A behavior analyst’s guide to sobriety

Given the sensitivity of the topic of this blog (substance abuse), and my sole desire to provide resources and support to readers, this blog contains no affiliate marketing links. The links that are included are to products, books, and websites that I found useful in my journey to sobriety. There is no monetary benefit to me if you purchase any of the products.

I had my first alcoholic beverage at the age of 13. The experience was everything you’d expect for a teenage girl being raised by a single mom in the middle of rural America. I had a Coors Light in the middle of a cornfield, given to me by a much older man who had no business partying with 13-year-olds in cornfields. After that first beer, I wouldn’t say I was “addicted” or “hooked” on alcohol. I didn’t particularly enjoy the taste of alcohol and certainly not beer (most people don’t). I would say, however, from that point on, that alcohol became a normal and regular part of my life. I drank throughout my teenage years at parties, at homecoming dances, before, after …and let’s face it, during prom. I drank at graduation and transitioned easily into the college life of dorm drinking and frat parties filled with all the cheap alcohol we could find. Graduate school was much the same, with an active social life and many reasons to drink to “calm down” after a grueling five years of intense study, final exams, capstone projects and a dissertation. As I transitioned into adulthood and working life, alcohol came with me. Not in the way of loneliness or inappropriate coping, but simply as a part of what I did. As a part of what we did. I moved in with my now husband who also drank, so we drank together. As our income grew, our tastes became more “sophisticated,” trading in Coors Light for wine and exploring the types of wine that paired best with the foods we loved. I enthusiastically accepted offers for “a quick drink” after work or “a few drinks” after a long week with friends, coworkers, and neighbors. My alcohol consumption continued throughout my 20s and 30s and in my 30s turned into a true pastime upon our move to California, and eventually one of California’s most well-known wine countries. Here, wine is more than special – it’s a way of life. Festivals, parties, brunches, trips – most everything in this part of California revolves around wine and mass consumption of it.

Over the years, I drank to celebrate. I drank to mourn. I drank to pass time. I drank to socialize. I drank for all the reasons most Americans drink. Sometimes I drank heavily, sometimes lightly. Sometimes I stopped drinking all together, sometimes I drank for days straight. What’s interesting about my drinking is not the frequency, reason, or behaviors associated with it. What’s interesting is that I not once, not one time in 30-ish years of drinking questioned whether I would drink or not. It was always a given, a standard part of existence and not once did I ever say “Should I drink at all? Should I just stop all together? Do I have to drink? Do I even want to drink?” I simply . . . never . . . questioned it.

That all changed because of two events in my life – a health scare, partially related to alcohol consumption and reading the most amazing, life changing book: Quit Like a woman by Holly Whitaker. If you stop reading this blog right now, and you have any interest in the “dry life,” buy Holly’s book. Whether you identify as a woman or not, it will be immensely helpful in understanding our obsession with alcohol and learning about why you also, might want to quit.

And so, at the age of 41, I had my last alcoholic beverage, and I am confident I will never have another alcoholic beverage ever again. That’s quite the statement for a woman who just described that essentially her entire existence up until this point revolved around alcohol. So, what changed? (Note: many of the following ideas and facts come directly from Holly Whitaker, so I will give credit where credit is due (again, read her book!). Some of these concepts and ideas have been adapted to my own life, others I discovered on my own, but largely I credit Holly).

Here are the primary reasons I removed alcohol from my life:

  1. Alcohol (ethanol) is an incredibly toxic substance. It is a drug, one that is flammable and has a chemical odor. It is the same substance used as an antiseptic, a solvent, in anti-bacterial formulas because it kills organisms. It is the same substance found in things you would never dream of ingesting, including paints, deodorants and even engine fuel. No matter what the media tells you, alcohol in any form and in any amount, even small amounts is in NO WAY good for you. It deteriorates your brain, your major organs and it takes years off of your life. There is absolutely no truth to the French Paradox. It’s a drug and a highly lethal substance. For the better part of my life, I have been focused on wellness: exercise, proper nutrition, meditation, self-care. And yes, I was ingesting …engine fuel. When I learned what alcohol is and the detrimental effects it can have on your body, it was an incredibly easy decision to remove it from my life.
    1. One of the most common questions I get asked is “isn’t it hard to resist? Don’t you want a drink?” My answer to that question is a resounding “no!” No, it’s not hard to resist and no I do not want a drink. I do not want a toxic substance in my body, period. The best analogy I can make is this: say you have no desire to have cocaine (the average person likely doesn’t), but you’re surrounded by people who are constantly using cocaine. You see it in ads, hear about it in songs, and are offered cocaine everywhere you go: parties, dinners, etc. My guess is that your normal reaction would be “get that “sh*%” away from me! I DO NOT WANT THE COCAINE!!” Most people, given what we know about cocaine would run screaming from the cocaine and strongly reply “I don’t want it!” That’s my reaction to alcohol. It’s not hard to resist something you don’t want in the first place.
  2. Alcohol is a depressant. Most people think that alcohol can “take the edge off,” calm nerves, ease anxiety and boost one’s mood. Alcohol has about 20 minutes of this effect on the body – there is a brief release of cortisol and adrenaline, then the effect wears off. The result is an increase in cortisol and adrenaline which results in an anxious state. Alcohol increases your serotonin levels briefly while you are drinking, but as the effects wear off, so does the alcohol, which leaves you depressed. Over time, it also leaves you unable to enjoy the things in life you typically would enjoy while sober because your body becomes accustomed to the dopamine hit from alcohol, so when you don’t have it, your mood is down. I’ll never forget being in the airport one morning after a very alcohol heavy work weekend. Nothing negative happened, and everything in my life was fine. I was happy in life (or so I thought). I sat by myself waiting for the plane and I was so low, I could barely move. I simply stared into the air and was constantly on the verge of tears. This was the alcohol and the natural impact it had on the body and my mood. I didn’t fully understand it at the time but looking back at one of the saddest moments in my life, I can only attribute it to the effects of alcohol on my body.
  3. Turns out, I hated the way it made me feel. Although I couldn’t describe it over the years, I actually use to dread drinking. When a special occasion was arising and I knew we’d be drinking, I’d immediately think of the next day, of the headaches, the need to sleep, the bloated feeling, and dread it. It’s not hard to stop doing something you don’t enjoy doing – you just have to be honest with yourself that you don’t enjoy it in order to quit. There is a line in Holly Whitakers book that says “it isn’t about not getting to drink, but about not having to drink.” That line, was like magic to me! It’s so simple, yet so powerful. I don’t have to drink. WOW! I don’t’ have to!!
  4. Everything about my physical being is better, healthier, and more whole without alcohol. This topic could be an entire blog itself, but the health benefits of being alcohol free are endless. I’ll describe some of the primary ones:
    1. Sleep. Most people think alcohol helps them sleep and this is fully untrue. While alcohol may have an immediate effect on your ability to fall asleep fast, as soon as the alcohol wears off, you are awake, and your REM cycle is fully disrupted. This impact can last days, so even if you don’t’ drink one day but did in the past few, your sleep is disrupted until the alcohol is fully out of your system. I always thought I slept very well. When I stopped using alcohol, the quality of my sleep completely blew my mind. My sleep now is the most restful, rejuvenating, deep experience I could ever have. And, for the record, I love sleep. So, to get a joyful, impactful, rejuvenating 8-ish hours of it every night is an absolute dream come true.
    1. Skin. This is a tough one, as I’ve always had very nice skin (it’s primarily genetic!). When I first quit drinking, for a few weeks I had what’s called “detox acne.” Yeah, it’s a thing and it sucks. Tons of painful acne lined up on my chin and neck, worse than when I was a hormone infused adolescent. I remember thinking to myself “if this is a health benefit, I don’t want it!” But, the acne was temporary and now my skin is even more amazing. It is always hydrated, I require very few products, and has a natural “glow” to it.
    1. Alertness and presence. When I was drinking, I’d say I mostly “got through the next day” without truly enjoying it. On the weekends, while I would absolutely play with my young son, I’d secretly be waiting for him to nap so I could go nap too. Without alcohol, I don’t just “get through” things, I live them! I have energy, motivation, and excitement around even the most mundane things, and I love it!
    1. No headaches. I used to pop Tylenol and Advil like candy. What’s funny is that I didn’t always attribute my headaches to drinking. If I had a particularly heavy night of drinking, I’d know it was alcohol but on the days I didn’t drink and I had a headache (common), I’d think it was allergies, a cold coming on, or just chronic head pain. After I quit alcohol, I rarely got headaches and I can think of two times I needed any pain reducing medication. They just don’t happen to me anymore and it’s incredible.
    1. Other great stuff  – better hydration, better workouts, elevated mood, better food choices, less bloat, enhanced ability to focus, weight loss, muscle gain, less fatigue and way more energy, more consistent menstrual cycles, evened out hormones, faster and stronger growing hair, stronger nails, better eye sight, rarely, if ever get sick…..the list goes on.

Here’s the “how” (i.e., the behaviors I engaged in) to quit drinking alcohol for good.

This blog isn’t long enough for a full behavioral analysis of all the behaviors associated with drinking, so I won’t do that here. But I’d say everything I did and the way I worked to change my drinking habits largely revolved around stimulus control, incompatible behaviors, and rule-governed behavior. Here’s how I quit for good. I:

  1. Stayed away from the gray. I’ve never been one to live in the “gray space.” I like things black and white – either you like me, or you don’t, either I’m performing well or I’m not, I either got the promotion or I didn’t. I’ve always been a “give it to me straight” kind of gal. Thus, I knew when I quit drinking it had to be fully, completely and for good. I’m not one to “have a few drinks every now and again.” That just doesn’t work for me, else I’d be drinking all the time again. So, I had to establish a new rule and say “I’m done. Never again.” Holly Whitaker talks about a line that influenced her: “Make a decision to never drink again and never question that decision.” I did the same. It’s much easier, clearer, and more confined than any other “in between” decision I could have made. And I wouldn’t reap any of the health benefits if I simply went from a heavy drinker to a moderate or light drinker – I needed to get the alcohol out of my system all together.
  2. Added replacement behaviors.  Admittedly, not having an alcoholic drink in my hands was one of the hardest parts of quitting. I felt so incredibly awkward sitting at dinner, at happy hour, or even on the couch with my husband when everyone (I mean everyone!) around me was consuming alcohol and I wasn’t. So, I had to have a drink in my hand and I switched to things I liked and were even good for me. When out with friends, I typically ask for a club soda and lime, or a mocktail. I’ve gotten more sophisticated in my mocktail requests to avoid sugar bombs, but I’m almost never disappointed in what the bartender whips up! Admittedly, I am working on fading to just having water (mostly, I just don’t want the extra sugar and calories that some mocktails can bring), but especially for the first 3 or so months of my sobriety, having a replacement was incredibly helpful. I love love love Katie’ Perry’s nonalcoholic beverage line De Sois, so I keep these at home and handy when my husband and I decide to “have a drink.” I should note that I don’t get overly into nonalcoholic wines and beers, though some sober people do. I mostly don’t like the taste of them, and I worry about them serving as a “trigger” for real drinking again. But whatever works for you, you should do it. I also frequently drink tea, coffee, water (occasionally flavored and often with lemon). These are fine substitutes when hanging with friends, having dinner, etc.!
  3. Went public. One of the most anxiety inducing times of my sobriety was my first work trip as a newly sober person. I agonized over how to tackle it: would I secretly approach all bartenders and waitresses and ask them to pour me something that looked alcoholic but wasn’t? Would I try and just say “I’m not drinking”” but run the risk of people thinking I was pregnant, going through a phase, on a diet, etc.? Ultimately, I decided to send everyone I was traveling with an email (with plenty of humor, but very direct) about my journey, my choice, and my new sober life. Of course, they were amazingly supportive (I work with the kindest, most empathetic and loving people you could possibly imagine), and it was absolutely the best work trip I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, there is a stigma associated with sobriety – if you quit alcohol, you must have a problem with alcohol and oh my goodness – you must be an alcoholic. It’s quite an odd assessment, because there are people out there abusing alcohol and drinking excessively every day who don’t get labeled “alcoholics” simply because they haven’t quit yet. But as soon as you quit, even if your drinking habits pale in comparison to those around you, you’re suddenly an alcoholic and someone who can’t control your liquor. I’ll never forget sitting with a workout acquaintance for dinner and explaining my newfound sober life and she looked at me somewhat pathetically and said “yea, that makes sense. I would quit too if I couldn’t handle it.” She said this, I kid you not, as she pounded her 4th vodka and soda in about 45 minutes. All I can say in response to this is screw it. Be sober, be proud, tell people. If they want to think you drank more than you could, that you’re somehow different and can’t “handle” your liquor, or have personality defects associated with drinking that make you an alcoholic, then let them.
  4. Changed things up as much as possible. I’m a creature of habit. I like routine, I like consistency, and I like a good schedule. This consistency makes it so that alcohol was a part of my routine, so I needed to change it. For me it wasn’t about changing one part of my routine, but about allowing myself to follow different rules and change things up. For example, for the better part of a decade, I have woken up on workdays and written (scientific articles, book chapters, editorial work) five days per week at the exact same time. When I became sober, I decided to allow myself to do different things with my mornings like work out, meditate, read and sleep in.  I started reading more and every night before bed. I added meditation and essential oils into my life. I started getting massages, and facials and all the self-care I could enjoy (not drinking gives you more time and more money for these types of things!). I simply switched things up such that when I made the decision not to have alcohol, it was normal for my life to vary day to day and so choosing something else (tea, lemon water, etc.) was also normal. This may sound unnecessary to you, and it may be! For me, I can’t emphasize enough how much of a creature of habit I am and these intentional changes in my routine allowed me freedom to make a different choice about alcohol.

I’ll end with some resources that were incredibly helpful to me:

  1. Holly Whitaker’s book “quit like a woman” (seriously – go buy it!).
  2. Allen Carr’s book “the easy way to quit drinking” – this is a book that heavily influenced Holly’s decision to quit drinking. I read it and I liked it, though it was not as impactful on me as hers was. Nonetheless, the premise of the book (quit and never look back) is a very good one and the facts are useful to know.
  3. De Sois – this is Katy Perry’s nonalcoholic drink line – my favorite is the golden hour.
  4. Sober sidekick app – I downloaded this app initially as a way to count my days of sobriety. It was incredibly reinforcing to me to watch the number of days, weeks, months add up. However it’s become more than just a counter – there is a feed (almost like a facebook feed) of people supporting each other. I don’t post much but I enjoy reading about other’s successes, and watching the community rally around those struggling.
  5. Headspace app – I started meditating daily when I quit drinking. I love headspace and use it daily to this day.
  6. Tempest.com – the best I can describe this is a modern, online, female driven AA.

Finally, many people may look at those who have quit drinking as leading a sad life – one that is a constant struggle. Perhaps they wake up every day in misery because they can’t have a drink. Nothing could be further from the truth for me. I feel a sense of freedom that I’ve never felt before and I’ve been able to live my life more fully, with more energy and alertness, and with ease. My perspective is that it’s not that I am missing out on life by not drinking, it’s that I was missing out on life when I was drinking – now that the terrible effects of alcohol and the pressure to have it are removed from my body, I’m finally living!

Leave a Comment