The Life Raft

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.

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19 Responses

  1. Sleep is so very valuable, the first time you really sleep well after stopping drinking is like a miracle. I’d forgotten how it felt. If I feel tempted at anytime, I just think about how badly I would sleep after drinking. That does the trick for me.

  2. And per chance to dream. When I quit drinking I started having proper dreams again. Good ones with lots of twisted plots and people from my past showing up. Guess the dream sleep is the proper one that makes you feel refreshed in the morning…

  3. Spot on as always Mr (“Sir” in my opinion) Porter. Quitting does not have to be one’s “identity” for life- it is just an evolved version of yourself. I wonder if some don’t quit because they’re (as I was) afraid of being known as the “former drinker”?

  4. What if you are in your mid seventies and your not sure you can swim anymore – is it worth the pain of giving up the raft

    1. You don’t need to swim, that’s the point. It’s up to you of course but I would say it’s never too late to improve your quality of life.

  5. Everything in this very creative post is absolutely true. I stopped drinking 5 months ago. I would never even consider moderation for all the reasons you mention in your post. Thank you for sharing this as a wonderful reminder.

    1. I also love the part about waking up feeling refreshed and energetic and alive. I’ve always been a morning person, but since I stopped binge drinking 5 months ago, I wake up feeling ready to rock my world and I wake up happy. I’m not feeling anxious anymore,I don’t sweat the small stuff like I used to (things are not so dramatic). I’m not feeling like I’m missing out. I’m not having cravings. I no longer feel the guilt and shame from the cognitive dissonance that went on for decades (not wanting to drink but drinking anyway). I isolate less. I am feeling very grateful and I truly love doing my self care every day. Sparkling water with organic cranberry juice in a beautiful wine glass every night with half a power bar (as to not eat too many carbs at night) is what I look forward to now! I never could have imagined this months ago when I binge drank wine and followed it with lots of unhealthy food to wake up the next day feeling bloated, depressed, anxious, and helpless. Living alcohol free is a magnificent way of being in this world. But I never would have known this unless I chose to give it up and let go of the life raft.

  6. I am 72. Giving up alcohol has given me the redound energy to do so many things in my life like walking 1200 miles up the U.K. I tried moderating but it is just too hard. After a few weeks alcohol free you realise that alcohol takes much more than it gives

  7. Spot on. I too stopped drinking alcohol 5+ months ago and have no intention of going back. Your article William reinforces this lifestyle… thank you!

  8. Good post & totally agree. After three and a half years sober, I still have days when I think I could do with a drink. I still avoid the drink aisles in the supermarkets. Then I remember how my life was so much about those drinking aisles and about blaming everything and everyone else for my never getting my act together. Taking responsibility has been the hardest part of sobriety but worth it.

  9. Your many analogies- like this one- really help me shift how I think about alcohol in my life. They become a shorthand for the truths that are reasons to stop drinking and stay alcohol free. I appreciate all of the support you have shared in your books and blog posts : )

  10. Late sixties here. YES YES YES. It’s even more worth it because we enjoy our marginal years with better health and pure happiness. The joys of life we then take with us.

  11. Absolutely! I have been sleeping so well since stopping. Sleeping a full 8 hours without waking was almost unheard of, but now it happens mostly every night. I think about my poor body for the last 25 years, being unable to get the rest it really needed. The thought of upsetting this much needed rest is enough for me to not want a drink.

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William Porter

William wrote Alcohol Explained to share his approach on recovering from alcohol dependency.

Read the first five chapters of 

Alcohol Explained

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