When you are drinking regularly, you can’t quite imagine not doing it. Even thinking about quitting for a day can feel intimidating, let alone a week, a month, a year, or the rest of your life.
But as the reality of life as a regular drinker forces itself upon us, we desperately want to change. One of the greatest pleasures in life is waking up refreshed, positive, resilient, and ready to face the day. Conversely it is incredibly awful to constantly wake up feeling even more tired than when you went to bed; to feel lethargic and miserable and exhausted before you’ve even started the day. There is so much truth lurking behind that old Dean Martin joke; “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink. When they wake up in the morning, that’s as good as they’re going to feel all day.”
This place may not be thought of as a traditional ‘rock bottom’ (with a lost job, ruined marriage, lost home, personal relationships in tatters, permanent health issues), but it is an awful place to be. The drinker at this stage is living a hugely reduced quality of life, even when they are drinking (when they are supposedly reaping the “rewards”, the great pleasure of drinking). But when they try to stop, things get even worse (in the short term at least as the withdrawal kicks in and they no longer have any means to relieve it). If they do manage to get those first few crucial days under their belt they still often feel like something is missing; that life isn’t quite the same without a drink in hand. They are miserable as a drinker and they’re miserable when they quit. So what do they do? They can’t quit and they can’t continue, so they try to take a third route; moderating.
The trouble is that when you are drinking regularly, life can feel like an ocean of troubles, and alcohol is your raft with which you try to survive it. Floating around aimlessly, but totally reliant on your raft for survival. You may spot islands that look wonderful to live on, but because the raft drifts around with no control, you’re unable to reach them.
Moderating is like cutting the raft in half, or quarters, or tenths. Living on a raft in the middle of the ocean can’t be a nice experience but suddenly finding it shrunk by a significant percentage must be downright scary. That’s what moderating is like. It can often induce feelings of panic (‘I’ve had my one / two and now I can’t have another for an hour / day / week’, or whatever arbitrary rules we’ve decided on to moderate our drinking). That horrible feeling when you’re trying to moderate, and you’ve had your quota and then have to stop, with the withdrawal starting to kick it and no way of doing anything about it.
The worst perhaps is that you don’t end up feeling much better. Those one or two drinks will ruin your sleep (I used to feel just as tired the next day after one or two drinks as after a dozen). Sure, the regular drinker / moderating drinker may not have the shocking hangover and blackouts, but they still feel pretty below par. The raft may have shrunk, but your reliance on it has increased. The smaller it is the more desperately you have to cling to it.
So what do you do when you’re lost at sea on a shrinking raft and the panic is rising?
Well here’s the big secret; the answer is to let go of the raft entirely, just give up on it, jettison it. There is an initial feeling of panic, you flounder and splash around, you feel that you’re about to drown, but then you know what? You find that you’re not drowning at all, instead you’re standing in about 2 feet of water. You didn’t even need the raft to begin with. All those years panicking thinking the raft was your lifeline, and giving up everything to keep hold of it was all unnecessary. And now that you have your feet on the ground, you can regain control. You can now decide where you’re going, instead of being at the whim of the raft and where it may or may not take you. You can now try to wade to that island you always thought looked so good to live on.
When you quit drinking you can expect a few days that feel like drowning before you find your feet. The withdrawal will be at its worst, leaving you anxious and out of sorts and unable to sleep. When that evens out it takes time to catch up on the missed sleep and for the body and brain to fully recover. But you find your feet very soon, and shortly you become stronger, and you continue to strengthen as the days turn into weeks, and months, and then years.