What If I Drank Just One Beer?
This is what runs through my mind when I "play the tape."
Many times since getting sober, I’ve been tempted to drink “just one” beer.
The thought first crossed my mind on my very first day without alcohol. I wondered to myself whether quitting cold turkey was too extreme. I thought maybe it would be better if I weaned myself down, going through a transition period of just drinking less.
I managed to resist the urge, but as my first week sober continued, the thought crossed my mind again and again. Each time that I had trouble sleeping, was swamped by brain fog, or felt bored out of my mind, I thought to myself “If I had just one beer, I could make this all go away.”
I stuck with sobriety, and those withdrawal symptoms faded, but the temptation to have “just one” drink stuck with me. The justifications shifted over time. After a few months sober, I stopped telling myself that I needed a beer and began to tell myself that I deserved one.
I thought that after putting in so much hard work at staying sober, I had earned the right to take a moment off and just enjoy a drink.
When we’re feeling clearheaded, these thoughts sound ridiculous. But, when we’re craving alcohol, it’s easy to get sucked in by the warped logic. When my urges were are their worst, I was ready to grab onto any excuse, no matter how little sense it made.
I’m not alone in that. I’ve even heard of alcoholics relapsing after years sober because they chose to celebrate the milestone with “just one” drink.
The problem with having “just one” drink is that for us alcoholics, it’s never really just one. The first drink always leads to another and another. One drink becomes a year-long relapse in the blink of an eye.
“Just one” is a siren’s call for us. It sounds so irresistible, but it leads to inevitable destruction.
I think that deep down, everyone who has gotten sober knows this, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to accept. I spent years in denial before getting sober, and it took another couple of years of sobriety before I truly accepted that I could never have “just one” drink.
So, how did I resist the siren’s call? How was I able to stay sober through those early years? By forcing myself to visualize exactly what would happen if I had that first drink.
It’s a technique that I’ve mentioned frequently, called playing the tape, and it’s arguably the single most important sobriety tool I ever learned. The basic idea is that you try to imagine how it would play out if you gave in to your cravings.
I’ve written about this technique in a previous newsletter (see: The Visualization Technique That Defeated My Addiction), but this time around, I’d like to go into more detail about how we let that first drink turn into a relapse.
I love forcing myself to truly confront and examine the thought processes that enabled my alcoholism. By understanding how I thought about alcohol, I’ve been able to more easily resist those self-destructive impulses that kept me trapped in my addiction for so many years.
If you’re a fellow alcoholic, I’d guess you’ll recognize a few of these thoughts all too well. If you’re a non-alcoholic reading this newsletter because you want to learn more about addiction, I hope this can give you a glimpse into how we think.
Playing the Tape: An Example
If I were to talk myself into having “just one” beer tonight, how would that decision really play out?
My first thought is that I’d almost certainly go to the grocery store or a gas station to buy the beer. I never was a huge fan of bars and clubs, so I’m sure I’d choose to have my one beer at home.
I’d also talk myself into buying my old favorite, Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale. I’d tell myself that if I’m just going to have one beer, I might as well make it count with the one that I used to love.
The trouble with that decision is that Sierra Nevada, as far as I know, is only sold in six-packs. So, I couldn’t really buy “just one.” Instead, I’d buy “just six,” and promise to pour the other five down the drain.
As I drank my one beer, I’m sure I’d feel a strange mix of guilt, depression, and fear about what would come next. I can’t imagine feeling many happy thoughts. Probably, more than anything, I’d feel like a failure. I’d tell myself that I’m a loser, and see the beer as proof that I couldn’t ever stick with anything.
“See?” I’d ask myself, “Why did you ever think you could stay off beer for the rest of your life?”
After that first beer, there’s simply no way that I’d actually pour the other five down the drain. I’d reason that if I had already thrown away my sobriety, I might as well go all out. Why stop at one beer when I can barely feel the effects? I’d tell myself that since the night was already a lost cause, I might as well get as drunk as I could. I might even go out to buy more.
The next day, I’d wake up ashamed and miserable. That feeling of being a failure would wash back over me again.
I know enough about the way I think to know how easily I let these negative thoughts spiral. It doesn’t matter how happy I am or how well my life is going, once I start seeing myself as a loser, I begin seeing my entire life through that light. Instead of thinking about the hundred things going right, all I can think about are the handful of things going wrong.
Just as I reasoned my way from one beer to six, I’m sure that I could justify dragging my one-night relapse into a two-night relapse, then a week, and then a month. I was never any good at cutting my losses. I’d tell myself that as long as I had messed up, I might as well go all out.
I might even use the idea of getting sober again as an excuse. I can imagine myself saying “Once I quit again, I’ll really never drink again, so I might as well enjoy a few more days of drinking first.”
Sadly, that “one drink” could very realistically lead to spending the rest of my life as a drunk. It’s a small miracle that I ever quit in the first place, and I don’t trust that I’d be able to do it again.
But what if I’m wrong about all of this? What if I really could go out and buy one drink and then go right back to being sober?
Even in that unlikely circumstance, I’d still just be adding a giant headache to my life. From that day forward, I’d constantly be wondering whether sobriety was the right choice, whether I should go back to drinking, and whether I can have “just one” again.
The reality is that having “just one” is a lose-lose situation for me. I can imagine a million minor variations of how it might play out, but none of them end well.
That’s the thought process that I forced myself to go through each time I found myself thinking about “just one” drink. Sometimes, I’d take it even further, imagining a return to the misery of my life as a drunk.
It’s not easy to think through all of this, again and again, every time you get a craving. However, it is effective.
To stay sober, I had to make sure that I was fully aware of what was at stake. For an alcoholic, one drink is never really just one drink.
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