There is a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain that says: “Giving up smoking is easy … I’ve done it hundreds of times”. I know that this common feeling is shared not only by many people who were smokers but also by all of those who have tried many times to either cut back on their alcohol use or quit drinking altogether.
On a logical level, quitting drinking is actually a very simple task to achieve, you just have to stop doing it, stop buying it or simply declining it when someone is offering it to you. Usually a “No, thank you” will suffice. By the way, I said “simple”, not “easy”, they are two different concepts. On a practical level, stopping doing something is also far less complicated than start to do something. As a matter of fact, starting a new activity usually requires more effort because we need to engage in new tasks, create new habits and new connections in our brain that were not there before.
In order to elaborate on this concept, let’s put the alcohol on a shelf for a moment and let’s think about something else that one can stop doing. Let’s entertain the idea that you want to stop eating bread because you have found out that you are gluten intolerant. You really love bread, but you know that it’s not a good match for your body and it makes you feel uncomfortable in your own skin after you’ve eaten it. So, what you would do is just stop buying it. As easy as that. You might feel a bit sad at the beginning, because you enjoy eating it, and you will find it hard to break this habit because you are used to buying it as it’s a staple food in your household. You know exactly in which aisle of the supermarket you can find it, you’ve been going there for a long time, or maybe you have a special baking shop that sells your favourite fresh loaf. It almost seems like you don’t have to think about it and you already have it in your hands when you get to the cash till. In the first few days you’ve made your decision to stop buying it, you will probably still catch yourself passing by the bread aisle and every time you automatically do that, you will remember that you are not eating bread anymore, and you will change route. After a couple of weeks, you will probably have found another aisle, the one that sells gluten free products, and you won’t even be thinking about the bread you used to buy before. You will have started to create new habits, found new recipes, discovered new types of food that you can eat instead of bread, and, if you give it enough time, the times when you used to buy bread will have become like a faded memory. You will only be left with what’s called the habit memory of it.
Now let’s put alcohol back on the shelf replacing the bread. Quitting drinking can be a very similar experience. You just have to stop buying it. You will start to avoid passing by the aisle that you know so well; maybe at first you will abstain from popping down to the pub with your colleagues after work, or with your friends at the weekend; or, you can decide that you are completely fine going there and feel comfortable to just order a different alcohol-free drink from the start. What you choose to do is completely up to you, and whatever your decision is, you are the one who needs to be comfortable with it, you must come first. That would definitely need to be your number one rule. Your gut will have the right answer for you.
So, what makes stopping drinking so hard if it’s so simple? Maybe you should ask yourself “How do I stay stopped?”. That is a far better question.
The hard thing to do, is not to stop drinking, but how to stay stopped.
How do I stay stopped?
How can I stay stopped for 3 days, 1 week, 3 months, 1 year or forever? The answer is the same. You need to keep doing what you are doing and not drinking, staying alcohol-free, will become a habit. BUT it’s harder, because it needs resolve, focus, persistence and patience, because as time goes by, life happens and we all know how easy it is for resolutions to go down the toilet after the first week. New Year Resolutions anyone?
When it comes to drinking, there are many reasons that make staying stopped difficult, and alcohol being an easy way out for mild or hard uncomfortable feelings, compounded by the fact that is easily available and widely culturally accepted, certainly doesn’t help. Taking all this into consideration in the background, I have found that there are four main things at play that put the spike into the sobriety wheel: the fear of imagining a future without alcohol, the difficulty in breaking an ingrained habit, the individual and very personal emotional attachment we place on alcohol, and, last but not least, the culture and society brainwashing that accepts the normality of alcohol.
Each of these four factors will play differently in people’s life circumstances and will hold a different weight in their lives, and every single one of them will need to be tackled in very personal and individual ways. I promise you that it can be done, and the process might be easier than you even imagined. It was for me.
Fear is a fascinating construct. I’m purposely using the word construct because most of the times fear is not real, fear is just a thought and a thought can be changed. Don’t get me wrong. Fear can be real; when there is real life-threatening danger or if we put ourselves in situations that can be cause us harm, fear is real, but this is not what I’m referring to in this context. When it comes to stopping drinking, either forever or for a period of time before starting to moderate your drinking, the most common feeling that engulfs people is the dread at imagining themselves to be in situations where they don’t drink, how they would feel and how hard it would be to manage those situations. I promise you that most of the time, the fear that we imagine before doing something is much more intense and bigger than the fear that we actually experience in reality. I’m sure you can think of a situation that you dreaded incredibly and then, once you did it, you were positively surprised about how easier it was. And how much better did you feel after that? Also, this fear, which can take the form of anxiety, namely imagining the worst-case scenarios of future life events, can be deconstructed brick by brick when we start looking at what specifically is the object of our fear and/or anxiety. I have experienced this on my own skin. I remember that when I decided that drinking was not for me anymore, the thing that took me so long and what occupied my thoughts the most, so much so that it got me stuck for longer than I wanted, was the absolute fear of living a life without alcohol. For me, that was one of the hardest boulders to overcome, but thanks to the work that I did on myself and my emotions using EFT and NLP, getting really clear about what it was exactly that I feared, what it was that was really important to me, what I wanted and why I wanted it, led me to reframe my present and put me in the driving seat so that I was able to overcome it. And remember, the future is just a string of presents chained together.
Changing a habit is a matter of constancy, patience and persistence, of trial and error. Winston Churchill said once that “failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” You keep doing it until it becomes second-nature to you. There are a lot of things that can be done which can make it easier to acquire positive habits and to change the ones we don’t like anymore. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. And the more you do it, the easier it gets. One requirement is imperative: never ever give up, and when you feel like you are on the brink of giving in, become a detective of your emotions and ask yourself why you are feeling like giving in, learn from it and remind yourself why you wanted to stop drinking in the first place. Tell yourself the real story and don’t sugar-coat it.
The emotional attachment, again, is very individual. Different people turn to the bottle for different reasons. It can be related to their background and what they have seen growing up, or it might be completely unrelated to that. Nobody in my close family drinks, for example, so it’s definitely something that I did not learn in my immediate surroundings and it’s a habit that I acquired much later in life. Usually, though, it becomes a solution to a problem we had or have, whether is confidence, anxiety, social awkwardness, sense of aloofness, isolation, stress, sadness or depression. One thing is certain though, and that is that what we have “attached” can be “unattached”. EFT and Matrix Reimprinting are incredibly useful for this and, again, these are techniques that I experienced on myself and that helped me greatly in overcoming the need to change the feelings that I wanted to change when I was drinking. I learnt to accept them and overcome them naturally, without the need of a toxic external help, and, trust me, having this freedom within us definitely worth it, at times it will make you want to scream with joy, and it will make you much stronger and resilient.
The social and cultural acceptance of alcohol, and in this cauldron I include the alcohol industry throwing in your face at every toss and turn adverts of how fun, classy, young or intellectual having a drink is (the adjective changes according to the target audience that needs to be hooked), the bombarding pics of friends and friends of friends on Facebook and Instagram celebrating anything, from a Friday to a wedding, from a holiday to a graduation with a glass of bubbly or a cool bottle of craft beer, the films and TV series showing people having a “well deserved” glass at the end of a “tough” day, reinforcing that link between alcohol and relaxation, to the reactions of people when you tell them that don’t drink, or even the fact that you have to have “the conversation” with friends and family, as “coming out” as being sober. This might change with time, and I personally think it will, very slowly but it will, but at the time of writing this article, Autumn 2018, those times have not arrived yet. But, and it’s a big and empowering BUT, even though you cannot change those things in one go now, you can change your reaction to it anytime you want. You have the power to change how you decide to respond to EVERYTHING. And it will be your way to be true and authentic to your inner voice and needs.
I’m going to end this article by posing some questions that you may wish to reflect on:
- What exactly do you fear when you think about stopping drinking?
- What is one habit that you can change that would help you to either stop or moderate your drinking?
- What emotion are you trying to suppress when you drink?
- What response can you choose to have in a culture where drinking is accepted as the norm?
I hope you have found this article interesting and if you ever need help with reassessing your relationship with alcohol, just drop me a line or book a free 15-minute session with me.
Artwork by Joe Hole