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A common question that struggling alcoholics and problem drinkers have is whether or not they can stop drinking on their own or not.
To qualify our definitions, I would suggest that a “problem drinker” is someone who can stop drinking all by themselves without any major issues, whereas a “real alcoholic” is someone who needs help in order to overcome their addiction. Those are not technical definitions, however, those are just the way that I happen to define those terms.
Ask yourself a simple question: Have you tried to stop on your own in the past and failed?
I think a strong indicator of the problem is whether or not you have tried and failed to stop drinking in the past or not.
If you have never tried to stop then I suppose you can still wear the badge of being a “problem drinker” rather than a full fledged alcoholic.
But if you have tried to stop….really tried….and then went back to drinking, then that indicates a serious problem. If you need professional help then you need professional help.
Part of my problem was my denial. OK, maybe that was my entire problem. Because my denial told me that I had never seriously tried to stop drinking.
I played that game in my head for a very long time. For several years I tried to convince myself that I was not necessarily a hopeless alcoholic because I had never really put a full effort into trying to quit. Oh sure, I had been to rehab a few times, but I was not seriously trying to quit for myself at those times, right?
So there was still hope. Using my twisted internal logic, there was still hope that I was not a real alcoholic. I had not stopped drinking yet because I did not want to stop yet. That was all. I just didn’t want to stop yet.
That was how my denial worked, or at least part of my denial. In fact, my denial had many layers to it. For example, another part of my denial had to do with the AA program. I was afraid of AA due to some amount of social anxiety, and I did not like sitting in a meeting. It scared me. It scared me to try to speak in the meetings, which I rarely did. And so this fear of meetings kept me stuck in denial. I told people that AA would never work for me, that it could not possibly work for me, that I was just wired differently than that. In truth I was just scared, so I covered it up with denial.
So let’s get back to the question: Can you stop drinking on your own?
Short term no, long term yes
If you are a real alcoholic, then the answer is this:
No, you can’t stop drinking on your own, at least in the beginning. But yes, you can certainly make it on your own in long term sobriety.
That probably sounds complicated. It is, at least a bit. That is because it is all a question of timing.
In early recovery you need help. Period. Every alcoholic needs help in order to turn their life around.
If you can just magically walk away from alcohol with no real problems and solve your own problem, were you really an alcoholic to begin with? I say “no.”
So the real alcoholic needs help. The real alcoholic needs some form of disruption, followed by being shown how to live a different way of life.
So that is two things that the real alcoholic has to have in early recovery. One, they need to disrupt their pattern of abuse. And two, they need to learn a new way to live their life so that they do not rely on alcohol in order to manage their stress, frustration, and anxiety every day.
If you try to do either of these things by yourself then you are likely setting yourself up for failure.
Disruption is particularly dangerous for the alcoholic. This would mean that you have to figure out how to get physically detoxed from the alcohol by yourself, without being tempted to relapse. That is fairly difficult and also dangerous for anyone who is physically addicted to alcohol. In fact, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal in extreme cases, and even in mild cases you can experience seizures, so alcohol detox is nothing to mess around with. This makes a strong case for inpatient rehab that has medical supervision.
Second of all, if you try to teach yourself how to be sober when you have–for example–one week of sobriety, how well do you really think that will work out?
Consider for a moment this bit of wisdom that you often hear cited in AA meetings: “Your own best thinking got you here.”
That means that your own best ideas about how to live your life and be happy led you to complete and total misery in your addiction. Those were your best ideas and your best efforts about how to live your life. When you get clean and sober you don’t magically have another set of wonderful ideas in your back pocket. You need new ideas. You need new information. You need a new way to live, and you don’t know what this is yourself. You can’t possibly know what this is, or you would have done it already. But instead you were miserable because your own ideas led you to addiction, chaos, and unhappiness.
There has to be a better way. And there is a better way. But you won’t know what that is yourself unless you get that information from other people. You need outside help in order to learn how to recover.
When you sober up you are a student in need of a lesson. Do you really think that you qualify as the teacher in this case? No, you don’t. You cannot teach yourself how to become sober. If you could, then you would have done so!
Therefore you need to surrender. You must “get out of your own way” in early recovery so that you can learn how to recover.
In this sense, you cannot solve your own problem of alcoholism. You cannot quit drinking completely by yourself without any outside help.
Have you not tried over and over again to do this anyway? Have you not tried to solve your own problem of alcoholism repeatedly, only to fail?
That is what an alcoholic is–someone who has tried to stop drinking over and over again, and failed. Someone who has tried to control their drinking, and failed. Someone who, when they manage to control their intake for a short while, are certainly not enjoying themselves. That is an alcoholic. If you fit that description then the answer is “no,” you cannot stop drinking on your own. If you can, then go do it–go stop on your own, and enjoy a sober life. I won’t fault you for it. In fact I would prefer that you did that. For the rest of us, we need help in order to stop drinking, and that is OK. So long as we surrender and seek out the help that we need.
Build a foundation in early recovery so that you can be stronger later on when you are on your own
So how is long term sobriety different?
How is that any different from early recovery?
My experience and my theory is that you need help in early recovery, but not so much in long term sobriety.
Now some people will get upset by this statement. They will call me a liar and tell me that I am dead wrong, that we still need help in long term sobriety.
OK, maybe. I don’t want to argue. But in my own experience I can definitely say that I need at least 10 times less help in my tenth year of sobriety than what I needed in my first year.
In fact, the ratio is more like 100 to 1. In other words, during that first year of my recovery, I actually lived in long term rehab the entire first year. But now that I am living in long term sobriety, I definitely don’t rely on others for help any more. Not nearly that much. I no longer go to meetings, but I am still active in recovery in certain ways. But I am not relying on other people to tell me what to do or how to live any more.
My suggestion to you, if you want to quit drinking on your own, is to start out by building a strong foundation for recovery.
In other words, set aside the idea of doing it all by yourself. Just swallow your pride for a while and set that idea aside.
Then, start doing the work of early recovery. Go get professional help. They will direct you to treatment, AA meetings, therapy, group therapy, outpatient treatment, and so on. All of those kinds of things.
I suggest that you dive head first into all of that and take it seriously. Work hard on it. Take the advice you are given, take the suggestions, and do what you are told to do. Build a strong foundation for your recovery by listening to what others suggest to you.
This is exactly what I did for the first two years of my recovery. I actually lived in rehab for 20 months. I listened to my therapist, to my sponsor, and I went to meetings every day. It really wasn’t my scene, but at the time it was what I needed to do. I needed the structure, the support, and I needed a new way to live that did not involve drinking every day. So this worked for me in early recovery.
Later on I was able to rebuild my life in the way that I wanted. I did this without everything falling apart and leading to relapse.
So instead of going to AA meetings every day I shifted to personal growth. I focused on my health, on improving my health and my life every day. I focused on exercise, on healthy relationships, on emotional balance, on reducing my stress level. I focused on helping others and finding new ways to connect with people in recovery (online forums for example).
So I definitely believe that timing is important in terms of being able to recover on your own.
The truth is that you can actually recover on your own and you can do your own thing in sobriety.
Just not at first. Not on day one. Not during the first year of your journey.
If you try to make that a reality my guess is that you will fail. But maybe I’m wrong; maybe you are much stronger than I am. But for real alcoholics, I kind of doubt it.
Instead, I think that you need to suck it up for that first year and take your lumps. Go to rehab. Go to AA. Get a sponsor. Listen to a therapist. Do the work. Don’t try to run your life in that first year of sobriety. Instead, let other people run your life for you.
That is a key point and a tough bit of advice to swallow, so let me repeat it:
Let other people run your life during the first year of your sobriety.
You will thank me later for that. Because after a while, you will get your life back. You will realize that you are still in charge, that you are still calling the shots, that you are still able to make decisions. And you will become powerful and even successful in your recovery. And you will be in charge of your sobriety and answer to no one. But you have to transition to this, you have to ease into it, you can’t just start out being in charge of your own sobriety. For a real alcoholic that is a recipe for disaster.
Swallowing your pride and finding humility
So how do you swallow your pride and listen to others? How do you ask for help in quitting drinking?
To me, it is a matter of surrender. It is a matter of desperation. I am not sure if it is possible to force this, if you can make this decision for yourself or not.
I tend to think that you cannot.
Meaning that, when you are miserable enough in your addiction, you will finally reach a point of desperation in which you are willing to humble yourself and ask for help.
Genuine humility comes at a time when you have thrown up your hands and said to the world: “I don’t know how to live, I don’t know how to be happy, I don’t know what I am doing any more. Please show me how to live my life. I will do anything.”
That is real humility. I am convinced that if you are not yet at that point of desperation then you cannot recover from alcoholism. It is just not possible until you reach that point of willingness.
Because you need a certain amount of willingness in order to do the things that you need to do in order to recover.
You need a certain level of desperation before you become willing to take the massive action that is necessary to achieve sobriety.
It is not convenient or easy to stop drinking, and then to do the work that will make you feel good about your life as you go through it sober.
In other words, quitting drinking is not the hard part. It is staying stopped that is so difficult. And that means you have to be OK living in your own skin every day. You have to be OK with walking around sober and feeling alright with yourself.
And that takes work. You have to be humble enough to be willing to do this work.
For example, look at the step work that is involved with the program of AA. Consider the idea of sitting down and writing out a fourth step and a moral inventory. Someone who is still full of pride is not going to be willing to do that at all. You have to be humble in order to do that sort of self analysis. You have to be humble in order to get that honest with yourself.
Recovery involves a great deal of self honesty. Because you have to be able to live in your own skin every day while sober in order to make it in long term sobriety. And there is no way to fool yourself in this regard. Either you are feeling good or you have negative emotions going on. You can’t ignore your feelings, you can’t redirect your mind and avoid your inner emotions. Your emotions never lie to you, they are real, and you have to deal with them. So when you are sober you have to find new ways to cope and deal with reality, you have to find new ways to be OK living in your own skin. And so this is all about being honest with yourself so that you can learn how to manage your new life in sobriety. Sometimes you need to ask for help in order to do this. Sometimes you need some support in order to deal with it all. And there is nothing wrong with that, but you have to be honest enough with yourself to be able to admit when you need this help.
Asking for help is a small price to pay for sobriety
When I was stuck in my addiction I was not generally willing to ask for help.
For many years this cost me. My life was a mess and I was miserable because I refused to ask for help.
Simply asking for help is actually a very small price to pay for sobriety. You have to stop and consider for a moment what you get when you achieve long term sobriety.
The benefits of being sober far outweigh the risk of asking someone for help.
If this is the only thing that is holding you back then it is time to swallow your pride and just do it. Ask for help and get started on building a new life.
How do you go about doing this?
One way is to talk to your friends, family, or loved ones. Get honest with them about your problem and ask them if they can help you get to treatment.
Maybe you don’t have a support system in place like that. Maybe you don’t have friends or family that would be receptive to giving help.
In that case, just call a treatment center directly. Get on the phone and call up a rehab. Ask them if they can help you. If they can’t, ask them if they know of another agency or resource that might be able to help you.
If this fails, then find more phone numbers for different rehabs. And find a phone number for a local help line. Get on the phone and start asking questions, keep reaching out until you get the help that you need.
This is a very small price to pay for a chance at an awesome new life in recovery.
Today I can look back (over 13 years ago) and realize that asking for help was a very small price to pay at the beginning of my journey. I am so glad that I did it because it led me to where I am today.