Is it possible to replace alcohol with something else? Can the struggling alcoholic pull some sort of switch in order to ease themselves out of a destructive life, and replace their alcoholism with something more healthy?
It’s an important question. Some people even argue that everyone who is successful in recovery does so by using some form of replacement strategy.
In other words, if you are depending on alcohol in order to cope with your life, and you suddenly quit drinking, then you are going to have to replace that alcohol with some other coping mechanism. Maybe that other coping mechanism will be a different drug, or maybe it will be a new way of thinking and living, or maybe it will be a new religion or recovery program. But the argument here is that you have to replace the alcohol with something, anything. You can’t just leave a void in your life where alcohol used to be. If you could, then the alcohol could “just quit drinking” and not have to put any effort into the solution at all.
But we know that this is not realistic. You can try to tell the struggling alcoholic to “just cut down a little on the sauce” but this does not help. They can’t. They can’t just stop drinking under their own power; this is what defines their disease. If they could just up and quit then we would not even label them as alcoholics to begin with, right?
So it almost seems like some sort of replacement strategy is necessary. And the struggling alcoholic senses this in their battle to control their addiction, so many times they will try to substitute one drug for another. They generally label this as “cross addiction.” Though in the end, you can simplify things and just call the person an addict. After all, alcohol is just another drug.
What is cross addiction? What else can people use to replace alcoholism?
At one point in my own journey with alcoholism I realized that I was in big trouble. I could not stop drinking on my own.
I could also tell that the alcohol was killing me. I was running into some pretty heavy consequences. I could see the writing on the wall. I was headed for jail, or death, or something really bad if I kept up the drinking like I was doing. It was just a matter of time.
So I tried to quit on my own. One way that I tried to do that was to substitute another drug. At the time, I had never heard anyone talk about this idea, I had never heard the term “cross addiction,” and I had never heard the phrase “substituting one drug for another.” I just knew that I was drinking way too much, and that it was killing me, so I needed to try something else.
In the past I had used marijuana. So I made a decision that I would quit drinking and just smoke marijuana instead. In AA meetings, they have a label for this idea, they call it “the marijuana maintenance program.” And the popular wisdom in AA is that if you try to make this work, you will fail. You will relapse. The marijuana will lead you back to the alcohol eventually. That is the popular wisdom, though I did not know this at the time. I was still lying to myself, giving myself the same old B.S. excuses as to why I could not get sober.
All I knew was that I needed to stop drinking or it was going to kill me.
So what happened?
I found that I could not really smoke enough in order to properly medicate myself. It worked for a while. But eventually I got to the point where I was having a really bad day, and I was really upset emotionally, and I just needed a darn drink. I needed the booze to properly medicate myself in that moment. And even though I had swore of the alcohol, my emotional state was such that I just could not resist. So I “relapsed” and started drinking again.
Now I put the word “relapse” in quotes there because it was not technically a relapse. When you substitute one drug for another (marijuana for alcohol in my case) you are not really in recovery. Therefore you cannot really call what happened a real relapse. All you did was to switch your drug of choice to something else that was still addictive.
Now you might be jumping through some mental hoops right now and saying: “Well, wait a minute. Isn’t the marijuana less destructive than the alcohol? Isn’t that better then?”
This is a huge mistake and a big error to make. Trust me, you do NOT want to get confused about this.
While it may be true that certain drugs are less destructive than others, the point is completely useless for the struggling addict or alcoholic.
Because cross addiction always leads you back to your drug of choice!
So there is no benefit in switching. In fact it can only get worse, because what is more likely to happen if you try to substitute one drug for another is that eventually you will be dependent on both. And the effects will multiply and your consequences will get worse and worse. It is a negative cycle and cross addiction can only accelerate it.
As an aside, marijuana is still a very dangerous drug for an alcoholic or for a drug addict. Not because it is so destructive, but because it allows you to medicate your emotions. When you use marijuana, it completely erases your feelings. If you are upset, you can wipe that away in an instant by getting high. This makes it extremely dangerous because you are training yourself to depend on the drug in order to medicate your mood. Many people argue that the drug is fairly benign in that it does not have the same destructive capacity that alcohol does. But the fact is that it will lead you back to alcohol or other drugs every single time (eventually) and it is a trap. It medicates your emotions and that is why it is so dangerous.
How AA can be like a replacement for addiction
The idea of replacing alcoholism with something else is very powerful.
One replacement strategy is to adopt the program of AA in your life.
This is why some people claim that you should go to 90 meetings in 90 days. I am not necessarily arguing against this idea; if it works for you, then by all means, adopt the strategy.
Clearly it is not for everyone. But it definitely helps some people to recover.
They talk about the idea of replacement in meetings. They say that you have to “change people, places, and things” in order to recover from alcoholism. So instead of going to the corner bar each night, you can come to an AA meeting instead. Instead of hanging out with people who drink, you can hang out with people from AA. Instead of buying booze every day, you can buy a Big Book or some recovery literature to read. Instead of going out and partying, you can have coffee with someone in recovery or talk to your sponsor. And so on.
The idea has merit. If you can replace every negative aspect of your addiction with something positive then you can recover.
One of the keys to being able to pull this off is to take massive action. You cannot just dip one toe in with this sort of approach and expect it to work. If you replace some things but not others then your results will be mixed. And if you get mixed results in recovery then you get terrible results because it turns into relapse.
That is one of the tricky things about recovery:
It is pass/fail.
You don’t get to score 80 percent in your recovery effort and still remain clean and sober. That doesn’t work.
Because if you do that, then the 20 percent where you are messing up is going to lead to a full blown relapse. Once you take a drink or a drug, it is all downhill. The other 80 percent where you were actually doing well goes flying out the window. Relapse changes everything.
Because recovery is a pass/fail proposition, you need to take it very seriously. There is no room for error. If you screw up and relapse then you lose everything, all progress is lost instantly.
So one solution for this is to dedicate your life to AA.
This is not actually what I did in the long run. But it is basically what I did for the first 18 months or so of my sobriety.
Actually that is not entirely accurate. I was living in a long term rehab at the time, and I did go to meetings every single day. But I also had group therapy, and I had a sponsor and peers that I lived with, and I was seeing a therapist one on one. So there was a lot more going on for me than just the AA meetings. Instead of diving into the AA program, I had dove into recovery and tried to embrace all of these things that sought to help me.
It worked. I remained clean and sober because I was willing to take massive action. This was not an easy thing to do. It transformed my entire life. I had to put everything on hold, I had to surrender completely, I had to give myself entirely to a new way of life. I had to get out of my own way.
I was lucky in that I moved into long term rehab. This is not a cure though, as most of my peers (nearly all of them) that I lived with in long term treatment ended up relapsing. But while you are there it is like a total replacement strategy for your life. You live in rehab. You go to meetings. Everything that you do is geared towards recovery. So your old life that revolved around alcohol or drugs has been completely replaced. It is very powerful if you are willing to do it, but it is by no means bullet proof. Most people who tried it ended up relapsing anyway.
This is because it all comes down to surrender. If you are not ready to be sober, then you’re simply not ready. No amount of action can turn this around. You can’t just magically surrender based on being in rehab. It doesn’t work that way. You are either ready to embrace change, or you are not. Most people are not. They have to endure a lot of pain and agony in their addiction before they reach that true bottom.
Getting addicted to personal growth and incremental improvement
Is it possible to replace alcoholism with personal growth?
Is it possible to replace your addiction with a different addiction, an addiction to improving your life?
This is sort of my current track in life. I have tried to replace my addiction to alcohol with a life of personal growth.
Instead of taking a drink to medicate my problems, I instead try to:
1) Find new ways to deal with those problems instead of drinking or using drugs, and
2) Eliminate the problems to begin with.
I sort these two ideas out with the following labels in order to simplify things:
1) Improving my life.
2) Improving my life situation.
Improving my life involves working on the inner stuff. You need a plan for this. This is when you change how you deal with negativity, how you respond to stress, and how you cope with the world in general. This is where you learn how to overcome resentment, shame, and self pity. This is some of the hard work that everyone had to do in recovery if they want to stay clean and sober.
If you look at the 12 steps of AA then they definitely address these sort of changes. It is about doing the inner work, releasing that anger, forgiving people (including yourself), and so on.
Of course you can do this sort of inner work without going to AA. Or you can do it in AA. But it is really about getting honest with yourself, seeing what sort of negativity is still inside of you, and figuring out how to move past it. Believe it or not, many people who are in AA still have not done this work, and it leads some people to relapse. It is one thing to go to meetings every day and cling to your sobriety by talking about your problems, but it is another thing entirely to actually do the footwork in order to work through your issues.
In other words, everyone who drank like alcoholics and drug addicts has some internal negative garbage that they were medicating. When you get clean and sober that negative garbage is still there, running loose in your mind. It is your responsibility to process that stuff and take care of it so that you don’t use it as an excuse to relapse.
So that is the internal stuff. The stuff up in your mind. The stuff in your heart.
But there is also all of the negative stuff on the outside of yourself in recovery. There is all of the negative stuff that happens in your day to day life, the stuff on the outside. What about all of that stuff?
This is your “life situation.” It is the “people, places, and things” that AA refers to. This is the stuff that you need to work on changing on a regular basis in order to improve your life situation.
Anyone can relapse in recovery due to overwhelming stress or negativity in their lives. If things get overwhelming then a drink starts looking better and better. Obviously, we want to minimize the chances of this happening in recovery. One way to do that is to work towards a more peaceful life with far less stress and chaos.
People who have become sober can look back and say that they really did have to “change everything.” Just ask anyone who has a year or more sober what they had to change. They will always respond with an enthusiastic “everything!” This is because they can look back and realize that they changed both their internal stuff in their mind (doing the work to eliminate the negative garbage) and also make big changes in their external world (changing people, places, and things). It is a lot to deal with.
For example, when I became sober my family remained the same but everyone else in my life changed. All of my friends and people that I spent time with on a regular basis changed. Where I lived changed. Where I worked changed. Pretty much everything changed for me, all at once.
If you want to break free from your addiction then you will have to realize that you must change everything. It is not enough to simply stop using your drug of choice. You must alter your environment, change the people you spend time with, go different places, everything. Your addiction dominates your entire life so therefore you must change your entire life.
You must replace everything.
Why the holistic approach is so powerful for treating addictions
Your addiction dominates your entire life. It affects nearly every aspect of your being.
This is why the solution should be holistic. As in, “whole.” We need to treat your whole being, not just one aspect of it.
If you explore traditional recovery solutions, they typically focus on only treating one aspect of your life. They attempt to treat the spiritual aspect. In this way, the AA program is like a spiritual replacement strategy.
The alcoholic used to drink every day, they were a total drunk, and this became like their religion. They worshiped the high. And so the strategy in AA is to shift this to a spiritual solution. Replace the drunkenness with spirituality. Find something new to believe in other than alcohol.
This works for some people, but when it does, I think that there is almost always more footwork involved. In other words, AA only works if you pick up the slack in these other crucial areas of your life (that are not typically addressed in AA):
* Physical – getting fit, proper nutrition, quitting smoking, etc.
* Mental – healthy mind, education, new ideas, etc.
* Emotional – finding a healthy emotional balance, eliminating negative emotions, etc.
* Social – replacing the old negative influences with new positive people in recovery.
AA certainly addresses some of those things indirectly. For example, if you go to AA meetings every day and get a sponsor, you are working on the social aspect of your recovery.
But my main concern is that AA does not address the holistic approach specifically. They focus entirely on the spiritual aspect of recovery. The holistic approach includes spirituality, but it goes further than that to address these other areas. It is thus more powerful and broader than the spiritual approach.
Is there a way to avoid the idea of a replacement strategy? Is there really a cure?
If you want to turn your life around then you have to do two things:
1) Eliminate the drugs and alcohol.
2) Fill your life with meaning, purpose, or positive change.
It will always be possible to look back at your journey in recovery and say that you replaced one bad thing with something positive.
Whether that replacement is with a recovery program, a religion, or personal growth is besides the point. The point is that you overcame your addiction and found a new positive way to live your life instead. And that is what is truly important, the new path of success that you are on in recovery.
What have you found that has helped you to replace the alcohol habit in recovery? What works for you? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!