How To Finish Your Drink
I have come to believe several things about how to quit drinking. One is that AA was very interesting and helpful to me when I attended meetings in 1995 because it was comforting to see other alcoholics and to see how people who were so different could come together and express feelings and experiences that were so intimately similar.
But I don’t believe AA was useful in achieving or maintaining sobriety. It was interesting and comforting, but not of any particular use.
It’s important to understand what AA actually is. It’s not a company or an organization with a structure like that Salvation Army or Weight Watchers. It’s really composed of individuals who agree to meet at a certain place and at a certain time to listen to members discuss their experiences as drinkers and detail the problems alcohol has caused in their lives. Considering the lack of any staff or even chain of command, the meetings are remarkably similar and structured. Multibillion-dollar retail chains suffer less consistency,
But woven into the philosophy of AA are certain concepts that I feel undermine sobriety. The first is the requirement that one admit to powerlessness over alcohol. And probably, this is – along with the spiritual “higher power” aspect – one of the more frequent struggling points for those new to AA.
My problem with admitting to powerlessness over alcoholism is that it isn’t true. It was always a choice, though in the very late stage of my alcoholism, I made the choice by rote, never even considering the option not to drink. By then, it was extremely uncomfortable to be sober. Physically and mentally horribly uncomfortable.
I actually think one must assume power in order to be sober. One must not give oneself the permission to drink or relapse that the powerlessness of being alcohol’s victim provides.
Another Feature of AA is its slogans. Some, like “What you focus on grows,” are profound to a cosmological degree.
Others, however, I believe encourage drinking. “Progress, not perfection” and “relapse is a part of recovery” are two such slogans.
AA is based on submission and humility and for this reason, alcoholics keep count of the number of days, then weeks, then months, then years, they have maintained their sobriety. As with all things in which there is a score, these numbers evolve meaning. Reaching a certain number is rewarded with a token; relapsing results in forfeiting all of one’s accumulated days and starting the count from zero again.
What I don’t like about this is that the score keeping introduces an unnecessary and potentially dangerous element of currency into sobriety.
In a program based on printed text – twelve steps, printed onto posters and hung on every wall of every AA meeting worldwide – and slogans, known to most members, and frequently utilized in meetings, a statement such as, “relapse is part of recovery’ becomes something close to an instruction. But if falling short of this, it certainly implies that a lack of relapse would be out of the ordinary.
So in a way, on exists within AA knowing they will at some point drink again because to not drink would be “perfection” and to drink would be a “relapse” and “part of recovery.” The price paid would be the number of days one was willing to lose.
All of this is a great deal of time spent in the company of alcohol, even if one isn’t consuming the stuff. Drinking alcohol with your mind isn’t freedom.
Talking about alcohol every day when you can’t drink isn’t going to work for everyone.
For this reason, AA strikes me not as the cure for alcoholism, but as the next best thing to drinking and the place to bide your time safely and without judgement until you do.
What has worked for me is to find something I wanted more than I wanted to drink, which was a fuck of a lot.
This is less a decision than a discovery. And it’s for this reason that not everybody will get sober.
My view that the way to stop drinking is to stop drinking is laughably simplistic on the surface. It’s “Just say no.”
It’s also true. The way to stop drinking is to want sobriety more. And then when you feel a craving, feel the craving until it passes. But don’t act on it – any more than you wouldn’t kill somebody you feel like killing when they cut you off in traffic.
Just because you want something, doesn’t mean you have to have it.
I know how infuriating that is to hear.
Relapse is the temper tantrum you allow yourself to have when you forbid yourself from drinking.
To stop drinking, you stop drinking. You pour it out right now.
Everything else – all the books, therapies, and programs – are merely hand-holding. They all strike to accomplish the same thing: to talk you into not drinking.
I’m saying, if you want to stop, you will. But most do not want to stop enough to actually stop. And until there’s a medical fix, alcoholics will die as drunks.
To be successful at not drinking, a person needs to occupy the space in life drinking once filled with something more rewarding than the comfort and escape of alcohol. This is the thing you have to find.
You might not. Most alcoholics won’t.
The truth is that people who cannot stop drinking are the people who, however guilty they may feel and however dire the consequences, have become so addicted to the drug and the experience that they prefer it to the remainder of their lives. While they may truly want to be sober, they want to drink more.
The thought that precedes a relapse – certainly in my case and I bet in others as well – is, “screw it.” Screw it is an idiom that means, “I no longer care.”
Taking a drink is the opposite of powerlessness. It is taking firm, decisive action to terminate a state of sobriety that feels less satisfying and less convincing than drinking has felt in the past or we imagine will feel in the present. It may feel like one is powerless because it’s frustrating to be unable to authentically want the thing you really want to want. But don’t.
As a drug, alcohol is cunning. Because most alcoholics do have a measure of control over their drinking, often for many years. This changes, when it does, suddenly and profoundly. In late-stage alcoholism, the physical effects from abstinence are not only painfully uncomfortable but they can be fatal. At this stage, the alcoholic requires alcohol.
AA advertises a majority success rate. The advertisement is in the form of one of AA’s foundation documents. “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.” The implied efficacy brings to mind the question of, “who’s ‘we’?”
The twelve-step program is frequently the first and primary course of treatment administered for a diagnosis of alcoholism, which is medically classified as a disease. I can think of no other standard medical treatment that is supported by little or no research and offers patients no statistical information regarding efficacy.
Still, many people swear by AA and have maintained lengthy periods of sobriety within it. For these people, the spiritual foundation and community of AA provide something that is, on the whole, more satisfying for them than drinking.
I don’t believe that AA has “kept” these people sober. They have, instead, found something that has enabled them to choose a life without drinking. Many members of AA credit the program with keeping them sober; but they themselves are the reason.
They myth that alcoholics are powerless and unable in any way to shape the outcome of their addiction is a fatal, deeply untruthful message. No alcoholic should ever feel powerless over alcohol.
Those who die were not powerless. They either chose alcohol or they slid passively into the inevitable outcome of drinking; they made a decision by choosing to take no new action. And it’s this choice that results in death.
That there exists a medically recognized disease that is typically treated through twelve-step programs that are based on vague supernatural components is shocking to me. If breast cancer or leukaemia were treated in such a medieval fashion, there would be riots.
Ultimately, the treatment for addiction – until and if there is a successful medication – resides within the addict. You can’t spend time waiting for rehab to ‘work’ or for something to ‘fix’ you. These things can – and do – inspire you or encourage you.
You don’t need to take action to stop drinking. Drinking is an action: pouring the vodka into the glass, raising the glass to your lips.
To stop drinking, all you have to do is sit.
In 100 percent of the documented cases of alcoholism worldwide, the people who recovered all shared one thing in common, no matter how they did it:
They didn’t do it.
They just didn’t do it.
You absolutely can stop drinking today, right now.
The question is only, do you want to be sober more than you want to drink? Very few people can answer this question truthfully and reply, yes.
I hope you’re one of them. Maybe you are.
I didn’t think I was.
- Augusten Burroughs