How does a recovering alcoholic learn to just say “no” to their alcoholic cravings? How can we embrace sobriety and overcome that urge to self medicate?
Let’s take a closer look at this exact process as it occurs from a mental perspective. We all have a dialogue going on in our heads, and we need to use that inner dialogue to win the war against our addiction. But how do we do that exactly?
For me, it starts with a concept known as the zero tolerance policy.
What is the zero tolerance policy?
There are two reasons that everyone needs to use this concept in overcoming their cravings.
The zero tolerance policy is a simple agreement that every struggling addict and alcoholic needs to make with themselves. The agreement is simply this:
“I don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what. Furthermore, I don’t allow myself to fantasize about getting drunk or high, ever, at all. Period. If I realize that my brain is starting to reminisce about the good old days in terms of drinking or drug use, I will notice it immediately and then redirect myself. I will NOT allow myself to indulge in this fantasy of the good old days in getting drunk or high.”
That is the agreement. Put simply it is two things:
1) I won’t drink or use drugs no matter what, and
2) I won’t allow myself to keep thinking about drinking or getting high.
That’s it. That is the whole policy. So you have identified and agreed not to tolerate those two things in your life any more, ever. Getting drunk/high, and thinking about it. Period.
If you can implement this policy and stick to it then you will do yourself a huge favor in terms of staying clean and sober. You never have to drink or use drugs again if you don’t want to, but in order to live up to that potential, you have to do some work.
Establishing this mental policy with yourself takes a bit of work.
You have to process the idea. You have to like the idea. You have to agree to implement it into your life.
So in practical terms, I still use this zero tolerance policy in my life on a day to day basis, even after being clean and sober for many years. The reason for this is because random triggers and urges still occur in my life today, and they will always be there to some extent.
Every alcoholic and drug addict has to be prepared for this–the fact that their addiction never goes away entirely. Even if you stay clean and sober for several decades, you can still be sitting there totally unprepared and all of a sudden something will trigger a craving–it could be a smell, a certain person, a memory, or just about anything. But suddenly the alcoholic can find himself thinking back to the good old days, and what it was like to get drunk or high.
And so at that moment when the brain is thinking back to the good old days of addiction, it has a decision to make. That is, your brain is going to go in one direction or the other. And the first direction it can go in is to remember the good times, it can remember the fun parts of your addiction days. Or, your brain could remember the bad times, the consequences, the depression that followed.
Here is what you need to realize: Your brain is wired to remember the good times and not the bad ones. That is an evolutionary trait, most likely. Our brain tries to help us out a bit by not remembering our past pain so vividly, and focusing on the good stuff instead. Our brain thinks that we will be happier that way, and it is right for the most part. But in the case of addiction it would be better if we only remembered the bad stuff, so that we are not doomed to repeat our mistakes.
And therefore this concept needs to be a part of your zero tolerance policy. You need to realize that your brain is working against you here. It wants to remember the good times, and your job in recovery is to not let it go there.
How do you do this? First of all you need to increase your awareness. To do that, you need to think about your thinking. Or rather, you need to simply watch your thoughts. If you are watching what your mind is doing right now, then you have vastly increased your awareness of yourself. Watch your mind. Watch your thoughts. Observe. See what is popping through your head. Do this right now. Then, make a habit of doing this all the time. “Check in” with your mind. See what it is thinking about, where the thoughts are tending to go.
Realize that you increase your power a great deal when you do this. A lab rat has racing thoughts and the animal will skitter about looking for food, shelter, comfort. You are much more highly evolved than that. You can watch your own thoughts, you can observe your own self, you can make healthy decisions that an animal could not hope to make about itself. Use your power to help you remain sober. Start watching your mind.
The 12 steps suggest that you meditate. This is watching the mind as well. If you meditate every day then you will become much more aware of your thoughts, what they are doing, what you are obsessing over lately.
The zero tolerance policy is fairly simple. You agree with yourself that you won’t relapse, period. Then you agree with yourself that you will not mentally relapse either. Meaning that you won’t allow your brain to sit there and remember all the good times in your addiction, without also “playing the tape all the way through” and getting to the misery and the consequences. In time, you should have your mind trained to automatically jump ahead to the negative consequences, to the bad part of your addiction.
There are other things that you can do for your recovery process as well. For example, you can make an agreement with yourself that you are going to take care of yourself physically, that you are going to exercise every day, get a full night of sleep, eat healthy foods, quit smoking cigarettes, and so on. You can include other things in your own version of the zero tolerance policy. But most important, I have found, is that you get these two key elements straight in your own mind, first and foremost. One is that you agree not to relapse, and two is that you agree not to think about drinking or getting high.
If you allow yourself to think about the good times then that will eventually lead to relapse. This is because your brain will compare those “good times” in the past to your current reality of being sober, and it will be angry that it cannot indulge itself with drugs and booze. Eventually this will cause you to relapse. So the key is to not allow your mind to go back to those “good old days,” not even for one second if you can help it. It is a luxury to sit there and indulge in those good memories of our addiction, and that is a luxury that the recovering alcoholic and drug addict can no longer afford. We cannot afford to sit and think about the good old days in addiction. It makes us miserable. So we have to raise our consciousness, raise our awareness, and when we notice our brain starting to think of the good old days, we have to shut it down and redirect ourselves.
That is the zero tolerance policy. Don’t relapse, and don’t allow yourself the luxury of thinking about relapse. Period.
Avoiding the “screw it” moment that precedes relapse
Right before an alcoholic or a drug addict relapses, they have this moment in their mind in which they say “screw it, I am going to just drink or get high.” They are essentially throwing caution to the wind in that moment, they are throwing up their hands, they are saying “screw everything and everyone. I am getting drunk now. I just don’t care any more.”
So how do you avoid this “screw it moment” and thus avoid relapse?
First of all, if you or another alcoholic is already at this moment of supreme frustration, then it is probably too late. If you can catch yourself at this point then do everything you can to avoid the train wreck that is relapse–call your sponsor, go to an AA meeting and tell them that you want to drink, do whatever you can. Unfortunately, 99 times out of 100 anyone who is at this point has already made the mental decision to drink or get high and there is nothing that can be done.
Therefore the solution is to avoid getting to this point in the first place. So instead of waiting until it is nearly too late and then using a tactical approach (call your sponsor, go to a meeting, etc.), we instead need to think proactively, think long term, and use a strategic plan to avoid getting here in the first place.
So what is a strategy that helps a recovering alcoholic to avoid the “screw it moment?”
The strategy that works for me, and what I see working for many others in recovery, is a holistic strategy.
So that means you need to first build a foundation. You need to get clean and sober and probably go through a detox program of some sort. I recommend inpatient treatment as a means of building this initial foundation. Rehab is not a cure by any means, but it is certainly better than nothing, and if used properly it can be the start of your new life in recovery. So while many may fail following inpatient treatment, certainly some do succeed and go on to build an amazing new life for themselves. The choice is really up to you in how bad you want it, how sick and tired of your addiction you are.
Step one, build a foundation. Get clean and sober. Seek professional help. Go to treatment, get a fresh start. This is the most powerful way to kick start your sobriety.
But it’s not enough. That is just a beginning. Your recovery journey lasts for an entire lifetime, and there is much more work to be done.
Some people are under the false impression that the moment that they walk of a 28 day rehab program they are entirely cured. This is false. They are nowhere near being cured. What they have now is a foundation on which they must now build a new life. They have a lot of work yet to do.
That work is the rest of my suggested strategy for you. One can leave rehab and start going to AA meetings and get a sponsor in AA and work through the 12 steps. That is one suggested path of recovery, and it is one that may or may not potentially work for you. It works for some, not for all. It is one option.
There are other options. You can create your own path in recovery, though from all observations this is probably the most difficult route to go. Understand that there are certain fundamental principles in recovery that you are going to get from the AA or NA program and the 12 steps. If you avoid the 12 step program and manage to find a way to stay clean and sober, you will still be using those fundamental principles in order to recover. What are those principles, you ask? Things like surrender, faith, hope, working on character defects, fixing those defects, eliminating selfishness and finding gratitude, and so on.
In other words, you can get clean and sober without a formal program of recovery such as AA and NA. But if you do, you will still be employing many of the same fundamental concepts. This is similar to the idea that “all religions end at the same place” or something to that effect (did the Buddha say that?) Everyone has to surrender if they want to overcome alcoholism. This is not fundamental to AA, it is fundamental to sobriety itself. You cannot get sober unless you surrender, get out of your own way, and allow a new solution into your life. The old solution was alcohol. Your new solution has to be something else. You have to become open to that, and the process of doing so involves surrender. This is fundamental to recovery. You can’t avoid this concept and still sober up.
So the holistic approach involves your overall health in recovery. First of all you lay down that foundation of sobriety, hopefully by going to treatment. Now you leave treatment and you have to rebuild your life and become a healthy person.
The decision to be sober is a decision towards greater health. If it wasn’t, then why not just keep drinking? You quit for a reason. That reason involves your health. You want to live, you want to be healthy, you want to be happy.
So how do you become healthy and happy in sobriety. One, you stay clean and sober. Don’t relapse. That will screw everything up. Hence, the zero tolerance policy. Second of all, you need to take care of yourself every single day, on a number of different levels.
What are these different levels? That is the holistic part. Holistic just means “whole person.” So in traditional recovery you will notice that they focus very heavily on the spiritual part of the program. This is not enough, in my opinion. The reason it is not enough is that spirituality, while important, is just one slice of the whole pie.
What are the other slices? Physical health, emotional health, mental health, and social health (relationships). Without those pieces of the pie in place, your sobriety will tend to suffer.
Or to put it more accurately, if you are not taking care of yourself in all of those ways, then there is a greater potential for relapse.
I slowly figured this out while I was living in long term treatment, at the beginning of my sobriety journey.
The way I discovered it was by watching other people try to recover. I watched the drug addicts and alcoholics who were all around me, who were trying to recover for themselves. My peers.
Here is what threw me off: I had a close friend in recovery who I considered to be more spiritual than I was. In fact, I looked up to this person as if he were a spiritual adviser to me. I was in awe of his wisdom and knowledge. I really looked up to him. I though to myself: “If only I could be as spiritual as he was, then I would be more assured of my own sobriety.”
Well, this person relapsed. And I remained sober. And then, ten years later, I realized that I was still sober, and this person was still going in and out of treatment, struggling to find any amount of sobriety.
And so that made me pause and rethink what I believed. The program had taught me that the solution was spiritual. But that wasn’t what I was seeing.
The solution was bigger than that. The real solution in recovery was more than just spiritual. It was holistic.
I had another friend in recovery who got sick. He was overweight and continued to smoke cigarettes. But he had been sober for many years and he shared great things in AA meetings and he was well liked.
But he died quite young, and the reason he is gone is because he did not embrace a holistic approach. He had the spiritual solution in place, but he was not taking care of his physical body.
And so as I remained sober through the years and continued to watch my peers, I slowly realized that the right strategy for sobriety was a holistic strategy.
Every day, you need to wake up and ask yourself: How can I take better care of myself today physically? Mentally? Emotionally? Spiritually? Socially?
And I think we need to push ourselves a bit. Notice where the chaos is at in your life. Then take steps to fix that chaos. Your life should be peaceful. You deserve peace. Do the work to insure that you get the peace that you deserve.
The chaos may be self inflicted. I suffered from self pity, for example. I had to put the zero tolerance policy in place on that one.
Other chaos in your life may come from others, from the outside. You need to manage that chaos as well. Set boundaries. Rebuild your life to include peace, to eliminate drama.
Internal and external changes. The 12 steps of AA deal mostly with the internal changes, with your character defects. But you may also need to make some external changes as well, and eliminate certain people, places, and things from your life.
What you can do if your cravings don’t go away
If your cravings continue then you need to take action. This is a huge red flag. Something must change.
In the most extreme example you need inpatient rehab. Go check yourself in somewhere. Get on the phone. Get help.
In a lessor example you may just need to reach out–go to a meeting, call your sponsor, share where you are at. Be honest. Don’t try to save face, don’t hide your cravings. Tell people that you really want to drink. They will do everything that they can to help you through it.
If you don’t share where you are at then no one can help you.
If you can’t get to AA meetings, you might consider an online meeting, as in the discussion forums here at Spiritual River.