Seven years ago in March, I stopped drinking alcohol and every year I celebrate my latest soberversary. (Yes it’s a thing!)
One of the most frequent questions I get is “How? How did you stop and make it stick?” (I get asked why a lot too but that’s a very separate blog). It was a question I’d asked myself a lot before I stopped. I’d lost track of the number of New Year’s Eves that had me resolving to drink less, and the number of mornings I woke up swearing never to drink again.
In the end, it came down to two things:
First, a considered sober decision that I wanted to stop drinking. Note the word I’ve used: wanted. Not “needed” or “should”. I wanted to stop drinking. That was the turning point. In the clear light of day, stone cold sober, I wanted to be free of alcohol and its effects.
Second, I planned for it, and this is the heart of this blog. Having decided that I wanted to stop I knew I needed a plan. Like any other big change we want to make in life, I knew I stood a much better chance of making it stick if I planned for it – so, here’s what I did.
I identified my triggers
I grabbed a pen made a list of the triggers that made me most likely to pick up a drink.
(I’ll be honest here – it was a long list as pretty much anything was a good enough reason to open a bottle of wine or have another pint). However, the ones I recognised that I really needed to manage were:
- Shopping on the way home from work when I was tired, hungry, fed up and felt I deserved a treat (aka a drink). In this case, it was picking up the bottle in the supermarket so I could have a drink when I got home.
- Being at home on my own with alcohol in the house. The wine was never going to be put away for future consumption more than 24 hours ahead.
- Being in a pub or social situation where other people would be drinking. Particularly being with a group of drinking buddies where the expectation was we’d drink or family occasions where consumption of large quantities of red wine was a given.
- Looking at my lovely glasses, decanter etc on display. This was a visual trigger which brought up wistful thoughts of good wine drunk out of beautiful glasses with lovely food. Images of a frosted glass of white wine or a decanter full of rich, dark red. You get the picture …
Once I’d recognised my triggers I was able to plan to avoid them, and for me, this included using the tip given to those giving up smoking:
Put the visual triggers away.
By putting my glasses and decanter away and replacing them on the shelves with some of my grandma’s lovely, delicate china tea service I’d filled the space with something with lovely associations that had nothing to do with booze. I didn’t leave an empty space, a gap to remind me what I’d given up.
I gathered my tribe
Humans are tribal animals, we all need the support of our tribe if we’re going to thrive. Going it alone is much harder in any area of life especially when you’re making a huge change.
I told just 4 people to me what I planned to do; my partner, my daughter, my best friend ( who was also a drinking buddy) and my mentor. My mentor was someone with personal experience of overcoming dependency whose role it is to offer support and challenge to others on this path.
I set my intention in positive language and shared it.
I decided in January 2011 that the start day for my alcohol-free life would be the first day of Lent in March and told my tribe. There were several reasons for this:
- I’d given up for the forty days of Lent in the past and knew I could do it. (After that I went straight back to what I was doing before and that’s another story).
- Nobody questions a dry Lent any more than they do if you give up sugar or coffee, so I knew I wouldn’t have to have the difficult conversations about why I was giving up alcohol. (Now with the huge growth of dry January and Stoptober there are more opportunities to have a period of abstinence without being called out on it).
- It meant I could complete my forty days and simply not start again without having to explain myself. My tribe of four knew the plan was not to start again but I didn’t tell anyone else. That meant I didn’t worry about setting myself up to fail. It also meant that after the forty days I was just carrying on my winning alcohol-free streak and choosing not to go back to a bad habit. Using positive language to myself and in my planning really helped with this. I didn’t know then about the neuroscience and behavioural science evidence about the power of establishing a positive streak in any area you want to achieve change in.
I didn’t look too far ahead
My intention was set and my target was to stop drinking for forty days and then not start again, a day at a time. After three months alcohol-free I let myself set a six-month target. It was September when I got to that and I set a target to complete the calendar year without alcohol, which of course would include Christmas and New Year. It was important that my focus was being alcohol-free at the end of 2011 and that I didn’t fall into the elephant trap of thinking “I can’t drink at Christmas”.
So, now what?
Do I still have to plan in order to stay sober?
No, sober is who and what I am now and I love it. There is absolutely nothing about drinking alcohol that I miss!
I can’t be complacent, just as no one who has recovered from an unhealthy dependence or addiction can. But realistically, none of us can take our physical, mental and emotional well-being for granted, can we? We all have work to do.