Getting sober is a big life change. It means quitting a substance you are physically dependent on, changing your habits that formed around using, making new friends, and adopting a healthier lifestyle. As with any change, it will feel weird at first but you will eventually feel normal again. Whether you experience sobriety as a change in identity largely depends on how you think about yourself.
You will have to make new friends. One of the most challenging parts of sobriety is that you suddenly can’t be around many of your old friends. Either being around them will temp you to drink, or you will realise you just don’t like them as much when you’re sober. Either way, it’s difficult. It can feel like a breakup. In fact, you might actually have a breakup if your significant other doesn’t support your recovery.
It’s always hard to part with people we care about. It’s especially hard if you derive your sense of identity from your friends. It’s a fairly common progression for someone to start using drugs or drinking because it’s a way of becoming part of a group. That is, someone who felt she was lacking a social identity, might discover that identity amongst peers who drink or use drugs, so quitting feels like losing her identity again.
Even if your identity is not based on finding acceptance amongst peers who drink or use drugs, we become used to defining ourselves by our interactions with others. We get used to certain people. We have inside jokes and common acquaintances. Leaving that network can make us feel at loose ends and a little unsure how to interact with the world. It can be disorienting.
You will have to get used to a new mental landscape. The first year or so of recovery is tough for most people. Their brain chemistry hasn’t quite evened out, they’re still figuring out their triggers, and learning to cope with cravings. They often have to confront unpleasant emotions for the first time in years. It’s like when the lights come on in the club and you finally see who you’ve been dancing with. You might suddenly feel like your mind is a hellish place. Actually, it’s always been like that. If it seems unfamiliar it’s because you haven’t been looking.
You will have to find new ways to occupy yourself. Much of our sense of self is anchored by external things. You have a certain routine, you go to certain places, and see certain people. If you change too much at once, you feel off balance and disoriented. Unfortunately, recovery requires you to make a lot of changes pretty quickly. Inpatient treatment can make this a little easier because it sort of bundles the changes. For example, you don’t feel like a different person when you go on vacation, even though every normal aspect of your life is disrupted.
The most challenging thing is not sliding back into patterns you see as part of your authentic self. You may have to develop some new habits or learn some new skills. These always feel uncomfortable at first and some may feel at odds with your self-image. When you make positive changes in your life, it’s sometimes hard to shake the feeling that you’re pulling against a spring that wants to snap you back into your old self. Eventually, that pull becomes weaker, and one day going back to your old way of living will seem unimaginable.