Dear Alma: How to quit drinking

Aug 09, 2015

Dear Alma,

I assume that if you’re reading this letter for its true purpose, you could use some advice. Otherwise, file it away as a curiosity until the time comes — and I hope it never does.

I have been sober now continuously since January 28, 2009, which at the time of this writing is six years and a few months. But sometimes it feels as if it has been a much longer 2,384 days, and there are moments when time slows even more, and I’m certain it’s been 205,977,600 seconds, during each of which I passed the torch just a little bit farther, and if I leave you with nothing else I want to tell you that some of your greatest fights will come in moments no greater than the span of a single breath.

Physical dependence

So, let’s get down to it. I hope that you have passed through the questioning stages, the long years of doubt, the attempts at control, and you are progressing to that hard place in which your thoughts and movements feel predetermined.

You may or may not be physically dependent — alcohol is a selectively addicting substance. In either case, you can be reasonably sure you’re free of physical dependence after 90 days. You may have to run that gauntlet multiple times. Just keep trying until you get it, and each time do these things: remove all alcohol from your house, stay away from other drugs, fill your fridge with cold non-alcoholic beverages, give yourself a free pass to eat more sweets, and find sober people to hang out with.

You will find many treatment programs and support groups that offer itemized methods to “get” your sobriety and “keep” it. There are places that will even give you plastic money to encourage this thinking. Take the coins. Follow the steps. No one can claim they know what will work for you, so enter into those places and listen, taking everything you hear with a grain of salt — but try it all. You will know something is true if you try it and it works.

After physical craving for a drink eases, you will transition into a moment-to-moment mental experience of sobriety. I can’t leave you with any steps to take in those moments. Instead I can only share visions that, when I need them, have the power to cut through the illusion that I need a drink.

Feelings

You might think that you need alcohol to make good feelings feel better. However, I have spent over six years enjoying good feelings without a single drink. I remember what it was like to feel good drinking, and I know the feeling, now, of breathing quietly and feeling those good moments in my body. It’s like the difference between walking at night in the rain and walking in blue dawn light. Every moment that your three-year-old self and I stop together to look at flowers, or enjoy the taste of warm bread, I try to practice this with you, in the hope that it will wedge its way deep inside both of us. But don’t get me wrong: this didn’t come easy. When you have the habit of losing yourself in alcohol to enjoy enjoyment, you may find that you have forgotten how to enjoy things without it. Many people, not just people who want to quit drinking, can barely sit by themselves in a quiet room, let alone focus on good feelings as they arise in the day. But doing so is possible with practice.

Of course, there is no end to sorrow in this life and whether you want to escape it or ruminate upon it, alcohol isn’t even necessary, though you might think it is. I have found that walking around in a circle in a dimly-lighted room with my profound sadness softens it, but I don’t always have time for that. Worry not: there are endless ways to escape suffering that don’t involve drinking, even if the escape is only temporary, and when the time comes you can choose one of these. TV, movies, games, friends, good and bad food, strenuous exercise; basically anything that bombards your senses or demands your attention is useful for this. And when those things stop working, you can always try the dimly-lighted room.

Weakness and fear

I used to drink to talk to people because I thought that without alcohol, I wouldn’t be interesting or confident enough. The illusion here is that all of your weaknesses are innate, and you require a potion to overcome them for a little while. In fact, you are made from the matter of planets, fed by the light of stars. There is nothing you can’t try to learn, and nothing that won’t get easier with help from your friends. I get bored now if I’m not thrown into challenging social encounters. I learned how to navigate that fear without alcohol, and you can too.

Some of the most confident, bold and strongest people I’ve ever met either live “by faith,” are sober or both. This life can make you stronger than you’ll ever know.

Faith

Speaking of faith, nothing anyone can tell you about sober life will mean anything until you live it. There are times when the human mind encounters a wall beyond which conscious thought can’t reach, and this is one of them. You must become Abraham: a voice within tells you to take your knife to the throat of your most precious and perhaps the most reliable thing that you’ve ever known.

I’ll never understand Abraham, but I understand this: to get where I am, you’ll have to give up the life you know, including possibly every friend you have, and walk out over sheer darkness.

This is why everyone says you have to take it one step at a time. I enjoy this phrase most at its literal value. While walking in the dark, most people experience the journey this way, or else they fall.

And forget about trying to think of the future, at least for a while. I remember the terror I felt when I considered life without alcohol. I would imagine myself at a tavern in Seville, late at night, the wine flowing — I couldn’t remove this event from its close relationship with the fact that I would, of course, be drunk, or else I wouldn’t be there at all. So I wouldn’t be there. But I wanted the experience in my life. Badly. Everything was like that.

You too may find that trying to look into a sober future shows nothing. You imagine a sequence of experiences devoid of meaning, with you trapped in the center of that airless chamber.

It’s not like that. I promise. And all that is required to make the journey is a single step.

Imagination

There is a force in the mind that reaches beyond knowledge: the imagination. It doesn’t work like some people think, as a tool that you must evoke, shape, control or use. More like, as John is said to have prepared the way for Jesus, you must clear a path for it. Seek quiet places. Do nothing. Walk a trail that you know well, and keep walking. Go to sleep.

Feed your imagination with stories from the sober people you meet. They will be more than happy to tell you all about their amazing and terrible lives. Even though you may not believe that contentment is possible in sobriety, your imagination, if given room and food, will work on the problem for you, and in time all will be revealed. The darkness will firm below you with each step if you just continue walking.

Regret

I hate to think I am the same person that I was through those bad years. At one point I accepted it, which I considered a breakthrough, but then slowly I began to believe that I was no one at all, at least in a sense. Conventionally speaking, though, I still have that person’s name, his social security number, and I am certainly responsible for cleaning up his messes!

You probably won’t want to look back, no matter what you think about your own personhood. When you do, you might find that you see a person who did things — or to whom things were done — and feel a strong connection between those memories and the you considering them. Maybe this was the problem all along and previously it had nothing to do with alcohol, but then you discovered that alcohol by itself allowed you to live with the feeling. Or maybe you started drinking for fun only and then painful experiences accumulated. In either case, without the alcohol, there the memories are again, sickening to see, and of course their presence may turn you again toward the bottle, again and again, with alcohol eventually piling on its own layer of shameful memories, until you’re like the tippler in The Little Prince who drinks because he’s a tippler. Here’s the thing: every moment sober that you withstand the pain, you birth a little bit of the person you’ll become.

I saw you enter the world and while I don’t claim to know what that experience was like for your mother, I felt myself in that pain, saw my struggle — which I hope is not yours too, but here we are, aren’t we? — giving birth to the future from the past. And one day you’ll find that you don’t want to leave town anymore to escape memories unlocked by a sight of bricks and the smell of summer asphalt on Flanders Street, but instead, memories arise like steam and dissipate, in so many ways meaningless, while you walk containing power unique to that which is solid and breathes.

Honesty

They say that you can’t really quit drinking without being completely honest with yourself. That seems to be true. You have to understand what happens to your body and in your thoughts day-to-day, accept it, look at the causes and conditions, and give yourself a break sometimes. Without doing all this, I’ve found I often revert to looking for distractions, and when I turn away from the truth of my day-to-day experience it always becomes harder and harder to turn back toward it.

However, I suspect that when people think of honesty they most often think of being honest with others. Can you build a house without a foundation? Not really. Unless you are pathologically forthright (I have yet to find this out about you), telling the truth to other people is contingent upon being able to tell it to yourself first.

Move ever closer to honesty. No one expects you to achieve sainthood, so start with being honest when it counts the most: take responsibility for your mistakes and broken promises so you can learn what doing that feels like (it’s the worst). Honesty is a virtue that self-replicates, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, and being honest while also acting with kindness and good intentions for others is difficult to master. But take small steps. Each time you step into the fire you’ll get burned a little less.

Honor

Occasionally you will read medical studies that claim drinking will extend your life. I have found it best to think of my honor when this happens.

Honor? you might be thinking. What the heck is that? Well, a funny thing happens when you quit drinking. After a few years, you may become known generally as a dependable person. Now, sober people aren’t without flaws, I assure you, but I’ve found that they have tremendous energy, and if, as is often the case, they’ve made some moral, psychological or spiritual investigations (whatever terminology they might use), these people can become virtuous.

Being established along a path, such as the Noble Eightfold Path, to take one example, people tend to want to avoid diverging — after all, it took work to get on the path to begin with. The desire to stay on such a path is how I would define honor. And I’ll tell you what, if sobriety doesn’t feel tangible every day — it really doesn’t, to me, at this point! — honor does.

My generation tends to mock honor, and invoking it brings to mind people who place their sense of right above self-preservation or self-advancement — clearly a mistake, I used to think. And now I tend to believe that this ingrained mocking arises in part from the American culture I grew up in. Ours was, and still is, a consumer society built upon a cultural text that says, “Do what feels good,” and we tend to think of honorable people as losers, in the real sense that they lose what we think they should have gained and gained something we find meaningless. Of course, we feel bad for them — it’s not as if in our mocking we fail to understand their intentions. But is anything worth giving up your shot at the big money, or at life itself? No, of course not — so the thinking might go. And what about people who we think are simply wrong about the thing in which they believe so dearly, those honorable people pursuing the realization of ideas that we find terrible?

Honor can be misapplied. But there are people in history who died to preserve their integrity, in pursuit of right action for a just cause, and when they died it wasn’t for themselves alone; like Martin Luther King, Jr., we can see looking back that they died for our integrity too. Honor, when paired with loving intelligence, is a transcendent reality that bends time, leaping forward through the ages.

Returning to the idea that drinking will extend your life, let’s say you ask me: Would I risk giving up what little honor I have just to gain — maybe — a year or two? I like to think I am not such a coward, but the fact is, it was your mother who convinced me that this was a bad exchange. Remember to keep smart people around you at all times.

A new sun always rises

Sometimes, when nothing else works, I just tell myself: wait until tomorrow. If you feel like drinking tomorrow, then drink tomorrow. You’d think that come tomorrow, most people would still want to drink, but damn if this hasn’t worked several times!

Be ready always

Of all the reasons to stay sober just one more night, or one more hour, or one more second, I’ve found that one has the strongest grip, and in some ways it’s the simplest.

Here it is: You’ll always be ready to do the right thing.

As MLK said, “the time is always right to do what is right,” but you won’t be there to do it if you’re drunk, blacked out, passed out or hung over.

Being prepared at all times to do what is right has become a kind of mantra for me, and while I don’t know if it will be useful to you, consider this. On the morning you were born, I was stone-cold sober. When your mother woke up at one a.m., I got out of bed and worked through our checklist. We arrived safely at the hospital, where you were born moments, it seems to me now, before the sun rose and cast its pink February light on the west hills of our city. And I have been around ever since, ready to do what is needed, ready to sprint three miles, ready to drive, ready to talk, ready to roar if I have to, in full control.

You know, speaking of that birth month we share, there is a notable thing about Februaries in Portland. Almost invariably, the gloomy winter breaks for a week or two and the sun shines. I always feel my warmest self stretching out toward that February light, having waited months for it, full of hope for another spring just ahead.

If you ever can’t stand to look at yourself another second, remember that you are made of this light, the light of our star, which has traveled ninety million miles through a cold vacuum to grace your skin. Then throw down your crutches and walk.

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