Should I quit? Sobriety and moderation

Are you considering whether sobriety is something you should try? Recognizing whether you need or want to quit drinking isn’t easy and looks different for everyone. The stereotypical picture of the newly-sober person is someone who hits “rock bottom” and has no other choice but to give it up – for health, interpersonal, or perhaps legal reasons. It could be anything, but we typically envision something serious.

bleary lights in the rain at night
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Many people do hit “rock bottom” before stopping. Rock bottom may be losing your family or job, or it could just be one instance of going too far, doing something you deeply regretted while drunk. A lot of people drink heavily but “functionally” in a sense, going about their jobs and personal lives while compartmentalizing any pain alcohol might be causing. They might not hit rock bottom as we typically see it, but accumulate enough regrets over time that they want a change. Another person drinking somewhat heavily might just want to try out a healthier lifestyle, perhaps driven by the “sober curious” wellness trend.

Whatever your reason(s) are, it’s a good idea to speak with a doctor or mental health counselor before deciding to quit. They won’t (and can’t) force you to stop drinking just because you start the conversation. But they can provide you with additional tools and guidance, should you choose to proceed. If you’re experiencing any additional mental health conditions – depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or anything else – it’s important that you assess any risks and get all the information you need so that if you decide to quit, you can transition safely to sobriety.

bright blue butterflies against pink wall
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It can help when contemplating giving up alcohol to read some articles and maybe a book or two about alcohol sobriety to see what it entails and whether it’s something you feel ready and able to pursue. I personally enjoyed This Naked Mind by Annie Grace and Alcohol Explained by William Porter early on in my sobriety. They reminded me why I was doing this and alerted me to some of the physical health benefits that hadn’t weighed as heavily into my decision to quit, but certainly helped keep me going. There are more and more books out there in this area, especially with the sober curious and mindful drinking movements gaining popularity. You can find a few book lists linked to on the Resources page of this blog.

While there are clearly people who need to refrain completely from alcohol use, that’s not everyone’s experience. If you feel it’s worth giving sobriety a try, you might not have to tell yourself you’ll never drink again. That all-or-nothing approach is a huge commitment and can intimidate and discourage people from taking what might just be a well-needed break. At first, I told myself I wouldn’t be drinking again “for the foreseeable future” and gave myself the flexibility to change that decision, should I want to.

Person at a crossroads
Photo by Luke van Zyl on Unsplash

In my case, I felt pretty sure I couldn’t start up again moderately, or I’d slowly revert to the same compulsive drinking patterns in which I’d been ingrained. I’m a night owl, so for me, that meant things like telling myself it was okay to stay up and have another glass or two of wine after I returned from drinking events – even on weeknights. I always went to bed much later than intended and felt miserable the next day. And that’s on the light end of things. For people with use problems, when there’s a will there’s a way, and the will is to drink more. It’s a behavioral problem, and we’ll always behave. It’s very hard and takes a lot of dedicated work to shift behavior patterns.

But not everyone has that level of compulsivity, and many people can shift to moderate drinking after a pattern of heavy drinking, or after a period of sobriety. If continuing to drink at lower levels poses no serious risk to you or others, it might be worth trying moderation before making the decision to quit entirely. You can limit yourself to a certain number of drinks per night, or per week, or in certain social settings – in some way tracking and limiting your consumption. Try a glass of water or something other than alcohol between drinks. That can be a good test of your willpower.

woman's silhouette in the sunset
Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

If you do try that, pay attention to how difficult it feels. If it’s no trouble, then maybe you can continue and don’t really need to give up alcohol completely. If it’s prohibitively difficult – if, even after several attempts, you find yourself making excuses to push past the limit, or you can’t get your mind off the drink you’re not having – you might want to consider giving up alcohol.

Apart from cravings for those with chemical dependence, navigating social situations can be one of the hardest things to get used to in sobriety (and warrants a separate blog post). This is one of the first excuses many people state for why they couldn’t quit drinking. There’s the social awkwardness and anxiety, the fear of missing out on things, and, though people don’t typically state it, the threat to a social identity they’ve formed that involves alcohol.

Group of people at sunset on beach
Photo by Luke van Zyl on Unsplash

A lot of us drink in social settings to avoid feeling awkward and anxious while we adjust to the environment. Having been in a host of social situations without alcohol, I’ve been paying close attention to those group dynamics. To me, it seems that with patience and time, people seem to adjust and that initial awkwardness subsides – for both those drinking and those not drinking. But it’s hard when you first quit to get to that point of calm and ease without the aid of alcohol, especially if your anxiety is particularly strong. Having a seltzer or soda in hand (or hidden in a coozie) certainly helps.

In one of my SMART Recovery meetings, someone said, “If you pull a carrot out of the ground, you can’t put it back in. That carrot has seen things.” That’s an apt representation of how I felt when I first realized I was probably “one of those people” who needed to give up alcohol for good. I saw who I was becoming and couldn’t unsee it. That moment occurred well before I gave it up – years before, actually. But if you really have a use problem, part of you probably knows it. It’s pretty common to have a voice inside you pointing out that your drinking looks different from everyone else’s. You might feel like you’re not always in control, that something else keeps taking the reins.

And at that point – or years later, if you’re like me – you’ll stop trying to put the carrot back in the ground.

-Dana G

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Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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