life doesn't get better by chance

Stopping drinking is hard. If you ever hear anyone say it isn’t then they either don’t understand the challenge or they’re trying to sell you something. It is so hard because it is not actually alcohol we are fighting it is our own minds… so the challenge is essentially precisely as capable, creative, devious and persistent as we are. It is our own minds that create the cravings and the lies and it is our own minds that create our emotions and biased memories. Stopping drinking is difficult but it is not impossible; lots of people manage to do it. But while treatment programs tells us how important it is to stop and urge us onward they offer very little direct help on how to achieve this.

What is compiled here is a list of things we can do to help break free of alcohol. These are things that have worked for me personally and things I have seen work for others. It is presented in two parts; first, what to do, and then, why it is effective.

  1. Don’t have alcohol in the house. If you buy alcohol you will drink it… so don’t buy it. Don’t go into bars or restaurants that sell alcohol, don’t go into liquor outlets or anywhere else you can buy alcohol, and most especially don’t go near the places you used to drink. Don’t even pull into the car park of any of these places.
  2. DON’T PICK UP THE FIRST DRINK. Do anything at all to stop yourself from picking up the first drink because the first drink dissolves all objections to having another. If I don’t have the first drink, then I can’t have 10! This is the new truth… “One is too many, ten is not enough”.
  3. Get help. Go and see your Doctor and be honest about your problem. Take all help available, including craving medication.
  4. Prepare your defences along these 3 lines: delay, distract, deny. – Put off having that drink until later. -DO SOMETHING instead of sitting thinking about drinking (use the list of jobs). – Deny yourself the possibility of drinking even if your resolve has collapsed (e.g. give keys, cash, cards to someone else).
  5. Have lots of things prepared in advance that will occupy your mind and hands. Use them when the cravings come on hard. Simple books and puzzles probably won’t cut it as at first as we can’t maintain enough concentration through the roaring of our minds… physical “doing” is good though. Make a list of jobs that need doing; tidy something, pack/unpack something, move stuff, dig, weed, sweep, clean the inside of the car… anything that keeps hands and mind occupied.
  6. Radically change your daily routine and most especially fill up the slack times when you used to drink. Plan to be doing something else somewhere else at these times. Make a commitment to them and turn up.
  7. If you are somewhere and you can see drinking and feel it pulling then leave immediately before it grows stronger. If you are going to somewhere where there will be drinking then be accompanied by someone who knows you’re not drinking and prepare an exit route so that it’s there if you need it.
  8. Have sweet things and snacks handy and have alcohol-free drinks handy.
  9. Be kind to yourself… you deserve treats and alcohol is not “treats”. Alcohol is not a reward it is a punishment. Alcohol doesn’t make things better. If alcohol was actually making bad things good then there wouldn’t be a problem that needed fixing. Treats are rewards that your brain recognises, it will give you dopamine and serotonin as rewards and this will make you feels better.
  10. Take deliberate time to exercise every day. Do somethings that gets your heartbeat up for 10 mins or more. This releases endorphins and these lift our spirits. It doesn’t matter at all what the exercise is so walk uphill, jog, use an exercise machine, go to a gym, use stairs… anything that gets your breathing hard.
  11. Keep the horizon close: “forever!” is self-sabotaging. The target is to not drink for the rest of the day… that’s all. “I’m not drinking today” Tomorrow and the days after haven’t happened yet; they don’t count. Today is the only day that matters. Now is the only moment that matters.
  12. Make yourself accountable by telling someone/other people you are doing this.
  13. Find and engage in some sort of recovery community, online or face-to-face. Other people have done this and can help you, but not if you don’t connect with them. Here is good, so check in daily, face-to-face is more powerful but not necessarily available to everyone.
  14. Your head is going to tell you lies, so expect to be lied to. Recognise and call out the lies as them as they come. You are doing this “because this is what has to happen”. Stopping drinking is the only way to stop all the bad stuff happening.
  15. Plan a timetable to keep all of this up for 30 days because by then your brain will have significantly re-adjusted to life without alcohol. Both the problem and your ability to fight it will have changed by then.

You are still here and you are still kicking… so make the kicks count. Keep on finding out what works for you and what doesn’t. Abandon things that don’t help and keep looking for new things that do. Keep doing the things that work. You don’t need some super-human super-power to be able to do this. Lots of people do this, and these people are not super-high-achievers, they are ordinary, normal folk. You can do this… the only thing preventing you is what’s coming from your own brain. Take charge of that: recognise it, and correct it.

What follows is why each of the points above is important to do and how they help.

1. Don’t have alcohol in the house…

All of the things listed under this heading relate to the same issue: the intensity of cravings. There are two things that make a craving more intense. The first is drinking in response to a craving. This increases the intensity of the next craving to come from that trigger. The second is closeness. The closer we are to the circumstances of a trigger then the more powerful a craving it induces. A glass of wine immediately in front of us raises a far more powerful craving than one that we know is 1 hundred paces away, and that is more powerful than one we know is 1,000 paces away. The closer we are to the circumstances of a trigger the more powerfully it insists that we drink.

2. Don’t pick up the first drink…

There are multiple reasons why taking one drink is disastrous. The first and obvious one is that as soon as we have taken a single drink then we have failed to meet our intention… to not drink at all. If we have already failed to meet that intention then there is no reason to not have another. Secondly if we have had a drink then we have put ourselves in a position where we are guaranteed to be triggered again, and powerfully triggered… we have placed ourselves where alcohol is close by (see 1). Thirdly, taking that drink altered our mood. On taking the first sip we got an immediate and powerful sense of relief wash through us (dopamine does this, not alcohol). Our minds immediately tells us “that was good, do it again”. This is completely real and it is completely true. That drink DID make us feel better. We are more relaxed, happier, less alone and less anxious… so we should have another. Fourthly there is a mental process called “delay discounting”. Essentially this says that we prefer a benefit now over a greater benefit later. In evolutionary terms the advantage this gives is this; if we see an apple in a tree we should take it now. Tomorrow, or the day after it will be bigger, juicier and riper, but someone or something else might have taken it before then… so take it while it is available. Closeness not only applies to distance, it applies to time. Being sober has its benefit tomorrow, not today. Delay discounting, like all other characteristics, is expressed more strongly in some people than in others and in addicts delay discounting is very strong. So in the face of two competing triggers; the benefit of drinking now vs the benefit of NOT drinking now, the benefit of drinking now is the stronger so it is the one that prevails.

3. Get help.

If we could fix this problem using our own resources then we would have done so a long time ago. We have characteristics that favour addiction, but we also have characteristics that dis-favour recovery. Alcoholics are hugely self-reliant and favour our own opinions over authority. We also absolutely hate personal failure. These characteristics are complete barriers to us accepting help. We must fully accept that we do not know the answer to this problem. We have tried and tried, but we don’t know how to beat it. Only when we accept that we have completely exhausted our own resources do we become open to ideas from elsewhere. We have to absolutely acknowledge that on this particular subject we are novices; we do not know the answers, and we do not have the solutions… if we did then we wouldn’t be in this mess. Alone we lose! We have to make ourselves open to receiving help. Be bold, and step forward. We have to overcome our own hesitancy, prejudice and pride-of-self and acknowledge that this is a problem we don’t know how to fix ourselves. We have to give up to win. We have to set pride aside and go and seek the answers from those that have them.

4. Prepare your defences along these 3 lines: delay, distract, deny.

This is all to do with an essential feature of cravings… that they are not permanent. Cravings rise to a peak of intensity and then fade. The evolutionary basis for this is simple. If there is an apple in a tree then it will draw us more strongly than an apple in a far distant tree. But if that apple in the nearby tree is just beyond our reach then there is no point in continuing to demand that we seize it… otherwise we would stand under the tree and keep on jumping up to try and grab it until we collapse from exhaustion. If we can’t actually gain the thing we are seeking then we should move on, that is the more successful behaviour. So cravings are evolved to have limited duration. When we know this we have some powerful information to work with.

a) Delay

Cravings have limited duration. If we can endure them then they will fade and disappear. This is the basis of the advice “this too shall pass”, but as advice goes this one isn’t the greatest. There’s another psychology maxim that says “what we resist persists”, and it works like this:-  while we are mentally fighting the craving we keep it present in our minds. When we sit thinking about alcohol we make the thought stay longer… we keep triggering ourselves. Sitting and enduring cravings is painful. It will work, because the craving will still come to an end at some point, but it is exhausting. There is a mindfulness technique called “urge-surfing” which works by allowing the craving to flow without fighting it… you let the craving go past without concentrating on it, thus shortening its duration. It works if you do it, but won’t if you don’t

b) Distract

We don’t have to be physically in the presence of the circumstances of a trigger for it to fire; imagining a trigger will do exactly the same. The key piece of knowledge here is that our minds cannot distinguish between a trigger that is seen, smelled or heard, from a trigger that is imagined. To our subconscious mind everything is real and everything is now. Cravings have limited duration, but they also don’t form nice orderly queues and we can experience more than one at once. Problems beget problems; that is how the mind works. If we dwell on about something then our minds find similar circumstances to see if they are related and can bring the issue to a conclusion. If we are sitting enduring a craving then we sit thinking about a drink. This brings in other thoughts about drinking and boom! … we launch more cravings. If we want to avoid all these additional cravings being launched then we need to prevent ourselves from dwelling on the first one, and a way to do this is to fully occupy our minds so that there is no spare capacity for our current drinking thought to expand into. Tasks that require physical movement as well as concentration work well so any manual task will work. The task only needs to last longer than the craving and distraction works really well at keeping the cravings short, but we need to be able to summon the presence of mind to be able to do it.

c) Deny

We overcome cravings by repeatedly experiencing them, but then not drinking in response to them. Every time we resist a craving then the intensity of the next craving launched by that trigger is diminished. It doesn’t matter how elegantly or otherwise we avoid drinking in response to the craving, what matters is that we experience the craving and then don’t drink; that is how we make them lose their power. When delaying and distracting have failed there is still the possibility to deny. We can organise to deprive ourselves of the means to get alcohol even when resolve has collapsed. Like the other options this only has to work as long as the cravings last, after that we regain control once more. Every craving overcome is progress regardless of how it is achieved.

5. Have lots of things prepared in advance.

This is to do with distracting ourselves during cravings, but we can make it achieve far more with a little thought and preparation. When we are hit with a huge craving (or group of cravings) then it is difficult to concentrate on organising a distraction. We can’t focus sufficiently to work out what we could do, gather together what is required to achieve it, and then set about the task. But we can do all that thinking in advance. We can also do ourselves another favour… we can not only overcome a craving, we can improve the way we feel within ourselves. We all feel time-poor. We feel like there’s not enough time to do all the jobs we need to get done. We have jobs that have been outstanding for days, weeks, months and years. These outstanding jobs nag at us, but when we finally complete one of them we get a sense of deep satisfaction. These are the things to list and prepare for. We need jobs that occupy our brain and hands, but they don’t need to be sophisticated… all they have to do is seize our concentration. Jobs like; cleaning, tidying, mending, making, and organising are all good. We need to write a list and then have the things already in place that are needed to complete the job; materials, tools, utensils, equipment etc. This way, when a demanding craving comes on we can go straight to the job without needing further thought or preparation. When we do something that demands our concentration then we prevent cravings from building on themselves. If we make that activity something that is worthwhile then it will also give us a much needed bloom of self-worth.

6. Radically change your daily routine

This is to do with cravings, but more importantly it is to do with resolve fatigue. Fighting off cravings is exhausting. The cravings are seemingly endless, but our ability to fend them off is not; resolve is finite… but it is ultimately all we have to fight cravings with so we need to manage how we draw down that limited resource. Ultimately we need to take the power out of our drinking triggers. We need to knock down the power of the cravings by overcoming them, but we can’t beat them all at once. If we try we will exhaust our resolve and be overwhelmed. So we can deliberately reduce our exposure to them. The aim isn’t to avoid cravings; we must confront them one day, the aim is to spread them out more. In the early days we are going to get triggered by almost every part of our daily routine, but there are parts of that routine that we can change. We can directly target the times of day/week that we most often used to drink as these times have now become vacant. We can deliberately plan to distract ourselves at those times. We can also choose those things to be activities that will make us feel good about ourselves; helping someone else, working on our health, completing worthwhile projects (knocking some jobs off the list in item 5) and so on. When we do this we lift how we feel about ourselves as well as reducing the toll taken by cravings… there will be enough of those as it is!

7. If you are somewhere and you can see drinking…

If we get close to alcohol then we will be triggered to drink. There is no way to avoid this it is an entirely automatic function of the brain. The long aim is to be able to move freely in a world awash with alcohol, but as we first set out we risk our effort being overwhelmed if we sit with alcohol directly in front of us. In time we will knock the power out of these cravings, but initially the single most powerful drinking trigger we have is being in the presence of alcohol. Being in a place where alcohol freely is available is our most powerful trigger, so it brings on the most intense cravings. Cravings are like waves; they rise to a peak and then subside. We make cravings lose their power by not drinking in response to them, but a craving doesn’t have to reach its maximum before we deny it… we can short-circuit the problem. We know that the craving will pass, but we also know that the intensity of the craving is related to how close we are to the trigger. If we are in a situation where there is alcohol available and we feel it pulling hard then we can make the craving subside by moving away from it. If we have someone with us that knows we aren’t drinking then we can give them the authority over us to intervene on our behalf if we leave it too long to take this action ourselves; they can steer us away. If we need to escape the intensity of the cravings then we need to be certain we can gain distance from it if we need to. This is why having and escape route prepared is also so important. If we cannot get away from the triggers then we risk exhausting our resolve and succumbing to the cravings.

8. Have sweet things and snacks handy and have alcohol-free drinks handy

Your brain requires that alcohol should be in your hand. If you have something else there then then there is no vacancy for the alcohol. It is that simple. Have a drink in your hand and no-one will offer you another… then that trigger will not be fired. “Hungry” is perhaps unexpected, but it also a drinking trigger. One of the things that happens when we become alcohol tolerant is that our flight-or-fight response is cranked up, and our flight-or-fight response changes how we want to eat; it makes us seek food and drink that will give us a quick energy boost; surgery and fatty things. Alcoholic drinks are often high in sugar so these satisfy that urge but as they do they form a new drinking trigger… to drink when we are hungry. Being hungry launches cravings, so avoid it until you are able to fend it off. This is why having snacks available to immediately knock off hunger is important early on. But as with all craving-avoidance tricks this is only a temporary measure to spread out the number of cravings we encounter until the time comes that we can meet them head-on without depleting our resolve.

9. Be kind to yourself

Drinking gave us an artificially induced lift in our mood. At first it made us happy, and it made us more socially engaged. Then when we became alcohol-tolerant we felt unhappy and alone when sober and alcohol relieved those feelings. Sure, as our condition advanced we only got a lift from feeling “miserable” to “ok” but it was a lift nevertheless. But once we stop drinking we also stop receiving that artificial lift in our emotions and this leaves a gap in our lives. We need to do something about this, otherwise we will find ourselves constantly hearing “it isn’t worth it!” and this is one of the ideas that will completely destroy our resolve; there’s no point whatsoever in going through all the struggle of stopping drinking if it is going to leave us miserable for the rest of our lives! The mood lifting chemicals that alcohol causes to be released are dopamine and serotonin. These give us feelings of pleasure, contentment and sociability. If we are to fill the void left by alcohol then we need to work to deliberately do things that provide these three things…. otherwise we will feel that we are missing out on life because of our abstinence. We have extra time in our lives when we stop drinking, so we can use that time to do things that make us feel better like these; listen to your favourite music and crank it up, eat a favourite food as a treat, have sex, just relax, have a designated chill-time, take a long bath, get into sunlight, get into nature, find places with distant horizons, meditate, use touch therapies like massage or a cold blast at the end of a shower, celebrate victories!… jump, dance, shout, recall happy occasions, do something with others (children, family, or pets), do things that make you smile and laugh, or smile just for yourself. All of these will cause a lift in dopamine and serotonin release.

Whatever it is we do is up to us but it is important to deliberately do something every day that lift our mood.  We do this to avoid alcohol leaving a gap that we long to go back to.

10. Take deliberate time to exercise every day

We get far, far more from exercise that we expect. We can use exercise to deliberately occupy a time that we know will otherwise be triggering, or we can do it simply because it is good for us. Exercise raises dopamine and serotonin levels, and we know we need to raise these to fill the void left by alcohol, but it also releases endorphins; another of the brain’s feel-good chemicals. Endorphins are the brain’s natural stress relievers. If we exercise in a group (a team sport or a group class for example) then we not only get the lift from the endorphins but we also get a lift from social engagement. The last great benefit we get from exercise, whether we do it alone or with others, is that we feel good because we are doing something to help ourselves, and we need this quite badly. After prolonged drinking our self-image is appalling, and doing something that improves this gives us a great and enduring lift. If we exercise for no other reason then we should do it for this one: it makes us feel better about ourselves, and we desperately need that!

11. Keep the horizon close.

There are three ideas that will completely collapse resolve. One has already been mentioned; “it isn’t worth it”, and this item is about the second: “It is impossible!” If we look into the future then we can’t imagine not drinking on certain occasions; birthdays, Christmas, family celebrations and so on. We quite simply can’t conceive being at them and not drinking, so we convince ourselves that we can’t not drink. Keeping the horizon close limits the challenge to what we know we CAN achieve. We know that we can go a day without drinking… we’ve done that plenty of times on the back of a horrific hangover or after doing something appalling. So we deliberately limit our thinking about drinking to the very near future, we do not allow ourselves to look at the distant future. If we catch ourselves in the future then we need to bring our minds back to the present. The challenge is only to not drink for the rest of the day. I don’t have control over the future. The only moment I have control of is right now, and right now I don’t drink.

12. Make yourself accountable

We hate failure, so being accountable raises the pressure on us to achieve what we have said we will do. When everything else has fallen aside we still have our own pride and that might be the final thing which stops us from picking up that drink. We can make ourselves accountable in many ways; to those close to us, to a doctor or therapist, or to recovery groups (in-person or online). The loss of pride from having to acknowledge failure in front of these groups or individuals can sometimes be the thing that stops us picking up a drink but it can also be a terrible double-edged sword if we do drink. The other way that we can help ourselves with accountability is related to time that we spend alone. When we are out-and-about and alone we are entirely reliant on our own resources. This is time that we would easily slip a few drinks into. The challenge here is that “no-one will know”. But if we have a sober companion then we can make these potential drinking opportunities inaccessible. It is a way of denying ourselves opportunities to drink. We can tell someone where we will be at all times; how long we should be gone, where we are going, when we should be back etc, Tell them your phone will be turned on and invite them to call you.

13. Find and engage in some sort of recovery community

Overcoming addiction is a battle of attrition. The battle isn’t fast, we have to gradually grind the enemy into submission, and the effort this requires is enormous. Ultimately whether we drink or don’t drink is determined by our strength of will. We have to raise sufficient will to even want to try. We have to raise sufficient will to overcome the four challenges of cravings, a biased memory, mood, and lies coming from our minds. And when we have found sufficient will to overcome these we need to maintain that high level of determination for weeks before the challenges start to lose their power. We have to find sufficient resolve to overcome the challenges, and we have to to maintain that resolve for a long period. But there are three things that will completely destroy that resolve: if we doubt that it is necessary, if we doubt that it is worthwhile, or if we doubt that it is possible. We have to believe that it is possible, that it is worthwhile, and that it is necessary; these are the basis of our resolve. This is the foundation on which our recovery is built, and a failure of any one of these will bring down our effort. We need other people to help us build the resolve necessary to engage the challenge, and we need other people to keep our resolve sufficient to keep on fighting. This is what we get from being engaged in a recovery community. In a community we are directly presented with the evidence required to confirm the ideas that underpin our resolve; that stopping drinking is possible, worthwhile and necessary. In a community we can engage in dialogue and satisfy ourselves that the problems faced by those that have stopped were the same as ours. We can see that they have become well, and we can see that life has got better for them. Recovery communities hold the evidence we need to believe that recovery is possible, and worthwhile. Engaging with recovery communities builds the resolve needed to get going, and staying close to them maintains and replenishes that resolve. Recovery communities is where we get evidence that this is what we should be doing, evidence that it is worthwhile and possible, reassurance that our efforts are in the right direction and will yield results, guidance on what to do next, and encouragement to keep going.

14. Your head is going to tell you lies

Our brain seeks to make sense of the world and what we experience; to understand it. But cravings to drink come as only feelings and these are disassociated feelings that have no supporting rationale. Our minds require information to be orderly, so they create a rationale that validates the feelings: our minds automatically make explanations that make sense of the cravings. But the cravings are products of a mis-performing reward system; they are intense feelings that should not exist. The feelings are real, but they are incorrect; they should never have reached the intensity that they have, and they should have equally balancing drink-avoiding emotions like revulsion, disgust, disinterest etc. However, the false feelings come and our minds then create plausible explanations for them. But these explanations are for invalid feelings, so the explanations are invalid too. The explanations, justifications and excuses are all created in response to incorrectly generated feelings… they are misinformation. When we know this then we can acknowledge them as they come, and this works very powerfully for us. When we recognise the justification as misinformation then we do not need to argue with it, we can just dismiss it. This stops the false justification from lingering. When we anticipate the lies and dismiss them they lose their persuasiveness. If we keep dismissing the lies then after a while our brain recognises that we are rejecting these thoughts and it stops presenting them to us.

15. Plan a timetable to keep all of this up for 30 days

We have to maintain a huge effort until the most commonly met cravings have fallen in intensity to no longer be debilitating, and we have to maintain our effort until the effects of becoming alcohol tolerant have significantly reversed themselves out. When these have happened then both the problem has diminished and our ability to fight it has increased. But to do this means that we have to maintain a huge effort for at least several weeks. We need to plan to get through this period without completely depleting our resolve or it will certainly fail us and we will drink again.

There is no silver bullet when it comes to addiction. The condition is complex and there is no simple fix; we need to meet challenges on many fronts and we need to keep our resolve intact so that we can keep fighting. It takes time but progress is steady and it is there if we will only look for it. The things listed here will all help, but one will help above all the others. That one is “Find and engage in some sort of recovery community”. This is where we will find the tools to help ourselves, and this is where we will find the resolve to keep going. But critically, if we fall then this is where we find the strength to get back up again.

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