We gain a great lift when we release ourselves from our past but there is more to be done: we also need to adjust the way we live to protect our gains. Having fixed up the past we next need to fix up the present because when we do that then we turn providence in our favour. However, if we do not alter the way we live we are continuing a life-pattern that has a big hole in it where drinking used to be and we need to be comfortable in our alcohol-free life or we will go back to drinking. But there is one more factor working against us in this respect. There is a psychological phenomenon called “Fading Affect Bias” and this gradually distorts our perception of the past: memories associated with negative emotions tend to be forgotten more quickly than those associated with positive emotions. Distance from despair and FAB are not the same thing. Distance from despair describes how our mood gradually lifts over time as the effects of alcohol-tolerance reverse out. This leaves us happier but takes away the boosted determination we gained from the ‘gift of desperation’. FAB is different in that it distorts our perception of the past making it appear more fun than it actually was. It takes away what meagre memories we have of the misery and downsides of drinking and enhances the good parts. When we stop drinking then a significant portion of our day suddenly becomes vacant and our memory tells us that we are missing out on fun at this time. But our memory omits to tell us how bad things were and it does not remind us that our life was so miserable we were desperate to escape it. Our memory deceives us and we need to be aware of this lie.
There is no single change we can make that will keep us safe from relapse but there are many small adjustments we can make in our lives and they all contribute. These actions stand apart from each other but all serve the same purpose of removing stress from our lives and lifting our overall satisfaction. Not all of them are relevant to everyone, but these are some of the simplest things we can do to help keep ourselves safe from relapse.
If you are wrong then apologise immediately
This may seem trivial but it can make a big difference. If we have done something wrong then we can either admit it or debate the point and try to talk our way around it. But if we delay an apology then the position worsens quite quickly. The other party starts to feel increasingly aggrieved, and we start to justify our own actions. As time passes the two positions polarise and it gets harder to make an apology and it becomes harder for the other person to accept it. But an immediate apology cuts off the issue before it has a chance to escalate. It is unpleasant fixing up the mistakes we make, so don’t go adding new ones unnecessarily.
We don’t need to be right all the time
We don’t have to know everything, we don’t always have to be right, and if someone is wrong then it is not necessary to correct them unless this improves the overall position. If the only purpose served by correcting someone is to demonstrate that they are wrong and that we are right then it is better not said as will only make people dislike us. There are three test questions we can ask ourselves: Does it need saying? Does it need saying now? Does it need saying by me? Unless the answer to all three is “yes” then there is no gain in speaking out, only a penalty.
Don’t judge others
Our higher mental functions evolved after our subconscious mind, and emotions are the first language of the brain; they evolved long before speech. This causes an odd effect that, once we understand it, we can use to take a lot of distress from our lives. Emotions are generated deep in our brain but our subconscious mind can’t tell the difference between self and others, it doesn’t distinguish between real and imagined, and it doesn’t know about past or future. To the subconscious mind everything is real, everything is now, and everything is me. This means that if I say something insulting about someone else, or even just imagine it, then I experience emotion as though it was said to me and about me. If I look at something foolish that someone is doing and call it stupid then my emotional experience is as if I have just been called stupid. So if I find myself being judgemental of someone in my mind then I immediately think something good about them. This undoes the insult and replaces it with a compliment. My brain now creates the emotion as though I have just been praised and this replaces the insult. It takes practise to intercept the insult and reverse its effect but after a while we start making this correction automatically. This little trick takes a lot of moments of anger out of the day.
Do something about the problems
Over years of drinking we accumulate all manner of problems and some of them are big ones. Many of the difficulties in our lives cease to occur when we stop drinking but others remain and we must do something about them. But once again we are impeded by our characteristic to greatly favour now over later because remedies that take a long time to achieve have little appeal to us.
Our accumulated problems can appear so large they seem insurmountable but there is a feature of problem resolution that we can use to help us, and it is this. We don’t have to completely overcome a problem to gain some relief from its burden; we only have to improve it. Take it on faith that this is so for the first few occasions and you will soon see the truth in it. We only need to make progress on a problem to feel better about it. Here is the simple instruction: advance towards the problem; do something about it and you will feel much better. Find the advice you need from somewhere, take the first step, and notice how this makes you feel lighter. Once you have verified that this happens then making the first move and advancing on other problems becomes easier.
While we were drinking we almost never went to any occasion that didn’t involve alcohol and we usually drank beforehand to “get ourselves in the mood”. We did this for years. It is a long time since we experienced a social event stone-cold sober and at first it is incredibly intimidating. But we need to become comfortable in social settings again so we need to acknowledge that this is a problem and deliberately work at overcoming it. The first thing to do is to look at the fear; what is it that we are actually afraid of? Are we afraid of the risk of drinking? Are we afraid of not knowing how to speak to people? Are we afraid of not being the “life and soul” of the party? Are we afraid of having to explain why we’re not drinking? Are we afraid people won’t like us when we are sober? All of these fears are unfounded, irrational, or avoidable but we have to turn up to discover this.
If we go to an event that we know there will be drinking at then there are simple things we can do to overcome the risk and these have already been mentioned; have a way to leave if we need to, take our own alcohol-free drinks if we are unsure of their availability, be accompanied by someone who knows we are not drinking if possible, and move away from alcohol if we feel it pulling. Often these precautions will give us enough confidence to get through a triggering event but if we feel at risk of being overwhelmed then we know we can leave.
The idea that people may not like us when we don’t drink and that we don’t live up to other peoples’ expectations sober is simply ridiculous and the first gathering we attend without drinking will show us this. We do not become more interesting or more engaging when we drink; perhaps we thought we did but we were wrong. When people drink they start to talk rubbish, they get repetitive and generally become incredibly irritating. We were no different. We did not become more fun when we drank and we were fooling ourselves when we thought we did. So if we go to an occasion now we should not be concerned that we won’t perform up to expectations because we will exceed them. We should also not be concerned that we won’t know what to say because what we say will now have merit, and anyway, if we don’t know what to say we don’t have to talk and command attention, we can listen. We don’t need to feel that it is our job to entertain. It isn’t.
One of the things that troubles us a lot prior to an event is worrying about how we will explain to people why we are not drinking but this involves a huge misconception on our part. We make the assumption that other people think about alcohol the same way as we do; but they do not. We do not understand them and they do not understand us. We are preoccupied with thoughts of alcohol because for a long time these have been triggered into existence many, many times a day. Alcohol was in our waking thoughts and with us throughout the day. But normal drinkers do not experience this. We are the ones preoccupied by alcohol, not them, and they have no idea at all that alcohol commands so much of our attention as it does. It is only a big deal to us. They do not go to an occasion wondering if there will be enough to drink because it isn’t that important to them. So, if at an event, someone says that they don’t want a drink, it isn’t shocking. Maybe they are driving later, maybe they’ve had enough, or maybe they just don’t feel like another. “No thank you” isn’t an unusual response to being offered a drink, except to us. We may have a good “excuse” for not drinking all prepared but the reality is that we will rarely even need it because other people don’t think it is unusual to not drink. Not only do many people not drink when they go to an occasion it can also be quite shocking to discover how little they drink when do.
We overcome our fear of socialising by spending time with people and this is how we discover that our fears are mostly unfounded, but sometimes we don’t help ourselves. If we have become particularly people-shy then we decline invitations to the very occasions that will help us and we have to stop that. If we are invited somewhere that is alcohol-safe then we need to say “yes” straight away and worry about it later. If we go we usually discover that the occasion goes fine once we are there. The fear is the anticipation of the event rather than the event itself. We may need to push ourselves at first to get comfortable in social situations again but we have to show up for that confidence to return.
Stay with the present
There are many things that give us trouble if we dwell on them. Poking around in the future will make us anxious and there are past events that are troublesome if we look at them for too long. If we dwell on them then they will expand until we are consumed with one negative emotion or another. The remedy for all of these is to stop looking at them. It is OK to look at the future and it is OK to look at the past, but don’t stare. If you catch yourself stuck in the past, in the future, or playing with your favourite resentment, then you need to bring yourself back to the present before anxiety and depression take hold.
There are many tricks we can use to pull ourselves away from an unwanted thought line and one has already been mentioned: “What should I be thinking about and what should I be doing right now?” Here is another you can try: –
Choose something you aren’t particularly familiar with from on your left side. Look at it, keep looking at it, and be curious about it for a couple of minutes. What is its purpose? Where did it come from? What is it made of? Where did those materials come from? Who put it together? How did it get here? Now repeat this with something chosen from on your right. Look at it and ask yourself questions about it. Then, while still looking at the item on your right imagine the item you chose on your left, and resume the questioning of that. After a couple of minutes swap the subjects around: look at the item to your left but imagine the item to your right and ask more curiosity questions about that. After a few minutes of this then the original thoughts that were consuming us will have been driven out because our brain doesn’t have the capacity to keep that conversation going as well as thinking about and imagining other things.
There are many ways to bring ourselves back to the here and now and many practises include it. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness will all help with this and joining a local group that practises these will also help with our need to become socially comfortable again.
We can’t live entirely in the present. There are times when we need to explore the future to make prudent plans, but we often set ourselves up for disappointment when we do this. Yes, we need to make plans for some future event or project, but what we need to avoid is visualising the success of its achievement. If you are thinking about some event or project you are preparing, then do the planning, but never daydream about its success because this creates an expectation, and expectations are guaranteed to cause frustration later on. When we develop an opinion of what should occur at some point in the future then we are always going to be disappointed because things don’t happen as soon as they should, or as well they should, and sometimes they don’t happen at all. Fantasising about the future guarantees that we will be frustrated and the way to avoid this is to catch ourselves drifting away from the knowable and bring ourselves back to the present.
Control and frustration
There is a whole new discipline to learn when it comes to control, change, and acceptance. As with many components of stopping drinking and recovery we need to recognise a warning flag and then deliberately intervene with a specific action instead of letting our mind run its course. We need to become sensitive to our level of frustration. We get frustrated when things aren’t happening the way we want them to but most of the time this frustration is pointless because it achieves absolutely nothing; the situation remains unchanged. The discipline we need to learn is to recognise mounting frustration and then test the circumstances causing it. Do we have direct and immediate control over this, or is control beyond us? Some simple examples of what we have no control over are; what other people think, do and say, what happens around us, and the outcome of our efforts. Any or all of these can frustrate us but the frustration serves no purpose so we need to ask ourselves “Am I being frustrated by something I can control?” Very often we cannot. Take traffic for example. If I am held up in rush-hour traffic then why allow frustration to build? All the other people in this traffic-jam haven’t conspired together just to make me late; they all have lives to live and they are delayed too. Frustration like this serves no purpose whatsoever yet and we spend much of our time becoming angry about things we can do nothing about. So sense the frustration rising, examine the source to see if you are trying to exercise control over something beyond your reach, and if so, let it go. If we do have control then we need to do something to alter the circumstances, but if we do not then we need to relax, breathe, accept that we can’t change what is happening, and let it go past. We need to accept the things that we do not have immediate control over and let them move past without disturbing us further, but this is far easier to say than to do. Some things we can push aside but often they are more persistent.
Acceptance has been mentioned in many places in this book. We all have problems we are experiencing, or problems from the past that haunt us and won’t go away. They disturb our sleep and come to us whenever our mind isn’t fully occupied. The more issues we can bring to acceptance then the more dissatisfaction we remove from our lives and the more content we become. We dwell on them, our mood goes dark and we become anxious, angry, fearful, resentful and depressed. The longer we dwell on these things then the more we intensify the emotion we are experiencing. For some things we need to recognise that what’s done is done; there’s nothing further to be done to change the event so continuing to think on it will yield no benefit. We need to accept them for what they are and move on. But accepting things that we deeply want to be different is difficult. Some issues keep coming back into our minds for resolution but we never find it, so they keep coming back and going around and around. People tell us to “get over it” and this is good advice, but it only tells us what to do, not how to do it. We need to find ways to bring these problems to a conclusion so that they don’t keep coming back. The way to do this is to accept them for what they are, unchangeable, and to do this we have to find a way of looking at them that convinces us of their inevitability.
“Accept” is a verb and acceptance is an active process not a passive one, so we can’t just wait for acceptance to happen, we have to do something to make it happen. If we can’t change a situation we don’t like then we must change the way we think about it, or we will continue to suffer, and we need to consciously make the distinction:- Can I change this or not? If we can’t change the cause of the frustration then we need to accept it and the trick here is in finding the key that allows us to change the way we perceive the issue. If a particular issue cannot be changed then it must be “accepted” for it to cease to cause us distress. In this case “accept” means we have to come to fully recognise that an issue, or the outcome of an issue, can’t be changed. I.e. it happened in the past and there’s nothing to be done to change it, or it is happening now or will happen in the future and it is inevitable. We have to change the issue from “but it is wrong!” to “I don’t like it, but I understand why it is so”. When we achieve this then the issue will cease to be constantly brought back for resolution. Our mind will accept that, unsatisfactory as it is, it is as resolved as it is ever going to be. We achieve this by inspecting each issue thoroughly and carefully. We keep looking at it until we are completely satisfied that there is nothing to be done to change it, and that we understand why we find it unsatisfactory.
The task is to bring each issue to a position where, when we reflect on it, it is emotionally neutral; this is when something is truly accepted. To accept troublesome issues you are going to need to concentrate, so find yourself somewhere quiet and comfortable for a while where you can be un-disturbed. Take some time to fully immerse yourself in each issue one by one and try to find the reasons why you are still holding onto it. This is identifying what it is that prevents you from accepting it.
Below is the statement “I accept this because…” and what follows is a list of alternate answers, each for a different circumstance. Try each issue against this list and see if one of these answers will allow you to close it. Do any of them fit? If you find that one of the statements explains why you won’t let the matter go then repeat the whole explanation “I accept this because…” Examine it from all angles and ask yourself one final time and ask “is there anything that I can do to change this?” If the answer comes back “no” then it is time to move on.
Test each issue against each of these statements: –
I must accept this because I will never know the answer. We will never know the answer to some questions. If we are never going to know the answer then continued searching is both endless and completely fruitless. Thinking further on this will never yield a solution… ever.
I must accept this even though it isn’t fair. Bad things happen to people. Bad things happen to everyone and nobody ever said that life was meant to be fair; it is not. The more we can recognize that life is inherently unfair, then the easier it is to step past misfortune when it comes. Don’t hold onto something from the past because it wasn’t fair since something being unfair does not change the fact that it happened. It is not going to magically change itself back again because it was unfair, so fair or not, it is done. “It’s not fair” doesn’t change anyone or anything, but it has a really bad effect on you. It makes you feel sorry for yourself and nobody else is doing this to you, you are doing it to yourself. Say “It’s not fair” one last time, then say “but life moves on”.
I must accept this because I made a mistake. We might try hard, and aim high, but we are not perfect. Nobody knows everything, nobody is always right, and nobody goes through life without making mistakes… nobody! If we expect constant perfection from ourselves then we have set an unachievable and invalid expectation. We do not have all the answers, it is OK to be wrong, and it is OK to make mistakes. People make mistakes and you are a person too. If you have made a mistake then don’t try to hide, minimise or justify it to yourself, because you won’t be able to. Try not to repeat the mistake in the future, but forgive yourself for the ones you make. If an apology is in order or you need to make amends in some way then do that. Otherwise, acknowledge the mistake, “I got that one completely wrong”, and move on.
I must get over my pride and accept this. Am I too proud to accept this? Do I look at this and think it’s beneath me or not good enough for me? If so then the issue is not the real problem, it is pride. Look at the facts independently from feelings because on this occasion pride is causing the frustration. Not someone else or something else, but your own pride. Let it go.
I must accept this because people are not perfect. Just as we make mistakes, so do other people. Other people aren’t perfect, other people aren’t always right, and other people make mistakes. Allow other people to have failings instead of requiring them to be perfect and then you will be better able to accept their words and actions. People aren’t perfect. Let it go.
I must accept this because I have forgiven myself. People are allowed to make mistakes. “To err is human”. You are a person too. You want other people to forgive you so extend that same grace to yourself.
I must accept this because being in the right does not change it. Believing that we are right achieves nothing whatsoever because the event remains unchanged. In the same way that being angry, remorseful, resentful, aggrieved achieve nothing, neither does this. The event does not change and we are simply inflicting suffering on ourselves for no purpose by thinking about this in terms of right and wrong. Get off your high horse, stop complaining about it, and move on; everyone else has.
I accept this because I have learned the lesson. This makes the pain behind an issue meaningful. Sometimes bad things happen but this ends up being an important part of our personal growth. Find the growth you gained and move on.
I must accept this because I lack the means to change it. This is exclusively about recognising the absence of control. Nothing will be different unless we change something, and if change is beyond us then there is nothing whatsoever we can do about it. If you cannot change it because you don’t have the means to do so then thinking further on it will achieve nothing except keep you distressed. It is unchangeable. Let it go.
I must accept this because this is what has to happen. This last one catches aspects of our life that we are unhappy about. Life isn’t wonderful all the time and we often wish things were different, but they aren’t. There may be some dissatisfaction with our current circumstances that we can’t change, but the world is in constant flux and there will come a time that some things that are currently fixed can be changed. Sometimes we may need to endure what we are dissatisfied with while we undertake some lengthy process that will improve it. Either way, for the moment, we need to accept things as they are. A time may come that we can change this, but for the moment we cannot and therefore we must accept it or we just keep frustrating ourselves. “This is what has to happen”.
Acceptance works like a salve, so if you find an explanation that closes an issue then keep applying it. Things have a habit of un-accepting themselves so when they return just re-apply the remedy because if you keep supplying the explanation for the issue then your mind will stop bothering to bring it up. Ultimately acceptance hinges on this: we need to live in the world as it is, not as we want it to be. The more we can embrace this then the fewer issues will arise that we need to attend to. But we should not try to push all issues aside with acceptance, because some things cannot or should not be accepted. If something refuses to be accepted then re-check the original premise because acceptance may not be the correct remedy.
Our mind will only let us accept what cannot be changed. But if there is something we can do to change it then acceptance is never going to work. If we can change an issue then we must take some corrective action if we want relief from it. In particular, being accustomed to something unsatisfactory is no excuse for doing nothing about it. We should not carry on making a mistake just because we’ve been making it for a long time. If we want relief from an issue then we need to change what can be changed regardless of how uncomfortable that might be.
How favourably we see the world is largely determined by how we feel within ourselves. We don’t see things are they are, we see things as we are. But in the same way that we don’t have an internal meter that allows us to determine the state of our resolve we also don’t have anything that directly lets us know how we are; but we can find out. At the very beginning of this book was a list of things we could start doing and among them was to give ourselves a score out of ten for the answers to each of these questions: –
How loveable do I think I am? How valued do I think I am? How capable do I think am? and How worthy do I think I am?
These combined scores give us an overall indication of how well we feel about ourselves and if you recorded this as you first set out then it is well worth looking at how this has changed over time. When you have not had a drink for a month or more then re-ask yourself these questions and compare the total score to what it was when you first set out. The difference is what you have achieved by stopping drinking and the increase indicates a gain in wellness. Nothing else has changed and nobody else has made this happen; you did. But the scores we give ourselves in answer to these questions are not set in stone and there are things we can do to influence how we feel about each of them.
How loveable do I think I am? As with many things in addiction the way to lift how loveable we feel is to work on the opposite end of the problem. Gifts do not make us more loved unless they are given unconditionally. But if we give gifts because we want to be forgiven or to be more loved then we do not give them freely, we attach conditions. This makes them not a gift, but a bribe and we can’t bribe people into loving us. The way to lift how loveable we feel is to address the opposite end of the problem and to stop doing the things that make us hard to like. This is far easier than making ourselves loveable and big gains can be won by small changes; do we interrupt or talk over people, do we take home worries to work, do we take work worries home, do we tell others how they should be living, do we listen to what others have to say and so on. We can identify many small things like this and they can be easy to avoid with a little thought and application. When we stop doing unlikeable things then people like what’s left behind, and so do we, because what is left behind is perfectly likeable.
Another way we can make ourselves feel more loveable is to address the personal characteristics that make us unlikeable. Changing our personal characteristics may seem like a big task but it isn’t necessarily. We aren’t trying to change ourselves wholesale; we just want to reduce the things that deter people from liking us, and the way to do this is change emphasis and work at the opposite end of the problem. For example, if pride is an issue then we concentrate on its opposite: humility. If we work at being more humble then this automatically reduces prideful activity. We get a far better result by boosting the opposite characteristic than by trying to supress a problematic one.
How valued do I think I am? We feel more valued when people say “thank you” so the very easy way to feel more valued is to more often do things that people will thank us for. We don’t have to do big things to get gratitude, and all thanks count, so do lots of little things. This needs no more than being thoughtful and considerate of others as we go through our days and it provides a simple source of thanks; letting people in in traffic, carrying something for someone who’s overloaded, helping someone struggling with a task; there are many small things we can do in our day that people will thank us for. It was mentioned earlier that if we want our days to be more satisfying then we should do what we should do, before what we want to do, but we can improve on that. If we want to lift how valued we feel then we should ask: – Is there something I should do for someone else before I do what I want to do for myself. And while you’re doing that remember to thank others for what they do for you because when we thank someone then we improve their day and we get a lift from knowing that.
How capable do I think am? This is an easy one to work on but it takes time. To improve how capable we feel we need to learn something new like a new skill, craft, ability, qualification, language etc. Like the changes above it doesn’t need to be huge, it only needs to be a gain. Learn something new.
How worthy do I think I am? If we spend our days doing things that we think are worthless then we will feel that we are worthless. We need to have some significant activity in our lives that make us feel worthwhile, so find something that gives you a sense of having value in the world. We have a lot of new-found time in our lives when we stop drinking and idle-time is dangerous as it leaves our mind vacant for worry and self-sabotage to move in, so fill in that time and deliberately use it to do something that will make you feel good about yourself. There are some obvious things that we can do; we can redirect drinking time towards our family, we can use former drinking time to work on recovery, or we can throw ourselves into our work. Other things that make us feel worthy are activities that we can look at afterwards and say “that was worth doing”. These could be projects or long-term activities that improve our own positions. But more powerful than any of these are activities that help other people or the community. Doing voluntary work that helps people (or animals) not only makes us feel worthy it is also likely to make us feel valued as sometimes we will be thanked for what we do. If there are some community projects happening then look at going along and helping. This will not only lift worthiness it is an easy way to re-engage socially.
Self-management is one of the biggest disciplines we need to master in recovery and what we need to learn is how to regulate our mood. The reason this is so important is that if we lapse into periods of persistent distress then we reactivate all the self-sabotage. We need to stay emotionally well to stop thoughts of alcohol disturbing our lives and threatening our sobriety. Throughout this book there have been numerous examples given of how to correct how we feel when it is wayward but we can only correct what we become aware of, so learning to monitor ourselves is a key skill. Knowing what to do helps, but we have to detect a problem before we can then apply the appropriate remedy. Learning to be self-aware takes time and at first takes deliberate practise. Put down key points in your day that you stop and ask yourself “How am I”? Stop, and sense your feelings for a moment. There are lots of ways to get digital devices to give us reminders so use these to give yourself several “How am I?” check-ins a day to get into the habit of it. We don’t do this perfectly straight away, we have to build it up, but after a while we become far more sensitive to our mood, and once we can sense when this is going astray then we can intervene and fix it.
All of the items mentioned in the last two chapters serve the purpose of either removing distress or lifting our satisfaction with life and you may be wondering what all this has to do with stopping drinking, and the answer is nothing at all. None of these actions is about stopping drinking; they are all about staying stopped. Nothing and nobody else makes us drink again, only we can do that. When we are well within ourselves then apart from the faint murmur of remaining triggers the idea that we should drink again does not occur, or if it does then it is easily dismissed. However, if we become dissatisfied with our sober life then this sets the self-sabotage going, and this is what brings us down. We don’t drink again after months or even years of being alcohol-free because we are driven to do so by the power of the cravings, they lack that power by then. We drink again because our resolve is low, we feel low, and “a drink will make you feel better” becomes convincing. We don’t drink again because the challenge is fierce; it is not. We drink again because our determination to stop has diminished and our self-sabotage does the rest. The two things required to keep us safe from this are maintaining our commitment to stopping and remaining emotionally well. We must do something every day that reminds us about recovery. It doesn’t have to be big, but it has to be something and it has to be something that will remind us that what we are doing is necessary, possible and worthwhile. We need reminding that we do certain things routinely because they keep us emotionally well and that is the goal of recovery. Emotional wellness is the prize we win for becoming alcohol-free and it is also our best defence because when we are well then the biggest pieces of self-sabotage do not occur. For as long as we remain emotionally well then alcohol no longer presents itself as something attractive, in fact the opposite happens: when we are emotionally well then we reject any inclination to drink as ridiculous. We need the self-awareness to notice when things aren’t right, and then we are able to correct the problems. Maintaining our emotional well-being is our best defence against relapse… but despite our best intentions we aren’t always successful.