A Soberful Life

Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True. I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.

You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Veronica Valli. Veronica is a former psychotherapist who now works as a sobriety coach. With almost 20 years of experience, she has helped thousands of people live happy, healthy, soberful lives, and reach their full potential being alcohol-free. She’s been the keynote speaker at annual conferences, such as “Women For Sobriety” and “Soberistas” and she’s the co-host of the popular, Soberful podcast. With Sounds True, Veronica Valli is releasing a new book: it’s called Soberful: Uncover a Sustainable, Fulfilling Life Free of Alcohol.

Whatever notions we might have confirmed by our culture at large that drinking alcohol helps us feel more connected to other people, more in-tune with our authentic self, for some people that may be true, but Veronica shows that for many people that’s not the case. And she helps us see that we can actually be really connected, really enjoy ourselves, really be authentic and be soberful all at the same time. Here’s my conversation with someone who’s normalizing the choice to be alcohol-free and helping people who are suffering recover from an addiction to alcohol, the very helpful and practical Veronica Valli.

To begin, Veronica, I’d love to know more about how you became a sobriety coach. To be honest with you, I’d never even known previous to this conversation that there was such a thing as a sobriety coach.

Veronica Valli: Well, I’ll try and condense that as much as possible. In the UK I was a psychotherapist. So I had a private practice in the UK. I worked in rehabs and had a practice at Holly Street and blah, blah, blah. I came to America 11-something years ago and I had to do a whole bunch more studying, et cetera, to be able to work as a psychotherapist. And I kind of, at the same time, came to the realization that I probably didn’t want to be a traditional psychotherapist in the way that I had, and the coaching really began to suit my personality. It’s a lot more—I don’t know—kind of faster.

I would say sober coaching has taken off in the last few years. It’s a modality. It’s a great way to help people suffering from alcohol problems. So I just kind of moved towards that. It just fitted me better. I was able to be flexible with my business and work with people all over the world. And I just kind of moved into it. It was a very natural progression, really. I’m seeing more and more recovery coaches, sober coaches pop up all over the place now.


TS: [Yes.] You had your own journey more than 20 years ago in becoming sober. Can you tell us about that, what was happening before, how you became sober and what that journey was like for you?


VV: Yes. I got sober relatively young, I was 27, and I drank for maybe 12 years, but most of that was pretty awful. I never drank normally. My first drink was what I would describe as quite alcoholic. I never had an off button. I have a memory of being 15 years old in a bar in my hometown and going into blackout and then waking up outside the bar in the gutter covered in my own vomit with the landlord throwing a bucket of water over me. And I remember having this thought in my head, thinking, “There’s something wrong with this.” But culturally, I was surrounded by messages and people that said to me, “You had a really good time. You are crazy. You’re a crazy party girl.” I had this one thought in my head where I was thinking, “This isn’t right.” But everything around me told me the opposite; everything around me messaged that that was fun.

I’ve really absorbed that. I liked the identity of being this kind of wild party girl living on the edge. I loved that. For me, before I even drank, I felt very uncomfortable in my own skin. I didn’t feel good enough. I didn’t like myself very much. I had a very classic experience, which a lot of people who have serious alcohol problems had, when I first tried alcohol, it was a light bulb going on. It fixed how I felt. That’s the big thing. It fixed how I felt about myself and it was the solution. I felt confident and beautiful and fun and crazy. And I had a great time from about 15 to 18—which, 18 is the legal drinking age in the UK.

I was also doing drugs. I never had enough. I never had any question. If you gave me something, I took it. I didn’t ask what it was or what it did or anything like that. I had a bad trip on magic mushrooms and went into drug-induced psychosis where I was having auditory hallucinations, I was suicidal, and I couldn’t tell anyone. I didn’t know how to put that into words. I think that I thought at the time, if I say it out loud what’s happening, then it’s really happening, and maybe one day I’ll just wake up and it’ll all go away. But that really shifted my drinking from being partying, to drinking to cope. I stopped using any illegal drugs, but alcohol, I could use that before a social event—and as a consequence of the drug-induced psychosis, I had really bad anxiety and panic attacks, really crippling panic attacks.

Then I spent almost ten years, nine years, trying to cope with these feelings inside of me, which nobody knew about, of paranoia, fear, terror, not feeling good enough, feeling very unsafe all of the time, desperately trying to find the solution, trying to find the thing that fixed me and using alcohol as the solution, which obviously escalated and caused its own problems. And I was always looking for help. I was going to doctors and psychiatrists and psychologists and churches, reading self-help books, anything that offered some kind of solution, and it was really kind of a whole accident how I got sober.

I had come up with this rationalization: my panic attacks were often triggered by being in groups of people, and I just thought I can’t have a job where I’m with groups of people. I have to have a job that’s one-on-one, because I could cope with that. And my local college had an addictions counseling course, and I thought, “I’ll do that. I’ll be a therapist.” I went along and I began to hear stuff that kind of rang a bell. Anyway, I kind of stopped drinking. It was more of “I’m just going to see for a week and see how that goes.”

After a few weeks, I felt much better, because I’m highly allergic to alcohol—I’d be very hungover for days after a binge. I went to 12-step fellowships. From there, this sort of information began to seep in. I really understood that it was a spiritual problem that I was suffering from and that alcohol really was a manifestation of that. And that’s how I got sober and started this journey.


TS: Well, just to make sure I understand what you mean by that. What do you mean that it was a spiritual problem? What was your spiritual problem?


VV: The problem wasn’t alcohol. Before I even started drinking, it was what was inside of me. I didn’t feel good enough. I didn’t feel like my spirit, who I was inside, that inner voice, that inner a life that we have, felt very dark and very difficult. And I lived in a culture that offered an anesthetic to that internal pain. So when I stopped drinking, the stopping drinking bit was only really the very tip of the iceberg.

I mean, the stopping drinking bit is essential, because you need to have clarity and balance, but then I realized that that kind of dark, crushed spirit inside of me was still there even though I wasn’t drinking and that I then needed to do work on that. For me it was the 12 steps, their ancient, spiritual wisdom, and it was a whole bunch of other things: meditation, therapy, workshops, having boundaries. What I always talk about with sobriety is we return to ourselves. The reason that I felt that way was because I was disconnected from who I really was, and the journey of sobriety is returning to yourself.


TS: Let’s say someone’s listening right now and they’re either reflecting on their own relationship with alcohol or they’re reflecting on a family member or someone they know, a friend and they’re wondering, “Does this person have a drinking problem? Do I have a drinking problem? Am I just a social drinker?” How do you help people sort that out?


VV: I’m glad you asked that because it’s a really common question and there’s lots of quizzes and things you can do, but I have a really simple way of answering that. I mean, the first thing is people who don’t have a problem with alcohol, don’t ever think about it. So they’re not Googling things or even answering that question or asking that question to themselves. So people who have problem with alcohol, they do four things: they drink, they think about drinking, they think about not drinking, and they recover from drinking. So that’s the first indication, that is, the thinking about not drinking; it’s a clue.

People who don’t struggle with alcohol, they think about alcohol in the same way that I think about sandwiches. I might think, “Oh, I’ll have a sandwich at lunch today. That’ll be nice.” And I eat my sandwich. And then tomorrow I might have a bowl of soup and the next day I might have a salad. And then at the weekend I might be at a party and a plate of sandwiches goes by and I think, “Oh, I’ll have a couple of those. That’s lovely.” And then a bit later when the plate goes by again, I’m like, “No, I’m good.” That’s literally how much I think about sandwiches. That’s as much space in my head that sandwiches take up. If you are thinking about alcohol more than I’m thinking about sandwiches, it’s a clue that something is up there.

That’s usually how I answer that. It’s really, how much space are you renting into your head? Are you arguing with yourself? Many of my clients have almost daily argument with themselves, “Am I going to drink today? I shouldn’t drink today. Am I drinking too much? Maybe I should have one glass. One glass of wine would be fine. No, maybe that’s too much.” That constant argument takes up a lot of time and energy. If people recognize themselves in that, it’s a clue that maybe this is something you need to look at.


TS: OK. So let’s just say someone does recognize themselves in that, but they’re thinking, “I don’t need to be totally sober. I just need to drink a little bit less.” How do you know the difference? How does someone in their own experience know the difference between those two possible paths?


VV: Another great question. For me, it’s about the cost. It’s always about a cost-benefit analysis. That’s what I do with most of my clients, is we just look at the cost of your drinking. The first thing is money. And it can be how much we spend on alcohol, but it’s also associated costs: it might be taxis, takeout food, missed opportunities. Let’s not forget associated healthcare costs, because alcohol is highly toxic. We look at money, and we kind of do a rough guesstimate of how much they spend on their alcohol career per year.

Then we look at—and this is much bigger one—is time. How much time do you spend arguing with yourself about whether to drink, drinking, thinking about not drinking, and recovering from drinking—because we can get money back; we can’t get time back. And for me that was a big one. If I drank, I would always throw up and I would nearly always either be in bed the next day or very subpar. It stole a lot of time from me. Those are two big things.

Then we look at, for instance, if you’re a parent, how much time does it take away from your kids, from the things that you want to do that make you happy? But then the real cost for me is what is the impact on your relationships, on your dignity, on your integrity, and your growth. And those were really huge for me. On the outside, I had a career, I’ve never been arrested or had a DUI, but the internal cost for me was very high. There was a big cost to my integrity, all of that kind of stuff. So once we’ve done that, really, it’s just a simpler question of are you getting a good return on your investment?


TS: It’s so interesting because I’ve talked to so many people about personal growth and spiritual practice and I’ve never heard anyone use the cost-benefit analysis, applying it to our behavior. And as someone who spends a lot of time having business discussions, using that kind of thinking in business, I’ve never heard it applied to personal growth. I think that’s really interesting.


VV: Thank you. And really what my message is, and this is the message of the book and everything that I want to say, is the reason that people struggle with alcohol and really struggle with the idea of not drinking, like you said, “What if I just need to cut down a bit?” the reason that people think that way is we are culturally very invested in the belief that alcohol is the best vehicle to the land of fun, excitement, belonging, connection, relaxing, rewarding yourself, romance and sex.

People will intellectually know that alcohol’s not great for them, it’s quite toxic, etc., etc., and that they may be drinking too much, but emotionally what we feel like is we’re giving up entrance to that land, and who wants to do that? That sounds horrible. And that’s why people have this battle with themselves and that’s the first place most people go to, “I don’t want to stop. I just need to cut down. I just need to cut down.” The reason that they believe that is because—and I believed this at 27—is we believe if we don’t drink alcohol, we can’t go to that land. And that’s completely false.


TS: You write in the book, and I thought this was so interesting, “I’m on a mission to create a world where not drinking alcohol is like being gluten-free, and you introduce this term, alcohol-free.” You go out to dinner, and somebody says, “I’m gluten-free” and maybe people ask like, “Why are you gluten-free?” And they go, “Because it’s not good for my health.” And that’s kind of the end and everybody goes on. That’s just so interesting to me that you came up with that as a comparison. It’s definitely not like that now, and as someone who is on this mission to shift the cultural norms, what’s needed for us to go from where we are today that, “Hey, I’m alcohol-free. I’m gluten-free.” What do we need to do to get there?


VV: Yes. And that’s where I want to get to. It’s funny, just as an aside, if you are gluten-free, generally people might go, “Oh, why is that?” Whatever and just move on. But nobody will come up to you and go, “Go on, have a bread roll. Just have one bread roll.” If you say you don’t drink, I don’t really get it now, but when I was younger, people would be like, “Right, but go on, just have one. Just have one. It’s the weekend.” And it’s because […] what they’re hearing is not that I don’t drink: what they’re hearing is I’m volunteering to never have fun again. And they take it upon themselves to believe that they want me to have fun and alcohol is the best way to have fun.

To get to this place, my real mission is—it’s basically the emperor’s new clothes. Sure, you can have fun and excitement and belonging connection when you drink alcohol, but there is always a cost. There is a cost to that and that is often obscured in our culture. If you look at how drinking is represented in TV shows and movies, unless it’s a specific story about an alcoholic, you’ll see lots of characters having a glass or two of wine, but you never see them having a headache the next morning or being a bit short with their kids or leaving work early because they don’t feel well. You don’t see the consequences.

There is always a cost when we drink and the biggest thing is, what I want to smash to pieces, is the belief that you can’t get to the land of fun, excitement, belonging, connection, etc., sober, because you can. When I was 27 and I stopped drinking, I one hundred percent believed I was never going to have fun again. I was never going to get laid again. I was never going to wear lipstick. I was never going to go dancing. My life would be just very dull and quiet. And I wasn’t happy about that, but I accepted it because I just wanted peace. I wanted the panic attacks, the anxiety to stop. Imagine within a year, I’m beginning to discover that everything I believed about sobriety was wrong. And I always say—I’ve been sober 21-and-a-half years now. I always say to people, “If this wasn’t fun, if this wasn’t exciting and expansive and amazing, I’d have been drunk 20 years ago.”


TS: Yes. But let’s say to somebody who, “My friends all drink. That’s what we do on Friday night, on Saturday night, those are the norms. This is going to be a big disruption in my current life. So, I have to create a whole new life to do this.” What do you say to somebody who is in that situation?


VV: Yes. It’s definitely an adjustment. And I want to be very clear about this: when people first stop drinking those first few months, that’s not how it is long-term. For sure, we can’t stop drinking and do everything exactly the same way as we did before, do the Friday night but sit there with the Diet Coke. We have to make some changes. The number one thing is to have a community. Find a community of sober people. People who know what you’re going through, people in real life that you can hang out with on a Friday night and do something. Amazingly, there’s millions of things you can do on a Friday night that don’t involve alcohol. That’s perception and the belief system.

We have to make some lifestyle changes. Don’t do it on your own. Find a community and work a program. I tell people, when I was in my late twenties I was going to nightclubs. I wanted to go dancing and flirt with boys. I didn’t do that in the first six months of my sobriety because it didn’t feel safe and it felt very weird; but after a year or so, my sobriety felt really solid, and I did all of those things. I just did them sober.


TS: OK. Now, you mentioned in your own journey that AA was an important part of your recovery, and you write in Soberful that willpower is pretty useless when it comes to quitting drinking. And I mentioned AA, because I think many people are familiar with the principles of AA, where you’re going to give your life to a higher power in some ways. There’s this notion of surrender. But to be honest with you, I haven’t been clear, don’t I need a lot of willpower to quit drinking if drinking is my problem? Doesn’t it take a lot of willpower?


VV: No. Not at all. Willpower has nothing to do with it, because willpower is a muscle and what happens is, and this is a common pattern with my clients, they wake up and they decide, “Oh my gosh, that’s it. I don’t want to drink again. That was awful. It’s been awful for a while. I’m absolutely a hundred percent.” And that day they really mean it. They a hundred percent mean it. And they will go on with their day or their week and they’ll not drink, and they’ll feel much better and that will feel great. And a couple of things happen.

One of the things that happens is what I call a “call to growth.” That day when we wake up and we decide we want to change something, something inside of us is calling us to grow into something else. So, what happens every time we grow is the voice of the ego that we have inside of us—its primary purpose is to keep us safe. And it believes if we just keep everything familiar and don’t make any changes, you will be safe and “I will be doing my job.” At some point we’ll meet resistance where that voice kicks in our heads and says things like, “Oh, you’re not that bad. It’s not like you’re getting arrested. You just need to avoid liquor. You need to just stick to wine. Two glasses, that’s perfectly reasonable. Cheers!”

When that voice kicks in, it’s followed with very difficult emotions and this just relentless voice in our head. Then we are reverting to willpower. The voice of the ego is always stronger. So that’s why we need a community and a program to help us through those times when we are getting all of these messages that it wasn’t that bad, and we can drink, and it’ll be fine. Again, people don’t decide to just stop drinking if it’s good. It was that bad. That’s why people decide that they want to stop in the first place, but our ego is so good at convincing us that nothing needs to change. Everything needs to say the same.

The other thing that happens is if we haven’t worked a program, which is learn how to have boundaries and balance and deal with resentments and all that kind of stuff, there’ll come a day when we have a really bad day and we’re resentful and someone will say, “Do you want to come to cocktail hour?” And all of our willpower goes out of the window because of how we feel inside. We know alcohol will change that in a second. I see this a lot in my groups. “I need to be strong,” and it’s not about being stronger. It’s that you just don’t have the right skills. It’s not about strength. It’s just that you don’t have the skills and the support.


TS: [Yes.] Now, you wrote the book, Soberful, to provide people with guidelines, to provide a type of program, if you work the Soberful book, it’s like working a program, and you have these things that you call five pillars of sustainable sobriety. And I’d love to know first of all, how you came up with the five pillars, and then go ahead and introduce them to our listeners.


VV: Yes. Thank you. So, the 12 steps of AA are a program, and we need to have lots of different options. That, for a long time, it was the only path of sobriety, and it doesn’t fit for everybody. Everybody needs different pathways and options, and we have much more of those now. In the last, I want to say, five to seven years, there’s been a real explosion online of people being much more public about getting sober and their journeys and all that kind of stuff. I see lots of people stopping drinking, deciding that’s what they want to do, felling lots of identification and inspiration with all these stories and then stopping and really floundering and being lost. Really not understanding like, “I’m three-months sober. Why don’t I feel better?”

As a therapist, with my background in psychotherapy and treatment centers and that kind of stuff, there’s just certain things we have to know how to do. And often for most of us, we needed to learn these things in childhood. They needed to either be taught to us or role-modeled to us. And for most of us they weren’t because our parents didn’t know and had their own stuff going on. One of the first things is boundaries. I didn’t know what boundaries were. I didn’t know they were a thing, let alone how to have boundaries, but when I learn about boundaries, they’re simply life changing. They keep the good in. They keep the bad out. Your no means no, and your yes means yes. I was a chronic people-pleaser. I just wanted everyone to like me, so I always agreed with you and said I’d do it; and then I’d end up in these great tangles, and I’d get really stressed about the thing I agreed to do I didn’t want to do. And that feeling was uncomfortable, so I’d drink.

So, I wanted to put together, in a really kind of digestible way, “You need to stop drinking and then this is the stuff that you need.” They’re the tools. These are the things you need to have, and I call them personal development for sober people. And I always explain, this isn’t for people just with an alcohol problem. Everybody has to do personal development. Everybody has to work on the development of who they are. We all have to do that. We all have to self-reflect. People with an alcohol problem have gotten this amazing wakeup call that kind of pushed them into this personal development. So, I wanted to create something that very succinctly communicated what that work was, and that’s the five pillars.

I call them pillars because what we want is sustainable sobriety. I don’t think about alcohol, and I don’t think about not drinking. I just get on with my life. And when you first stop drinking, it feels like all you’re doing is thinking about alcohol or not drinking. We don’t want to live like that. We don’t want to stay away from a drink one day at a time. We just want to live our expansive lives.

If we work the five pillars, they just hold up our sobriety, and we don’t have to think about it. Instead of focusing on drinking or not drinking, we just focus on the personal development work. The five pillars are movement, connection, balance, process, and growth. And I’ll break those down. So, movement is two things. The first, number one thing, and this is perhaps where most people start, is simply moving your body. We know from the research that exercise, moving your body is the best thing you can do to take care of your mental health. It’s the best treatment for depression. So when I work with people, number one, I need you to be moving your body. And you don’t have to be a CrossFit champion, just walk 30 minutes every day. And I guarantee after a month, you will begin to feel better. Your mood will feel better.


TS: I just want to pause there for one moment.


VV: Sure.


TS: I thought it was so striking that you started there. I had no idea when I went to look at what the five pillars were—and you started with physical movement. Mostly because anybody can do it. Anybody can actually do this thing and it is life changing. So, I just thought that was brilliant, Veronica, just so you know.


VV: Thank you. That’s why I did start there because sometimes, I mean, people come to sobriety in very different places and sometimes it feels overwhelming and huge. And we start, 15 minutes, walk around the block for 15 minutes. I’ve had people who have been housebound and they’re like, “Well, I can’t do that.” I’m like, “You know what, on YouTube, there’s actually whole exercise programs for people in wheelchairs.” So put that on, put some music that you love and do that. It’s not about fitness. That’s kind of a secondary gain. It’s about the elevation in our serotonin. That’s the number one reason.


TS: You also write, in this section of Soberful, “Alcohol is like a neurological sledgehammer.” That really got my attention. There’s something that’s been happening if we’ve been drinking for a while, we need this new correction, neurological correction that comes from movement. I thought that was really important.


VV: Yes. That’s actually a quote actually from—I can’t remember her first name—the last name is Grisel. When I was going into the research, it was incredible how badly alcohol messes up with our neural pathways. And, amazingly, exercise after we’ve had an alcohol problem actually heals the brain. It begins to actually heal some of the damage that we’ve done to it. I mean, it has so many bonuses. It’s a must. We have to do that.

But also, movement, there’s another part to that pillar and it’s about being purposeful about what we move towards and what we move away from. I always felt like I was a little boat on the ocean with no rudder. I was just this way, that way. I was not purposeful about moving towards my goals or being in alignment with my values.

The other layer of movement, really, it’s about purposefulness. It’s about being more awake and alert to what do I want to move towards and what do I want to move away from? And those are things that we can start if it’s like, I want to move away from drinking and the drinking culture and I want to move towards a healthier lifestyle. It’s not about like, “Tomorrow I’m going to complete a marathon.” It’s about “Tomorrow I’m going to walk for 15 minutes and move towards that.” So, I hope it’s something that everybody feels that they could begin to do.

The second pillar is connection. I’m sure you’re familiar with Brené Brown’s work on connection and vulnerability. Human connection is essential. We can’t live without it. And there’s three different types of connection. We need intimate connection—people who really know our souls—we need friends, and we need to be part of a community. And I give an example in the book because we need to have intimate connection, but that doesn’t mean necessarily a romantic relationship because lots of people don’t have that. My mother-in-law has lived—you would love them, they are so amazing—has lived with her two best friends. One sadly has passed away, but they lived together for almost 40 years. And they just came to a point in their life where they weren’t interested in a romantic relationship with a man, but they wanted to have a family. It’s platonic. They are loving and growing, and it’s just been the most amazing example of an alternative way to have that intimate connection.

We need to have people who know our soul; otherwise, to not be known, to not be seen, there’s something inside of us that kind of begins to curl up and die. Now, of course, there’s only one road to connection and that’s through vulnerability. And that’s the bit that scares us. That’s the bit where Brené Brown’s work has been so useful to us in understanding that it’s a strength and that we gain so much through taking the risk of being vulnerable so that we can truly connect with people in a way that has been missing. Loneliness is a real, defining characteristic of an alcohol problem and just feeling separate and disconnected. And of course, it starts with ourselves, the reconnecting with who I really am.


TS: Let me ask you a question about this Veronica, to the lonely person who might be listening who says, “This really strikes me.” And when I think of developing these pillars, I’m not sure who’s going to be with me, how I’m going to be connected to other people. I’m sure you get this from people: “Where do I start? Where do I start?”


VV: Yes. Lots of people come to sobriety where they don’t feel they have any friends, they’ve alienated their family members, they feel very alone. And the first place to start is a support group. There are all kinds of support groups. Now, of course there’s AA, but there are Buddhist methods of recovery; SHE RECOVERS is a large organization; there’s lots of online groups now. We have options. So, start with a support group because also you don’t have to pretend or hide in a support group for an alcohol problem. It’s not like the PTA where you have to pretend everything’s going well. If you are there, people know you are struggling and that’s a big step to not have to pretend everything’s all right.

Starting with a support group is the place to start for a lot of people. It’s where I started because I was in that position. I didn’t have any friends or family. So that’s the connection pillar is understanding that we have to have connection and that’s something we have to work at, because people are not going to come and knock on their doors and go, “Hi, you seem like a really fun, interesting person, do you want to come over?” We have to be consistent. We have to show up. We have to take risks to be vulnerable and it takes time but it’s essential for us to do.

Then the next pillar is balance. Whatever the question, balance is always the answer. And it’s about balancing and meeting our evolving needs as our circumstances change. Initially when people first get sober, I start with the HALTS: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Stressed; and I also look at stress boredom and hormones. These are all triggers that can make us feel very out of balance. And if we feel out of balance for too long, the first indication we’ll feel, we’ll feel uncomfortable in our own skins. And when we feel uncomfortable in our own skins, our brains look for an anesthetic: “How can I change this? How can I change this? How can I change this as quickly as possible?” So, we need to look at our balance so that our brains don’t look for a way to take away the discomfort of being out of balance.

And then as we go on our circumstances change. When we move, we leave friends behind. We have to start over again and building those connections. When we have kids, when our kids leave home. We all have changing circumstances. And when our circumstances change, I mean the best example I think was last year when we had the pandemic, all of a sudden, bang, so many of us were out of balance. We couldn’t go to the gym. All of the ways that we just stay in balance and stay connected were gone, but the need for balance didn’t leave. We just had to begin to find different ways.

It’s about being aware that balance is an art. It’s something we practice for the rest of our lives. It’s being aware of our changing needs as we grow and age and change and meeting those needs so that we can stay in balance. “Am I not exercising enough? Am I working too much? Am I not getting a good night sleep? Am I not eating right? I just haven’t spent time with my best friend for a long time.” All of those things make us feel balanced.


TS: Now, let me ask you a question about this Veronica, because I think that most people intuitively know if I spend too much time being hungry or tired or whatever that I’m going to get off track and who knows what’s going to happen next. If it’s not alcohol, it’s going to be an entire chocolate pie or something’s going to happen. “I’m going to yell at someone.” But there isn’t always that self-regard and care to return to ourselves and give ourselves what we need to come back into this word that you’re using balance. We don’t regard ourselves enough. We don’t care for ourselves. We don’t. […] So how do you help people make that bridge into “I care for myself, so I’m going to stop and feed myself properly?”


VV: That’s a great question and I want to say, that’s why we have the connection pillar. They really do fit together and work like cogs in a wheel. Because if we are connected, then we can be around people who can reflect back to us and say, “You just look exhausted. Why are you?” We need people around us. We’ve all done it, I’ve done it. I’m sure you’ve done it and I know we are both people who are hugely invested in personal development. I mean, I know I’ve done it and I sometimes will need someone around me to say, “Veronica, slow down, or you need to rest, or you need to do this,” or whatever.

The connection and balance part really fit together. […] And also sometimes what happens to me is I don’t feel right within myself. Something is not sitting right, but I don’t know what it is. And because I have people around me that I’ve invested in with these relationships, I can go to them and I talk about what’s going on and then at the end of it I’m like, “Oh, it’s that. That’s what it is.” just having mentors and those relationships where we can begin to just sound things out. We don’t know what we know until we say it out loud often. So that’s how we can then discover, “I’m out of balance.”


TS: Right. Very helpful. OK. Let’s go on to the fourth pillar.


VV: The fourth pillar is process. As a therapist, I love the whole idea of process. We are all in processes. All the time, processes are beginning, middling, and ending all the time. Getting sober is a process. So process is really about understanding how our past shows up in our present and that’s unavoidable for all of us. And it’s really about our early years, about understanding that I have formed beliefs about myself and the world that may not be helpful. And when I get sober and I start this process work, I can begin to uncover some of these beliefs that I didn’t even know were there that I can now see have been really shaping the outcomes in my life.

It’s about understanding, I have wounds from childhood that I’ve been carrying around that constantly will show up repeatedly in my romantic relationships or friendships. It’s about understanding, why do I feel like that when someone says that? Why do I have that kind of emotional response when X, Y, and Z happens? It’s really about knowing oneself. Revealing ourselves to ourselves. It’s a constant, lifelong process of understanding who we are.

I find it very delicious, but it can feel very scary at first. People say, “I don’t want to wake up the past.” It’s not about waking up the past. Your past shows up in your present every day. It’s about understanding why that is and where we can put some of that stuff down. So, process work, it can be with a therapist, with a coach, in a program, reading a self-help book, journaling, meditation. There’s many, many ways that we can embark on, and different things fit at different times where we can begin to understand ourselves better and leave the parts behind that no longer serve us.


TS: I wanted to ask you a question. In this part of Soberful, your new book, you write, “I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be trauma-informed in our recovery from an alcohol problem.” What aspect of being trauma-informed do you think is important, significant for the person who’s moving into recovery?


VV: We know so much more about trauma now, but it’s still, I think, relatively a new thing. I emphasize that if you’re going to work with a practitioner of any kind, make sure that they’re trauma-informed because so many of us have trauma from our childhood. So many of us carry that and a lot of people are completely unaware that that’s a trauma. So, working in an environment or with a practitioner who can spot that quite early—that behavior, that response, that indicates to me that there might be some trauma there—so that you can work in a way that’s needed to support and help that trauma. Otherwise, if we don’t acknowledge or work on that trauma, we can often make it worse.

I don’t think anybody escapes having some kind of trauma, even if it’s a little thing. I think one of the best things we can do for another human being is to get that out in the open in a way that is safe and comfortable and really validate it, really validate that what happened to you really mattered. It really mattered and it really shaped you. We don’t want to stay in the trauma. We want to be able to eventually move on, and it’s different for everybody. It’s a process, but really recognizing, I think, I want to say in the last 10 to 15 years, that trauma is at the root of a lot of alcohol and drug problems.


TS: I wanted to ask you, related to that, I’ve known people who have stopped drinking. They’ve decided, “OK, no more.” But it seems to me, at least from the outside, these are not necessarily people I’ve known that well, that they haven’t really gotten to the root of what was causing them to drink. So they’re no longer drinking alcohol, but perhaps they’re using other substances like caffeine or sugar, or even exercise can be taken to such an extreme that it becomes an addictive kind of thing. So I’m curious about that, in your experience, what is it that makes sure people really get to the root of what’s going on, not just, “I’m soberful now, but I’m still an addict”?


VV: Yes. There’s a couple of things there. That’s why we have to do the process work because if we don’t do the process work and understanding how we feel and healing, that kind of stuff, our brains just look for another way to fix our feelings. So we’re not drinking, but maybe we’re smoking cannabis, or maybe we’re a workaholic or gambling or whatever. So that’s cross addiction, where our brains will look for other ways, external methods to deal with internal feelings, whereas the work is to resolve the internal feelings.

Now, I don’t believe it’s necessary to find the root cause. Lots of people don’t know, some people do and it’s very obvious—they had abusive parents or there was traumatic episode—but for lots of people it’s not clear. It’s not necessary to know what the root cause is, but it is absolutely important to resolve the stuff that’s showing up in your present. So maybe that’s the real cause, maybe it’s a secondary thing, who knows, but if you do have past trauma hurts and wounds that keeps showing up in your present behavior, that’s the stuff that we have to work on.

I want to add about the trauma, Dr. Gabor Maté really explains this well, because I do have clients who say, “My childhood was great. My parents were really loving. There’s nothing really that happened.” And that’s common too. And one of the things I’ve discovered, when we are children, we have—and Dr. Maté talks about this—we have two vital needs: we have the need for attachment, which we know about, and we have the need for authenticity.

And what can happen, and this is certainly what happened to me, is as children we know that we have to be attached to our caregivers because we’ll die without them. What happens as we’re growing is sometimes my authenticity needs compromise my attachment needs and I have to choose attachment. So a good example of this would be, for example, if you grew up LGBTQ in a family where that wasn’t going to be acceptable and they loved you and they adored you and you had wonderful parents, but that was something that you knew quite young would not be OK, that’s your authentic self having to be compromised for your attachment needs to be met and that is a traumatic experience. Does that make sense?


TS: It does make sense. Yes, it does.


VV: Aagain, you don’t have to find this, but often we do in the work. The trauma was somewhere. Your authentic self was suppressed or compromised or pushed down for your attachment needs to be met.


TS: Iit seems to me that spending a lot of time in process work and also this fifth pillar of sustainable sobriety, which you call the pillar of growth, process work, growth work, this is what we adult do for the whole rest of our lives, yes


VV: Yes. So I want to clarify that because when I—


TS: Sure. Please.


VV: —I remember, I don’t know, I was six months sober and I said to someone with long term sobriety like, “How long do I have to do this stuff, go to meetings, and write this stuff and blah, blah, blah?” And they went, “Oh forever. It never ends.” And I was like, “Oh, God.” I thought that sounded awful. So, it’s a paradox. Personal growth never ends because we are always growing and changing as human beings. This work never ends, but I want people to know there’s a destination; it’s about is getting to a place where we feel comfortable in our own skins and have appropriate emotional responses to events. I’m—


TS: No, hold on. Tell me what that means, appropriate emotional responses.


VV: OK. Appropriate emotional responses to events. For example, when I was three-years sober this was my emotional rock bottom. I was dating a guy for six weeks. It was fairly brief and casual. And that relationship ended (as it always did, because that was my pattern at the time) and I went into a black suicidal hole of despair. That is an inappropriate emotional response to that event, because what that did is it just opened up my childhood abandonment wound and my father, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So, it’s appropriate to be upset and hurt and cry over that. My response was unbalanced because it was to do with all of my baggage.

I’ll give you another example. I used to be the kind of person who would go into the office in the morning and I’d be like, “Hi Tami, how was your weekend?” And if you were on the computer and went, “Yes, it was fine.” I would think, “Oh, my God, did I do something wrong? Did I upset her? Or was it that email?” I would spend all day worrying about your response. Like, “Does she not like me?” That’s an inappropriate emotion response.

Now, because I’ve done this work on myself, I would go in and be like, “Hi, how was your weekend?” And if you were like, “Yes, it was fine,” I’d be like, “I wonder what’s wrong with her,” and I’d go about my day. And those two things seem very insignificant, but they’re massive, they’re massive, having appropriate emotional responses to the things that happened around me. I didn’t have that when I had all of this baggage, when I didn’t have boundaries, when I was a people-pleaser, when I didn’t understand why I had all these feelings that just seemed very unmanageable.

The destination in sobriety is to feel comfortable in our own skins, to be reconnected with ourselves, in alignment with our values, moving towards what really matters to us and have appropriate emotional responses by doing the process work. But also know—I mean, I’m sure you’re the same—I love like, “Oh, send me on a good workshop or give me a good—” I’ve been in and out therapy for 20 years whenever I feel like I need it because I love the growth. I love the growth that comes from it. I love what’s revealed to me. I love how it expands me in my life. I love all of that stuff.


TS: [Yes.] The fourth pillar of sustainable sobriety is this process work and then you separate out growth work as a fifth pillar. I want to talk a little bit more about that, but also just to understand, why did you distinguish? I noticed, I feel a little confused, process work, growth work. What’s the difference?


VV: Well, they’re very related. I kind of separated them. I mean, they all overlap and like I said, if you imagine the cogs and they all kind of turn together, day one of stopping drinking is a call to growth certainly. So they all do work together. They’re not individual things, but I put it as the fifth pillar because really the joy and the reward of a soberful life is the call to growth. Now, you’re always going to get the ego and the resistance, but this is what we’re here to do, is to grow.

I know that the people listening who may be struggling with an alcohol problem, they didn’t come here to spend their energy arguing with themselves about whether they’re going to have a glass of wine or not tonight. That’s not the main event. The main event is becoming who we’re meant to be. So growth is the point. It’s the point. I always say to people, when I was 20 years sober, it was really amazing. My life expanded, but at 21-and-a-half years sober, I don’t want to go back to 20 years sober because that was smaller than where I am now. And when I’m 23 years sober, it’s going to be the same, etc., etc.

Growth is the main event. Our purpose is to listen to that voice inside of us that is calling us to grow into what we’re capable of being. And I wanted to have that. Again, you don’t really do pillars 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 in that order, but I put it there, I wanted to know there is tons of good stuff on this journey.


TS: Right. No, I think I understand now. The process part is more kind of working through what’s come in your past so that you can have more freedom in the present, but the growth work is more what you’re being called to moving forward.


VV: Yes. Yes.


TS: I think I get it. Now, this was one of my favorite quotes from Soberful. Under this section of the pillar of growth you write: “We have to grow or we die. And if grow, then we’re going to encounter fear because growing always means encountering new experiences and new experiences can bring fear. We just can’t avoid growing. Becoming more, growing is our purpose and destiny. Our challenge is to continue to grow while managing the fear.” And the question I have for you is how do you manage fear when it comes up and can you give us a specific example?


VV: Yes. This is what I mean about having the tools and the support. I used to always get calls to growth—“Oh, I’d love to do that or I’d love to—” whatever. And then the fear would kick in and I would sabotage myself because I would hear this voice in my head saying, “You can’t do that. You’ll mess up. You’ll fail. You’ll look stupid.” And I used to think that was the voice of truth. So, I would just sabotage whatever it was and not do it and stay in this holding pattern.

Once I had the tool—so the first thing is, I get the call to growth and then I expect resistance and fear to show up. Once I know what’s happening, I know this process. I know how this happens, and I’ll give you an example. For me it always shows up with formal education. I’m dyslexic and writing is really hard for me. And I was always getting messages that I was stupid, and I knew I wasn’t stupid, but I didn’t know why I did stupid things. So whenever, like when I started my degree or whenever I’d start an academic course, I’d get a massive amount of fear and panic and I’d get that voice in my head saying, “You’re going to look like an idiot. They’re going to realize you’re stupid. You’re going to hand in your essay and they’re going to laugh. You can’t do this.” Because that’s how I felt throughout all my school years and then I would sabotage myself. I would leave or not do it.

Now I know that that’s going to happen. So first of all, I know it’s going to happen. That takes the weight of it down. It decreases how strong that feels because I know it’s part of my process that I always go through if I start some kind of academic course. The second thing is once I’ve acknowledged that’s what’s happening, I can reframe it. So, for me, I panic, “I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t understand it.” Now how I reframe it is, “Of course you don’t know. You are on week one of a course to learn something new. If you knew it you’d be teaching it. It’s totally OK to be confused and to not know what they’re going on about in the classroom. Trust that by the time you get to week 12 or whatever, it will be clearer, and you can make an appointment to speak to the tutor,” all of that kind of stuff.

Just reframing it in, “It’s totally fine to sit here and not know anything and to just let the learning happen and trust tomorrow you will know a bit more and the next week you’ll know a bit more and that by the end of it you’ll be able to—” Because I also can now have experience. I can think, “Well, I did that course, and I didn’t know anything, and now it would be easy. I could go back and do it standing on my head.” It’s just those simple tools in knowing what’s actually happening.

One thing I do if it gets really intense is I acknowledge what’s happening and then I just do the next right thing. I’m not going to go down that rabbit hole. I’m going to make a cup of tea. That’s the next right thing. Then I’m going to reply to the email. Then I’m going to walk the dog and then the next right thing and the next right thing, and the next right thing just leads me to where I need to go. And those tools are very simple, but they’re massively effective.


TS: [Yes.] Now, you’ve used this very compelling phrase a couple times, a call to growth, and somebody might be listening who’s feeling, I think I’m being called to grow and either I’m experiencing that call to drink less or maybe to give up alcohol altogether, maybe, maybe just as they’re listening, they’re experiencing that as a call to growth. And I’m wondering, sometimes you hear about people needing to hit bottom in order to make a huge change of committing to a sobriety, but someone could hear that call to growth without hitting bottom and I’m curious what you think about that? Is it a myth that you have to hit bottom?


VV: I think we’ve grown past that now. I think that that’s a very kind of old way of looking at recovery from an addiction problem. I think what I’m noticing is people realizing much, much, much earlier that their drinking doesn’t serve them and—again, it’s on the outside: all my clients, they went to college, they have a nice house, they go on holiday; on the outside, everything looks OK; it’s about how people feel on the inside. And I really think we’ve changed a lot in the last, at least decade.

A lot of it has been because people are publicly sharing their stories and people are identifying and seeing that, “Gosh, that’s not a rock-bottom homeless—” that’s kind of what we think a problem is, if you’re homeless, and you have to be arrested 20 times, and it’s not necessarily the case. It’s more of an internal situation. It shows up internally before it shows up externally. So I want to say as a community, I hope, I think we are moving away from that. And rock bottom, the whole definition of that is very subjective. What is a rock bottom for one person is completely different for another person. I hope we are raising that bottom up. People are realizing much earlier that alcohol’s no longer their friend.


TS: [Yes.] And then finally, Veronica, you write in the book, “Sobriety is my superpower.” And I thought, why is it her superpower?


VV: I’ll tell you why, because you get your bandwidth back. When you drink, no matter how much you drink, even if it’s very small, there is a cost. There is a cost to that. Maybe it’s just a headache the next day and for other people it’s much more severe, but when you struggle with an alcohol problem, you give up some of your bandwidth. And bandwidth is simply energy and space in your head to think thoughts. So, if I’m arguing with myself about whether to have a drink or not today, or “Should I—what do other people think, ‘Maybe she’ll cut it out?’ Should I dry January?” I’m expending energy on that.

Maybe it’s 20 percent, 30 percent of my bandwidth being sacrificed to that argument or to that going around in circles, thinking about drinking, thinking about not drinking. You can do loads with 70 percent bandwidth. You can get a PhD, a career, raise kids, but what you can’t do is emotionally grow in the way that you are capable of because you don’t have the bandwidth. So when you get sober, A) you have full access to your bandwidth and I never have a cost to my fun or my excitement or my belonging or my connection, the way that other people do, and that’s a superpower.


TS: [Yes.] I’ve been speaking with Veronica Valli. She’s the author of the beautiful new book called, Soberful: Uncover a Sustainable, Fulfilling Life Free of Alcohol. Thank you so much for the conversation, Veronica and all of your good work. Thank you.


VV: Thank you for having me.

TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. Also, if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.

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