engage in eye contact felt unbearable at times.

When I attended 12 step meetings, I would show up late to avoid talking with anyone. I would sit in the back of the room whenever possible. As soon as the meeting ended, I’d race for the door and disappear lest I have to engage in any conversation.

But I kept showing up anyway. The way I figured it, showing up was 90% of the battle. So what if I didn’t talk with anyone? I was there to listen, and that’s what I needed at that stage.

What I noticed was that the more I attended meetings, the more I began to recognize people. They, in turn, began to recognize me. A few people even knew my name. That was huge. They would shake my hand (or, God forbid, hug me) and say, “Hi, Dirk. Welcome back,” like I was a long lost relative. At first, it freaked me out, but then I started to enjoy it, and to look forward to hearing my name welcoming me into the meetings (I’ll let you in on a little secret; I even started to look forward to the occasional hug. Shhh, don’t tell anyone).

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It was a small event when it happened, but it felt good to be recognized and acknowledged. I began to crave those small intimate interactions at the meetings when people would say hello and say my name out loud.

The big breakthrough for me was when someone asked me to stand by the door of a meeting I attended every Sunday to be a “greeter.” A greeter is just someone who stands there and says “welcome” to every person that passes through the door.

So instead of being the terrified newcomer, I was now going to be the grinning idiot who said “welcome” to everyone.

This was a pivotal and positive turning point in my recovery.

At first, I blushed and stammered when I greeted people, feeling like a complete phony and fool. Surely, all these people would know I was new to this whole sobriety thing and laugh at me or talk about me behind my back. What right did I have to be a greeter at a meeting? I was nobody; I meant nothing. They would probably insist I be kicked out of the meeting forever.

It made me nervous as hell to be a greeter when I first started. But then I began to enjoy it. Every Sunday, I’d arrive at the meeting early and begin the process of saying “welcome” and shaking hands with everyone as they passed through the doors. I even started trying to figure out who was brand new and terrified like I had been at my first meeting. When I would spot one of these trembling newcomers (they often look like Bambi in the headlights), I would greet them extra warmly and sometimes rub their arms in a gesture of solidarity.

What the hell was going on? I was having a good time on Sundays because I could be a greeter. I was able to shake people’s hands, say “welcome” and look them in the eye…WITHOUT BLUSHING!

What the fuck is happening here?

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The progression was natural. The more meetings I attended, the more likely I would start to recognize people, and they would recognize me in turn. Eventually, if I could somehow overcome my intense shyness, a few conversations would arise, and before I knew it, a friendship might develop, a friendship born in sobriety.

Starting a friendship in sobriety is different than starting one in addiction. As fellow alcoholics in recovery, we’re drawn together by shared adversity and pain. The bonds formed in the early days of recovery are often intense and long-lasting, similar to soldiers who fought in the same war. There is a shared understanding and honesty between the combatants that other people, outside the sacred circle, simply can’t understand

Being a greeter every Sunday had a tremendous impact on my confidence. It seems silly that the simple act of welcoming people into a meeting could improve my self-esteem. Yet, I was at such a low emotional state when I started my sobriety that this weekly ritual had a significant effect on my ability, and willingness, to start talking with people before and after meetings. Over a few weeks, I began to know many people in the meetings, some of who would eventually become close friends.

I’ve always had a difficult time being around other human beings and developing friendships. When I’m not emboldened with booze, people make me feel nervous and inadequate. I don’t mean people who are assholes either. I mean ordinary, kind, funny, decent people. There’s always been something inside me that makes me feel “less than” others as if everyone is somehow better than me. I’ve always felt like an outsider, an uninvited guest who is loitering at the secret social club of life. While everyone is inside having a party, I’m stuck on the outside peeking through the window, hoping that someday I’ll be asked to join the festivities.

For the first time in my life, I began to feel like I BELONGED somewhere. Being a part of the 12 step community started to feel like I had come home. I still didn’t want to go to meetings, but I began to realize that these were my people. This nutty flock of drunks and addicts were my compadres. Here was my fiesta. Here was the party I had been waiting to join, and I was invited inside, no questions asked. Granted, the party had no booze or blow, but still…

One of the first friendships I developed was with Dave W., one of the funniest people I ever met in my life. Dave and I would sit next to each other in meetings (we both got sober around the same time) and laugh like a couple of school girls at all the crazy shit going on around us in those meetings.

Every time I spotted Dave at a meeting, I moved quickly to find a seat next to him. He could be moody as hell but never disappointed when it came to making me laugh. With his subtle, southern drawl and world-weary attitude, he was the companion I needed in those early, shaky days. Five years later, Dave would be at my wedding, a bright and sober compadre that I’m forever grateful to call a friend.

Making new friends felt like an accomplishment, something I was enjoying every day. I was still struggling with shyness (even to this day), but my life felt like it was expanding in a positive direction. I still had a lot to face in the journey ahead, and depression and fear were a big part of my daily existence. But I was finally starting to meet people just like me who were lost, vulnerable and lonely. All of us broken soldiers trying to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives together. Working together. Healing together. Rebuilding our lives together.


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