What are some effective ways to quit drinking alcohol?
What is the secret to getting off the sauce and staying off of it for good?
Is it necessary to join a 12 step program and attend meetings for life just to avoid alcohol?
Let’s take a closer look at some of these questions and see what we can learn.
Disrupting your pattern of abuse
First of all, there are really two distinct stages of alcoholism recovery. We can separate them for the sake of discussion into “getting sober” and “staying sober.”
There are also some people who separate sobriety itself into stages, such as “early recovery” and then “long term sobriety.” Sometimes these distinctions are genuinely helpful in applying a recovery strategy in your life, but other times they just seem to get in the way. But some people believe that you should be doing the exact same thing after ten years of sobriety that you were doing during your first 30 days. I don’t think that this sort of attitude is accurate or realistic, myself. I think if you are doing the same things after 10 years in recovery that you were doing at two weeks sober then you have a bit of a problem. You are “stuck” and you are most likely complacent at that point. The point of recovery is not to just “go back to normal life” but to keep growing and making progress so that your life continues to improve. If it stops improving then you run the risk of relapse, simple as that. Recovery is personal growth.
So the two concepts here are “stopping” and then also “staying stopped.”
The problem of stopping is best solved by going to treatment, in my opinion.
This is not without some controversy, apparently. Some people believe the rehab in general is a scam, because they don’t really cure people. For example, you can’t just take a random alcoholic or drug addict, force them to go to rehab, and expect for them to stay clean and sober after they leave treatment. This doesn’t work, and no one has the ability to make it work (yet). Keep in mind that even if someone figured out how to “cure” addiction by forcing addicts and alcoholics to change against their will, a country such as the US would not allow that to even exist.
OK, OK, I realize that there are plenty of alcoholics who genuinely want to stop drinking, and yet still they struggle and relapse. Shouldn’t we have a cure for that group of people by now?
The truth is that we do NOT have a cure yet, and may not be any closer to it than what we were several years ago. There is much research being done and many new medications developed to help fight addiction but in the end I don’t see any evidence or data that we are anywhere near a cure. Ultimately some people just want to self destruct and alcoholism and addiction are a convenient and surprisingly accessible way to go through with that. Even for those who don’t really want to self destruct, the lure of addiction can be very powerful.
In short, no cure yet.
So the key thing to realize is that going off to rehab–any treatment center, actually–is most accurately described as being a form of disruption. You are disrupting your pattern of alcohol and drug abuse. Of course you are also going to try to learn some things while you are in treatment, and you will try to get some support from people while you are there, but ultimately you are giving yourself a massive time out. 28 days or so in a controlled environment with no access to drugs or alcohol. Rehab promised to be many things, and many alcoholics will get a great deal out of an inpatient stay in a rehab center, but more than anything else it is simply a form of disruption.
You are disrupting your addiction. 28 days sober is possible for anyone, no matter how far down the scale they may have gone. Any alcoholic and any drug addict in the world can make it through detox, whether they believe it or not.
The question, of course, is “are they willing to go?” Many are not until they reach the point of surrender (which is another topic entirely, and a very important one at that).
So if rehab provides you with the tools that you need to stop drinking, then what is the secret of staying stopped? (long term sobriety).
The problem of staying stopped in recovery
Staying stopped in long term sobriety is much, much more difficult than simply stopping.
I admit that it takes a great deal of courage in order to actually stop, to go to detox, to go to rehab and try to make a change. That takes guts, don’t get me wrong. But while it may take a lot of courage to stop drinking initially, it is actually really easy to do. I did it at least 3 times, and the problem was not really in stopping, per se. I could make it through detox without any problems. The problem (as they say) was in staying stopped. Living sober. Learning to deal with life without resorting to the bottle.
There is an old saying that the alcoholic doesn’t have a problem when you give them alcohol, they have a problem when you take the alcohol away. I found this to be very true of my own situation. I could not deal with life (nor did I want to) without self medicating every day. I had lost the will to live a sober life. I did not know how to do it. I did not want to do it. I was sick of reality and the only cure for my anxiety and my frustration was to get blasted drunk all the time. I was hard wired to prefer oblivion. Over time I liked myself less and less, so I also preferred to self medicate so that I did not have to face the truth of who I had become. Alcoholism was my escape from alcohol, if you can believe it. I drank because I had huge problems–but those problems were all of my own making, and they all revolved around alcohol. And to deal with those problems I drank more. Insanity.
So it becomes a vicious cycle. And anyone can stop very easily, if they have just enough willingness to walk into a detox unit. I did this twice when I was not really ready to follow through and stay sober. The problem was that I did not know this at the time. How can you possibly know how serious you are about quitting drinking when you feel like you are going insane? This is the main problem that the alcoholic faces when they are struggling with their addiction–they believe that they may actually be going crazy. And so when they get to a point that might be surrender, it is impossible for them to know at that time if they are really serious about quitting drinking.
And then of course they go to detox and they start residential treatment and they start to hear people talk about recovery. And they hear people day “this will only work for you if you are really desperate and you want to get sober more than anything in the world. You have to want it really, really badly in order for sobriety to work.” And so the poor alcoholic is all messed up and they are going through detox (or they just went through it) and now they really don’t know if they are coming or going at this point. And people from AA are basically challenging them saying “If you don’t want to be sober with all of your heart then you are doomed to fail and you will relapse!”
The first two times I tried to get sober I ended up failing. I relapsed because I was not yet ready to change my life. But I did not know this at the time. If I had known it was going to be a big failure at the time then I would not have bothered to stick around in detox. I would have just up and left and went back to drinking immediately instead of screwing around with rehab. The problem is that you just don’t know. How could you know? You are an alcoholic or a drug addict and you are all messed up. You hope that you are serious and that you want to really change your life, but how can anyone be sure? There will always be a tiny corner of the alcoholics mind that still wants to drink, no matter how much they have surrendered to their disease. There will always be that tiny piece of you that wants to go nuts and get loaded. It will never go away completely.
Therefore when you first get into recovery you are going to be challenged. People are going to say “do you really want this to work? Because if you don’t really want it more than anything else in the whole world, then you will probably relapse.” So you have to ignore that tiny piece in your mind that wants to drink, that part of you that always wants to drink (and always will), you must ignore it and say to the people in rehab “Yes, this is it. I am sick of living this way. I want to be sober. Show me how to live.”
If you can do that, even with that tiny little sliver in the back of your mind that still wants to you to get wasted, then you have hope of a new life.
Because to be honest, even this last time when I finally surrendered for good, I still questioned myself quite a bit in the beginning because I still had that little part of my brain that obviously would enjoy getting loaded again. And it is still there to this day, even after 12+ years in sobriety. That little piece never dies. But today I can laugh at it, because it no longer holds power over me. I took that power away from it when I decided to listen to other people in recovery tell me how to live my life. It was awkward, but it worked.
Why most people end up relapsing after treatment
Most people who leave rehab end up relapsing.
You might hear statistics about this. They are never very encouraging. If you look at 1 year success rates you will likely see only 1 in 5 will make it that long, usually less. Generally it is more like 1 in 10 will remain sober for a full year. You can find data that puts it even worse, closer to 1 in 20. The studies conflict because they all have a little bit different way of measuring the results (for example, some of them will disregard people who relapse if that person stopped going to aftercare treatment, meetings, etc.).
The fact is that most people who relapse after treatment can then look back at their relapse and tell you exactly what went wrong. This may take them some time before they can process it all. For example, they might have to relapse, then progress in their disease again for a while, then go back to treatment at a later date. When they finally go back for more treatment, they can then look back and tell you exactly where and how they screwed up. After going through the whole cycle a second time it gives them added perspective. They realize exactly where they made their mistake.
And their mistake is almost always an act of self will. What I mean by that is that the person sabotages their recovery because they start acting out on their own ideas, rather than listening to other people in recovery. You can listen to your sponsor, to your peers, to the people in AA meetings, to a therapist, or to a counselor. Or, you can ignore all of that and simply listen to your own ideas that originate in that little head of yours. Guess which choice typically leads to relapse? If you are in your first year or two of recovery, then listening to your own ideas while disregarding the advice of others is pretty much a guaranteed path to relapse.
Thus the answer is that you have to get out of your own way, kill your ego, and take advice and direction from other people. This is not generally seen as a fun or exciting thing to do, so most people try hard to avoid it. They would rather do their own thing, do what they want, and do what feels good in the moment. Of course, just look at where that attitude has got most of us in our addictions. Why do we think it would be any different results in our recovery?
Most people relapse because they don’t listen. They take back their own self will and start doing what they want to do, rather than what they should be doing.
Early recovery is like digging the foundation of a new building. It’s hard work and no one wants to do it. But if you skip the foundation work then you will not get to reap the benefits of recovery later on. You will build your house on sand, and it will all fall apart eventually.
The alternative is to listen to people’s advice in early recovery so that you actually build a strong foundation. You get to have freedom in recovery, but if you try to grab 100 percent freedom for yourself in the first year of sobriety then you will fall flat on your face. Think about this carefully. Do you want to make this grab for ultimate freedom right away and then relapse, or do you want to listen to others, build a strong foundation, and then enjoy a lifetime of happiness and sobriety? That is really the choice you are facing when you first walk out of treatment. You can either do your own thing (and likely fail) or you can listen to others and reap the benefits of their wisdom.
How to organize your life so that you are more likely to remain sober
Surrender comes first.
Then disruption is next. Most likely you go to detox or rehab.
Then you listen to others in recovery and take their advice and apply it. This leads you to a better life in recovery than what you ever could have predicted.
So what happens next?
What happens after you are basically stable in your sobriety, because you have done what you were told to do, and now you are starting to reap the benefits of long term sobriety?
Now you have another challenge. This is the challenge of complacency. It is a tricky thing to battle against because it does not exactly come out and show itself to you for battle. Complacency is sneaky. It creeps into your life when you least expect it.
When people get lazy in their recovery and they stop making progress, they can become complacent and end up relapsing. Obviously we want to avoid this problem.
The only way to avoid complacency is by taking a proactive stance against it.
You cannot react to complacency and expect to win. You must battle it before it ever even becomes a threat. You must organize your life in such a way that it will not become a problem.
How is this possible?
The way to go about fighting complacency is to establish a daily practice. You need to form positive habits in your life that allow you to keep achieving personal growth in your recovery.
All of these positive habits should be spread out in a holistic manner. In other words, it does you no good to focus exclusively on spirituality if you are constantly neglecting your mental, emotional, social, or physical aspects of your health.
Recovery is about becoming healthier, ultimately. You are making a positive change in your life to become healthier by quitting drugs and alcohol. But beyond that, you need to find a way to stay sober in the long run, so you must keep pursuing holistic health in all of these additional areas. If you fail to do so then complacency can sneak into your life and cause you to relapse.
I have watched this happen with many different people in my recovery journey. They may be pursuing spiritual growth, but they later get caught off guard when their addiction attacks them from an unpredictable angle. For example, they may go through a bad breakup and this may cause them to relapse. They can not predict this in advance, but if they had a holistic approach to their health then they would be taking precautions to protect against it.
Your daily practice should improve your health in many different areas of your life. This will make you stronger and more able to prevent relapse, no matter which angle it may come from (it is not always a lack of spiritual growth, though that can be one cause).
Pursuing personal growth in long term sobriety
The ultimate solution in recovery is to pursue personal growth.
If you stop growing then you might relapse. If you keep pushing yourself to improve your life then you will likely be protected from complacency.