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Two Techniques That Kept Me Sober for Six Years
Reflecting on a milestone.
As of this past weekend, I’m six years sober.
I love these big yearly milestones. They are a great chance to reflect on my sobriety and remind myself of how far I’ve come.
I quit drinking on New Year’s Eve, the very last day of 2016. It’s an incredibly common time to quit drinking. Ironically, that makes the milestone feel even more special to me.
Every new year, as I add another year to my sobriety count, I’m joined by countless other people around the world who are also hitting a milestone—or, even more importantly, are going through their very first days of sobriety.
My original idea for this week’s newsletter was to play on the number six by offering my top six tips for sobriety. However, as I started to outline the essay, I realized that two of the techniques stood far above the rest. I decided to narrow the focus to just these two because above all else, they are what helped me to stay sober during the early days.
I hope that these strategies will be helpful to anyone trying to stay sober, but I’ve written this week’s edition especially for those of you who just quit drinking this weekend.
It’s hard to get sober, and for most of us, that’s an understatement. But, you can do it, and it’s worth it. Good luck, and I hope that you’ll find these techniques as helpful as I did!
The first strategy that I want to share is to visualize failure. That might sound funny in a world where we’re constantly told to visualize success, but it’s truly one of the most important sobriety techniques that I ever learned.
To paraphrase the unexpectedly endearing Canadian TV show Shoresy: It’s not enough to love winning. You have to hate losing.
The show is poking a bit of fun at the mentality, but the truth is that it’s helped me a lot.
Back when I was still a daily drinker, I used to spend an inordinate amount of time daydreaming about how great my life could be if I quit drinking. I would stay up late each night, thinking about quitting drinking while getting drunker and drunker. I would promise myself that I would quit the next day and turn my entire life around.
The next day, instead of quitting, I’d repeat the entire process over again. All of my daydreaming about the benefits of sobriety wasn’t enough to get me to actually quit.
Instead, I ended up finding it much more helpful to force myself to think about how bad my life would be if I kept drinking. Did I really want to wake up in ten years, having wasted another decade and hundreds of thousands of dollars on alcohol? Did I want to die having spent half my life sitting on the couch and drinking beer?
These thoughts horrified me. They were dark and extreme, but also realistic. They were exactly what I needed to motivate myself to get sober.
I’ve written in a previous edition of this newsletter about “Playing the Tape.” It’s a more specific visualization strategy that I used early on in my sobriety.
You can check out that essay for more details, but the basic gist of the strategy is that whenever I had a craving, I’d force myself to imagine what would happen if I gave in.
Instead of telling myself that I could just have one beer, I’d imagine how that one beer would lead to another and how that would lead to getting wasted for the night. From there, I’d visualize my descent back into a full-blown relapse. That “one beer” would lead me right back to the lifetime of drinking that I was fighting so hard to escape.
Visualizing this failure helped me to stay vigilant. It was the single best way of resisting cravings that I ever learned. I even used it a couple of years later to help me quit smoking. I recommend it to anyone struggling with cravings.
The other strategy that I’d like to share is even more important: Reaching out to other people.
Getting sober is far easier when you have help. This sounds like an obvious point, but when I quit drinking, I tried hard to do it on my own.
In retrospect, I think the trouble was that my years of alcoholism had left me incredibly lonely and isolated. Year by year, I lost touch with friends. The relationships that still existed were undeniably weakened.
During my early years of drinking, there was plenty of going out and partying. By the final years of my addiction, I was just sitting alone at home night after night. I was inching ever closer to a life of solitude.
So, when it came time to quit drinking, I tried to do it on my own because that was my default mode of existence. I wasn’t in the habit of reaching out to other people or asking for help.
However, doing it alone just wasn’t possible for me. I don’t think it’s possible for most addicts. Each time that I tried to quit, I’d talk myself right back into a drink. I’d always thought of myself as a rational thinker, but it wasn’t possible to reason my way out of addiction.
It wasn’t until I finally started talking to other people that I had an easier time with sobriety. (Easier, not easy.)
Talking to others gave me a chance to vent. A chance to bounce ideas. A chance to learn from those who had already gotten sober. For example, the “playing the tape” technique described above isn’t something I invented—it’s a tool that’s been passed from one recovering addict to the next for years.
There are a lot of ways to find people to talk to about addiction. The classic program is Alcoholics Anonymous, but I’ve also heard great things about SMART. There are countless other similar peer recovery groups too, meeting both in-person and online.
In addition, there are tons of chat rooms and forums devoted to sobriety. The Reddit forum, “StopDrinking,” was one of the single best resources I ever found, and it got me through a few of the worst days of my life.
Even a phone call to a friend (recovering addict or not) can help. Above all, I’ve found it important to simply get out of my head and talk to someone else. It’s not always easy, but it’s been an essential part of my sobriety.
These two techniques—visualizing failure and reaching out to others—are simple but effective. I truly hope that they will help you as much as they have helped me.
For anyone who quit drinking this year, I’ll say again, good luck! After six years sober, I can honestly say it’s one of the best decisions of my life. I hope and expect it will be for you too.
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