How to quit drinking: thank you, but our princess is in another castle
The first thing I did when I started to think that I probably absolutely had to stop drinking was finally reach out to a close friend for the phone number of a friend of hers who had been sober for half a decade. I had met this woman maybe twice in my life before she happily agreed to meet me for coffee and I told her the dark rot of the knowledge that I had been holding in my soul: I probably, maybe, might have just a wee bit of a drinking problem. We sat in a booth at a coffee shop on Gottingen street while I spoke and cried and she listened, and then while she spoke and I cried and listened. Then she slid a meeting list across the table to me.
An AA meeting list. Fuck. AA. I don’t want to go to fucking AA. I felt my spine prickle, even though I had already looked up the meeting list online and found two agnostic/atheist meetings. I thought I had already reluctantly decided to go, but my internal reaction to her suggestion told me that I would likely have talked myself out of it.
Then she said what I needed to hear, “look, it worked for me. I went every day for a year. Now I haven’t been in ages. Take what you need and leave the rest. And remember, AA is like anywhere else. You’re probably going to hate a bunch of the people there. Don’t worry about it.”
It’s pretty hard to argue with that.
When I was a kid I played a lot of Super Mario. Each level ends with a castle and inside the castle there is a boss that you have to battle. Until you reach the end, Toadstool, another character in the game, shows up after you defeat the boss to tell you that the princess is in another castle. For two years leading up to that coffee, I had tried in every which way to control my drinking. I kept ending up back at the beginning, but with a whole new set of obstacles on top of the old ones, new things to fear as the dark night set in. Nice try, but the princess is in another castle.
For some reason, before I went into the castle where Bowser (the final boss) actually was, where the princess was hiding with the solution to my drinking problem, I had to go through all these other levels, fighting a bunch of battles, all the while belligerently dragging a 6 pack of IPA behind me.
Eventually, you do end up at the final castle, either shrunk down and small or tall and whipping fireballs, and you go in to fight the final boss.
This is how I killed Bowser.
1. I stopped drinking*. (*BIG MEDICAL CAVEAT: detoxing can be deadly. It is always a good idea to speak to your primary care provider before doing so. )
I know, I know. I'm sorry. I felt adrift and alone. I doubted myself. I got angry at the unfairness of it all. But it was mine. No one was going to do it for me, or even with me.
2. I carried my fear.
When anyone stops drinking, it because they found one night, one afternoon, one instance where they just said to themselves, this is it. I have to grab this time, this one time out of many, many unacceptable moments, and run with it. Those moments are strong, but like any strong emotion, they are fleeting. So I did whatever I could to carry my fear of not stopping around with me. I didn't let myself hear the less scary story I was trying to replace my fear with. I carried my fear around and reminded myself constantly that my fear of not stopping was greater than my fear of stopping.
3. I did it for myself but I didn't do it by myself.
For me, having a sober community has been essential. There is a great deal of relief that comes from hearing from someone who has lived your experience. Hearing pieces of your soul, particularly the ones that you had been fairly certain no one else knew about or had experienced themselves, spoken out loud by another human being is incredibly comforting.
Being around other people with a drinking problem also forced me to root out the denial that I had become accustomed to and had relied on for years in order to keep drinking. Hearing other people talk about being broken in the same way I was broken helped me to see all my broken pieces. And then they helped me sweep them up.
4. I had to confront the denial.
An excellent and exceptionally smart friend of mine and I were talking one day about sobriety, about all my problems with AA, about the steps and how annoyed I was with doing the steps.
"It could really just be two steps," she said, laughingly. "Step one: admit you have a drinking problem and can't drink. Step two: If you're wondering if you can have a drink, see step one." And that's it for me. The utility of going through it, however you go through it, is in confronting what you've been excusing for so long. It took me a couple of months to really get there. When I did it was like everything clicked into focus. Past behaviour made sense suddenly. Why did I still rack up bar tabs when I was completely broke? Why did I always want the party to keep going, even when everyone was ready for bed? Why did I keep waking up on the weekends anxious and exhausted and then find myself drinking again anyway? Click. A drinking problem. Addiction. Alcoholism. Whatever you want to call it, admitting to it is powerful. It doesn't excuse you, it just helps you figure out behaviour that once completely confounded you.
5. Focusing on how shitty my new counsellor was, how incredibly frustrating the obstacles to my recovery were, or how much I hated AA didn't get me more sober.
I strongly think that bad help is worse than no help at all. Unfortunately, there is a lot of bad help out there.
When I was in early recovery, I was desperately seeking the way out of my drinking problem. My way out. I was struggling with the program of AA, even though I was getting value from the meetings. I wanted to get better faster. I went to a counsellor who I had been told specialized in addiction, but who actually had no experience with it. She balked when I told her how much I used to drink. I hadn't even understood why she had asked how much I used to drink. I was three months sober at the time, what did volume matter? She spent the rest of the session telling me about an article she had read about porn addiction and writing down resources I told her about that she wasn't aware of. I walked back to my car enraged. What if I had been really broken down in that moment? Didn't she understand how delicate this whole thing was? But she didn't. She so obviously, painfully, didn't.
It's so horrible that in order to find the actually helpful things, we have to endure the unhelpful things. The unhelpful things feel like being dunked in a bathtub full of vinegar when you’re all cut up and raw.
Find your buddies that will answer your calls about how unfair it all is and then get back on the road and leap over those obstacles like Mario leaps over a pipe with a piranha plant in it (yes, we are still in the metaphor). I never went back to that counsellor. I continued going to and quitting AA. I read many, many books.
Right now I’m reading Laura McKowan’s beautiful book called, We are the luckiest: the surprising magic of a sober life. If you think that title is insufferable, you are every bit the cynical addict I was before I too became a cheerful, kombucha chugging yogi. McKowan talks a little bit about her problems with AA, without really getting into them. She bypasses them compassionately and says, thinking about all the problems you have with AA is a bit like trying to rearrange the furniture while your house is on fire.
Sure, the couch might look better over there, but isn’t the fact that the weight bearing beams are about to turn to cinder a more pressing dilemma?
When I asked people how they did it, I think a small part of me wanted to hear their solutions so I could study them and dismiss them. Did they know that only x percent of people got sober through AA? Did they realize why that path or this one just wouldn’t work for me? Did they know that I had actually read x, y, or z, which told me why their way wouldn’t work?
So, seek help. Take what you need and leave the rest. Your path is there. You just need to leap over all the goombas and not get too down when something pierces your armour or shrinks you down.
The final boss: eventually you've gotta take on Bowser
So, we’ve arrived at the warp tunnel. The truth about quitting drinking is this: one day, you just do it, even though it feels impossible and hard; even though it feels totally undesirable and may even just be the last thing on earth you want to do. You quit because you’re sick of facing up these enemies again and again. You just want to face down the final boss – Bowser – and to get on with it.
You stop drinking. Then you bear down. You let the grief and the consequences of that decision wash over you, pummel you, break you down to pieces. Eventually, the beauty finds you. I promise. For me, sobriety is an incredible choice I’ve made for myself, instead of a sad consequence. It was hard fought and at the end of the fight, there was no smug Toadstool telling me to look elsewhere, just a sweet little Princess Peach telling me I won. Metaphor!