Problem-drinkers often claim they want to quit alcohol. It’s a good starting point, I guess, but only a very small number seem able to do anything about it. This is generally taken as a sign of how difficult the whole thing is. But if you think about it, the desire for quitting is a somewhat gloomy goal. By contrast, you rarely hear problem-drinkers talk in a positive way about the much more positive desire for sobriety.
But that’s maybe because problem-drinkers are not encouraged to do so. It’s all quite woolly this desire thing. I mean, professionals in the recovery field don’t draw much of a distinction between a desire to quit and a desire for sobriety. These things are seen as 2 sides of the same coin. But everyone seems agreed on how important “desire” is to the therapeutic process. “You have to want it” is a phrase you hear a lot from professionals, whatever their therapeutic method. But it needs clarification.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that sobriety isn’t seen as a desire, so much as a state that is achievable once alcohol has been successfully removed.
But maybe there’s some work that could be done around this desire for sobriety at an earlier stage. I’m keen to explore.
In my own case, it was my newly found desire for sobriety that fuelled a change in my behaviour, not the other way round, and I’m intrigued to find out if this might hold for others.
It was mid-December, 2013 and I had just hired out a small pub in Kings Cross to celebrate my 50th birthday the following month (which tells you something about my relationship with alcohol at the time!) The Christmas party season was in full-swing but I wasn’t having such a good time of it.
That’s because I had got drunk at a works-dinner – a bad place to get drunk at the best of times. I had pre-loaded in the day-time and become argumentative with the boss during the celebratory meal; although I didn’t think I had been particularly drunk; nor had the argument been much more than boisterous banter in my view, but it was enough to get me into trouble the next day. I knew I had fucked up, so the unravelling of this faux-pas was excruciating. I wanted to get it over in one go, but unfortunately, I was subjected to the drip-drip torture of silent disapproval for hours and hours before finally being confronted with the accusation of drunkenness.
I had also had a big row with my girlfriend a couple of nights previously at which I had got extremely defensive and sarcastic. I was very drunk of course, but not too drunk to whip up a bitter and malevolent line of defence at what I saw as her general disapproval of me.
Both incidents had left me reeling with anxiety. They both left me with an impending duty to offer extensive, grovelling apologies. I just about managed to pull it off. But it wasn’t pretty, and I wasn’t out of the woods completely, either. But I had bought a little time, during which I intended to get things back on track.
I decided upon a dry January as the best way to demonstrate the sincerity of my intentions. This had the very strong advantage of being sufficiently draconian to give me some very real credit both at home and work, but it also gave me a 2-week drinking window before needing to start the self-punishment. I could get myself back into the good books of all those I depended on, whilst also enjoying the festive period. I even quite liked the idea of a sober January, as a way of re-setting my levels.
But there was a problem. My 50th birthday celebration was scheduled for mid-January, and there was no way I could be sober for that. Furthermore, if I gave myself even one night of birthday drinking, I knew I wouldn’t be able to return to sobriety for the rest of the month. And it had to be a proper dry January to have credibility; so I was stuck.
Now this is where the miracle happened. This is the bit that I wonder if others might draw inspiration from. That’s because it was at this point the idea of sobriety appeared before me in a very different way. The birthday dilemma made me think how wonderful it would be if I didn’t have to worry about drinking. I thought about all those people who don’t drink alcohol and I suddenly felt envious of them. Within moments I found myself imagining the sober version of me at my own birthday party pouring drinks for friends, chatting and even dancing, and having a good time, but without touching a drop of alcohol. I imagined giving people a lift home at the end of the night and waking the next day feeling great about myself and about the night before.
These things were actually desirable outcomes – I liked the idea of drinking sparkling water while those around me became gradually intoxicated and bloated with booze. Sobriety became a desirable state in its own right, rather than merely the consequence of staying off the more undesirable state of intoxication.
It was this moment of clarity, the birth of my desire for sobriety that snowballed into a plan to quit 3 weeks later during which time I did a number of mental exercises to keep that desire for sobriety focussed.
Firstly, I thought about every sip of alcohol I was consuming in the run-up to my quit-date and analysed what it was doing for me – or rather to me. I asked myself what the 2nd/3rd/4th drink offered that the first one hadn’t delivered. I questioned my need for alcohol on every occasion over the next few weeks. It made me feel increasingly disillusioned by what alcohol was actually doing for me anymore.
Secondly, I developed a quitting mantra every time I thought about alcohol. The mantra had 3 prongs:
- I’ve done it all before; alcohol has given me everything in its armoury and I have tried all of it many many times.
- If I drink again, the same things will happen – because they always do, whatever I say to myself. And even when bad things don’t happen, it’s all predictable stuff – nothing new.
- I’m going on a new journey now – a really new uncharted adventure. And there’s no turning back from it after the start of the journey.
Thirdly, I nurtured the positive feelings that were developing within me until gradually I fell in love with the idea of sobriety.
I didn’t look for substitutes for alcohol when I quit; sobriety became the drug that replaced booze – my new drug of choice – making me sharp and focussed, able to hold a conversation, remember things, get home safely, enjoy the remainder of the evening and wake up in the morning feeling amazing, with my wallet and phone where they should be!
I really believe that if you can find a way of developing a desire for sobriety, you will speed up your recovery process immensely. When you desire sobriety, you no longer feel deprived of alcohol. That’s a powerful feeling. By contrast, there are many people who are able to quit, but feel deprived of alcohol – if not all the time, then certainly at key moments. These quitters are able to go long bouts without alcohol – way beyond a dry January – but they stay out of its way, using all the will power they have. Any desire they may have is for staying quit; not for sobriety. When they fail in the end, they do so in a moment of weakness. Their resolve gives way – maybe a bad thing happens, or they press the fuck-it button in wrong company. It’s very hard to come back from that.
I also really believe that to switch to a desire for sobriety is a necessary step in all cases in the end. In other words, however you get there, whatever the journey, that final switch in your brain will have to be activated, no matter what – if you’re going to be truly successful. This is the desire thing that all professionals are referring to when they say you have to “want it”. But it can potentially happen at any point along the journey – whether that’s after 12 bouts in re-hab, or on the top deck of a 73 bus one afternoon, after 36 years of drinking.
My key message is: we mustn’t be woolly about our definition of: “want it”. “Want sobriety” is key. It’s not enough to simply want to quit.
More about desire for alcohol, desire for quitting and desire for sobriety can be found in my drinking biog: