Do you feel like you’re stuck in a cycle when it comes to your drinking? Do you find yourself asking why you can’t seem to stay sober past a certain amount of days? Are you beating yourself up for yet again landing back at day one, wondering if it’ll ever stop and why you keep doing this to yourself?
If you nodded your head while reading any of those questions, then it’s time to get mindful about your drinking cycle. It’s important to focus on what you can learn from when you slip up, rather than focus on the fact that you’re not sober yet. Paying attention to what is instead of what isn’t will help you troubleshoot your sobriety.
Alcohol is addictive, that’s a big reason why it’s hard for most people to quit drinking. Not to mention a slew of external factors you could be up against as well. You are human, so take a deep breath as I walk you through an exercise to help you break down (and hopefully break through) your drinking cycle. It might seem complicated at first, but bear with me.
- Grab a sheet of paper (there’s an example at the bottom of this post) and work backwards from the last time you drank.
At the top of the page, write down the last thing that happened when you finished drinking — this could be “ran out of beer (or other drink),“ “put my glass in the sink,” “left the bar,” ”passed out,“ or so on. This last thing is the reason why you stopped drinking for the night/day.
- Underneath that, write down what happened before then — “mentally noted that drinking isn’t what I wanted to do, so I stopped,” “closing time was announced,” “finished up the bottle/glass,” etc. What you write here is what triggered the action that led you to stop drinking.
- Under that, write what happened before what prompted you to stop drinking — “drank my (# of drink) from the bottle/glass,” “started to blackout,” etc. You can also include what you were doing at the same time “while watching TV,” “while sitting in the dark,” etc. This is the action you were doing before the trigger that led you to stop drinking for the night.
- Continue this process until you’re about three steps before getting to when you actually started drinking. These pre-steps, as you might call them, could be things like having an argument, coming home from work, going to the liquor store, receiving bad news, meeting up with friends, and so on. If you’re having trouble picturing how this all comes together, I’ve included an example at the end of this post (it makes more sense as you go along doing it).
Really tear apart, step-by-step, the process of your slip-up in order to shine a light on the cycle you might be stuck in. You know the end result of the slip-up and how it makes you feel, now walk backwards and take yourself through the process using personal reflection.
Once you’ve finished (this could take a while, it’s not a quick and easy exercise, but can be tremendously helpful if you allow yourself to spend time on it), read back what you wrote down. See if you recall any mental notes you had during any steps of the night/day of drinking that told you you wanted to stop. Write those down next to the corresponding steps. Examine opportunities you might have had to stop drinking for the night and make a little indication next to those steps as well (my example includes these annotations in red). The pre-steps may be the most important part, because for a lot of people, once they start drinking, it’s a plummeting roller coaster that doesn’t have brakes (myself included). For me, “one beer” easily led to six or more. Really hone in on any red flags you can pick up on in the future, and internalize what they look and feel like.
The best way to break a cycle is to stop it before it even begins. Look at the events leading up to the cycle’s starting point. Note down your feelings, anything that could possibly be a triggering or enabling event. Even something as little as your usual commute home that includes passing by a liquor store is worth mentioning.
Try to see what started the cycle this time around. Look at what happened just before and just after the cycle got started. Are there any points where you could have intervened? Are there any events, actions, or feelings that transpired that you can use as cues in the future that the cycle is primed and ready to happen? Knowing what sort of recipe allows for this cycle to continue can help you change what goes on and the end result.
Changing the way I went home from work (I didn’t walk by the liquor store I used to frequent for a few weeks until I was out of the habit of mindlessly walking in to get a 6-pack) as well as realizing that stress was a major factor with my drinking were big turning points in my ability to stay sober. After identifying those two things, I worked on stress-management in order to prevent myself from being triggered by it to drink, but also used my stress as a cue that I was vulnerable to drinking. If I felt stressed, I stayed aware of that and proactively did not put myself in situations where there’d be alcohol around, or I’d reach out to someone to let them know I was feeling vulnerable. Staying mindful helped guide me through a time when I felt like I couldn’t figure out which direction was up.
This exercise can help take some of the mystery out of the dreaded cycle so many (if not all) of us have faced at one point or another. You are not a cog in the machine that powers the cycle, nor are you the machine whose sole intent is to continue operation of the cycle. You are the engineer who works on the machine and can use that machine to continue the cycle or to create a healthier one. You have the power to rebuild, reprogram, and reestablish the machine to eliminate cycles that are detrimental to your well-being.
You may feel like a cog, we all have and sometimes still do, but trust me, you’re the engineer. You can gain an outside-looking-in perspective and highlight weaknesses to turn them into strengths. To do this, you need to evaluate the situation and the steps along the way.
Have any questions about this exercise? Want to share how it worked for you or what you learned? Let me know in the comments!