There’s nothing worse than white knuckling it while trying to quit or moderate a drug or alcohol habit. Just barely hanging on. Feeling tempted all the time. Resisting urges. Frantically avoiding anywhere you might find temptation – bars, parties, anywhere that you might run into people who use substances. Feeling left out, and generally punished by the universe that you can’t do normal things and go normal places without having to fight against yourself to keep from overdoing it.
Having to struggle sucks. It feels like you’re constantly losing–even when you’re “winning” (i.e. sticking to your abstinence or moderation goals). If it takes constant work, then something is seriously wrong. If it’s more miserable than carefree substance use, then what’s the point? It isn’t really a win if that’s how you feel. It’s a loss. So what do we do? We eventually say fuck it, and go back to heavy substance use. I know MANY of you have been through this cycle countless times. There’s a positive way to end this cycle.
Turn your change into a win.
In many ways, it’s just a matter of framing. That means you get to choose how you see your change, and that will affect how you feel, and most importantly it will affect your motivation to maintain or ditch your new substance use policy.
Let’s talk about why quitting/moderating feels like a loss. For simplicity’s sake, consider Rob – a 35 year old who chooses abstinence from alcohol. He sees alcohol as:
- a valuable social lubricant, without which he is awkward, shy, and uncomfortable in groups
- an efficient stress reliever that he needs to deal with a rough day at work
- a sleep aid for when he can’t stop the racing thoughts related to his constant existential crisis
- THE way to have fun – necessary for days off, dinner parties, fishing and beach trips – or else these will be boring times
And now all of a sudden, Rob starts to realize his alcohol use has been costing him a lot. He’s getting a beer belly. He’s had a few disturbing experiences with impotence. Pissed off a lot of people with his behavior. Lost a relationship in the past over it. And now he takes a fall on his way home from the bar that lands him in the emergency room getting 15 stitches on his chin- and that’s the wake up call where he puts this all together and decides to quit.
Guess how he tries to motivate himself to quit – by keeping all of these negative consequences in the forefront of his mind. For example, he’s at a business dinner and thinks the following thoughts:
That Old Fashioned looks good. I want one.
Wait – don’t do it – you don’t wanna end up in the hospital again. Don’t wanna be hung over again.
But I want to have fun with everyone else. I need to blow off some steam. I need to be able to talk to these guys or so I can make more sales. This sucks.
[I realize ‘sales’ is generic rubbish, but you get the point, right? lol]
Rob makes it through this night without a drink, and he hates every minute of it. The reason it feels like a loss is that his motivation to drink is fully intact – he believes that alcohol would improve or is indeed necessary to this situation. He sees himself as losing the ability to have fun; losing the ability to socialize/network; losing the ability to relax. Loss, loss, loss. No wonder he’s miserable.
Rob has made the mistake of keeping the exact same perspective of alcohol’s benefits – which motivate him to drink – while trying to deter himself from drinking by being focused on alcohol’s costs. This is a recipe for self-torture that some people like to call being self-disciplined or having willpower. It results in an internal fight or struggle that makes life miserable. Some people like this because they’ve grown up being taught that being an adult means making the hard decisions, depriving yourself, accepting the unfairness of the universe, sucking it up and realizing you can’t have everything you want. Fun and enjoyment and carefree living is for kids – adult life is supposed to be misery and suffering. So they pat themselves on the back for enduring this loss and struggle. They congratulate themselves for growing up. Until they crack and go on a binge. Then they beat themselves up for being immature.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The first step to ending this cycle is to stop focusing on the consequences. They play only a small part in change, and you’ve understood those consequences forever. Even the most hardcore heavy drug users understand the damn consequences of their behavior. If it wasn’t such a tragic distraction from the real issue, it would be hilarious the way that interventionists and counselors “confront denial” in drug users. Do they really think we don’t know that we’re scaring our families, or that we could overdose and die? Heavy substance users have seen plenty of friends die, get arrested, etc, and have experienced many of the non-lethal consequences themselves, and yet it doesn’t stop them because they still see sufficient benefits in their drug use.
You may have heard you have to hit rock-bottom to quit. Many heavy drinkers whose lives are highly functional are envious of drug users, because they face quicker consequences that should make them quit faster. They wish for some major consequence to come their way that will finally be the thing to keep them permanently full of fear of drinking so that they can finally quit. Rob thought his trip to the emergency room was his ticket out of drinking. The truth is that there’s always a lower bottom to be found until you die. Looking for a rock bottom point is nonsense, and in some research proves to be the rarest factor in quitting. So stop it! Stop looking for risks, costs, and negative consequences.
Now that that’s out of the way, Rob can focus on why it is that he wants to drink. He wants to drink because of that list of benefits above. What if he found out that alcohol:
- isn’t as good as providing those benefits as he once thought it was
- those benefits aren’t as important as he once thought they were
- or – doesn’t objectively provide those benefits at all.
If he realized any of this, it stands to reason that his motivation to drink would decrease. After all, if it doesn’t serve a purpose, then why do it?
It’s time to stop taking the common knowledge about alcohol at face value. It’s time to think critically about those perceived benefits of alcohol. Let’s think about just one of those benefits differently.
Rob holds the common belief that alcohol is a disinhibitor that makes people more free to be themselves, be more outgoing, talk to that person you’re romantically interested in, etc. But in fact, there is still no known mechanism by which alcohol pharmacologically lowers inhibitions, and sociologists have shown that inhibition while intoxication varies by culture. In some places people experience no change in inhibition, and in some places people even become more inhibited while intoxicated. The definitive case for this is in the classic book Drunken Comportment (which Malcolm Gladwell mentioned as one of the best books he ever read). It’s truly eye opening, and I recommend it to everyone – drinker or not. Customs/beliefs around drinking mean that looser behavior is acceptable while intoxicated. We get a permission slip of sorts to let our hair down when drinking – what I call the “license to misbehave” (and will include as a lesson in the next book from Saint Jude Retreats). We feel empowered by the license to misbehave – not by the pharmacological action of alcohol.
I can’t cover this topic fully here, but what if Rob just opened himself up to the idea that he doesn’t “need” alcohol to socialize, and that it didn’t really add much of anything to his ability to socialize. Well then his desire to drink would decrease that much, and he’d find himself with less urges to drink in social situations. He’d find himself more eager to go into more social situations without alcohol.
Now what if he thought “I’m going to prove to myself that I can socialize just fine, and maybe even better without alcohol.” Then that next business dinner without alcohol can be seen as a win rather than a loss. He doesn’t have to struggle. He doesn’t have to feel deprived. He doesn’t have to feel like he’s being tortured and missing out. He can just be happy about his new choice. The loss becomes a win.
Rob could change his perspective on the full list of benefits he sees in alcohol. Is it really that fun? Does it really relieve stress? Is it a good solution for sleep? There are new perspectives to be found on all of these issues. And each new perspective will modify his desire to drink in some way. But ultimately, the key ingredient in changing your substance use and making it last is by re-evaluating the benefits involved in your choices (the entire range of benefits – of the substance itself, and of going without the substance) rather than focusing on costs – and finding a way to see your change as a win. Make it a win, and you won’t struggle to maintain your change. You will enjoy it, and it will soon feel completely effortless.
A few brief tips:
Don’t make it all about long term versus short term – There are ways to see that you will be happier in the short term without heavy substance use. Again, I can’t cover all this here – it’d be a bad read – it’s more of an individual thing too. But as my colleague and mentor at Saint Jude Retreats, Mark Scheeren says, life is only ever lived in the moment. You can be happier right now without reckless substance use, not just at some later date when you don’t get cirrhosis.
Make it a happy experiment – You may not fully think it’s possible to have fun without alcohol. That’s alright. Make not drinking into an experiment where you’re determined to discover the way to have fun without alcohol. When quitting is an experiment with openness to discovery, then it isn’t a miserable loss. Even if you were to discover that there was no way to have fun without drinking, then at least you’d be confident in your eventual choice to go back to heavy drinking, and could do it shamelessly. I’m pretty sure that if you give it a fair shot, you’ll find that you are fully capable of having fun without it; and you may discover that it has some pleasurable value, so that you’ll find a way of using it that works – but escape that dangerous territory where you feel like you NEED it. That’s what I discovered, and how I went from being a crazed constant substance user (with a rap sheet the length of one of those old-timey nightcaps) to a moderate drinker.
Don’t take everything you’ve heard about substances at face value – dig for alternative perspectives on substance effects, and be willing to give them serious consideration. I recommend books such as Becoming a Marijuana User, The Natural Mind, Drunken Comportment, and The Cult of Pharmacology, as intellectual ammunition against our cultures overblown beliefs in the powers of drugs.
You can change your perspective on your drug of choice, and make your change in drinking/drugging into a win rather than a loss. You can be happy about it. It can feel effortless sooner than you ever thought possible. You can maintain your change without a lifetime of treatment/support group meetings. All of this will happen if you find a way to mentally frame it as a win.