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What It's Like to Give In to a Craving
(And how to prevent it.)
In last week’s newsletter (“Why Is It So Hard to Quit Drinking?”), I wrote about what it feels like to have a craving for alcohol. This week is something of a follow-up, in which my goal is to describe what it’s like to give in to those cravings.
Sadly, this is a topic in which I have all too much expertise.
I’m very proud to have now been sober for over six years without a relapse, but my recovery didn’t always go so smoothly. I truly lost count of the number of times that I swore to myself that I was quitting alcohol for good, only to end up giving in to a craving the very next day.
The reason I’m focusing on this topic this week is that I think that by reflecting on what it’s like to give in to a craving, it can become easier to resist them. I’ve always believed that the more time we spend honestly trying to understand our addictions, the better we will do in recovery.
A Breaking Dam
Whenever I tried to quit drinking, I experienced nearly constant cravings for the first few weeks (or more often the first day or two, because I rarely lasted longer than that.)
I always felt like there was a cumulative effect to the cravings. If I was only thinking about having a drink for a few minutes, it wouldn’t have been hard to resist, no matter how strong the urge was. However, when life was just one endless craving, it became incredibly wearing.
The longer I spent thinking about alcohol, the harder it became to resist. I always could tell that a relapse was coming when I started to get into debates with myself over whether or not to have a drink.
I’m sure that most recovering alcoholics know the types of internal debates that I’m talking about. I’d tell myself that I needed a drink to ease the withdrawal symptoms or that I’d learn to drink in moderation instead of getting sober entirely. They were flimsy excuses, but I wanted a drink so badly that I’d grasp at any justification I could find.
Then, I’d go back and forth with myself, talking myself into a drink and out of it, sometimes for hours at a time. The trouble was that as soon as one of these internal debates began, I’d already lost. My addicted mind just couldn’t think rationally enough to reason my way out of a relapse.
The moment when I finally decided to drink was like a dam breaking. I had been fighting for hours to keep the water back, but once the dam broke, there was no stopping it.
I’d go out for beer, feeling like a passenger in my own body. Even though there was a part of me that still wanted to stay sober, once I had made the decision to give in to a craving, I felt like I couldn’t change my mind back.
I would buy the beer, take it home, and open the first bottle, the entire time regretting what I was doing, but unable to stop myself.
It was a surreal experience, but one that I grew very familiar with. A lot of people talk about their addiction as if it is another entity, outside themselves, controlling how they act. I don’t see that as a literal truth, but as a metaphor, it’s extremely apt.
The First Sip
One of the things that I always found interesting about giving in to a craving was how quickly I’d go all in. Sure, I was filled with regret as I left my apartment, walked to the liquor store, bought my beer, and returned home. But, after that first sip of beer, my entire mindset switched.
I’d have one beer and I would immediately start feeling better. Sure enough, my withdrawal symptoms would dissipate and my mind would clear. After the first beer, I’d start right in on the second. By the end of the night, I was always wasted.
Why? The main answer is simple. I was an alcoholic.
This is exactly how we act—again and again and again. We talk ourselves into one drink, and that drink turns into two, and those two turn into a week-long binge.
That lack of control is exactly why we quit drinking in the first place, but somehow, when we’re struggling with sobriety, we manage to convince ourselves that one drink won’t hurt.
The other reason for going all-in like this was that I felt like as long as I had broken my sobriety attempt, I might as well enjoy it. I told myself a relapse was a relapse, and it made no difference whether I cut myself off after a beer or if I kept drinking for the next week.
Of course, this isn’t true at all. While it’s always better not to relapse at all, the longer we let it go on, the worse the damage. I should have gotten back on the wagon as soon as possible—not let my addiction go right back into full swing. But, that’s easier said than done.
No matter how badly I told myself that I wanted to be sober, it just felt so comfortable to slip back into my addiction.
However, that comfort doesn’t last forever. It eventually gives way to shame, embarrassment, and deep regret. The next day, the next week, or sometimes, even the next month, I’d wake up and realize that I had thrown my sobriety away and had to start all over.
How do you break the cycle? That’s the million-dollar question, and there isn’t one magic answer.
Two of the tips that worked best for me (and which if you’ve been reading this newsletter for long, you’ve probably already heard):
Visualize what would happen if you gave in to the craving. Force yourself to picture going back to drinking for days on end.
Call a friend. Someone from your recovery community or just someone that you trust. Ideally, talk to them about your cravings, but talking to them about anything can help.
Those two strategies were the most important ways that I was able to stay sober for all these years.
In addition, last year, I wrote an edition of this newsletter devoted to the many tools and tricks that have helped me to get through cravings. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can check it out in the archive: How to Resist Alcohol Cravings.
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