Almost everyone I’ve spoken to in recovery started out by asking themselves these five questions:
- Am I Really an Alcoholic?
We have this idea that there are two kinds of drinkers: the good people who can handle it and the bad people who lose control and become alcoholics. No one wants to cross the line and join the losing team. No one is excited about a new identity that carries enormous social stigma and shame. The notion alone kept me drinking long after I knew something was wrong. I didn’t want to wear that label, and anyway how could I be the “A” word? I was successful and happy, not miserable and screwed up. I just needed to get my nightly wine habit under control (whatever that meant).
To quit drinking simply makes us “non-drinkers”, not necessarily “alcoholics”. Forget labels, diagnosis, teams, categories, or stereotypes.
The underlying question is really, “Is it really necessary for me to give up alcohol entirely?” Going back to the idea of good drinkers/bad drinkers, most of us connect abstinence with addiction and resist it because it carries an identity of shame.
Some common advice is this: If you’re not sure whether or not you need to quit drinking, try moderating. Put it in writing (“I will only drink on Friday nights, and I will stop after two drinks” or “I will not exceed weekly guidelines for healthy drinking”) and see how that goes. Some people in successful recovery may roll their eyes at this point, some will chuckle knowingly, and some will nod sadly. That’s because almost all of us tried it ourselves – multiple times – and failed repeatedly. That’s why we had to quit, because we couldn’t moderate.
Generally speaking, people who don’t have a problem with drinking alcohol also don’t have a problem with NOT drinking alcohol. So if sticking to a written intention is un-doable, then it is likely that the best outcome will result from abstinence.
- Do I Have to Quit Forever?
Many of us have heard that alcohol addiction is for life; it doesn’t go away and can’t be healed, only managed as a chronic condition. The general consensus is that life-long abstinence is best, and that can be an overwhelming prospect at first.
Focus on today, not forever. I am not always a fan of 12-step slogans, but I can attest to the wisdom of “one day at a time” and “just for today” and “easy does it”.
Anyone who has gotten to the point where alcohol seems to be taking over daily life (my experience) or has become a dangerous unpredictable force (such as occasional but extreme black-out binges) needs peace and freedom from the negative relationship with alcohol. The easiest way to achieve that is to take it day by day, moment by moment, until some new healthier habits start to form. It does get easier.
Another slogan I find helpful when the concept of “forever” seems impossible is “Just do the next right thing.”
If recovery slogans put you off, there are plenty of old corny jokes with the same message:
“How do you eat an elephant?” (One bite at a time!)
- How Do I Know When I Have Hit “Rock Bottom”?
Hey guess what? Rock bottom is not a prerequisite for recovery! The only requirement is motivation. If you are inspired to quit drinking before it destroys your life, then you are among the lucky ones. Your challenge will be to stay motivated and maintain the drive.
Unfortunately, “rock bottom” is a stereotype that is perpetuated by virtue of its visibility. When someone in our community or a high-profile newsmaker is out of control, we are all witness to the evidence and curiosity keeps us following their journey through disaster to (we hope) recovery. The media prints graphic photos of the hot-mess-of-the-month, then updates us on subsequent court proceedings, incarceration or rehab, and hints at a triumphant return to great heights. Movies are not made about the soccer mom that quietly switches to tea and blogs anonymously. Where’s the drama? Where’s the hook? Still, it is an equally common reality.
Once addiction takes hold, it rarely seems to self-resolve. The normal pattern for addiction is that it only gets worst until the pattern is stopped. Rock bottom looms as the ultimate destination, but it is possible to get off the ride at any time. For those who are either oblivious their problem’s momentum, or not able to stop for whatever reason (social, physical, economic, and/or mental circumstances), it may not be possible to muster sufficient motivation to quit drinking until something catastrophic occurs that removes all other options.
- Will I Have to Go to Meetings?
There are many different pathways to recovery. In addition to Alcoholics Anonymous, programs such as SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Life Ring, and Celebrate Recovery offer alternative group methods. I have many friends who attend meetings and absolutely love them.
Another option is to self-manage your own recovery, drawing from a combination of materials and philosophies of different pathways. The drawback to this method is that it is easy to remain isolated, and I’ve learned that there is true JOY in spending time with other people who understand what it’s like to go through these changes. I strongly suggest that anyone who tries getting sober on their own reach out and look for ways to create a support network. Being connected to other people also helps to keep you accountable, gives an outlet to celebrate small victories, or a safe place to seek advice. Check out Mrs. D’s new Living Sober community, join the Booze Free Brigade online support group (not just for parents, as the intro page suggests), or check out Belle’s 100 Day Challenge.
To quit drinking without attending a program or meetings – sometimes referred to as “white knuckling it” – is often dismissed critically, usually those who see it as a rejection of a program they love dearly. Many suggest it is a sure recipe for failure. I can tell you that I have 3 years and 8 months of solid sobriety without ever joining a program. The difference between a “white knuckle” approach and good recovery, in my humble opinion, is the willingness to go beyond abstinence and dig into exploring the dark recesses of the mind and heart that felt the urgent need to numb and escape. That is where true recovery originates, and it is not an easy process. Unearthing old wounds, changing self-awareness and understanding, developing new ways to address and express pain, identifying resentments and healing them, creating better ways of thinking and interacting with ourselves and others – these are goals of recovery that steps, therapy, and behaviour modification programs are all working towards. THAT is the work of recovery, and THAT is where things really get better after the alcohol is out of the picture. How you attain them – through a program or on your own – is your choice.
PS – The only people who “have to” go to meetings are those who are court-ordered.
- Should I Go Away to Rehab?
There is no easy answer to this. I have heard from some people who voluntarily went to rehab and loved the experience. I expect that they were already highly motivated to make a change, and might have succeeded with or without treatment. Some others I know went to rehab as a result of a low bottom experience or intervention and had no other options (perhaps because the court, an employer, or family members demanded they attend). Again, motivation and willingness can determine whether or not treatment will be effective, and if rehab is a positive experience.
Even if rehab isn’t absolutely “necessary” – I considered it but got sober without treatment – it is a possibility worth exploring.
Medical detox should also be looked into, because alcohol withdrawal can be extremely dangerous for some. Most of us remember movies like Trainspotting and think that withdrawal from hard drugs must be life-threatening because it is so horrific. In fact, the only two withdrawals that can cause death are (surprisingly!) alcohol and benzodiazepines. I am not an expert so I won’t dispense advice except to suggest researching Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) and decide what is best for you. Most of us are scared to tell our doctors about our alcohol struggles, but that is truly a great starting point. It is time to get honest.
To hear some first-hand accounts of rehab and PAWS, check out these episodes of the Bubble Hour: