“Sometimes you have to travel a long way to find what is near”
– Paulo Coelho, author of Aleph
I know it may be hard to imagine right now, but some of you may finish this month up and find that you’re reluctant to return to the drinking realm, you may be apprehensive that you’ll fall right back into the same patterns that convinced you you needed this month off from drinking. Maybe you’re not confident that a month was enough to “reset” your over-indulgent tendencies. Or, maybe you feel so good right now, you want to keep the groove going. Cyndi Turner, a Licensed Substance Abuse Treatment Practitioner, Master Addiction Counselor and author of the book “Can I Keep Drinking: How You Can Decide When Enough Is Enough” recommends that her clients take a four month break from drinking before attempting moderate drinking, In the article below, she explains why.
I am going to recommend something that may sound strange: Before you try alcohol moderation, I recommend that you quit drinking. What?!
Moderation Management is my favorite resource for people who have experienced challenges with alcohol but may not need to quit drinking completely. While they recommend being clean for thirty days, I find this is often not long enough. Most of us can make a change for a short period of time but struggle to maintain it long-term. Of the many New Year’s resolutions you have made, how many have actually become part of your day-to-day life? Most people’s good intentions fizzle out after a few weeks.
Why do so many of us struggle to make lasting change? We often give up behaviors that are not good for us, but we may not identify why we were making poor choices and how to maintain the positive changes.
You may be familiar with the term white knuckling. Some say it originated with nervous flyers who gripped the armrests of their seats so tightly that their knuckles turned white. I believe many drinkers metaphorically do this. They hold on for a while and muscle through some alcohol-free time. Sometimes this is to prove to themselves or someone else that they don’t really have a problem and can stop at any time. The concern is that during this time they may not be dealing with the internal reasons for their drinking, therefore not developing necessary coping skills.
In my therapy practice, I actually want my clients to feel some discomfort during this period of abstinence. Yes, you heard me right. Being chemically free helps bring emotions naturally to the surface. It allows us to figure out why someone has been turning to alcohol. Once we know this, we can develop different types of coping skills and see how you handle a wide variety of situations without alcohol.
While you are alcohol free, you may find yourself focusing only on negative emotions such as anxiety, stress, depression, boredom, and anger. Don’t forget to notice the emergence of positive feelings that perhaps had been numbed by alcohol: joy, awe, love, compassion, empathy… The range of emotions that you experience when you are abstinent may pleasantly surprise you.
Four months also enables you to cycle through an entire season of events. If you go this long without drinking, you will likely have to come up with a plan for handling holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, parties, sporting events, annual get-togethers, and other such events without relying on alcohol.
Another goal during this time is developing self-regulation skills. This is learning how to tolerate negative emotions and delay rewards. Self-regulation can help deal with cravings to drink, which are often emotional, not true physical cravings.
Distraction can be a healthy way to manage cravings. Our minds may play tricks on us, telling us that we need to drink in order to manage a thought or emotion. I always recommend having a plan in place before you actually need it. Sometimes just the act of knowing what to do in a situation will help you feel more prepared for what to do when something actually does happen. Remember all those fire drills you participated in as a kid?
Additionally, sometimes we just fall into unhealthy patterns. This period of abstinence should give you enough time to break these patterns and determine to what degree—if any—you want alcohol to be part of the next stage of your life. In fact, 30 percent of those who try a period of abstinence decide to continue with permanent abstinence. Once you know you can do it, it is not as big of a deal to choose it voluntarily. Drinking or not drinking becomes less of a focus when you shift your attention, time, and activities to other opportunities. I recommend that you say: “I choose not to drink” rather than “I can’t drink.” The former implies empowerment rather than deprivation.
I encourage you to try abstinence for four months. What do you have to lose? You know what it feels like to be a regular drinker, but what you don’t know is what your current life will be like without drinking. If you hate it, you can always go back to the way life was before. However, you may be surprised at the new perspectives you gain about yourself and the people around you.
Post submitted by: Cyndi Turner, LCSW, LSATP, MAC
Cyndi is the Co-Founder and Clinical Director of Insight Into Action Therapy and has been in the field for over twenty years. She co-developed and facilitates the Dual Diagnosis Recovery Program©, is a national trainer on alcohol moderation, and is a Moderation Friendly Therapist. Her #1 new release book Can I Keep Drinking? How You Can Decide When Enough is Enough offers alternative ways to have a healthier relationship with alcohol.