tools & strategies: abstaining (early)

To quote myself from a truncated post:

My personal take on moderation is that it’s mostly not a question of willpower, but rather, a set of learned skills, habits, & strategies. That is, if I want to effect long-term changes in my behavior, I do so by making specific changes, not by simply clenching my determination very tightly.

There are a lot of skills involved in successful moderation, and I’m not sure I’ll ever identify (much less master) all of them. But one that I had to begin with is the skill of intentional abstinence.

Whether it’s a single day or a much longer period, abstaining is an incredibly powerful tool. In fact, it is so powerful that — unlike any other tool I can think of — it is enough, on its own, for a huge number of people to change their harmful drinking habits. But then, abstinence itself is built up of many smaller skills. Things like resisting cravings, turning down an offered drink, and sticking to a plan are all essential, and often very difficult.

My first period of intentional abstinence began in late January and lasted 45 days. Parts of it were very hard, and parts were surprisingly enjoyable. I was not sure I would make it through more than a single day at first, and by the end, I was kind of wishing I could just keep it up forever. Except that “forever” scares me, and unbroken streaks unsettle me, so moderation is a valuable sort of punctuation.

Abstinence is like my safety raft. Because I can pull myself up on it when I need to, I feel safe and able to experiment with moderation. If I did not have my raft, I don’t think I could venture into deeper waters at all. So I really wanted to figure it out, and I really want to keep practicing it and getting really, really good at all the skills involved.

To begin with, abstinence really did feel mostly like “clenching my determination very tightly.” I made it through one day at a time, often very unhappily, because my brain was clamoring at me to go ahead and have a drink. Luckily for me, the very worst of that faded relatively quickly. I used a very limited tool set to get through my first week of abstinence:

  • Peer pressure, AKA planning & accountability
  • Hiding, AKA trigger reduction
  • Exhaustion
  • White-knuckling, urge-surfing, negotiating, and talking through it
  • Distraction
  • Celebrating everything

My starting plan was as simple as it comes: don’t have a drink today. My 30 was not something I planned far in advance, it’s something that began because I managed to run out of wine one day. I ran out of wine approximately every other day, so what was different about this one? I’d been thinking about trying another 30 for awhile (yes, I had done one before, and promptly returned to drinking heavily), and had finally gathered enough internal momentum, I think. The first day was fine, the second had moments of sheer terror. I tried to make it easier for myself by finding some support and external accountability: I shared my plan with my partner, so he could help to the best of his abilities; I joined the MM forum and wrote that I was starting a 30, and forced myself to check back regularly; I started an Abstar row. Anything I could think of to help me stick with my plan for even a short period.

I also organized my first week so that it was as achievable as possible, which was my best effort at trigger reduction. No going out to eat, no parties, no high-stress situations, I just planned for every evening to be spend home alone. This was still tough for me because, like many people, I did the majority of my problematic drinking at home, so even just spending a quiet evening at home was a big, big trigger. I tried to avoid my big at-home triggers (sugar, fighting with my SO, certain other kinds of stress), and made sure I had zero alcohol in the house so that, instead of trying to make myself not want a drink, I was just trying to stop myself from going out to the liquor store.

Because I had to leave the house to get a drink, exhaustion turned out to be a powerful tool. It may sound silly, but even something like changing in pajamas made it easier to stay in. I tried to throw up as many speed-bumps as possible, so that staying in (and abstaining) would be as easy as possible. If I really felt miserable, I just went to bed. One night, I climbed into bed at 8pm. Then I did the same thing again the next night.

I still had urges, of course, some of them quite strong. I dealt with these the same way I deal with them now. Sometimes, I just clench that determination and unhappily endure. Sometimes, I urge-surf. Sometimes, I negotiate with myself (“if you wait until 8pm, you can have a drink…if you still feel like one”), which is one way moderation seems to help me: when I tell myself that I might be open to a drink, but not now, it’s honest enough to work. And sometimes I would talk it through with my partner, who patiently listened while I monotonously and tediously went round and round through all my reasons for wanting a drink, talking myself into it, and talked myself out of it again. Too much of this can be hard on a relationship, but a little bit of it is really helpful. Not just because it helped me to sort through things out loud, but because it helped him understand how difficult this actually is for me. That first week was hard and messy.

I leaned hard into distractions. Anything mindless worked that first week, with old, familiar movies being especially helpful. I would set myself up on the couch (not where I usually sat to drink & watch t.v.), dim the lights (again, this was about trying to make my home less triggering), fix myself a hot cup of tea, curl up under a blanket, and watch something like The Princess Bride. It almost made the evenings enjoyable, and at least made most of them endurable.

Finally, I made a huge deal out of every single improvement, victory, or benefit that I was experiencing. My tentative, newbie posts on the MM forum from this time include many recitations of how great the sleep was, how nice it was to see my face less puffy, how thrilling it was to wake up feeling good each morning. Because I needed to feel like I was succeeding, and because I needed to focus on what I was gaining more than what I was giving up. Also, I was feeling shy, and a chipper facade gives me courage.

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