What Living a Sober Life Taught Me About Simplicity

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By Robert Grobbelaar

When I first entered the world of recovery I discovered an encyclopedia of catch-phrases or mantras that are used to suggest certain behaviors for a successful, happy journey to sobriety. They are largely used in treatment centers, meetings, conventions and so on. Some of them were quite clear and others I didn’t understand so much, until I reached the ‘other side’ and got sober.

One such phrase is: Keep it simple. Quite easy to understand and it seems to make sense. The simpler things are the less likely it would be that I would feel overwhelmed. And it really is that simple – so I’m not going to blow you away with any secrets here. The point is, I never appreciated the value of this small piece of advice until I used it and made it habit.

When I think of keeping it simple, I think not only of intangibles like daily plans, goals, work stuff, methods and so on, but of my surroundings also. My material possessions, the things I purchase, the space I live and sleep in, the people around me at any given moment. I have choices at any time (I never get tired of hearing that and truly appreciating it – I have choices!), and I choose to keep it simple (most of the time). The result being that I am never overwhelmed or uncomfortable, but I am also more present, aware, grateful and just generally happier.

I want to share with you a few examples of how I have used this principle in my life, since getting clean and sober of course. When I left in patient treatment I was given a set of tools that I could use to keep me ‘on the wagon’. They didn’t all work for me personally so over time I formulated my own pearls of wisdom. Let’s start with the head stuff.

Pacing myself

I used to be a very anxious person who was always rushed from one thing to the next as if I was being chased by some fearsome beast. Things had to move, fast, All. The. Time. When something had to happen it had to happen NOW! There are various reasons for this, for example: At work I wanted to deliver on the spot, I would bore of things quickly, I hated busying myself with chores so did everything as quickly as possible so that I could have MY time, I made brief appearances at social situations so that I left before I became boring to people (so I thought at the time), and of course, toward the end, I wanted to be in a place where I could just drink or use by myself.

I was totally unconscious of my presence, my surroundings and what this attitude towards my day was doing to my levels of anxiety and stress. I would finish tasks and then have the time to myself only to abuse it / waste it getting slammed.

Changing this about myself took some work and it still peeps its head out sometimes. I will find myself rushing a job and have to consciously tell myself: “STOP IT! There is nothing chasing you! Take your time and enjoy this task in full. Do it well. Use it as a method of meditation if you can.”

Yes, this sometimes means that I do less in a day, but it also means that I am hardly ever anxious and I am more conscious. A trade I would make any day! Also, if I really feel I want to do more I do it which gives me a great sense of satisfaction and achievement.

On the point of meditation: I have learned through trial and error that I don’t have to set aside time for meditation in any prescribed manner. If I am doing something that clears my mind and gives me complete presence in my task – that’s meditative – for me. Cleaning the kitchen or watering the garden are excellent examples of this for me!

Leaving spaces in between tasks 

To encourage and support the behavior mentioned in the previous point, I started to plan my days differently by leaving more time to complete a task and / or leaving spaces in between tasks to take short breaks. This means that were I would usually have for example 5 things to do in a day I would now only fit in 3 or 4 of those same things into a day and move the other one over, thus leaving me more time in day 1. I would use this time to space appointments and make them longer. The whole point is not to over extend myself or feel rushed or pressured. Since doing this I can honestly say I am zen as fuck!

I should mention that this is in complete contrast to the recommendations I got to set a roster and busy myself with back to back items from when my eyes opened until they closed. The mere thought of that stressed me out but for others it may be what they need. I think the point is that I didn’t leave enough time to get bored but just so that I could pace myself and be present.

I recently had a day, yesterday in fact, where I squeezed in a quick meeting between 2 other appointments – I loved the meeting and was glad to have made the time BUT it took me a good 4 hours to return to a peaceful, calm, centered place. I assume it’s adrenaline and that sounds innocuous but I’ll have my adrenaline with a skydive thanks, not on a daily basis. I’ve decided it doesn’t do me well in the long run. I prefer the more relaxed and composed version of myself, at this time in my life.

Creating humble goals

The word ‘GOALS’ was always synonymous with ‘ambitious’, ‘success’, ‘go-getter’, and other such terms. To me it suggested hard work, which is not bad, but rarely conjured up feelings of joy. Strange, but that’s probably because I wasn’t pursuing my passion and I wasn’t even sure what my passion was.

When I came out of treatment my goals started very humble – stay clean and sober (DUH!), but beyond that it was to stay happy and positive. That may sound silly but it worked wonders and I still apply it today. So if I’m going through the day and something is going to trigger me or mess with my inner peace I remove myself from it – simple. No drama.

Once I became comfortable being a positive and peaceful person I focused on other goals but now my goals are things that matter to me – not what I should be doing. Things that I am passionate about. Things that will serve me. This may seem logical to many people but it wasn’t for me. I think I was wrapped up in goals that would get me places and earn me money. Now my goals are more personal and much less ambitious but I enjoy them.

Now I want to share with you some physical changes I made to my life:

Clearing out!

robI’ve never been one to hoard really and always took pleasure in doing a regular spring clean of all areas of my house. It cleared my mind and the sense of order and knowing where to find things gave me immense pleasure! That hasn’t changed – I enjoy cleaning and tidying and knowing where things are. The difference is that where I previously had a house full of things, I now have, roughly, a suitcase full of things!

You see, my journey took me down a path where I got rid of almost everything I owned – this includes house, contents, car, any subscriptions, and so on – and I went travelling. I am a bit of a gypsy now and it resonates with my soul. It didn’t last forever and so I am back in SA with my suitcase life – but that experience of getting rid of everything completely liberated me. Now I am not advocating everyone does what I did – that is MY story, BUT, for me there was a huge lesson in this. A cluttered house or life could be a reflection of a cluttered mind and if I wanted to keep things simple everything had to go. Here’s the strange thing: I was never sentimental and now I am. I truly value the possessions I have and treat them with care. When you have to fit everything that is really important to you into a suitcase you learn a lot about yourself! This I would recommend everyone does just as an exercise if you are bored and want to learn something – pack a suitcase of things you would keep if you had to let go of everything else. You need to cater for a life in all seasons and possibly any place – it’s very difficult but gives you a solid injection of pure perspective!

The process of clearing out also kept me occupied in the initial stages of recovery but really cleared my mind and gave me a massive sense of freedom. I am no longer bound by things, and can explore more about life rather than worrying about the rug matching the couch and updating the pictures in the frames. For now, I don’t have a house of my own to clean or maintain but am happy to help someone else clean or maintain theirs – less consumption, more support to loved ones. Winning!

Rethinking consumerism 

At the risk of veering off track here I want to say just a little something about consumption as it is part and parcel part of my journey and the previous point. After getting rid of everything it was very tempting to start from scratch collecting things and making a nest. This didn’t suit my circumstances but it was instinctive. I had to consciously stop myself and evaluate whether or not I really needed something vs wanted! Does it add value to my life or is it just another thing? The idea of minimalism appealed to me more and more and, if you are so inclined, there are many books out there on the topic. There’s also a movie which I strongly related to called: Minimalism, a Documentary About the Important Things. My point is – I made some drastic changes and felt that returning to an old life and old habits would defeat the point of me making those changes to begin with. I wanted something totally new and took steps to get there. In fact, I sacrificed everything to get there, and so I didn’t want to look back or revert to old ways, at least not before I have learned all I can about this phase of my life.

Choosing the people in my life

You know what I am going to say here, right? Truth is, before I quit the booze my friendship circle was really tight and filled with what I like to think are quality people – truly! There’s no drama and we know where we stand with each other. It keeps things beautifully simple. After I quit it pretty much stayed the same but there were a few casualties and I also started spending less time with some and more with others. I didn’t consciously dump friendships but they moved on or changed and (for the most part) I didn’t fight it. For me, it was a natural progression based on how I was changing and where I felt most comfortable. For others there may have to be some conscious and purpose driven work to be done here.

It wasn’t only about the people I socialize with but social events themselves. Even when I am attending a social gathering with the best of people, I have my limits: I get bored, tired, hungry and a whole host of other things. At that point I excuse myself and move on. I don’t need to make elaborate excuses or feel anything other than empowered and in control. I don’t have to be the life of the party and stay until the bitter end if I am not feeling it. Simple as that. Sometimes I will indeed stay until sunrise and love every minute – but that doesn’t happen often and I have no regrets about it. It makes the days that I do stay until sunrise so much more special!

So those are my thoughts on what I did – and still do – in terms of keeping things simple. Maybe it appeals to you or maybe it doesn’t. Enjoy creating your own unique recipe for successful sober living!


Rob is a Dry Space guest writer and founder of Empowered Coaching www.empoweredcoaching.co.za/

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