Thanks to the new discussion forums here at Spiritual River, I have realized that there is a group of people at this website that I have not really addressed.
These are people who are struggling to achieve sobriety. They continue to relapse and seem to be trapped in a perpetual cycle.
These struggling alcoholics and problem drinkers are in a limbo of sorts: They are not drinking every single day without any end in sight, but they are not completely sober either. They are in between, struggling to find a path in recovery that works for them.
They have yet to break through to real sobriety. Something has not quite clicked yet for them, but these people continue to try to stop drinking anyway.
If you are struggling to quit drinking, or seem to keep relapsing, then this article was written for you.
Here are my suggestions for you:
Stop making excuses by making a firm decision
Just about every recovery program in existence talks about the conecept of surrender, or of making a decision.
There is good reason for this: you are not going to make any real changes in your life unless you make a firm commitment.
Photo by Paul (dex)
They talk about how you “have to want recovery” and how you have to “want to be sober more than anything else in the world.” These ideas ring true to me.
When I finally got clean and sober this time around, I am not really sure how badly I wanted sobriety. But I can tell you this much is true: I no longer wanted what I was getting. I was miserable with the life I was living and I was just so sick of it all that I could hardly stand it. I could hardly stand myself. I wanted to self medicate all the time and it seemed that the medication was no longer working so great. I could not escape from myself and it was like running in a hamster wheel to try and stay drunk and high all the time.
So I had to get to a point where I stopped making excuses. I had to get to a point where I could truly face my addiction, and myself, and what I had become. I had to say “OK, I am seriously screwed up at this point, and I do not know how to live a successful life.”
I would say that this admission to yourself is the first part of your decision; of your surrender.
What is the rest of it? The second part of surrender is the action. It is the follow through. It is the commitment to change. It is the part where you ask for help.
You see, you have to do more than just “stop making excuses.” No, you have to go a step beyond that, and make a firm decision in your life. That implies action. That implies the hope of future change.
When you make a decision, you commit to making real change in your life.
Most alcoholics have made plenty of decisions in their lives before, and then not followed through on them. That is why I say you have to make a “firm” decision. It has to be real. It has to be serious. It has to come from that part of you that is sick and tired of chasing another buzz. It has to come from that place in your heart that is sick of being afraid; of living in fear.
So my first suggestion to the chronic relapser is to stop making excuses for themselves and make a firm decision. A decision for what? A decision to change their life.
Unless you already know the process of recovery and have experienced significant clean time in sobriety before, then this decision will likely involve asking others for help. If you rely only on your own devices in early recovery, then you will probably end up sabotaging your own efforts, and wind up drunk again.
Quit only for yourself – trying to quit for the sake of others will only sabotage your efforts
You have to quit for yourself.
Now most of us have heard of this concept, and we probably believe it on the surface. But deep down, most of us believe that we have the ability to motivate ourselves based on external forces. For example, we know that we love our spouse or our families, so we have this belief hidden in the back of our minds that “surely we can change our lives in order to stop from destroying our family.”
Of course, with addiction, this is not necessarily true. Quitting drugs or alcohol for another person does not really work. Even if it aligns very closely with our values, and we very much want to please our friends and families, we ultimately have to deal with our own addiction while living in our own skin. Even though we want to be loyal to our family, the alcohol is too powerful for us–too seductive to be denied. Eventually we cave in to our desire to self medicate, in spite of our best intentions.
I learned this lesson twice in my life. The first time was in trying to quit drugs and alcohol, when my family desperately wanted me to change. I wished that things were different too, but I was still too scared to face life without self medicating. So I made a half hearted attempt to ask for help and ended up falling short. I did not want to keep hurting my family, but I was too scared to face reality without booze. The alcohol won that round handily.
The second time I learned this lesson was when I had been clean and sober for a few years and I thought that I should quit smoking cigarettes. Everyone who knew me and loved me told me that I should really quit smoking, and deep down, I knew it too. But I just didn’t want it at the time. I tried to convince myself that I wanted to, but it never worked out. I continued to smoke until one day, I looked down at a lit cigarette and said to myself “I am SO sick of these things.”
Again, I had to want it for myself. I had to want to quit, deep down, in that place inside of myself that was just so sick and tired. This is not a surface level issue. This is not a surface level decision.
See, there is a difference between “wishing things were different” and actually “wanting to quit.”
When you are trapped in addiction and you wish that things were different, that is just living in fantasy. There is no real motivation there.
But when you actually get sick and tired and decide that you really do want to quit, that is when you invite real change into your life. Now you are ready to quit with all of the nasty consequences that come along with it. Because now you don’t even care. You are so sick of drinking or smoking or whatever that you will endure any pain or discomfort to be rid of it.
Arrive at this point of misery, and you are ready to change your life for the better.
And realize that when you arrive at this point, you do so on your own. You will change for you, and no one else. If you can change for someone else, then it was never really a true addiction.
Quit for yourself or you will just run in circles, sabotaging your own efforts to try and be sober.
Mentally prepare yourself to take massive action in your life
So what can you do in order to achieve this sort of change in your life?
You want to be clean and sober, and reap all of these wonderful benefits of recovery. You want to live a good life and have healthy relationships, start challenging yourself with meaningful goals, and maybe even help others in their recovery. But how do you transition to that point?
How do you go from being stuck in a cycle of endless relapse, to this healthy position of stability in sobriety?
The key is in taking action. Lots of action.
If you take some action, you will probably fail. If you make small changes, you will probably fail. If you make lots of changes but do not sustain them for very long, you will probably fail.
No, the key to getting to this awesome new life in recovery is to make massive changes. They are actually onto something when they say in traditional recovery programs that “you have to change everything” in order to recover. This much is true. Your whole life will change if you are successful in your recovery.
So what does this mean? What does it mean for you?
It means that you need to make massive changes in your life, and that takes massive amounts of action.
You have 2 options at this point. You can either take massive action and start making big changes in your life, or you can psych yourself up and mentally prepare yourself to do so. Either way, you have to make big changes if you want your life to get better.
Special note: There really is only ONE thing that you have to mentally prepare yourself for in order to get a successful start in recovery. There really is only 1 critical piece to all this, and the rest of it you could potentially ignore and still do fine. And that is this:
You must committ fully to the new you. One hundred percent. Everything else is flexible and up for debate. But you must mentally make this adjustment in your head, that you are 100 percent committed to changing your life. That your new sobriety is by far the most important thing in your life.
Stop and think about it:
Is your world crumbling because of alcohol? Is your life falling apart because of your drinking?
Are you on a path that will ultimately destroy you if you continue to drink?
As alcoholics, we use all sorts of mental gymnastics to convince ourselves that other things in our lives may be important as well. But what I am telling you is this: you have to block everything out for a while, and really focus on this one truth:
Your sobriety is the most importnat thing in your life. Period.
I have seen people in recovery relapse over and over again because they put other things in front of their sobriety.
Your family, your religion, your health. These are all important things, and they may even be precious to you. But if you want to stay sober, then you must put them behind your sobriety.
“Blasphemous!” my friend said once. “God always comes first!”
He got drunk. He got drunk because he had too much pride in religion, and in his own connection with his higher power, and it cost him in the end.
True humility in recovery is knowing that we need to put our sobriety first, in order to be helpful to anyone else (or in order to serve your higher power, if you want to put it that way).
So how do you mentally prepare yourself for massive action?
You do it by making a firm decision, one that says “My sobriety is the most important thing in my life today, and I will do anything to protect it.” Period.
Use the concept of the zero tolerance policy
What is the Zero Tolerance Policy?
It is an agreement that you make with yourself. You make it after you have done the mental preperation that I talked about earlier in this article.
The zero tolerance policy is a mental device. Before you can use it, you have to increase your awareness.
You see, most of us have been drinking for a long time. We did it automatically. We had certain triggers that led us to take our next drink, without even thinking sometimes.
In order to use a zero tolerance policy, we have to develop a keen awareness of our triggers.
For example, say that you are driving down the road, and your eye spots a neon sign on a party store that simply says “liquor.”
Your brain perks up and suddenly thinks about the brand of booze that you used to drink. Without you giving permission, it suddenly conjures up a few sensory details, and you may even remember what the alcohol tasted like.
This can all happen in a few seconds.
Now if you are not being vigilant with yourself, you might allow your mind to drift into reminiscing about the good times that you had with that alcoholic beverage. This is so easy to do, and it happens so fast that it can be difficult to stop it.
Now here is the key: if you allow that quick trigger to turn into a trip down memory lane, you will eventually relapse because of it.
Not today. Not right now you will not relapse. Maybe not even this month or this year. But if you do not learn how to shut that little thought down, it will make you miserable, and eventually you will drink over it.
The trigger–seeing the liquor sign–is not preventable. I am not cautioning against that. You will always see liquor signs. That is the not the problem.
The problem comes in when you allow yourself to reminisce a bit. When you allow your mind to drift back to the good memories. When you allow yourself to romance the idea of drinking.
You cannot do that. You must increase your awareness and shut it down the second that you notice it start to happen.
How do you do this? Simple. You just do it. Notice it.
Notice yourself remembering the good times, and shut it down. This is your “zero tolerance policy” that you now have with yourself. You simply do not allow yourself to “go there.”
Yes, we all have good memories of when drinking was fun. But that is not reality anymore. We became miserable. And if we go back to drinking, we will become miserable again. So do not allow yourself to mentally remember the good times with drinking while blocking out the bad. This is dangerous, and will get your drunk if you keep doing it.
That is why you have to shut it down when you notice it, immediately.
Do not beat yourself up if you find yourself being triggered over and over again. But stay vigilant when it comes to “switching it off.” Don’t allow yourself the “luxury” of reminiscing over the good times you had with alcohol. If you do, you will not be able to maintain sobriety.
Forget social accountability and instead set up an elaborate reward system for yourself
This is a technique that I learned after I was sober, but was trying desperately to quit smoking cigarettes. I know that it works, as I tested it on myself with great results.
What happened was that I thought that the key to overcoming nicotine addiction was to buddy up with someone and support each other in our quit.
So I kept finding friends and other people in recovery who smoked, and asked them if they wanted to quit smoking with me. “We will help each other, keep each other accountable,” I suggested.
Many people took me up on this offer. They wanted to quit too.
But the idea was a horrible failure. In all cases, neither of us was ever able to quit smoking for any length of time. We always both relapsed.
Instead of giving each other support, we became the other’s excuse to relapse ourselves. They smoked, so why shouldn’t I?
Now if you are in AA meeting, then social accountability becomes a more powerful tool, because there are so many more people involved, many who actually will achieve their goal. But should we rely on this? Should we rely on the sobriety of others and their support in order to maintain our own recovery? That is what I was learning about when I finally quit smoking cigarettes for good.
What I learned is that when you quit smoking, you ultimately quit alone. Sure, we can get support, help, and advice from others in our recovery. But resisting a cigarette and fighting my way through wicked nicotine cravings was an intensely personal experience. I realized in some of those darkest moments that no one could really do this for me, or even help me through it. I was miserable and almost in tears from wanting to smoke so badly, and it was my own personal battle. Trying to drag others into this battle, even in the form of helpful support, was not helping me. All it did was give me an excuse to relapse.
No, what I learned when I finally kicked cigarettes for good was that it really was all up to me. It was all my battle. And so, after trying many, many different ways to quit smoking, I finally succeeded.
How did I do it? Well for one, I did it by truly quitting for myself. But I also did something else: I set up a reward system for myself.
Looking back, I think this was brilliant. I gave myself every opportunity to be happy with a new nicotine-free life. What I did was to save up money for a few months, and I planned my quit day about 3 months in advance.
I budgeted to have plenty of extra spending money with which to reward myself with. I set no limits, no restrictions at all.
I said to myself “Here is an extra 500 dollars to play with this week. Do not worry about diet, exercise, eating healthy, weight gain, or any of that. Just don’t smoke no matter what, and spend your reward money however you see fit. You are quitting smoking, you are going to make it work no matter what, and this 500 bucks is your reward for doing it.”
After years of trying to use other people to hold me accountable, I finally was able to conquer cigarettes by simply celebrating my new life of freedom. I planned for success and I gave myself permission to splurge on myself. It worked.
I have heard people complain: “I don’t have the money to do that!”
Then save it. I did. I made a decision to get radical, and I put in the discipline to make it happen. I planned well in advance and I saved up my reward money.
If you want something bad enough, why wouldn’t you wait a few months for it?
Why wouldn’t you plan for it?
Make positive changes, then reward yourself for it. An easy technique that is rarely taken advantage of.
Avoid engaging in fantasy or romancing the idea of a drink
As mentioned previously, this is absolutely critical, and thus bears repeating: you cannot allow yourself, under any circumstances, to “romance” the idea of taking a drink.
Doing so only leads to misery.
The way that this works is very subtle, and we can fool ourselves into thinking that we are actually enjoying our little trip down memory lane. It is easy and natural for us to remember the good times. Our brains are wired that way to begin with–to minimize the painful memories, and focus on the fun times.
The way to avoid this is to increase your awareness (notice quickly when you start romancing the idea of taking a drink) and then shut it down immediately. Refer to this as your “zero tolerance policy” and start practicing your use of it.
Now we can take this a step further in your recovery and recognize that fantasy of this nature almost always makes us miserable, even if we are not dreaming of the good times we had with alcohol or drugs. No, even if you are engaging in fantasy about other things in your life, you will notice eventually that such fantasies–while offering some hope to you–also make you miserable.
This is not to say that you cannot have dreams. You most certainly can have them, and you should. But you should learn to decide what is actionable, and start taking actions, rather than to simply replay old fantasies in your head.
As an example, I recognized at one point that I was longing to be free of my day job. I wanted to start a business, and find real freedom in my life, and be able to help other addicts and alcoholics in a way that was truly meaningful for me.
I wanted this so badly, and at the same time, I felt stuck and helpless in my day job.
So I had this fantasy where I had started my own business, and it become successful. Maybe it was my own rehab, or perhaps it was an intervention service, or whatever. But I enjoyed picturing this new business, and having it become a success.
Well, this was pure fantasy. At the time, I was not taking any action, other than to dream about it. Over and over again.
Eventually, it sort of made me miserable. I slowly realized that nothing was going to change, unless I changed it.
And so, as painful as it seemed at the time, I started taking actions. I explored some business models, and started exploring ways in which I could reach out to other alcoholics. This was not as much fun as fantasizing about owning a successful business.
No, actually putting in some effort and doing the work and struggling to build a business was not as much fun as dreaming about being successful. But you know what? It got me out of my fantasy, and I slowly started to achieve my goal. Instead of living in fantasy, I was building my future, and slowly achieving something real.
You can dream. There is no problem with having a goal, a vision, or even just wishes for your future life. But once you nail those dreams down, start taking action towards them. You will be infinitely happier then when you are stuck with only a fantasy future in your mind.
Fantasy is not a problem. Your vision for the future is not a problem. But if you play it in your head, over and over, without taking action….then it becomes a problem.
Success in recovery almost always comes from taking action, rather than from obsessive thinking.
Don’t feed power into your cravings
So what happens when you are practicing all of the ideas here, and you are abstaining from alcohol, and in spite of your best efforts, you find yourself craving a drink anyway?
What do you do then, when you are practicaly climbing the walls, desperately wanting a drink?
There are a couple of options here, and you might have to experiment. The main principle that you want to keep in mind is not to feed more power into the craving.
Now how exactly do you feed power into your craving anyway?
There are 2 ways that this craving can basically happen: one way is with obsession, and the other way is due to isolation. This can depend quite a bit on the person and their unique personality as well.
You feed power into your craving when you let it run rampant in your mind without taking steps to shut it down.
This can be especially dangerous if your tendency is to isolate and push others away from you. If this is how you typically end up relapsing then you need to become conscious of your pattern and take steps to prevent it.
This may mean that you need to ask for help, or reach out to others. I have never been a huge fan of dependency on group meetings, but there are certainly times when interacting with others in recovery can be helpful, and even critical. You could always use online recovery forums or simply talk with others who are living a positive life as well.
But the bottom line is that if your pattern is to isolate from others when you start having cravings then you would do well to find a way to break this pattern and ask for help. How you do this is not nearly as important as the fact that you just do it. Do not allow yourself to isolate. Tell someone who understands about your cravings and how you want to drink, even though you are trying to stay sober.
Isolation may not be the problem for you but you still may be experiencing cravings for alcohol. In that case, you may want to distract yourself in a way that gives you relief from the craving.
I have personal experience in doing this through the use of exercise. This may not work for everyone but it is certainly an option.
In fact, I went through a major emotional crisis in my recovery, and at the time, I had no support network to rely on. My family was out of town, my friends were gone for the time being, and I was in a world of hurt. I probably could have called my sponsor in recovery, or gone to a meeting, but instead….I exercised.
I exercised hard. I ran twice as far as I normally was running at the time–over 12 miles. It was a crude approach, but it worked. I did not take a drink or a drug that day, or any day after that. I used the power of distraction in order to overcome a massive alcohol craving.
For me, exercise is a powerful distraction because it is physical, mental, and spiritual. Yes, exercise is a spiritual experience for me. Being outdoors, running long distances, getting into a meditative state–that is all part of a spiritual experience.
You may have a different distraction that works for you in your life. Maybe exercise is not your thing. Like I said, it might take some experimentation. You may have to explore your options. For me, exercise is powerful enough of a tool that it got me through one of the toughest emotional battles in my recovery. This is aside from the fact that regular exercise is a healthy habit and a positive action to take for a person anyway. The benefits can be difficult to pin down, but for me, they are undeniable. Regular exercise is a powerful force in my recovery.
And most importantly, I can use exercise as a tool to overcome cravings that might otherwise destroy me.
Other possible distractions that might work for you in order to conquer cravings include:
* Religion or involvement in religious communities.
* Meetings or involement in the 12 step community.
* Physical exercise or regular fitness training or sports.
* Helping others in recovery, working with struggling addicts or alcoholics in some way.
* Creative outlets, art, music, painting, etc.
And so on. There are other avenues as well, this is just a small sample of some of the positive energy that can overcome a drug or alcohol craving.
Make a plan for a better life, or borrow one from a recovery program
There are 2 basic options for your recovery. You can either:
2) Follow an existing recovery program.
My opinion: either choice is fine. But do one of them, and do it well.
If you want to make it in AA or NA or in a religious community or in group therapy or whatever, then throw yourself into it 100 percent.
I personally do not use such programs, but I am not against them, and I see that they can be successful for people who actually put real effort into them.
But realize too that you can just as easily design your own program of recovery (in the long run) and be very successful at it, so long as you put in real effort.
Here is a revelation for you: the effort needed to stay clean and sober with AA is the same as the effort needed to stay clean and sober without AA.
You can go either route, and they both require the same amount of effort on your part. If you like to do your own thing and make your own rules, I would suggest that you carve out your own path in recovery. Just realize that you are still going to have put in a lot of work, effort, blood sweat and tears and everything else into it–if you are going to make a successful new life for yourself in recovery.
No excuses – follow the zero tolerance policy and know that leads to a better life
So ultimately, these are the techniques that have worked for me, but it still comes back to that one single decision that each person has to make.
You need to get it straight in your own head that you are not going to take a drink today, no matter what. That is your agreement that you have to make with yourself in order to be successful, and that has to become the most important part of your life.
Any inkling towards relapse must be met with instant resistance in your mind. The idea of taking a drink or a drug should “make you recoil in horror, like your hand draws away from a hot flame.”
Your zero tolerance policy should be automatic. You should not have to think about it. If you have to decide whether or not you want to take a drink, you are not quite there yet. Revisit the ideas in this article and see if you can get yourself to a place mentally where you put your sobriety first in your life.
The thought of relapse should be terrifying, unthinkable, a massive red flag with warning bells going off all over your mind. Remembering the good times and the good old days of your drinking should become completely off limits. Do not allow yourself to indulge in those thoughts for even two seconds. Shut it down immediately and move on with your day.
But what about when you are miserable, and bored, and frustrated, and sick of being sober? What about when you just want to escape for a moment and indulge in the drink again? What do you tell yourself, when there is seemingly no relief on the horizon?
Here is what you tell yourself:
It gets better.
Little by little, it does get better.
Sometimes it takes a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months. But eventually it gets better.
A lot better.
In fact, if you stick it out with your sobriety, you will get to a place very quickly where you are not even thinking about taking a drink anymore. You will go an entire day without a single craving!
When the counselors told me that would happen to me, I did not believe them. I thought I was different, that I was unique, that I was the only person in the world who was a real alcoholic.
Not true….I found peace and contentment in my recovery, and this was only a few short months after quitting drinking! I thought the cravings would never subside, but they went away before I was even past the 90 day mark!
This is hope.
That you can go a whole day without cravings in just a few months or even a few weeks, that is amazing.
But you have to believe that this can happen to you, that it is possible for you, and that you can find happiness again without alcohol and drugs.
You have to give it a chance, give it some time. It takes time.
But it will happen. I promise you.
You CAN be happy again without drinking. It will happen for you, if you just stick to sobriety, and give recovery a chance to work in your life.
What are you waiting for? Come join us in the discussion forums, and get started on your new life today.