Quitting drinking is not easy by any means, but my guess is that if you are still struggling with alcoholism then you have never given it a fair try before.
I can remember when I was still struggling with my drinking and the mental games that I was playing with myself at the time. I really did not have a chance at that time because I was so deep in denial.
It wasn’t necessarily that I could not stop drinking, but that I could not get myself to want to stop. There is a difference, and that difference helps to define how we stay stuck in denial.
How we stay stuck in denial
I used to argue when I was still drinking that I knew that I was an alcoholic. I fully admitted that I had the disease of alcoholism. I knew that I had a problem and I would admit this to others. So how was I still in denial?
Well the fact was that I really was still in denial and I just did not know it. You can admit to something on the surface but still not accept it on a really deep level. And this is exactly what I was doing–I was saying the right things in order to keep other people happy (“yes, I am an alcoholic and I know it”) but then on the inside I had no intention of quitting drinking any time soon.
Breaking through denial is about much more than simply admitting that you have a disease. What you have to do is to fully accept that you have a progressive disease that is going to kill you, and then decide to realize this and take action. The only way to break through your denial is to agree to do something different. Getting past your denial is about action. My mistake that I was making for so many years is that I thought that denial was all about what you believed; I thought it was all in your head. But it’s really not. Denial is all about how you are living and what actions you are taking. If you admit to the world that you are alcoholic but you continue to drink then you are still stuck in denial. On the other hand if you accept that you are alcoholic and that it is going to kill you if you don’t stop, then you decide to take action and get help, then you have made the leap past your denial. It is only in taking action and changing course that you are truly moving beyond your denial.
I would quit drinking, but I don’t want to right now
Most struggling alcoholics probably believe that they should quit drinking, but most of them simply do not want to. They are comfortable with their drinking and they do not want to go through the extreme discomfort of change. So they stay stuck in denial and they tell themselves that they do not want to quit drinking right now. Or they attempt to rationalize their disease by saying that they enjoy drinking. They tell themselves and others “I work hard, and this is my reward that I give myself. Aren’t I allowed to reward myself with something? Alcohol is my reward.” Thus they are trying to rationalize their addiction to themselves and to others.
I have gone to inpatient treatment three times in my life. The first two times that I went did not work (obviously) and I did not get clean and sober “for good” until I went a third time. So what was going on during those first two trips to rehab, that they did not work out for me? And what was the secret trick that allowed me to stay sober on the third time around?
To be honest it had to do with desire to stop drinking. If someone had asked me after those first two trips to rehab: “Have you ever tried to seriously quit drinking before?”–I would have told them heck yes! I just went to rehab, twice, and stayed in one of them for 28 days. I went voluntarily out of my own accord. I was not forced to go. So at the time, I would have argued that I really tried my best to quit drinking. And I had failed.
I liked this little explanation and I of course used it to justify further drinking. My argument was essentially “See? I went to rehab twice, made a serious effort, and I cannot stop drinking! I am just destined to be a drunk. I may as well accept it.”
But the reality was that this was just a rationalization. I was simply using those failures to justify more drinking. And the truth was that I had not really reached a point of full surrender on those first two trips to rehab. The truth was that I was getting all sorts of pressure to attend rehab from friends and family. But I was not really at a point of total surrender. I certainly did not want to stop drinking at those times. I was not ready to change my whole life.
My excuse was that I did not want to quit drinking right now. Or sometimes I told myself that I really did want to quit drinking, but I just couldn’t do it for some reason. In the end I guess my mental excuses did not matter much, because I was not taking action.
Breaking through denial is not about making a mental rearrangement. Instead it is about taking action. You break through denial when you take action.
What would your best recovery effort look like?
Stop for a moment and ask yourself:
What would my best and most serious effort in recovery look like?
Because that is the true measure of what will finally “work” for you in recovery. It is not going to work if you make a half effort. You are not going to accidentally get sober just on a whim. It doesn’t work that way.
My life was a complete mess and everything that I did revolved around drugs and alcohol. I thought that I might get sober by simply going to a 28 day program and then never going to AA meetings again. Did I really think that such a plan had a chance at working? Why did I expect to be able to change my whole life without really making any changes at all?
Why did I think that I might “accidentally” get sober without really putting forth a serious effort? Why was I hoping that I might be able to just somehow slide into sobriety without really trying that hard? Why did I believe that I might get sober when I had never seriously put forth my best effort at it?
The reason is fear. If you go deep enough into all of the rationalizations then you realize that it is all fear based thoughts that keep you from making a serious effort. They have a saying in AA that “the only thing you have to change is EVERYTHING.” This is absolutely true and this is also why I failed miserably the first two times that I attempted to get clean and sober. I had not yet surrendered fully to the disease and I was not willing to take massive action in order to change my life.
Facing massive change in recovery takes a lot of guts. To be honest, I had to get to a point in my life where I almost did not care about myself any more at all. I had to be willing to give up my old life completely in order to move into a new life of recovery. This was terrifying because it was a journey into the unknown. You don’t know what to expect or what life will be like without your drug of choice, and the thought of facing this is scary for any alcoholic. The unknown is very intimidating.
Furthermore, I was convinced that if I completely eliminated alcohol and drugs from my life that I would be completely miserable. I was basing this on my very limited experience of the few times when I had to suddenly stop drinking in the past (such as when I had gone to jail). Because I had experienced the brief but intense misery of withdrawal, I was projecting that misery on to the idea of sobriety. I believed that if I were to get sober “forever” that I would feel that way forever–the same way that I felt when I first quit drinking and experienced withdrawal symptoms.
Obviously this is not the case–if you can give yourself a chance and get past this initial “hump” during the detox process then your life will start to slowly improve. What you need to do then is to start taking positive action every single day so that the benefits of recovery can start to slowly accumulate over time. This is how you build a new life in recovery–one day at a time and with consistency and persistence.
There are many people who have come into the program of recovery and they were not yet ready to make serious changes or to use a consistent approach. So they may take some action (such as attending rehab) but they are not consistent enough in their follow through to get good long term results. They take some positive action but then they give up before the miracle happens. So what happens is that they relapse because they get frustrated and are not feeling the enormous benefits that recovery has to offer them. They quit before the miracle happened. They gave up too soon instead of persisting.
Obviously if you are not consistent in your recovery effort then this does not qualify as “your best effort in recovery.” Relapse is almost certain if you are not pushing yourself to make the best effort that you possibly can in your recovery.
When I finally got clean and sober for good I had to take direction from others. I had to get out of my own way and allow other people to help me to find the right path. This was a blow to the ego and was something that I had never been willing to do in the past.
And I could see that on my previous two attempts at rehab, I was holding so much back. I was not willing to trust in the process, I was not willing to trust other people and their suggestions, and I was not willing to follow through when these people told me what to do.
You go to rehab, you ask for help, and then you take advice and follow through. This is the path to sobriety. If you don’t need detox then you might also just skip rehab and go straight to AA meetings each day and get the same results. But it is not any easier or much different really; You still have to get out of your own way and take advice and direction from others. You still have to crush your own ego and allow yourself to learn a new path in life. You have to ask for help and then do what people are telling you to do. It’s hard and it’s scary and it goes against our natural instincts (which are to watch out for ourselves, think for ourselves, and have a general distrust of others). It takes guts to put ourselves on the line and ask for help and take direction from others.
What are you willing to do in order to recover?
Ask yourself: “Have you really tried to quit drinking in the past?”
What were you willing to do? Were you willing to go to rehab, to ask for help from others, to find a sponsor and talk with them each day, to attend AA meetings and share your story, to work with other alcoholics and help them? Were you willing to change your whole life, to start over from scratch? Were you willing to do whatever the therapists and counselors suggested that you do? Were you willing to live in long term rehab for several months or even years?
Part of the problem is that we don’t know exactly how much help that we need in order to recover.
I never knew for sure how much help I needed. I suspected that I would have to live in long term rehab if I was going to have a shot at staying sober, because so many therapists and counselors had suggested it to me. But you don’t really know. The only way that you know how much treatment you need is to go get help and then measure your results. If you relapse then it means you did not have enough help. You needed more help in order to recover. So if you try again you may want to seek out more intense treatment next time.
I had to do this myself. Counseling sessions were clearly not helping at all. Two trips to short term rehab were not showing promising results. At some point I had to take the suggestion seriously that I might need to live in long term rehab in order to have a fair shot at sobriety. For a long time I rejected this idea as being far too extreme. Live in long term rehab? It sounded like a prison sentence. But eventually I got to a point in my addiction where I no longer cared. I was so sick and tired that I no longer cared about treatment, about the fear of the unknown, and I did not even care that long term rehab might turn out to be like prison (it’s not!).
And when I got to that point I finally was able to say “OK, I need to get serious help, because drinking just is not any fun anymore, and I don’t think it ever will be again.” So I was able to ask for help and to actually follow through. I was able to take advice. I was able to push my ego down for a while and simply watch what happened to myself as I lived only by the advice and direction of others. It turns out that nothing terrible happens when you suddenly get out of your own way and start living by the advice of others. You don’t suddenly become miserable, or turn into a non-person or anything. In fact if you are like me and your life had been a mess then suddenly things are going to start getting better and better.
If you have never surrendered completely and pushed your own ego out of the way then you have never seriously tried to stop drinking. The key is that you must ask for help and then take the advice of others. If you are relying on your own ideas then you are not seriously trying to quit yet, all you are doing is experimenting and avoiding the issue. It is a form of denial to say that you are trying to quit drinking on your own. Really what you are doing at that point is just trying to cut down a little, maybe for half a day, and then getting loaded later on and feeling justified in doing so.
So when you finally decide to get serious about quitting then it will be a complete transformation. You have to squash your ego completely and use a new approach to sobriety. This of course may not be true for some people, but then again, why would they be reading this article? If nothing has worked for you so far in trying to give up alcohol then you would do well to follow my advice here, because it applies to you perfectly. The solution is to seek help and advice from others, then follow through on it as if your life depended on it (because it does!).
I was very stubborn about this for several years and I had to keep drinking and becoming more and more miserable until I got to the point where I could finally surrender. Some people will never reach that point of full surrender due to the consequences of their drinking, unfortunately. The way to bring about true surrender is to focus on your misery. If you are stuck in denial and you cannot bring yourself to want to quit drinking then your goal should be to get honest with yourself. The way to do this, unfortunately, is to focus on the misery that alcohol and drugs are creating in your life. Stop blaming others, stop blaming things that are outside of your control, stop pointing fingers and just take a look at the misery and chaos that your drinking is creating. Really force yourself to see how alcohol has made your life miserable. Don’t judge yourself when you do this. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Instead, judge the alcohol. Look at what the alcohol is doing and simply acknowledge the misery it creates. Realize that it is the cause of your suffering. Admit that this is the truth. Start to measure how much relief and happiness the alcohol brings you. Does it medicate you for an entire day? For the evening? How long are you happy when you drink? For hours on end? Does it still work as good as it used to? Be honest with yourself in this assessment.
Keep on measuring. If you are stuck in denial then you need to force yourself to measure your happiness and your misery in terms of alcohol. This is what will allow you to suddenly surrender one day. It comes on after a deep realization that alcohol will never really make you happy. But you cannot make this realization unless you allow yourself to see the truth. And the truth is that alcohol stopped working for you a long time ago. It stopped making you happy years ago, and you have still clung to it as your solution.
The truth is that alcohol has betrayed you, it has stopped doing its job properly, and it is time for you to move on.
Are you ready to make a serious effort this time?
Are you ready to reclaim your happiness in sobriety?