I’ve proved I can stop. An odd one here and there isn’t going to hurt, is it? That’s not complacency!
Of all the lies we tell ourselves, this is the one I hear most often when I’m talking with people about drinking.
It fascinates me that, by and large, we accept that if someone has given up smoking they can’t then “just have the odd one” because nicotine is addictive and it would be the start of a slippery slope back into the smoking habit.
When it comes to alcohol, however, this seems to be a different story. In conversations with other women who have stopped drinking and then started again, including me in the past, this persistent myth keeps coming up and tripping us up.
The thinking goes a bit like this:
You realise you’re drinking too much for your own wellbeing and decide to do something about it. You try to cut down with the “I’ll only drink at weekends”, or “I’ll only buy really good wine and drink it slowly to appreciate it” ideas but it doesn’t really work (and that’s a different blog topic) so you decide to stop drinking for a bit. You manage to stop and you are so proud of yourself! You notice how much better you feel, how well you’re sleeping. You might lose a bit of weight and save some money. It’s fantastic!
Then the novelty wears off. Everyone else around you is still drinking and seems to be having a great time. Facebook feeds are full of friends doing lovely things with lots of Prosecco, posting holiday photos featuring great wine AND a new artisan gin bar has opened just down the road and everyone says its fab, and, and, and……
Meanwhile, you ’re still getting all the benefits of not drinking, but the reasons you stopped, the pain it was causing, seem further away. The memories are less clear. The hot flush of embarrassment the next day when you remember something crass you did, a comment made, or a message sent in an alcoholic glow has dissipated. The joy of waking up every morning with a clear head and not having that ever so slightly below par feeling has morphed into an expectation that you’ll be bright eyed and bushy tailed every morning.
Then a friend, a colleague, or the voice in your own head says “Oh come on! You’ve proved you haven’t got a problem, you stopped, you clearly don’t need it, an odd one won’t hurt!” and you start to think, “No, one glass won’t hurt, I’ve got it under control, I can be that person who has one lovely glass, savours it and then doesn’t have another”.
I did it myself for about three years before I stopped for good
I’d stopped successfully for Lent, changed my habits, my partner and I stayed away from the pub, didn’t drink wine together in the evenings when we were together and I didn’t buy it on my way home when I was on my own. I completed the forty days, felt fantastic – and really looked forward to a drink to celebrate how well I’d done. I went to the pub thinking I’d broken all the old bad habits and could just have a couple of drinks and really enjoy them. The first night I went out, that’s what I did, but within two weeks I was back to my previous levels of drinking and it took me another three years to stop and stay stopped. What a waste.
So what’s going on with this complacency?
Why, after working hard to get our drinking under control, or stopping, just when we’re congratulating ourselves on having beaten the habit, do we think its OK to go back to the thing that’s caused us so much trouble in the first place? And worse, why do we expect the outcome to be different?
Here’s what I know now from my own experience and the experience of a lot of other people in the same situation.
Some people stop drinking because they think they should or are under pressure of one sort or another.
Think about pregnant women, people who have had a sudden serious illness and been advised not to drink, those who give up for a period because they are training for an event, trying to lose weight, or living and working in an environment where alcohol is not permitted.
They give up something they see as a treat, an enjoyable reward, because the reasons for stopping outweigh the pleasure they get from it, (or think they will get from it) but giving up on this basis often triggers a sense of deprivation, of being excluded from the club of normal, happy drinkers. So, people are sober, but not happy about it. In some circles, this is referred to a being a “dry drinker.”
The behaviour has changed but the mindset hasn’t, and that means it’s a constant battle not to pick up a glass again. And if you’re fighting a battle day by day, permanently depriving yourself of something you still want, surrounded by other people who seem to be able to have it without any ill effects, sooner or later you’re going to lose the battle.
The society we live in here in Britain doesn’t want us to stop drinking.
We live in a culture where, for most of us, not only is it socially expected that we drink, it is socially awkward, if not downright unacceptable if we don’t. Going to a wedding, a business dinner, a reunion, a funeral? You can’t have an occasion without alcohol, it’s not done, or if it is, you’re odd, or miserable. This exists to the extent that those of us who don’t drink actually swap tips about what alcohol-free drinks we can have when we’re out that look similar enough to a G&T or glass of wine to avoid being challenged. And don’t get me started on the pressure the drinks industry piles on us – that’s a topic for another day
Most of us still have a distorted image of the reasons people might choose not to drink. Unless you are pregnant (and even then a debate will rage about whether you can have the occasional small glass) or have a doctor’s note to say you can’t drink with your medication, or you’re training for an iron-man, why would you stop drinking? We still don’t, generally, see not drinking alcohol as a positive consumer choice – although thankfully young adults are now making a real shift and actively choosing not to drink in increasing numbers.
Alcohol is a sneaky, addictive substance that makes you crave more.
It hits the feel-good receptors in your brain and makes them light up. And because it’s an addictive substance, it very quickly needs more to achieve the same effect, so if you stop and then start again all those circuits that remember alcohol kick back in and it’s just as hard as before to maintain that “occasional glass” habit.
Hopefully this gives you an insight into why it’s so easy to be complacent, to think you’ve got it all under control and can become the person who just has the one…. and why it’s so hard to make that stick?
So, what can you do about it?
Change your mindset.
The key to success here is to move from a deficit mindset in which you are forcing yourself to go without something you enjoy because its bad for you, to an abundance mindset in which you are choosing an alcohol free lifestyle and all the good things that brings, by ditching a substance which damages your health and wealth and seriously messes with your head.
I’m not saying it’s easy but it is doable and its essential.
Play the film to the end.
Anyone who has visited Soberistas will have heard this. You have the rose-tinted fantasy of sitting sipping a chilled glass of something alcoholic and then not having any more. Fill in the location and company of your choice. Now, play that clip to the end. What has the reality been whenever you’ve set out with that intention in the past? You already know how this goes. One always leads to another, to several, to the bottle being empty, to you feeling disappointed with yourself.
Even now, seven years on, if someone opens a nice bottle of red wine near me and I catch the smell I occasionally think, just for a nano-second, wouldn’t it be lovely just to have one glass of that. Yes, and it would be lovely to look and dance like Darcey Bussell too and but it ain’t gonna happen and I know the difference between a sneaky thought and the reality.
Keep a journal and track your winning streak.
Remind yourself of how well you’re doing and how disappointed you’ll be to break it. I think I carried on logging a big fat 0 (for alcohol units) in the top right-hand corner of my diary page every day for about 2 years after I stopped. I can’t tell you what a kick I got out of that! Every now and then I still log on to a sobriety counter and check my current number of days.
Log the situations and people that make you wobble, then figure out how to deal with them or stay away.
Find your tribe. Despite the way society and culture still operate around alcohol, there are more and more of us who have ditched it for good and we make great company. Find other people you like who don’t drink, for whatever reason and spend time with them. If other people make you feel bad for not drinking, they are not your tribe and stay away from them wherever you can.
Challenge the hype and dare to be you.
You don’t need alcohol to have a good time, or to tap into your creativity. You don’t need booze to be your best self. You are wonderfully and fearfully made. You are unique and fabulous just the way you are. You don’t need booze to feel that way about yourself, I absolutely promise you.