If there is one question I am most asked about living alcohol-free, it is “How did you know it was time to quit drinking?”
Only occasionally is this question asked with dancing eyes that reveal a quest for titillation: I want to hear every detail of rock bottom. If I sense that is the motive, I generally let them down easy: I was the most boring alcoholic ever – I have no stories of catastrophe. I just knew I was losing control and needed to take charge.
More often it is asked with genuine interest, either because someone would like to know me better or is trying to understand addiction better for personal reasons. Sincere questions deserve honest answers.
I have been reading about the “transtheoretical model of behaviour change” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transtheoretical_model) and I can easily see how it correlates to my journey. In short, it identifies various stages of decision-making and behaviour changes as such:
- Precontemplation (not ready) – in my case, using wine as a daily antidote for stress and anxiety; enjoying the relief it brought; feeling very comfortable with my routine and experiencing no negative thoughts or consequences.
- Contemplation (getting ready) – I began to feel an acknowledgement and growing discomfort with the reality of my habits. I started to pay attention to the red flags (see below). I began watching Celebrity Rehab with intense focus (while drinking).
- Preparation (ready) – I got up the courage to assess my drinking patterns online (I used http://rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov) and received confirmation that I needed to make changes. I started trying to quit and failed each day. I took no steps to make myself accountable and did not reach out for help, but these initial unsuccessful efforts confirmed my worst fears. Not only could I not quit, but also not moderate or reduce. Throughout this stage, my intake instead steadily escalated and I began to realize where this was headed.
- Action (initiating change) – for me, this was speaking honestly to a friend, starting this blog, and reaching out to the online community for help and support. I threw myself into the task at hand and little by little made it through each difficult day.
- Maintenance (supporting the change) – I guess this is where I am at now – you could call this ongoing recovery. This is a great place to be and many recovery advocates say the goal should be to engage in this phase forever.
- Termination (completion of change) – remembering that the transtheoretical model of behaviour change is not about recovery specifically, there comes an end point where the change is complete and the new behaviours are effortless and normal. There are different schools of thought in the recovery community as to whether or not one can ever end the process. Some pathways teach that if you stop going to meetings and working their program you’ll either start drinking again or fall into the miserable life of a “dry drunk”. Some pathways encourage striving for a point of supported closure on the change – which does not mean it is possible to start drinking again normally but rather that you can go forward as a “non-drinker” and be done with it. I don’t take a position on this – at this point it doesn’t matter to me because I have a lot of work still to do and see myself in the maintenance phase for many years to come.
So what were those red flags for me? It wasn’t any one single “big” thing that led me to change; it was the accumulation of little things. Here are some I recall:
- Unable to stop drinking daily
- Unable to reduce or limit amount
- Drinking alone
- Shame about bottles in recycling bin
- Hiding extra alcohol in cupboard
- Continual concern about having enough alcohol on hand
- Obsessive awareness of alcohol at every event – planning when and how to get in the “right” amount to get through the evening while still managing to drive sober to and from events, and appear “normal” to the outside world
- Becoming very agitated when unplanned changes disrupted my pattern – specifically I recall a friend dropping by and my husband poured her a glass of wine. I began to panic knowing that it meant there would not be enough to get me through the evening. I secretly drank shots of scotch before bed to compensate. I felt guilty about resenting my friend for visiting unannounced.
- Spending the last hour of work each day deciding if I would stick to my plan of quitting drinking or stop at a liquor store on the way home, all the while knowing I would certainly pick up more wine.
- Rotating stores because I was embarrassed of buying wine every day, but never buying more too much at once because I was planning to quit “tomorrow”.
- Finding out that my drinking habits fell into the “high risk” and “heavy drinking” categories. I knew my drinking was only increasing, never declining, and I was running out of categories. Next stop: rock bottom. No thanks.
Now what about you, readers? Do you recognize yourself in the stages of behaviour changes? What were your red flags, and was it many little things or one big incident that initiated your decision to live alcohol-free?