How To Break Free From Alcohol

During the COVID-19 lockdown many people are drinking more alcohol to cope with high levels of stress and upset.

While this calms people in the short term, alcohol is one of the most addictive substances known on earth – surprisingly, even more addictive than heroin!

In fact, people never die from heroin withdrawal (even though they feel dreadful). They die of other aspects of heroin, like accidental overdosing from not knowing its strength or from Hep C infection or lifestyle consequences like prostitution, imprisonment or homelessness.  

On the other hand, about 17% of seriously alcohol-dependent people will die if they suddenly withdraw from alcohol without titration (slow reduction). That will give you some idea of just how massively addictive alcohol can be.

If you are a heavy drinker (or if you are in any doubt whatsoever), you should talk to your GP or chemist about possible titration before quitting cold turkey.

On the other hand, if you don’t drink every day, but when you do drink you’re inclined to regularly overdo it, and you can feel yourself developing a bit of a ‘taste’ for it, then now might be the time to quit before alcohol takes you prisoner. 

Keep in mind, that quitting will be easier now than it will be in a week or a month or a year. Alcohol is extremely insidious in tightening its grip!

In my 25+ years working as a clinical psychologist, I can tell you that the two main reasons that people fail to quit alcohol are:

  1. Not making a clear enough decision to quit
  2. Paying attention to mentations about alcohol. ‘Mentations’ are simply aspects of mental experience, including thoughts, sensations, images, feelings or memories).

With the first reason, you need to think seriously (and not vaguely) about the decision to quit alcohol. Decide exactly when to quit (preferably within the next week) and for how long you will quit.    

Most people, if they are fairly serious drinkers need to quit for at least one year and often two years before they can move comfortably to controlled drinking (‘controlled’ drinking is never again exceeding a maximum of 2-3 standard drinks per week i.e. two small glasses of wine or two stubbies of beer).  

Then, once you have made the decision about when and for how long to quit, write the details of it down and maybe stick it on the fridge or somewhere else where you will see it several times a day. 

Then talk to other people (like your partner or a close friend) about your plan to quit. Telling others means you have some social accountability to stick to your decision. 

(BTW, when you are out socially next time drinking lime & soda, consider citing ‘health reasons’ as your motivation for not drinking – since drinking buddies find this hard to argue against. For example, you could say ‘initially I stopped drinking because I was on antibiotics, but then I decided to keep going because I felt so much healthier – especially in the mornings’.)

For reason two – understand that once you quit, you simply cannot afford to allow yourself to pay attention to mentations about alcohol and indulge in thoughts and emotions like ‘Oh, I miss a drink’ or ‘God, I’d love a drink’ or ‘It’s been 3 days now, surely I’ve proved I can do this’ or ‘One drink won’t hurt me’ or ‘No one cares about me anyway, so I might as well just drink ’ or ‘I was such a happy drunk, I really enjoyed drinking’ (you didn’t – that was a fallacy – your neuro-receptors were just physiologically dependent on ethanol!)    

Neither should you allow yourself to indulge in mentally picturing images of yourself enjoying drinking or being social and gregarious with a drink in your hand.

Neither should you allow yourself to pay attention to sensations like ‘urges’ to drink. Similarly, disallow memories where you ‘reminisce’ about the good old days when you could drink… 

All these mentations must be slipped out of your attentional focus immediately and, at all times – instead keep your focus squarely on mentally demanding constructive activities, like work, exercise, reading, puzzles, vibrant conversations and hobbies.

One thing that I can tell you with a high degree of certainty is that if you allow these sabotaging mentations to gain airplay within your mind, you will pretty much inevitably fail to quit. This is the crucial difference between people who succeed and those who fail to succeed.

It can help to think of these sabotaging mentations as your addiction trying to demand your attention, re-capture you and weaken your resolve to quit. The addiction wants to be fed…  It tries to ‘trick’ you into feeding it – but don’t fall for it!  Be absolutely clear that it is YOUR job to pay it zero attention by completely ignoring every single one of its demands for attention.

In fact, be sure to find these sneaky mentations laughable, ridiculous and a complete waste of your time.  Make sure you are decisive about completely sliding them out of your mental attention. 

Anyway, if you make a clear decision to quit and don’t allow yourself to indulge in these mentations that weaken your resolve – quitting can be as easy as flicking a switch, and you can be an extremely happy non-drinker almost immediately!