Addiction theory talks about the ‘anywhere, anytime, at any cost’ aspect of the problem behaviour. In fact, doing something despite the harmful consequences is one of the cornerstones of addiction diagnosis. However, one of the best tools to fight over-drinking habits is simply making it inconvenient.
I have a favourite drink – whiskey. I don’t generally keep it in the house. I have other alcohol around, but I have tracked my drinking and it’s clear that I drink less when whiskey isn’t available. I mean… I could go to the store and just buy it, but apparently laziness is a virtue next to willpower because that doesn’t happen. I can’t explain it any other way. I just don’t do it, despite certain knowledge that if someone opened a bottle and set a drink on the table in front of me, I’d have some. In fact, there have been several times when I’ve wandered aimlessly around my home, stared at my liquor cabinet and then turned away because there wasn’t anything I wanted in there.
This lukewarm state of desire probably seems odd to someone in the depths of struggling to change their drinking habits. There are times when it really does feel like ‘anywhere, anytime’ and we can’t imagine that changing. However, I think that’s partly true because we arrange our lives to support our bad habits. It’s not possible to spend hours a day being drunk without some serious planning to make that happen. And once you’re set that up and there are no obstacles in your way, immediate gratification is hard to resist.
If we put even one barrier in our path, however, immediate gratification isn’t even an option because it’s no longer immediate. At best, it’s just gratification, and I am surprisingly less willing to leap at an opportunity that is just beyond my reach. I won’t say it’s easy exactly, or comfortable, and oddly enough there are times when I’m really angry at myself for not having a better stocked liquor cabinet. But that’s the point. Making me think about my drinking helps me slow down and stop what I’m doing. I can use a small step (not buying my drink of choice) as a wedge to shift my entire pattern of behaviour. Despite everything I read about strengthening our willpower to moderate our drinking, there’s a lot to be said for using our other virtues, and sometimes our vices, to help us.
- Laziness – break up with your favourite alcohol and wince at the sort-of-okay stuff you will tolerate in its place. It’s still alcohol. It tastes okay. Not like the old days maybe, but technically there’s nothing wrong with it, right?
- Being cheap – I only take cash with me now when I go out. I can buy my maximum number of drinks and no more, or else I’m walking home. I don’t like walking home, so I stay within my budget. Hm, maybe I should file this under laziness too. Still, I’m trying to save some money so I can travel more often. I don’t have a lot of money to waste on booze. I used to have friends who would buy me drinks when this happened, but now that they realize I’m never going to return the favour, they save their money and buy their own drinks now.
- Forgetfulness – I used to make special trips to the store to get alcohol. Now I don’t bother getting it except when I’m buying my regular groceries. The problem here is that I usually forget my grocery list and just wander around until I run out of time to shop and have to head home with whatever I’ve remembered to buy. This is perhaps a symptom of caring more about food than alcohol, but if I don’t remind myself to get drinks then the odds of me remembering are pretty small.
- Procrastination – Since alcohol heavy and I’m trying to walk more and carry my groceries home, I get annoyed and skip the booze. Where there was once a time when the idea of 24 hours without alcohol was horrifying, I avoid buying more because it really hurts my hands when the shopping bags are too heavy. I put it off to next week, but the same thing happens then too.
I recognize that all these situations begin with a certain arms-length relationship with alcohol. When I was really struggling, I didn’t start with such an easy attitude toward drinking. The habits I needed to change were the ones I’d set up to support my drinking. Without thinking about it, I’d changed my life to make drinking the easiest possible thing I could do. The habits that supported drinking were incredibly effective:
- Laziness – I gave up all my hobbies for drinking. I quit working out because it conflicted with my drinking schedule. I avoided friends and social obligations where I’d have to pretend to be sober so I could commit to passing out early. I stopped going out because I knew I’d probably have more fun at home, just drinking.
- Being cheap – I didn’t go out to drink because it was really expensive. Buying in bulk and drinking at home was clearly the economical option. I did the math to find the greatest volume of alcohol per dollar value. I got used to the taste of cheap booze.
- Forgetfulness – there was something important I needed to do, but it was easy to have a few drinks and not worry about whatever that was.
- Procrastination – I knew my health was being affected and I was totally going to deal with that tomorrow.
Oh wait, they’re the same habits.
My point is that you don’t need to be a superhero to overcome addiction. I haven’t changed all that much as a person. I just turned my life from something that supported over-drinking into a life that suppresses it. Yes, it took a lot of short-term willpower and struggle to make that change, but no one can do that forever. Lucky for me, and lucky for everyone in the same boat, it’s not necessary. You can pick up your broken, disorderly and disappointing self and still make small changes in your life that will help you drink less. I didn’t have a special day I was waiting for. I just did it one day, and I wasn’t issued a superhero uniform to do it. I also wasn’t transformed the day afterwards either, but I was building a new path for myself that was different than the deep rut I’d worn in.
At first, when I tackled my drinking, it seemed overwhelming. I was constantly tired and feeling out of place. I felt like I spent every minute of the day planning how to avoid drinking. All my energy went into the white-knuckled fight against the habit. Since I drank alone and at home, and I spent several weeks engineering my life to simply never be a) at home or b) alone. I stayed in coffee shops, I went to movies I didn’t like. I begged friends to sit with me as I joylessly complained about my life. It was really hard to do and I didn’t like it, but mostly I felt exhausted by the effort.
It passes. You just have to change the habits that are giving your drinking a free ride into your life. I’m happy to report that I can be home and alone just fine now without drinking myself into a stupor. I’ve got better things to do with my time, and I’m dealing with the emotional pain that drove me to over-drink in the first place.
On a more factual level, here’s a practical list of ways to change your habits.
- Don’t keep alcohol around, especially your favourite drink.
- Limit the amount of money you take to the bar.
- Have friends and activities that are incompatible with drinking.
- Have other goals in life that need your time and attention.
- Avoid situations where you tend to over-drink, or be very aware that these are danger zones for you and try to make a plan to get through them without over-drinking.
I don’t think any of these 5 points are new to anyone, it’s standard advice. This article is about why it’s standard advice and why it works for imperfect people like me. Moderate drinking isn’t about a lifetime of Resisting the Temptation of Alcohol. That’s way too tiring. It’s also not entirely about Your Total Transformation. That’s unrealistic, especially in the short-term.
The habits you choose can do a lot of work for your moderation goals, and once you ‘set it and forget it’ you don’t have to put a lot of energy into it. I still track myself on some level. Whenever I become aware that I’m drinking ‘a lot’ I take note and check in with myself to explore what’s happening. This emotional work about why I drink is ongoing, and it’s the rightful focus of my journey. But my definition of ‘a lot’ is a limit of 6-7 drinks a week, thanks to my new habits. And yes, I remember the time when a limit of 6-7 drinks a night was a small victory. It’s a lot easier now that I have my habits on my side.