Someone posted in the Alcohol Explained Facebook group recently to say he was on a weeks vacation in South Carolina right on the ocean. He’s been doing this for 12 years with a group of 20 friends. Every night they sit and the beach and drink away into the early hours. This year he went and didn’t drink. In terms of situations that are hard to go through without drinking, this has got to be right up there with the best of them.
Everyone has their own individual quintessential drinking experiences, the things we really can’t imagine doing without a drink, or can’t imagine enjoying without a drink. The usual way to go about stopping drinking is to avoid these situations (at least in the early days) to avoid being tempted to drink. On one hand this makes sense. Stop for a few weeks or months, get used to having stopped, build up your ability to resist temptation, then when your sobriety is more firmly established, then attempt these really difficult situations.
However this established wisdom on the best way to stop drinking disintegrates when you analyse it properly (as does much of societies ‘knowledge’ about alcohol and alcohol consumption generally).
Firstly stopping drinking is not a muscle that gets stronger as time goes on. In fact often our determination to stop wanes as time goes by. As I have dealt with in Alcohol Explained there are chemical and psychological reasons for this so I will not be covering them off again in this article. Suffice to say our determination to stop is usually at its strongest as we emerge, bleary eyed and wincing, from out most recent binge. As the days and weeks go by our determination to stop fades away.
Secondly what we need to consider is how we measure success. What is it we are actually trying to achieve when we stop drinking? That’s easy right? To never take another alcoholic drink again. But it that really what we are aiming for? Surely the holy grail that all problem drinkers are looking for is not just to never drink again, but to never drink again and be happy. To do everything they used to do drinking without drinking, and to enjoy it just as much, if not more, then they did when they were still drinking. In fact the two things do, to a certain extent, go hand in hand. After all, if you stop and are miserable because feel like you are missing out on situations you used to enjoy, you are far more likely to end up drinking again.
It helps I think to use an analogy. If you were a boxer and your goal was to be the best boxer of all time, would you achieve this by locking yourself away and refusing to fight anyone, and claim to be the world’s greatest boxer because you have never been beaten? Or if you were Commander-in Chief and fighting a war that you needed to win, would you achieve your objective by avoiding conflict, by constantly moving your forces around such that they never had to give battle? If you did so you wouldn’t be losing as such, but you certainly wouldn’t win. You’d be in some kind of limbo where you would be constantly putting off the deciding conflict. Taking this approach would be even more ridiculous if your army was growing progressively weaker over time, while your enemy was growing increasingly stronger.
Stopping drinking is essentially about learning to live your life without alcohol. That is the criteria for success. You don’t achieve that by avoiding parts of your life that you would have drunk in, but by going through them not drinking. You need to learn to cope with stress, anger, loss, anxiety, joy, celebration, everything, without drinking.
The key to achieving this is to firstly understand the nature of alcohol and recognise why its attraction is largely illusion. However you then need to apply this knowledge to you own experience, to accept it not only on an academic level, but also on a practical level.
You don’t do this by avoiding situations you used to drink in, but by facing them without a drink in your hand. When you have spent the last 20 years only ever going through a situation with a drink in your hand, you start to think it will be a huge deal going through it not drinking; you can scarcely imagine how you will manage it. You go in thinking it is going to be a huge event. It never is. It’s like opening a door to what you are convinced is a derelict and haunted house, only to find it perfectly normal inside. It’s almost an anti-climax. After all, no one can physically force you to take a drink. You get offered one, you say no. If you start getting harangued about it you just say you don’t fancy drinking tonight. You are in charge of your own body; you alone decide what goes in it, and you do not need to explain that decision to anyone unless you wish to do so. If someone starts pressuring you to have a drink you just look them in the eye and say thank you, but you don’t want one.
Just remember nothing terrible will happen to you if you never drink another drink. But if you are anything like me terrible things will happen to you if you do.