From The Fix
By Victor Yocco
If you’re abusing alcohol and have decided it’s time to stop, here are some tactics that helped me to get and stay sober. You don’t have to undertake this daunting task alone.
Man with alcohol and help sign, wants to know how to get sober
Accepting I had a problem with alcohol felt like accepting I was a failure.
You stumble to your car after a night out drinking. Not just any night, New Year’s Fucking Eve! You pounded more beers and downed more shots than the other people in your party combined. Some of them are wondering how you are still conscious. Yet they let you drive home – again. You wake up the next morning only half remembering the night before. You can’t remember how the hell you got home – again. This has to stop. Your resolution is sobriety in the New Year – again.
Quitting drinking is one of the hardest things for an alcoholic to do. I’ve struggled with drinking and have now been sober for over four years. In this time, I have completely changed my life for the better. I’ve written about my struggle and the role the industry I work in plays in promoting alcohol use and abuse. I want to share insight and actionable tips on how I’ve managed to stop drinking and stay clean since April 2014 – known as forever in active alcohol abuser years. I hope this will help people struggling with alcohol abuse to make the decision to find sobriety, and help others to support people who are trying to stay sober.
Most people don’t realize overnight that they are abusing alcohol. It takes a whole lot of wasted time that you can never get back. Alcoholics are burning the candle of life at both ends when we couple blackout drinking with the life-shortening ailments that come along with binge and heavy drinking. A New Year brings the opportunity for you to inventory your life and make a change if needed.
Realizing I was an alcoholic was a slow process, like realizing I was Sasquatch or some other mythical creature I had heard others talk about in hushed voices, but never truly thought existed. I have some traits that are similar to Sasquatch, I would wake up thinking, and, I’ll try harder not to be Sasquatch. But I’d usually go to bed as Sasquatch that night.
Accepting I was an alcoholic was even harder. I thought embracing the label meant embracing my banishment from society. We don’t see Sasquatch running around in the open and no one needed to tell me alcohol abusers are stigmatized. “We do not associate with alcoholics,” my mother had told me from as young as I could remember, referencing my multiple drunk uncles we would see only on the holidays.
My Life As an Alcoholic
I struggled with alcohol all of my adult life. I started as a lightweight, puking my plunder every time I would drink and downing a six-pack of whatever beer I could get my hands on. It was all about speed. “Am I drunk yet?” I would think while chugging past the point of no return. Meanwhile, people around me were still on their first beer, even when it was time for me to retire for the night. I continued to push the throttle on drinking. Sasquatch loved the taste of beer.
I developed a tolerance. I was wrapping up my PhD and working full time, which left me with enough time to engage in a nightly ritual of drinking until I passed out. Sasquatch liked routines. I also argued with my girlfriend when I drank. It would usually start on a Friday, mid-afternoon, and I would be buzzed or beyond by the time she got home from work. Sasquatch was waiting to pounce.
I started missing work, often when traveling, due to being hungover. I worked for a place that didn’t reimburse for alcohol, but my meals were free which meant I could make up the savings in beer. I would show up for a morning meeting and claim to feel ill from dinner the night before, then excuse myself to spend the rest of the day throwing up in my hotel room.
When I hit my early 30’s the blackouts started. I entered a period where I struggled to remember the details of nights involving drinking, with the only record in the form of angry emails sent to those I felt had crossed me, stupid Facebook posts (song lyrics, ugh), and texts to random people I’d met at the bar.
I ignored the problem: Sasquatch dressed in business casual trying to blend in behind a computer; Sasquatch stumbling across the bar and spilling other people’s drinks as he laughs his way to the bathroom; Sasquatch, in bed next to his fiancé with the room spinning, staring at the ceiling, wasted for another night. I wasn’t fooling anyone, particularly not myself.
I didn’t embrace the role alcohol was playing in my downfall until I was 35. My lack of satisfaction with life was tangible. I was doing the same thing daily and getting the same outcome. I woke up one day surrounded by my smashed possessions, with a great paying job but no money to replace them. I was frustrated at work, in my personal life, and with my health. Sasquatch needed help.
Accepting I had a problem with alcohol felt like accepting I was a failure. Sasquatch blew his cover. I had to accept I had wasted all the time and money I’d invested in alcohol over the years. I had no idea how I could go about changing as there were no former Sasquatches in my life that I was aware of – no reference points setting a path for me to follow.
Sasquatch alone in a haunted forest.
I was able to find my way to sobriety, though it wasn’t an easy path, and I needed help. If you’re abusing alcohol, and have decided it is time to stop, here are some tactics I found helpful. You don’t have to undertake this daunting task alone.
This comes first for a reason. I cannot stress how important it is to share what you are going through with others. Many have come before you, so you don’t need to do this alone. You need a reference point for sobriety and a sober lifestyle. Most likely, you have been hanging out with people who won’t serve as good examples for an alcohol-free lifestyle.
I did both counseling and AA for the first few months of sobriety. My counselor challenged me to do AA meetings for 90 straight days. I did about 50 in that time and continued attending meetings for the first four months of my sobriety. I wouldn’t give them back for anything. You don’t have to do AA specifically, but it is a huge organization with a lot of diversity. There are atheist meetings, LGBTQ+ meetings, and more, and people of all ages and walks of life attend. If you can’t get to an in-person meeting, you can attend meetings online via Skype or a chat room. I found it encouraging in my fledgling days of sobriety to hear about the experiences of those with more time under their belt, hearing over and over that it gets easier, and learning how many of them had turned their life, health, and relationships around in the same way I was seeking. You might find a similar situation in any other group in existence, so please don’t tune me out because I say AA worked for me.
Replace the Habit
How does someone go from being fixated on something 95% of the time to reducing that to near nil? By fixating on other things. I’ve already written about my experience with channeling my compulsions. Addicts are good at routines and fixating on things, not just drinking. The goal, from my perspective, is to find something positive to fixate on: your job, your wife, your writing, your church, your local professional organization, jump roping. Anything that doesn’t destroy your life physically or mentally is better than something that does. Anyone that says you shouldn’t replace an addiction with something else is giving bad advice.
I knew I wanted to write more. I daydreamed about writing while drinking myself into a stupor. Now I had the dream and the ability to achieve it. I implemented a writing routine as structured as my drinking routine. This led to publishing multiple articles in relevant professional publications, and achieving a lifelong goal of writing a book.
If you attend an AA meeting or know others that have become sober, you will know that falling off the wagon is a common story. Staying sober is nothing short of altering your life in every way. This does not happen magically overnight. If you slip up in your pursuit of sobriety it means you are normal. Get over it and keep trying. It will get easier as you accrue more sober days.
I haven’t slipped up, but it’s not because I’m above it. I have frequent cravings and fond memories of the good old days. I stood in the airport three weeks into sobriety while traveling for work and knew I could slide into a comfy seat at the bar and get loaded before my plane boarded. No one would ever find out and I could pretend I had stayed sober when I returned. Instead, I bought the largest Perrier I could find and downloaded some new music to listen to on the flight. I hope I would have been gentle on myself if I had made the decision to take a drink that day. It happens.
Find a Goal
Set goals. Set lofty, impossible goals, then achieve them. Don’t set a goal of trying every beer on tap in a single night, or tasting every vintage of wine the local vineyard produces. Those are shitty goals for an alcohol abuser. They waste your time and hurt those around you.
Positive goals include: losing weight and gaining muscle, learning something new, spending more quality time with your family, doing volunteer work, presenting at a conference, professional development, getting a promotion or new job, starting (or returning to) a hobby, or not being drunk for an entire week. You see where this is going. Goals are like New Year’s resolutions you actually keep.
You will need to keep your eye on the prize of sobriety, especially during the times you are craving one drink or ten. Look around and find something to motivate you: your children, your marriage, your colleague who was promoted over you. Get pumped up. You can do it! But not if you’re drunk.
I have created an imaginary enemy; someone who would relish the fact that I fail in my attempt to stay sober. I use this to motivate me when I need a confidence boost and then get to tell this imaginary asshole I got another article published, another book deal, or that my family is happy with my sobriety. I couldn’t say any of this if I went back to being a drunk.
Put It Into Practice
I’ve covered a few things that help me stay sober. You need to remember that not every day is easy. Especially in the beginning, you will actively look for reasons to have a drink. My car was broken into and vandalized and my work computer permanently crashed within the first two weeks of my sobriety and I wanted these to be signs from above that I deserved a drink. Instead I chose to occupy my time in other ways and I’m glad I did. I recommend trying everything I’ve discussed in this article, and many others here on The Fix, and using what works for you to stay sober.