The other day, my girlfriend asked if I ever thought I would make it to four years sober. That’s a harder question than you might think.
When I first quit drinking, the answer was no. I did not expect to make it to four years, nor did I want to. I simply wanted to feel less ashamed of my choices and more in control of my life. Over time, I learned that less shame and more control were irreconcilable with continuing to drink. Over time, I wanted to stay stopped.
But did I expect to? This is one of the few cases where confidence is overrated. Your actions matter a whole lot more than your expectations. Here is a somewhat chronological list of the actions that have worked to keep me sober.
1. Stop drinking when your heart tells you to stop. Don’t worry about whether you’re a real alcoholic. Don’t worry about whether you’re done forever. Don’t worry about whether you can maintain this long-term. Like I said: confidence is over-rated. Stop when your heart asks you to.
2. Celebrate your early successes. Early in sobriety, I celebrated a lot. One week without drinking, one month. I celebrated mostly alone, mostly from the comfort of my mostly-empty one-bedroom apartment. If drinking has drained you off self-efficacy, celebrating yourself will help to rebuild it.
3. Ditch the people around whom you feel like drinking. This is clearly more complicated when it’s your kids or your husband, but if it’s your friends or drinking buddies, give it a shot. Most people won't notice your absence for one or two weekends. That may be just enough sober time to figure out whether you want to rejoin the pack.
4. Replace those people with a community. No, I don’t mean you need to start going to AA. It was three months before I opted-in to AA, and even then it was halting. (I’d go to meetings, but no sober square dances or group dinners.) In the first three months, “community” meant the few close friends around whom I didn’t need to drink to enjoy myself. Community also meant books: I read a lot of people whose stories sounded like mine. Find people online or in real life who leave you feeling excited about your goals.
5. Wait out the bad feelings. Clearly, this is easier said than done. Arguably, if you knew how to tolerate bad feelings, you’d have a different relationship with alcohol. If I can be as clear and practical as possible, then, here’s what I mean: when you’re feeling bored or lonely or ashamed or unloved, it’s time to distract yourself. Work out, call someone, binge on YouTube videos, eat a snack. You don’t need the world’s most sophisticated coping mechanism. You just need to meet the goal of not drinking today.
You don’t need the world’s most sophisticated coping mechanism.
6. Replace bad feelings with good ones. This is different than coping. Seeking out good feelings takes planning and effort, whereas coping is more like damage control. For my part, I traveled. I rediscovered Groupon and Airbnb and Hopper in a big way. I quit my job and began graduate school, even though work was good enough. Without alcohol, feeling nothing wasn't an option - so I sought out new feelings, feelings like purpose, pride, novelty, agency, and fun.
7. Tell people what you’re doing. I shudder to think where I’d be now if I hadn’t told people what I was doing. Telling the people closest to me that I was trying not to drink meant that I couldn’t return to it without raising a few eyebrows. Plus, when people were curious, skeptical, or downright antagonistic, I benefitted from considering their questions. Why are you done? How do you know? What will you do instead?
8. Have a plan for change. It's often said in AA that the same you will drink again, but a different you has a better chance. The twelve steps offer one system of becoming a different you, of making lasting and incremental change. But if the steps aren't your speed, find a different theory of change that you can get behind. I remember loving the book Change or Die for its practical and no-nonsense description of how people change, but I often find recipes for change hidden in memoirs, podcasts, and research articles too. Ask yourself: What do you consider to be the ingredients for change?
What do you consider to be the ingredients for change?
9. Go deeper. Each year, I need a higher degree of self-honesty just to stay sober. My pain tolerance has gone down dramatically. I’m not working the same job, dating the same person (or gender), or living in the same state as I was when I was drinking. Hell, I don’t even believe in the same God. The reality I could tolerate four years ago and even four months ago just does not work for me today. Prepare to face an ever-more-authentic version of yourself.
10. Remember this: sober time is time well spent. I’m assuming you want to quit drinking because you want more good days and fewer bad days. I'm assuming that, when you quit, you'll have quite a few more good days. Remember this: No relapse can negate those good days - the sober time you spent on earth, the days when unaided consciousness was enough.