Why can’t I quit drinking?
You’ve probably asked yourself this question before. Maybe hundreds of times. I know I certainly did. It’s a horrible kind of swirling storm in the brain when you’re in this space.
I remember feeling stuck on a rollercoaster. Up-up-up I’d tick, flirting with the idea of having a drink even though I said I was going to quit.
And the more I ticked upward, the more the anticipation would grow. The flutter in my chest. Adrenaline coursing through my body, making my hairs stand up.
That nasty, inner saboteur would sweeten her tone a bit. C’mon! You deserve this. You can try again tomorrow.
Down, down you go.
Funny thing about tomorrow, though.
It’s so easy to say, “Okay, maybe I’m not ready yet. Today I’ll drink, but tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow I’ll stop.”
On the one hand, you get to be bad right now which is great because your heart is racing a mile a minute and you can just taste that glass of Jack already. On the other, tomorrow is soon, so you get to believe your own lie and feel good about the tradeoff.
Today is going to be a failure, but tomorrow!
Tomorrow is when I’ll quit for real.
Human beings are innately terrible at delayed gratification, but we rarely miss an opportunity to delay pain.
Nothing changes if nothing changes.
I say this constantly because it’s true.
If you do the same song and dance with yourself every day or week over your drinking, you’ll never stop. You’re stuck in an ugly cycle. I lived in it for probably six years.
See if this sounds familiar:
You wake up maybe slightly or completely hungover. Today is the day! You aren’t drinking today. There is a pep in your step about it. Your resolve (in this moment) is strong.
The day plods along and so do you.
And then you are hit with the inevitable trigger. For many people it’s simply the fact that you’ve finished work, maybe had a semi-shit day, and your brain is craving its little release.
This is your routine, and brains love routines.
The storm is coming. You know this because the build up begins the moment you get in your car or hop on the train to head home. Let the negotiations begin!
Will I stop at the liquor store or won’t I?
Now you’ve completely checked out of the present moment. You’re neck deep in an anxiety inducing tug-of-war in your brain.
You’ve got this ineffective voice chastising you for even considering stopping for a drink. They get mean about it. Start calling names. “Why are you such a loser? You can’t even quit for one whole day? What is wrong with you?”
And then a softer, more persuasive voice. “You’re so stressed right now. And what a stupid day! Listen. You can have a couple drinks tonight. Start over tomorrow. It’s just one night. No big deal.”
So you choose to cave.
The minute you do, a wave of exhilaration washes over your body. The subtle biological shift from anxiety to excitement has kicked in.
Despite having done this a thousand times, you are giddy! You’re going to have some wine tonight because (insert whatever lame reason you gave yourself for drinking) and this wine will be special.
Because it’s the last one.
Tomorrow you’re going to get sober for real.
And since it’s your last wine, might as well do it up big time and drink the entire bottle.
That first drink is a dopamine triple shot.
You’ve already activated a flood of happy chemicals the minute you decided you were going to drink. Now that you’ve added that first glass of wine to the mix?
Happy vibes overload!
It is the most blissful, amazing feeling in the entire world. And hey! You deserve it.
Soon, though, your brain is going to say, “Hold up! This is too much. We need to balance things out.”
Serotonin levels start to drop. Glutamate drops. GABA starts to increase. We might refer to this process as “coming down.”
And once you start coming down, that euphoric first glass or two kind of spirals into feelings like, “Why do I do this to myself? Why am I drinking again? I hate myself for this.”
And round and round we go.
We wake up the next day feeling emotionally and physically wrecked. Determined to make today be different. But it won’t be unless we actually change something.
Ironically, the inability to break free of this cycle only makes us want to drink more.
It feels like the only two options for our lives at this point is crippling anxiety about drinking or well – drinking. One is much easier than the other (or so it seems in the moment).
What do you need to change to get sober?
It’s different for everyone, but here are a few reasons I failed so miserably for years and years. This is my best attempt to let you glimpse inside my brain when I was struggling to get sober and what I realize, in hindsight, was holding me back.
They’re all interconnected in some way.
1. You don’t actually want to get sober.
We say we do but we don’t really. It’s not that we want to quit drinking exactly. It’s that we want to be able to drink normally.
And all the bad decisions, embarrassing moments, and general consequences that comes with too much alcohol? We want those gone as well.
Even if we don’t say it out loud or admit it to ourselves, underneath this back and forth and cycle of relapse is a lack of commitment to sobriety.
We’re just not sure yet.
There’s still a part of us that wants to come out the other side of this thing not exactly sober, but someone who can have one drink and leave it. Someone who isn’t mucking up their life and relationships.
We want it all!
You’ll hear this a lot in the recovery community because it’s true: you gotta want it.
And if you’re still entertaining thoughts like, “Well if I just lay off the booze for a while, maybe I can drink again in a month or two,” you’re not there yet.
2. You’re not taking it seriously.
Every heavy drinker has had those “wake up call” moments due to their drinking that made them say, “Wait a minute. Maybe I should quit.”
I’ve had dozens.
But you get it in your head that you know what an alcoholic is and isn’t. And you aren’t that bad. I mean everyone lets it get out of hand from time to time.
This is particularly troubling for high functioning folks who think just because they’re able to keep a job and put food on the table, it’s not that big of a deal.
I certainly had moments when I connected to this inner voice that said, “Alicia, you need help.” I maybe even looked up an AA meeting or tried to book an appointment with a counselor.
But I never went.
I thought I could do it on my own.
3. You refuse to get help.
You’re not 100% committed to sobriety and the thought of walking into an AA meeting (or some other recovery meeting) either freaks you out or makes you inexplicably angry.
Like you’re offended to be associated with whatever TV version of alcoholism is still floating around your brain.
You’ve resigned yourself to the fact that there’s a problem here, but you haven’t decided that it requires any outside help.
This is the point I would hop online and try to piece together my own recovery plan via blogs and people who lived lives I wanted.
Basically I just piled on to the list of things I failed at. And THAT only drove me deeper into my depression and drinking.
It ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Closely related to #3 is denial. You mostly want to quit drinking, but you’re in denial about the big picture problem.
Your perspective on it is too narrow. It’s not just the alcohol, and yet here you are trying to string together sober days via willpower and green smoothies.
There’s something stubborn and self-destructive that lives inside our heads when we first start out on this journey. Like asking for help, getting therapy, or going to a meeting is somehow weak.
Not for us – as if we’re any different. (We’re not.)
Sobriety isn’t like fitness. There’s no boutique industry. I wanted a bespoke kind of recovery. One worthy of Instagram.
Like if I could somehow make it prettier, I could live with it better.
So I bought courses and programs from pretty women who claimed they could help me with whatever I perceived to be the real problem.
I just didn’t love myself enough. Or I needed to be healthier. I wasn’t in touch with my power or the Universe, or something.
I acted like my world was fixable by starting the right yoga routine or spending money on pricey so-called superfood powders.
Anything but actually admitting the fact that mine was a big, gritty, serious problem: I needed to get sober. For good.
But that’s not the problem I wanted, so I tried to make it smaller.
Which leads me to #5.
5. I didn’t want the label.
I didn’t want to sit in some dank church basement and say, “I’m an alcoholic.” I didn’t want anything to do with that community. Or that word, frankly.
And honestly, this is a big one for lots of people. There are plenty of folks in the recovery community with years of sobriety under their belt who refuse to label themselves an alcoholic.
To this day, I feel weird saying it and don’t quite know where I land with it.
BUT, that’s not what this is about.
I didn’t want the label because I didn’t want the problem. And that’s the difference.
It was just another layer of denial and refusing to take my drinking seriously. So I got to deflect those feelings onto the word alcoholic. Even saying it would make me angry. Like it was a hot stove I kept accidentally touching.
Rejecting that word led to me rejecting the kind of help I needed, which lead to a whole lot of me going nowhere.
And because of that, the cycle continued.
6. I didn’t do the work.
I think we all know by now that sobriety is much more complicated than not drinking. Even if your willpower is substantial and you manage to make it a few months (which I’d done in the past), it’s not enough.
You have to do the work of healing whatever damage drives your drinking.
Whether it’s Step Work, therapy, or other recovery program, if you don’t take extra steps to work on the core stuff, your sobriety remains at risk.
I didn’t do any of those things.
So towards the end when I managed to put together two and three month stretches of sobriety, I’d always screw up and drink again.
I believe that doing the work is directly tied to commitment. It’s the same with anything that’s hard to do, like getting in shape or eating better.
The more committed you are, the more work you put in, the stronger the likelihood you stay sober (or fit) for good. The opposite is also true.
I had to care about my sobriety more than I cared about my own ego or feelings. To not get all worked up about words like “alcoholic” and just humble myself, shut up, and listen to people who were healthier and wiser than me.
Surrender control, if you will. (Which looks different for everyone, by the way.)
7. I was paralyzed by fear.
Sobriety meant I couldn’t drink again…ever? You’re probably nodding your head right now because you’ve had that conversation with yourself, too.
The idea of never, ever drinking again scared the shit out of me. Which, ironically, made me want to drink even more.
And because of everything in numbers one through eight, I was completely ill-equipped to handle it. Everyone goes through this. It’s why they tell you just don’t drink today.
One day at a time.
It’s sage advice. The problem is it’s really, really hard to take it without proper support systems in place. I didn’t have any because I was too busy not accepting help and half-way trying to get sober.
It’s overwhelming to do this stuff on your own!
8. I left my life empty.
I was a defeatist. I truly believed there was no hope for me and that I was somehow special. Sure, other people could quick drinking and turn their lives around, but they didn’t know what it was like to be me.
Any time I managed to get a week or two of sober days under my belt, I usually collapsed under the weight of boredom.
Part of the weight was the meaning I placed onto the boredom. Namely that I had burned all my bridges, nobody wanted to date me, or be my friend, and there was nothing out there that could make me happy.
I decided before I even tried that I didn’t want to do anything.
And in those moments, I truly believed it. Maybe it was even a little true.
I was so consumed by depression and anxiety that I just kind of existed. Taking away the alcohol didn’t take away that pain.
It made it bigger.
But because I refused to accept the scope and severity of my problems, I never go the help I needed. Even in the moments I “tried” by attending therapy, I wasn’t really showing up.
Remember, I was a “special case”. So of course therapy would never work for me. Or if I was hopeful, if the session wasn’t going how I thought it should go, I would say, “See! This stuff doesn’t work. I’m done with it.”
I still thought I knew everything and could Google my way out of my funk.
9. I was hiding it.
I don’t think I told anyone just how much I was drinking. Who was there to tell?
The few friends I did have only ever heard about my dating woes and that happened usually over drinks. My love life – that was the real problem.
I wanted to feel sorry myself without taking responsibility for my sadness.
I wanted to be a victim. Poor little me, I’ll never get it right. Look how much I screw things up.
I’d gotten pretty good at repelling people, so what few friends I held onto heard about every single other kind of problem I had, but never this.
It took years for me to admit to anyone that I was struggling with drinking.
A lot had to change before sobriety was possible.
If I’d had the strength of mind to just go to AA (or some place like it) and say, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but here I am,” I think it would’ve gone differently.
The other stuff would’ve worked themselves out eventually if I’d have had the support networks in place to deal with them. Or a single ounce of receptivity to things I wasn’t trying to hear.
There are so many physical and psychological reasons why people aren’t able to tame this beast. These are just mine.
But I wanted to share them with you in case anyone sees themself in them. Maybe it will help you say, “Okay, I need to approach this differently.”
Sobriety is possible, folks. And it’s wonderful, but it takes some doing getting there, some of which you will resist with every bone in your body.
But if nothing else, don’t be afraid to ask for help. To show up. Even if you think it’s all a bunch bullshit. It might just be the things that saves you.
And, as always, feel free to lean on the Soberish community for support.