How I Knew It Was Time to Quit Drinking

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?”

Unpickled author Jean
Happy and free in life after alcohol

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.

Red Flags

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?

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1,313 comments

  1. I have just found this site and oh my, every one of those red flags applies to me! I started a private blog 4 years ago and update it most days with how I’ve tried and failed yet again to stop drinking 2 bottles (yes bottles!) of wine a night between 6 and 11 p.m. And apart from a 2 month period before lockdown I’ve failed miserably. Lockdown anxiety ruined my success in March and I’m back to square one – I can’t moderate and because I am good at handling alcohol and never feel too ill or get sick I feel as though I can just carry on. It’s all or nothing. In my blog I detail how fantastic I feel when not drinking, how I lose weight, look better, save money and feel healthier but every day at 5 pm. I dash out for the 2 bottles I promised I wouldn’t have. Tonight, instead, I am going to read through your blog posts. Wish me well. Ailsa

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    • I found you by accident after a night of being a very nasty drinker once again…I am in the contemplation stage with most of those red flags waving quite vigorously in front of my face. I find myself reading more and more of the articles and responses on here. Even showing my poor forgiving husband the post that blessed nine wrote and he said yes that is you. Baby steps right now…but finding strength

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  2. Hi Jean
    Day one today of my eighth year without a drink. I think reading back on your red flags I would have to say that there is hope when one starts reading blogs and watching rehab shows on TV. It means that you are realizing that you have big problem. It amazes me when I see my siblings continuing to consume many drinks each night without shame or concern. There are people like them who will never seek out a blog. I searched through many sober blogs before I found Unpickled. For me my hidden bottles and obsessing about my supply was pretty much my rock bottom. The hole got deeper and deeper as my deceptive behavior alienated those people closest to m. Using this blog as a “sponsor” pulled me out of that hole. I felt like that there were anonymous people like me from the other side the world supporting me. I don’t miss the drinking. I am now the most dependable grandmother/ wife and mother. Strong and constant. Thanks Jean and all my fellow unpicked friends.

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  3. 4 years sober tonight. This blog post was the first thing I read on day 1 and it was very inspiring. Thanks for writing it and good luck to everyone out there struggling and surviving.

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  4. This is literally like looking in the mirror. I can’t seem to stop drinking every day and it is getting more and more. I can’t remember the last time I went 24 hours without alcohol. I’m going mad with doom and guilt about my health. I NEED to do something. But I don’t want to quit completely. Do you think it’s possible to cut down? Or maybe I need to stop completely….

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    • It sounds like you’ve been trying to cut back and can’t, which is usually a good indicator that it would be better to stop altogether. Honestly, none is easier than some. There’s a ton of resources available to help you make your decision and get started. Check my resources page in this site. Read “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace. Listen to The Bubble Hour for stories of how others have done it. Dig in. Learn all you can. You can take your power back.

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    • Please be careful. I was in your same situation and when I decided it was enough and quit cold turkey I got pretty sick. I had never heard of Delirium Tremens before but I know all about it now. I got through it fine but I should have checked myself into a voluntary treatment facility. Be safe and make this your Day 1. You can do this! I’m 4 years sober and every day I get a feeling of euphoria when I think about what I’ve accomplished.

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  5. Day one again for me. Started reading your blog this weekend from the beginning. I relate to each red flag. I’m tired and need to move from the preparation to the action stage. I’m also overwhelmed yet grateful for all the resources out there. I’m having a hard time figuring out what would be the best support group for me. I’m a private person but realize I can’t do this alone.

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    • Hi Deb, I’m sober with you today. Have you thought about working with a recovery coach? It’s a new tool that seems to be super effective to help get the ball rolling. Most offer a free call to see if it feels like a fit, and they usually use video calls so they can connect from anywhere. So that’s one avenue to consider. If you message me via Facebook on the UnPickled page, I can help you find some of the inline support groups as well. Be gentle with yourself today.

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  6. I can identify with every single one of those red flags. Every.Single.One. Ten days ago I said enough is enough. Praying as I make it through this early days.

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  7. Day 1…of my 5th year sober! After many false starts, on January 1, 2015 I quit drinking for good. This website was my “sponsor,” my inspiration and my support group because I too secretly quit drinking. This particular blog entry hit home with me and got me on the road to recovery. I don’t think anyone realized I was getting out of control as I was high functioning and never missed a day of work (albeit some days I felt like crap until noon). I had my drinking buddies but since I drank the least out of the group(!!), no one realized I was headed for trouble. I never hit rock bottom but I was certainly circling the drain. I quit cold-turkey and have never looked back. My life has improved in so many ways and although in the beginning some days were a real struggle to get through, I made it. Am I still tempted? Once in a while I wish I could be like “normal people” and have a glass of wine but I know I cannot control it. I am way too proud of the person I’ve become to ever go back to hangovers and hating myself. If you are reading this and are also looking at the new year as an opportunity for a fresh start without alcohol, I encourage you to do it. Use this website for support. Read and re-read all the entries for encouragement-that’s what got me through. You can do this.

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  8. I have been going about this for years. Always claiming a day one. Over and over…the cylcle… the pattern…daily regret in the morning (actually all day) the afternoon voice…the decision. Lately I have been reading nonstop about sobriety, listening to the Bubble Hour, even journaling. This morning I woke up and read your blog questioning if you were terminally I’ll would you go back to drinking? It shot through me like a lightning bolt…what if I were to to die ( we all are!) And I never had that taste of sobriety. Always saying tomorrow but then tomorrow isn’t there? Scared me so much. Made me so sad. I had 5 months of sobriety a couple years ago and loved it. It was VERY hard at times but I was calm and clear and full of energy. So here goes day one for me. Say a prayer. I am.

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    • Ok my friend, you’ve been prayed for this morning. Your eagerness to take your life back and live it fully will serve you well. Life without alcohol clears space for abundance, new experiences, happiness on new levels, profound sadness that can tolerated and healed, and growth. Lean hard on whatever you need to get through the witching hour – podcasts, ice cream, naps – and if you can try going to a recovery meeting (AA, Refuge Recovery, SMART Recovery) or book into a therapist or look into a recovery coach. You are not alone, there are millions of people living alcohol free who would love to help you. Message me via the UnPickled Facebook page if you need help finding resources. I am cheering for you.

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      • Went back to AA last night. This isn’t easy right now, but it sure is the right thing. I knew that if I didn’t step through the threshold nothing would change. If nothing changes, then nothing changes. I will need to make a lot of changes, but each one prayerfully considered will lead to freedom. Onward!

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  9. Today is my day one. I just texted my husband and said I’m not going to drink tonight. I’d appreciate your support.

    We’re both compulsive and from large families of compulsive people. Different areas of focus: some drink, some gamble, some try to control others, some smoke excessively, some do prescription medications – a couple are normal.

    We’ve been together 37 years in October – married 34. I didn’t grow up in a house where drinking was the norm on a daily basis. People would drink at BBQs but no one drank daily. I didn’t have my first drink until I was 18: on graduation night. However, from there I made up for lost time and I’m thankful I lived through some of those early college days and I didn’t hurt anyone else.

    In college I met my husband. He is a wonderful man and he grew up with a father who did drink nightly. So, when we got together and settled down, i also settled into the nightly routine of drinking wine. It was so easy to start and I’ve just never stopped. I don’t think I drink to relieve stress – its just a habit, a routine. However as others have noted so is the routine of feeling horrible, embarrassed, unhealthy every day…

    So here we are now. I’ve called myself blessed because I am – we both are. God has blessed us with each other, two terrific kids (now adults), good health, good careers and prosperity. However, in the midst of all that we’re alcoholics – we each drink one to 1.5 bottles of wine each night. When I binge, it can be more…

    He’s a mellow drunk. He’ll drink his wine, eat one chocolate and go to bed. I, on the other hand, am a mean drunk. After my wine, i will typically find someone to fight with: him, my kids, my siblings, friends, workmates, TV call in shows – anyone.

    I’ve managed to hurt and embarrass myself, the kids, the families, the friends. Again, I’m blessed because they keep forgiving me. But I must stop. I must stop for them and I must stop for me. I’m squandering all the blessings I’ve been given. I feel like I’m just throwing those back in God’s face and I don’t want that. I don’t want to lose it all.

    I went to one AA meeting and when I introduced myself, I summed it up this way: if I were to draw a line on page and put all those things I’m glad for one one side and all the things I regret on the other, every single regret is somehow associated with wine, every single one…

    I’m glad I found your site and am going to continue to follow and read. Thank you for helping people li