You've Been Warned

"It does not matter how slow you go
as long as you do not stop"
– Confucious

I've spent the last week at absolute odds with myself.

Idle. Miserable. Cranky. Irritable. Exhausted.

Numb.

I had been chalking it up to the bad and broken sleep I've been having lately after the glorious run of deep, restful slumber that I swear is one of the most prestigious prizes of sobriety. While I was drinking (read: guzzling) four bottles of wine a day, I would sleepwalk through my days, and stir myself crazy through the nights.

I called it insomnia, the curse of a creative mind, when in fact it was just the daily clockwork of my 3am withdrawal as the dopamine in my brain plunged to dreamless depths and ripped me to alarming, depressing consciousness. I'd wake up to whatever the opposite of euphoria is. I'd wake up, on the dot, at 3am every night in a sweaty pool of my deepest regrets, wondering what the fuck was wrong with me.

Sobriety changed all that.

Instead of the chemicals in my brain smashing wildly against each other like angry, raging tidal waves on rocks, they now sort of lap gently back and forth in a gentle circadian rhythm.

I probably should have worn galoshes this week, since I've spent it knee-deep wading through cravings and mood swings as murky as my disposition. I've been feeling out of control, which is a terrifying place to be for someone who has struggled so hard to regain even the smallest scrap of sanity after decades of addiction. I've been short-fused and irritable (sorry, Hubs) and without a drop of alcohol crossing my lips for four months I feel as though my veins are demanding it or else.

I've been hostile, mostly to myself. 

The once quiet refuge in my finally calmed mind has apparently hosted a great big high school reunion and all the savage voices that beat me down for so long are back, louder and fatter than ever before. All the bullies in my brain that pushed me through the dark corridors of my thoughts for decades have returned, and I've been feeling powerless to push back, like all the clocks have wound themselves backwards and I've somehow lost all I've learned.

My mind has filled with fog and I've been struggling to get the simplest of ideas out of my head and onto the page. Sometimes, simple sentences have been hard. I've been feeling like an absolutely different person from who I was only last week, like I've been washed away by a surprising tsunami in the middle of an otherwise perfectly peaceful stroll on the beach.

This is what PAWS feels like.

Post-acute withdrawal syndrome.

I was pretty sure I was losing my mind, and that all the hard work I'd invested into reclaiming my life was on the precipice of being forfeited. Thoughts of just numbing my discomfort in a bottle or four of glory has seemed far too tempting, and the taste of relapse has been lingering on my tongue.

Anything to make these feelings go away.

It wasn't until yesterday when I came across a post on Facebook (thank you, Belinda) that felt as though someone ran up to me at the reunion to let me know I've been wearing the wrong name tag all along. That the bullies that returned were beating up the old me, who didn't know any better. That I was being pushed down the corridor by old patterns and habits I didn't own anymore. That I wasn't losing my mind or my sobriety, after all.

That this is part of the process.

That this too, shall pass.

The thing with PAWS is that it comes out of nowhere, for no palpable reason, without trigger, and without cause. And when it does arrive (and it will arrive, you've been warned) it rolls in like a tsunami you didn't even see coming. 

It brings with it all the dark creatures from the depths you thought you left behind. It transcends time and space, because suddenly, you feel as though you're back where you started like the dice worked against you in a slippery game of Snakes & Ladders. PAWS is very much a psychological condition, so it disguises itself in the chatter of your mind with voices you recognize and in turn, accept.

It feels familiar.

The depression, the cravings, the anxiety and exhaustion.

It feels like the first day not using, all over again, but without any physical symptoms you can check off on a list to diagnose what's wrong with you.

It feels like a good excuse to go to the liquor store, to make it all go away, just like you used to.

It feels like you're losing grip.

I'm learning that the answer to PAWS is in the name itself.

Pause. Wait.

Let this pass.

Stay.

The moment I recognized that what I was feeling wasn't actually me, and that I didn't have to believe the thoughts I was having helped immediately to put some of the symptoms to rest. Knowing that they too would wash away the same way they washed in helped to make what I was feeling a little more bearable.

Okay, at least I'm not going crazy.

Then, there's something oddly comforting in being able to label what you're feeling. To give it a name. To take the scary uncertainty of what is happening to you and tuck it neatly into a box. To minimize the fear that you're falling apart again, and maximize the truth that this is an often experienced but seldom discussed reality of recovery.

The adventure of getting sober is much like following the Yellow Brick Road. It's dazzling, with promises of all you are hoping for, just waiting for you at the other end. It begins at the end of a destructive storm where you yourself have been the tornado in your own and other people's lives. You land, staring at the witch that's haunted you, once and for all defeated and shrinking beneath the weight of your own arrival, and you're greeted by swarms of friendly folk who want to help you on your way.

The freedom you're seeking takes strength and resolve, and the Emerald City you're wanting to reach is just a facade so you have something to aim for – because it's in the journey itself that the growing occurs.

If getting sober is anything like a trip through Oz, then PAWS is the Dark Forest, full of angry trees throwing all the rotten apples of your past at you. 

And, just like Dorothy and her friends discover – they had the strength and power to get where and what they wanted all along, if they had only looked inside themselves.

I know, it sounds so cliché.

But when PAWS hits (and it will), you'll feel as though ten thousand flying monkeys have stolen you away. You'll feel as though you're deliriously drunk in a field of opium laced poppies, so close to where you've been headed, but somehow frozen and in a sudden, shocking nightmare.

You'll feel as though the Wicked Witch is back.

But if you wait and keep walking, if you dodge all the rotten apples and stay close to those who have helped you on your way, you'll reach the other side.

Even Dark Forests can't sprawl on forever.

Tsunamis can't keep breaking with surprising, mountainous force.

And you need to remember that you can't ever unlearn what you already know.

So it turns out I'm not losing my mind after all. It turns out that the last week of misery and miserableness have a somewhat logical, almost scientific explanation.

That it was just a Dark Forest, not a dark world.

Here's what you need to know about PAWS, because if you're braced for it, you won't get swept away by the tsunami:

  • Though many, many people experience PAWS, it is not an official medical diagnosis (yet)
  • PAWS is difficult to measure, and is more like a mental health condition than a physical illness, like the flu
  • Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome lasts up to two years
  • Episodes last for several days, but over time, the span between episodes can grow further apart, and the episodes themselves should become shorter
  • It's important to discuss PAWS before it occurs with your loved ones and those you spend time with, so they can help you recognize it when it's occuring
  • PAWS is a dangerous trigger for relapse. Being prepared and knowing that it should be a short-lived, passing series of strong emotions and negative thoughts is your best defence against relapse when it happens
  • Common symptoms of PAWS include mood swings, anxiety, irritability, tiredness, low energy, low enthusiasm, poor concentration, disturbed sleep, hostility and aggression, anxiety, feelings of panic or fear, depression, fatigue, trouble concentrating, lack of interest in sex, memory problems and heightened sensitivity to stress, and an overall numbness or inability to experience pleasure

It would be wonderful if I could tell you that the road to sobriety was a neat and tidy straight line. That the pink cloud lasts forever. That by the courageous steps of getting rid of alcohol, all the waves of negative self-talk will disappear, and the wicked witch will stay shrivelled up beneath your house.

But it isn't. 

It's a winding and wonderful Yellow Brick Road, full of adventure and learning, self-discovery and surprising friends you'll meet along the way. There will be dark times. There will be scary times. There will be times when you aren't sure you'll ever make it, and that your ruby slippers are nothing but cheap knock-offs.

And there will, most likely, be a Dark Forest or two you will need to pass through to reach that sunny open field once again on the other side.

So keep going. Learn to recognize the symptoms of PAWS, and when they start to wash over you, pause while they pass.

And I promise you, they will pass.

You're still as strong and sober as you ever were, it's just your chemistry that is catching up with you.

Sober, alcohol free recovery blogger.

Photographer. Writer. Ex-Blackout Artist.

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