Sober October: Experiments with Vulnerability

I made a snap decision near the end of September to dedicate October to sobriety. I want to clarify that I have a healthy relationship with alcohol, I’m not dependent on it or a heavy drinker or anything like that. The reason I decided to test out 31 days of prohibition was really motivated by two things: an increased focus on nutrition, and the twisted need to keep pushing into the things that make me the most uncomfortable. As it turns out, the thing that makes me most uncomfortable is being Me.

Dare greatly – dive in.

Skipping the occasional glass of wine with dinner or a beer on a Friday night hasn’t been a huge deal. They’re occasional indulgences that it’s easy enough to go without for a month. The hard part happens when I am invited to a party – a large, social event in which I am going to be confronted with people I don’t know, people who know me but not well, and people I’ll probably be self-conscious about being around. And this is where alcohol becomes my crutch.

A drink gives me something to do with my anxious hands, makes me seem like I have a purpose for being there, gives me a reason to get up and leave a room if I need to (“I’m just getting another beer”). To walk into a party knowing that I don’t get to disappear behind a hazy curtain of alcohol means that I have to walk into a party being just me. And as it turns out, being Just Me is really hard.

I’ve fallen into a habit in the last few years of separating Me from Drunk Me, as if they’re not two sides of the same coin, as if Drunk Me isn’t really me at all. Drunk Katelynn is still Katelynn, whether I like it or not, she’s just Katelynn uninhibited. I forget the crippling anxiety and self-doubt and shame that surrounds everything I do or say. I cease running the analytical software in my brain that tells me how stupid I sound, or how awful my face looks, or how I shouldn’t have done that thing I just did and now everyone will judge me forever etc. What Drunk Katelynn is really doing is helping me avoid being vulnerable.

I attended my first party of Sober October a couple weeks ago, which is how I figured out why being Just Me is so difficult. The Sober October experiment basically took my deep-seated anxiety and shone a high intensity spotlight on it. What it comes down to is vulnerability. To be vulnerable is to be “capable of or susceptible to being wounded or hurt” and quite frankly that terrifies me. Obviously I’m less concerned about being physically wounded – the scariest shit is being open to emotional wounds.

Which is why being sober in one of my most anxiety-prone situations was so important but also so petrifying. I realized that I use alcohol to numb – to temporarily suspend that analytical software, to suppress the fear of being exposed, to have an excuse for my behaviour. Being drunk at a party is far easier than being sober and risking being perceived for who I really and truly am– to do so is to risk rejection, judgement, dismissal, or (dare I say it?) ACCEPTANCE.

There’s a scary thought – that I might be accepted, and even loved, for Just Me. I’ve spent my whole life convinced of the impossibility of that notion, believing with 99% certainty that any affection or loyalty I’ve garnered is a fluke. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the moment of horrifying discovery at who I truly am and the inevitable rejection that must accompany such a revelation.

At Sober October Party #1, I watched myself run the gamut from overcompensating with a lot of shouting and drinking 800 litres of water, to letting go long enough to hold a solo dance party, and then back to imagining (with horror) how I was being perceived by others.  I left that party torn between pride at upholding my sobriety goal, happiness at having a good time with a few close friends, but also the painful sense that I am Not Enough. Not pretty enough, not charming enough, not capable enough, not smart enough, not funny enough, not demure enough –Not Enough. I had left myself exposed, left Just Me to fend for herself in the social wilderness and she simply didn’t have what it took to survive. I was uncomfortable with how vulnerable I felt, would rather have hidden Just Me under six beers in the name of protecting her from being seen at all.

Why is vulnerability so scary? It isn’t weakness, to be vulnerable. Yes, to be vulnerable is to open oneself to the potential of being wounded, but it is also what is required for us to feel things like pure joy or love –to risk being hurt is also to risk elation. Isn’t that kinda brave? To gamble on something so high stakes as feeling pure joy or being emotionally devastated? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m working on it.

TL;DR: You are Enough. You are worthy of love, connection and joy.

Shutting down or throwing the first punch may protect you from vulnerability but they cannot help you overcome the deficit of Not Enough. Only learning to embrace vulnerability and deciding that you are worthy of love can do that. 28 years in the making, that revelation.