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Talking Yourself Into a Relapse
Why I stopped trying to "reason" with my addiction.
After I quit drinking, the evenings became the hardest part of my day.
I had been a daily drinker for years, but like many “high-functioning” alcoholics, I had mostly managed to keep my habit relegated to the nights. I’d get through the workdays completely sober, but I’d always stop to buy a pack of beer on the way home, and I’d be drunk by the time I fell asleep.
Once I got sober, the daylight hours were relatively easy. I wasn’t used to drinking then anyway, and I had work to keep myself distracted.
But, as I went home each day, I was already thinking about drinking. It took everything I had to drive straight back to my apartment without stopping at the grocery store for beer.
During my first few weeks sober, I spent many nights just sitting around and thinking about alcohol. I’d try to watch television but get so distracted by my cravings that I couldn’t even follow the plot of a dumb sitcom.
There were a few things that held my attention—reading, cooking, and cleaning all helped—but I just didn’t have enough activities to keep me occupied.
As the evenings went on, my cravings only got worse. The later at night it got, the more badly I wanted a drink.
The peak of these cravings came each night just before the closing time of the nearest grocery store. At that hour, I’d start to seriously doubt my sobriety. I would watch the minutes tick by on the clock, doing the mental math to see whether I still had time to go buy beer or not.
As it got closer to closing time, I’d worry that I would end up regretting not buying any alcohol. What if I changed my mind about sobriety but the store was already closed for the night? Sometimes, I even wondered whether I should buy a six-pack “just in case”—not to drink, but to have on hand if for some reason I “needed” it.
Hopefully, these thoughts sound as ridiculous to you as they do to me. Writing them out, it’s hard to believe that I ever had myself so fooled.
All of my concerns about the grocery store closing were just a form of self-sabotage. I was looking for an excuse to go buy beer.
I should have been happy that the store was closing for the night. It’s easier to stay sober when you can’t easily find any alcohol. But, instead, I turned it into a reason to panic and doubt my sobriety night after night.
One of the most important lessons that I’ve ever learned about addiction is that it is shockingly easy to talk yourself into a relapse.
It didn’t matter how committed I felt to sobriety or how badly alcohol had damaged my life: I could always find some reason or another to go back to drinking.
My thinking was never rational, but it sure felt like it was at the time. When I told myself that I needed to buy beer just in case I wanted it, I couldn’t see that I was putting my sobriety at risk. My thoughts made sense to me at the moment.
Another one of the self-sabotaging thoughts that often ran through my head was: “I need to take just one day off from sobriety.” I would tell myself that it was just too hard to stay sober and that I needed a break from it. The way I pictured it playing out was that I’d get drunk for the night, then the next day go back to being sober, but that it would suddenly be much easier since I took a break.
Of course, that’s not what would actually happen. I had relapsed enough times to know that I couldn’t just go back to drinking for one night. If I broke down and had a beer, I’d end up using it as an excuse to put off sobriety for another week or two. By the time I tried quitting again, it would be even harder.
No matter how irrational these thoughts were, they were also incredibly compelling to my newly-sober self. Similar negative thoughts were popping into my head all day long:
“I don’t have the strength to stay sober for good, so I might as well give up now.”
“This isn’t a good week for sobriety. I should go back to drinking and try again when I’m less busy.”
“My problem is with beer—it’s fine if I have a glass of wine.”
What can you do when these intrusive thoughts threaten to derail your sobriety?
Let me start with what not to do. In my experience, the worst response I could have would be to start debating with myself—which was exactly my natural tendency.
When I thought about going back to drinking, I wanted to just reason my way out of it. I’ve always thought of myself as a logical, rational person. Surely, I should be able to talk myself out of a relapse.
However, the trouble was that my addiction had completely clouded my judgment. When it came to matters of drinking, I simply couldn’t think rationally. I’d tell myself that I was thinking logically, but I was actually completely driven by my alcoholism.
Whenever I started debating with myself, I’d end up losing. It just wasn’t a fair fight because, deep down, I was just looking for an excuse to relapse.
Instead, I had to learn to avoid these debates altogether. When I started having thoughts about going back to drinking, I cut the thoughts off immediately, instead of letting them turn into internal conversations.
Sometimes, I’d cut off the thought with a distraction. I would simply find something else to think about or entertain myself with.
Other times, I needed to turn to friends and other recovering addicts for help.
I’m still amazed by how powerful a simple phone call can be when you’re feeling at your worst. When I was nearly overcome by the need to buy alcohol, I’d reach out to someone else to get my mind off it.
What about those self-sabotaging thoughts that sounded so rational and convincing when they were bouncing around in my head? As soon as I said them aloud, I’d realize how ridiculous they really were.
It’s been years since I quit drinking, and I’m relieved to say that my thoughts about my alcoholism cleared up with time. I stopped trying to talk myself into a drink and began to enjoy sobriety.
To get to that point, though, I needed to quit spending so much time in my head. There was no way to “win” a debate against my addiction. Instead, I had to stop letting myself get into these internal debates altogether.
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