In Alcoholics Anonymous, I have heard those people who go in and out of the program over and over again, called ping-pong balls. They bounce back and forth between sobriety and drinking. I was one of those people for a while, not able to stay sober, but not wanting to continue drinking either. I would build up some sober time, and then pick up again. I always made it back into the rooms, but wondered for how long.
I’ve done a lot of reflecting about why this time around sobriety seems to be sticking. I’ve written posts about what I think some of the differences are this time (you can read them here and here), but it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what it is. I think that there are many contributing factors, some of which I have written about, and still others that I have failed to recognize.
At a meeting over the weekend a lady with a few years of sobriety was talking about her “ping-pong” years. I thought that the way she described it was perfect, and I had never heard it described this way. She said that she would drink until the pain of drinking was too much, and then she would stay sober until the pain of sobriety was too much. And she operated that way for years.
The pain of sobriety.
I had never really thought of it like that, but it’s true. Every time I tried to get sober in the past, the pain of sobriety sent me back out. You see, in the beginning, I wrongly thought that drinking was my only problem, and that as soon as I stopped my life would be a great big bowl of cherries. I believed that merely staying sober would mean eternal happiness and everyone would love me again, and there would no longer be trials and tribulations. OK, I may be exaggerating a little bit here. I knew that life’s little problems would still come up, but I honestly thought that just being sober would make me more able to handle them, that I could use my new-found sobriety like Wonder Woman used her bracelets, to just let the bad things bounce off of me. Clearly, that isn’t what happened. Everything that I drank over in the first place was still there, with some extra added resentments. Imagine my dismay! And, not only that, but if I wanted to stay sober, then I could no longer use my tried and true coping mechanism. Drinking was out, but I hadn’t yet learned how to cope any other way.
I learned how to white-knuckle it through cravings, but struggled when I started feeling my emotions. Guilt, shame, anger, grief, and sadness plagued me, and I was in emotional pain. I hadn’t yet learned how to just sit with negative emotions, and I sure couldn’t stand the pain they were causing. So I drank, just like the woman at the meeting said.
My solution would work for a little while. The booze would take away my feelings, and life was good again. Until it wasn’t. Drinking only caused more guilt, shame, anger, grief and sadness. Guilt and shame that I had broken promises, anger that I had failed again, grief and sadness that I had once again thrown away my sobriety. So I would sober up, start working my program again, and the cycle would begin again, and it was vicious.
It was only when I came to the realization that the pain that I felt when I was drinking was far worse than the pain of sobriety that I was able to stop the ping-pong game that had become my life. I realized that there was no way to work through the pain if I was drunk, but I could if I was sober, it was possible. Being in emotional pain would not kill me, but continuing to drink would. It was inevitable.
It has been extremely hard to deal with all my past hurts, current troubles, and fears about the future. I have gone through a lot of really difficult things in recovery. But now I know that if I stay sober, it can be done. That simple possibility is what keeps me going.
No more ping-pong for me.