“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
– Winston Churchill
To me, the first weeks after quitting alcohol felt very similar to a breakup. I found that I applied romantic songs about longing, missing someone, and fond recollections to missing alcohol. To this day, I am convinced Wish You Were Here by Avril Lavigne is about drinking. Alcohol had, piece by piece, like a toxic ex, consumed everything. It was present in almost every element of my life. I was continuously recovering from a hangover, it popped up in all my friend’s shared memories of me and therefore in our conversations and was my primary way of both socializing and enjoying my time alone. Like an ex you can’t get out of your head, it was everywhere. Both in society, as alcohol is incredibly normalized, and in my heart, head and memories.
Everything felt, in one way or another, like an invitation. Frustration, happiness, excitement, the moment the clock strikes 5:00 and every time I pass my favorite neighborhood bar, an implicit invitation to ‘text my ex’ or pour a shot. Everything reminded me of a fond drunken memory. I found sobriety is so unbelievably frustrating. One of my biggest triggers was boredom, and I still find it feels like physical pain. Doing the dishes are equivalent to the momentous trials of Sisyphus, as I was sure hand-washing forks sober was equal to the hauling of a boulder up a cliff. I was so used to ‘enhancing’ every interaction with alcohol. Finish a long day at work? Have a beer. Finish an average day at work? Have a beer. Paperwork? Wine makes that go faster. Even positive experiences, like parties, or social gatherings, I had intrinsically tied with drinking. Promotion? Have some champagne. Birthday party? Tequila shots, all around. I wanted to cry my first time sitting through a board game night without ciders, convinced that if someone tried to explain the rules of Catan to me one more time I’d jump off the wagon and never look back. My tolerance for boredom and mundanity was non-existent, as I had not let myself be truly bored for years. I did not know how to be without alcohol.
Being social and sober also had unique challenges. Even when surrounding myself with positive, encouraging people, I still struggled to stick to my goals. The urge to join the party, to do what I’ve done for 11 years, is really overpowering. I find for me it is necessary to set a plan before going, remind myself what my goals and motivations are, and ways I can handle temptation before the situation happens. One tool that works for me is making sure to greet every single person before getting a drink. How often have I beelined for the bar at any gathering, social nerves demanding I have something to do with my hands and a communal activity to talk about? Making sure I talk to every single person, maybe even doing a second lap, before getting a mocktail (NA beers are popular, I prefer a regular coke with lime) helps reduce the connection in my brain between social = drink. I also was avoiding telling people for a very long time, content to make excuses for why I wasn’t drinking and only confiding in those I deemed needed to be ‘in the know’. I found that when I’m upfront, it takes the pressure off the evening a little. I now have accountability, which reinforces my likelihood of success, as well as reduces my worry that it might be an awkward conversation. I feel more honest, which translates into being more open and authentic with those around me.
Some tools did, eventually, help me. Distracting was huge, immediately shifting my attention to something else if I felt the urge to drink, even if it was for a short period of time. In the early stages, whenever I felt ready to call it quits, I would tell myself I could have a drink after twenty minutes of yoga. Afterwards, the urge would lessen until it was more manageable to resist. I made a list called “better than drinking” with things I liked, like baking, watching tv, calling a friend. Some people group their activities by how much energy they take, or what moods they address.
Ultimately, the biggest thing that helped triggers, cravings, urges, social stigma and boredom was time. Distraction helped in the moment, as well as relying on a social support network and doing concrete work on my mental health behaviors with a therapist. That will all get you from one moment to the next, but the biggest part of ultimately making it through was time. Time for my brain to rework, form new connections, and time to get over my ‘ex’ of rum and coke.
Submitted by Rachel Berg