It’s easy enough to let go of headaches, nausea and shame, but what about that first pint in a sunny beer garden? What about those daft nights in with friends? What about that heavy drinking boyfriend? When you’re contemplating life without alcohol, the potential losses can seem to outweigh the gains.
This is one of the things that makes it so hard to even consider quitting for good. (This and the fact that it’s one of the most addictive substances on the planet.)
It’s especially hard to consider when everyone you know loves to drink. Wednesday night catch up, dinner with friends, wedding or funeral, your pals will be on the sauce.
At first, naturally, you want to join them. After all, it’s a social occasion, you feel a bit awkward and everyone is drinking. Because drinking is the best.
This is why it’s important that you find people who understand your particular quandary — i.e. that you love drinking so much you need to stop drinking — and can help you stick to your decision.
If you’re very fortunate, the people immediately surrounding you when you decide to get sober might already be those people. But they might not.
Unhelpful things people say when you stop drinking
My boyfriend Joe* was unsettled when it became clear I wasn’t joking about total abstinence. For years I had tried unsuccessfully to help him moderate — You need to choose between me and alcohol — in a dynamic that was boring and painful for both of us.
And now, I was embarking on a new plan that didn’t involve him at all: I wouldn’t drink, no matter what, a day at a time.
I’d failed to quit enough times to know I needed help if I was going to have a chance at succeeding, and so I joined an alcohol support group. This time things would be different.
Joe didn’t think I had enough of a problem to seek help, an opinion that triggered the cripplingly low self-esteem which was inextricably tied to my booze habit.
I’m wasting people’s time, I don’t deserve the attention.
But it also made me dig my heels in.
“I want to stop drinking, and I can’t. How isn’t that a problem?” I asked.
He did a facial shrug that incensed me because of everything I read into it. He thinks I’m overreacting, attention-seeking, pathetic.
Our stances in this arena, which had been a favourite party-site and battleground for years, rearranged and we found ourselves, for the first time, holding new positions. It was a relief, but it was scary too. I couldn’t imagine my life without him. Did I need to?
“But you’re not alcoholic,” he said, seeming confused by this new version of me that was always baking or fiddling with a guitar or heading out to meet new people, non-drinkers, to do who knows what. I screwed up my mouth, unsure what to say. Not drinking had been my aim for years, and for the first time, I was actually achieving it, but was I an alcoholic? I didn’t believe it either.**
Do you need to identify as an alcoholic to get sober?
It’s a big word to come to terms with, there’s no getting around it.
Especially for a person who grew up in a small British town, in a working-class/lower-middle-class(?) family. The only people I’d ever known who earned the fated title, Alcoholic, all gradually, painfully and publicly, drank themselves to death.
My understanding was that alcoholics drink in the morning and at work. They drink themselves into corners so squalid even their own families want nothing to do with them.
The ‘big book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous offers a slightly broader definition.
“If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic.”
That, without a doubt, described me. But, then, didn’t it describe everyone?
Annie Grace, who wrote This Naked Mind, has this to say.
“I don’t want to criticise AA because before it there was nothing. But it perpetuates the ideas that there are alcoholics who have an incurable long-term illness and there are people who drink normally. This comes entirely from AA, not from the medical or scientific communities who don’t use the term alcoholic.”
It made me wonder. Is there such a thing as ‘a normal drinker’? Annie doesn’t think so.
“Any person with the right level of exposure over time can become addicted.”
Filling the void left by alcohol
“You’re more obsessed with alcohol now than you ever were,” Joe said, on finding me baking and listening to Recovery Elevator yet again, one evening when he arrived home from the pub.
I knew what he meant.
In the last few weeks, I had binge-listened to dozens of episodes, met up with non-drinking friends three or four times a week, and books about quitting booze perched all over our tiny flat.
And it was working. I was still sober, and I felt great.
I couldn’t get enough of the podcasts — the format and content were so comforting and reassuring — the coffee and chat were essential too. It was incredible how many people there were, all over Bristol — all over the world — who had found themselves in precisely my dilemma. For the first time in years, I felt like part of a community.
Identifying with the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of ex-drinkers empowered me to stay firm in my decision not to drink. Something I had previously been literally incapable of doing. Meetings made abstinence feel meaningful and positive, instead of boring and depressing.
Most of my new sober friends hadn’t drunk in the mornings or gotten sacked for drinking on the job either. A handful of them struggled to see themselves as ‘alcoholic’ too. We seemed to be a new wave of problem-drinker, less willing to suffer than those that had come before. (‘Snowflake alcoholics’ anyone?)
In the Big Book of AA they say that this type of drinker ‘stopped in time’. We recognized our drinking was increasingly problematic and quit before it got any worse.
“Though there is no way of proving it, we believe that early in our drinking careers most of us could have stopped drinking. But the difficulty is that few alcoholics have the desire to stop while there is still time.” — the Big Book
Not an easy thing to do, I assure you. The temptation to get back on the ride for one more whizz around is almost irresistible. Sometimes, over the years, I’ve wished for a more dramatic rock bottom, just so the door back to drinking felt a little more securely closed.
I honestly believe I could start again, and I’d get away with it. Just like I was getting away with it before. Nobody around me would notice, but I would pay the price when I was alone and deep within myself.
4.5 years sober I have no desire to go back to my old way of life, but it’s taken a long time to get here, and I think that’s because of my totally undramatic rock bottom.
Not everybody is capable of helping you quit drinking
Just before I reached six months sober, Joe and I split. For years, I had believed he had to choose between me and alcohol, but in the end, I had to choose between sobriety and him.
Find the people who are able to support your new mission. Online or at AA or Smart. I was shown the way by women who had sobered up before me and they made the quest enjoyable.
Together, we celebrated milestones: 30 days, 60 days, 90 days. We pushed each other to take good care of ourselves and explore who we really were and what we liked doing besides drinking. We laughed at stories we’d never dared tell before and felt our shame lifting.
If you stick with it, getting sober is worth the effort.
Letting go of drinking when it’s been central to your whole life isn’t easy, but it is possible. There will be things you lose, besides blackouts and hangovers, but you can’t change your life without changing your life.
Transformation is painful, but sometimes, staying the same hurts even more.
If you need help to stop drinking, you’re not alone.
And there’s no shame in getting addicted to something deeply addictive. The fact is, it’s likely not going to get any easier to stop than it is this very moment.
If you’re ready to try something different, try my alcohol experiment. Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas. Read beautiful hangover. Listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind. Try Moderation Management.
There is a whole community of people just waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.
*names changed to protect the human
**I write as a person now sober, who used to drink too much. Please seek medical advice before you quit, especially if you are a daily drinker.
Chelsey Flood is the author of Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers, and a lecturer in creative writing. She writes about freedom, addiction, nature and love, and is working on a non-fiction book about how not drinking that much can still ruin your life.