How Do You Know It's Time to Stop Drinking Alcohol?

Clue: you're reading articles like this. (Again.)

Unfortunately, the short answer to this question is you probably won’t. However, it contains some clues too. For instance, are you experiencing problems that relate to your consumption of alcohol? Are these problems preventing you from living your life as you wish?

My experience of living with a drinking problem was that it was a bit like having two personalities.

There was the part of me that was done with booze, done with hangovers, done with pubs, and there was the part of me that could not imagine living without them.

As it began to dawn on me that alcohol was causing many of my problems, these two parts fought for ascension. The conflict I had long felt about drinking began to grow exponentially.

As I struggled to get and stay sober this only got worse. For some time, my personality felt bewilderingly split. My self-destructive tendencies were so embedded that they felt entirely natural, while the new sober part of me felt phony.

And since nobody else had told me I had an issue, it felt like I was inventing a new problem for myself. I didn’t identify as an alcoholic, but I didn’t want to drink anymore, and yet I kept drinking. What was going on?

By talking this headfuckery through with women who had experienced their own versions of it, I began to see that my experience, as unique as it felt, was in fact entirely commonplace.

The more serious I got about quitting, the harder the drink-loving part of me fought.

You don’t have a problem, it told me. You’re a nice drunk.

But if I didn’t have a problem, then why did this powerful urge to neck pints? And if I did have a problem, then surely I shouldn’t give into it?

I had entered new territory. The evidence had been there all along, but for the first time, I was disturbed by it. It felt a bit like waking up. Three and a half years sober, I’m so grateful that I did.

Before you are serious about sobriety, drinking when you have planned not to just feels like changing your mind. I was fairly casual about not-drinking in the beginning. (*And by “fairly casual about not drinking ” I mean extremely conflicted and troubled about it for about ten years.)

This is how it wears down your self-esteem. You stop being able to trust yourself. Even you know that your word means jack shit. No wonder people don’t seem to respect you!

It was simply a matter of choice, and I had chosen not to drink. And this time, I meant it. Simple!

Imagine my surprise, then, when I ended up drunk again. And again. And again. What the hell was wrong with me? I began to feel out of control in a new way, and it was frightening.

As I seriously considered sobriety — or rather, as it sank in that I sincerely couldn’t moderate — my internal battle became more polarised and more painful. Sometimes it spilled out. Often in the pub. It was a confusing and lonely time.

At first, abstinence was only an experiment. I expected to return to drinking poste-haste — how could I not? But after a dozen accidental drunks, I understood I needed help if I were to have any success at all. Booze was just so delicious and so everywhere!

Temporary as I was sure it was, I joined a support group (Sober Dweebs Unite!) and so began what turned out to be a holistic process of change that actually removed my desire to drink in the first place. Naturally, this didn’t happen overnight.

But hearing how other people overcame their drinking habit gave me tips and insight about how to do the same, and it inspired me to actually want to. I saw how abstinence was not only possible but desirable. And trying to practice it allowed me to be a part of a community of people trying to live good lives, something I’d yearned for since childhood. Soon I had made friends, was feeling better and had uncovered interests long forgotten about.

In AA, they tell newcomers to look for the similarities, rather than the differences. Not because AA is a scary cult that doesn’t tolerate objection, but because if you are going to learn a different approach to life you are going to need to be open. You have to be willing to accept that your way hasn’t been working. You have to consider that you might be wrong.

Listening to the similarities is a way of helping you to engage with that other, hopeful, earnest, humble version of yourself. The one that doesn’t like all this self-destruction, that wants it to stop. That doesn’t think it knows best. That welcomes guidance.

To access this part of your personality, you generally need to feel pretty miserable. They call it ‘reaching bottom’ but there is no depth you must sink to, in order to get there. My last drink was a bottle of wine on a weeknight. Yet after that boring, unglamorous, mildly drunken night, I understood that I’d had enough. Moderating wasn’t working. There was too much wiggle room.

And if nothing changes, nothing changes.

So I asked for help. I found a community and began to learn about addiction and self-care and kindness and responsibility and myself. Without the support of this group I am pretty sure I would have drunk again. Not only because I have wanted to, manymanymany times, but because life is hard without alcohol, and when I have the option to drink, it becomes my catch-all coping mechanism for everything.

Addiction is an unbelievably tricksy thing to navigate. It talks to you in your own voice, tailoring its arguments to you, taking into consideration everything available (weather, your health, the way that person reacted to you). Your addiction is as clever as you are, and it wants you to drink.

This is why some people personify their ‘alcoholism’, giving it a name, and learning to recognise its thinking voice resounding in their head. After they choose a name for the booze-loving part of themselves, these sober people create an identity to go along with it.

Their alcoholism manifests all of the parts of them they are ashamed of. It sounded like too neat a trick to newly sober me. Wasn’t that shirking responsibility? I was curious, but not convinced. Could I really just disown all of the worst parts of myself? Did I want to?

I listened to the host of Recovery Elevator describe his addiction and the two conflicting personalities it gave him. Gary was a tequila hound who loved getting wankered, while Paul was an earnest, conscientious guy who wanted to spend his time on earth helping people.

For years Gary was in ascension, necking shots and dancing on tables, while Paul was frustrated and depressed, watching his dreams slip away. Gary didn’t give a shit. He was running a bar in Spain, handing out liquor and drinking all the profits. Meanwhile, Paul, increasingly, wanted to die.

Long before I identified as an alcoholic, I became painfully aware of that part of my psyche constantly chirping for a drink. I thought over the odd, dangerous and shameful things I had done in my life, and how they all happened when I was drinking.

There’s little chance I would have made any of my worst mistakes if I had been sober, I realised. Maybe personifying your so-called alcoholism wasn’t so primitive. Maybe it sounded babyish and reductive because it was essential.

I’ve never personified my addiction, but it helped me to understand and articulate my experience in early sobriety as feeling like having two, extremely distinct, personalities.

I came to believe that if I wanted to have a different sort of life, I had to stop listening to the part of me that was super into drinking and to do everything I could to strengthen the healthy, life-affirming part of me instead.

This is why being engaged with a community of people who understand the headfuckery of addiction can help. As the pub-loving part of you tries desperately to achieve its ultimate aim — drink! — those who are aware of its best tricks can help you not to fall for them. Other sober people can recognize its justifications (“you’ve had a tough day”) and minimisations (“you’re not that bad”) and outright lies (“one won’t hurt”).

Maybe your drinking is sporadical, cyclical. You get healthy, find a new hobby or project, and throw yourself into it, and it goes brilliantly, and you feel amazing, and you deserve a treat, so you have a drink, and then wake up feeling terrible and swear off again for a while. Round and round you go. Sometimes it gets better, sometimes it goes away, and then all of a sudden, there it is again, the bewildered incomprehension that follows an out-of-control drunken night.

Or maybe your drinking is medicinal. Small quantities of wine and/or beer every day, livened up by more hearty binges at the weekends.

Or maybe your drinking is private, something between you and the TV. Something that keeps your life smaller than you dreamed of.

I drank in all of those ways and others. In the end, it was simple. I didn’t want to drink or get drunk or face any of alcohol’s consequences anymore.

If any of this sounds familiar, then you might want to try quitting for a while. There is nothing like not doing the thing you are struggling with to gain insight into why you do it. Dry January was the beginning for me. Perhaps it could be for you.

If you want to cut down or quit drinking, try these free resources: AA, Smart Recovery, Soberistas, Hip Sobriety, This Naked Mind, Recovery Elevator.

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