Harry Smith

One Year On

After 12 months of sobriety, I finally sat down and wrote out how I did it. What I learnt, what I struggled with and how I changed.

Some six months ago I wrote Thoughts on Sobriety. I shared a small piece of my soul. A conflicted and anxious piece of my private struggle with alcohol. In return the readers of the article more than any other have shared their own struggle. It has been a joy to have these conversations with friends and strangers alike. They are the most human of all conversations. Funny, sad, tragic, heartwarming, honest and confused. I share in their successes and struggles with kindness, compassion and dare I say it - love.

Though my fraud is soon revealed by the inevitable question - “How did you do it?”. I was wary of offering advice when so unqualified to do so. I didn’t know why this attempt had worked when so many others had failed. I’ve spent the last few moths pondering this question. Looking back I’ve managed to uncover some of the puzzle pieces that helped. I hope that a few of them may be of use to you as well.

Before we begin

I am not a medical professional or an expert in addiction. Consult your doctor before you stop any addiction as withdrawal can kill. I aim this advice at those whose struggle was like my own. Adults who feel prevented from pursuing their goals, relationships and dreams because of alcohol or other addictive behaviour. If you have a more serious problem this advice is inappropriate. Please do seek professional help.

This advice refers to the stopping or reduction of drinking alcohol. I aim to bring extra clarity to the advice through personal experience. I will use alcohol throughout as it is what is most familiar to me. Though you might replace it with; gambling, pornography, complaining, smoking or binge eating.

The title of the first section of this advice is Mindset. Success in sobriety is a far greater battle of the mind than it is the body. While the action of not picking up a drink is simple, the reality is far from it. This section deals with the insights that ceased my desire to drink.

The second section, Action, describes the tools that I developed to avoid temptation. Drinking must replaced with something better. This section focuses on tools to build a new life that makes benefit of your extra time, money and energy.

Each section comprises of short “kata’s” that are independent of one another. Each one explores a different idea, tool or technique about sobriety. Not all of them will be useful at first, or may evolve and change with your sobriety. It will be a reference to return to throughout your journey.

If you have no desire to stop drinking, then all power to you. If it brings you genuine joy and energy then continue in a healthy and responsible way. This article is not for you. There is more nuance to drinking than full sobriety vs total alcoholic. Though in this advice I will treat it as an absolute to give more weight to the benefits. Viewing it this way has helped me on my journey, by making the alternative an extreme it has motivated me to avoid it.

Table of Contents

Mindset

  1. Sobriety solves nothing, it only makes problems clearer.
  2. Avoiding a sense of loss (FOMO).
  3. Say goodbye to old rituals.
  4. Reduction is harder than abstinence.
  5. Drinking dominates your life.
  6. Be prepared, open and ready for big changes.
  7. Expect to spend all your mental energy.
  8. Progress, not perfection - but no excuses.
  9. Identifying the voice of addiction.
  10. Tired. Stressed. Angry.
  11. Desire doesn’t disappear.
  12. Binging begets more binging.
  13. Accpeting suffering without an escape hatch.

Action

  1. The ‘Someday Soon’ List
  2. Start with a Sober Month
  3. Be Selfish, Today.
  4. Non-Alcoholic Drinks.
  5. Building a sober social life.
  6. Defeat your ‘trigger points’.
  7. Sharing your Sobriety.
  8. The ‘Before You Drink’ Checklist.
  9. Save & Treat Yourself.
  10. Dealing With Peer Pressure.

Mindset

Sobriety solves nothing, it only makes problems clearer.
Sobriety is not a cure-all for your problems. It only brings into sharp focus the broken areas of your life that are in need of repair. This will make you feel worse, not better. Though you will feel worse, know that things are getting better. The flaws have always been there. Without alcohol to dull your senses you can set to fixing them for the first time. You must expect this pain in advance. If you don’t you will recoil from it and return to drinking. Most of us started drinking young and never developed the emotional tools to deal with trauma. You must now learn them. With a clear mind you will come to the solutions. This will break the cycle of problems causing drinking and drinking causing problems.
Avoiding a sense of loss (FOMO).
Know this, you are missing out on nothing. The experience of drinking stopped being new years ago. Since then it has only repeated itself. It once gave you social skills, first loves, new experiences and exciting memories. Now it takes your energy, health, time and money. How many details of the ‘deep meaningful chats’ at 2:00am can you recall? Sobriety replaces the vapid interactions of drinking with rich, intense human relationship. There can be no sense of loss where there has only been gain. Sobriety represents opportunity.
Say goodbye to old rituals.
Some drinking rituals will be easy to replace. Swap a glass of wine in the garden before bed for tea. A post work drink replaced with a walk in the woods. It is the rituals steeped with meaning that will be impossible to replace. There is no non-alcoholic substitute that will capture a whiskey shared between father and son. Or a final toast raised at a funeral. Create new rituals with you friends and family rather than trying to replicate old ones.
Reduction is harder than abstinence.
If you choose reduction, know that the challenge is far greater than abstinence. To abstain from alcohol, we make our decision when we are at our best. Sober, well rested and motivated. To reduce our alcohol intake we must make the decision over and over. Each time someone offers a drink the decision grows in difficulty as we get tired and tipsy. To succeed you must be vigilant to how your inner dialogue will change as you drink. Know in advance how much you will drink, what you will drink, and what you will do if you feel temptation getting the better of you. If your attempts at reduction fail, be open to trying to abstinence instead. You will find it a much easier path.
Drinking dominates your life.
Even in small amounts, drinking has a dominating effect on your life. The small decision not to drink today, has an oversized impact. A few hours of drinking has a tail of negative effects lasting several days. Even semi-regular drinking leads to a brain fog that never has a chance to lift. If you have been drinking for a long time imagine lifting that fog for the first time in decades. It is so familiar to you that you don’t recognise its presence at all. How much better could you be? 5% better? 10% better? Use this to motivate you.
Be prepared, open and ready for big changes.
Do not underestimate the impact of sobriety on your life. Consumption of alcohol is interwoven in a culture stretching back thousands of years. To divorce yourself from something so ubiquitous will need a monumental change in mindset, habits and behaviours. You will question the ‘truths’ you have learned. It will falsify your notions on who you are, what you enjoy and what you are good at. Relationships and friendships will change or end. You must be open and ready for all of this. If you are not, you will resist it, and you will drink to resist. When you push alcohol aside put everything on the table.
Expect to spend all your mental energy.
Drinking alcohol has been with you for years or decades. Expect this change to take nothing less than your full mental capacity for the first few months. Alcohol and its culture is everywhere. Abstinence from alcohol will make you realise how prevalent it is. Refusing the constant offers of drinks will be exhausting. You will feel outcast and the primal brain will rebel against it. If you expect to use anything less than your full mental effort you will fail.
Progress, not perfection - but no excuses.
It is naive to believe that a major change to your lifestyle will be perfect. You will fail. Each failure will teach you something new about your journey to sobriety. But, you must not allow this progress to become an excuse. Don’t keep drinking and swearing that ‘this drink will be the last’. You will have to be honest with yourself about what is a mistake and what is a deliberate transgression. Expect a few false starts.
Identifying the voice of addiction.

You must learn to recognise the difference between your inner dialogue and your actions. Between the desire to act and the action itself there is a space of time. When this space of time is very short we act hedonistically. We follow our impul ses and immediate desires. You want to drink, so you do. Sobriety is increasing the space between the desire and the action. This allows so you to decide otherwise. As the space increases you will begin to recognise the voice of addiction. It whispers to you;

  • That you will be fine at work tomorrow if you have another
  • You deserve to drink because it has been a hard day
  • Next week you’ll start again for real

Among many other hundreds of insidious catchphrases. Though the voice of addiction takes on your own voice, know that it is not your voice. You are not your desires. By recognising your inner dialogue as an unreality you give yourself the permission to ignore it. Abstinence hones the ability to act in opposition to our desire. This skill is invaluable.

Tired, Stressed, Angry.
If you feel tired, sleep. If you feel stressed, relax. If you feel angry, walk away. Alcohol is not the answer. At these critical times your willpower will be at its weakest. Drinking allows us to avoid what our body is telling us. In sobriety, we must listen to the body instead. Your sobriety will be most fragile at the end of the day. In hard moments there is an easy escape catch that can save your sobriety. Go to sleep.
Desire doesn't disappear.
You are not weak or flawed because your desire to drink remains a long time into your sobriety. The goal is to not drink alcohol. Not to stop thinking about it entirely. By pretending that it never brought you pleasure will only give rise to inner conflict. The more you try to banish the desire from your thoughts the stronger it will become. Instead, accept it and do not act on it. Prevent yourself from revelling in former drinking memories. You look back in rose-tinted glasses and make your sobriety much harder.
Binging begets more binging.
Binge drinking leads to binge eating, binge complaining and binge smoking. And binge eating will lead to binge drinking, binge complaining and binge smoking. Binging begets more binging. Imagine yourself at a table with a pristine table cloth. You try hard not to dirty it, preserving its unadulterated whiteness. Then in a moment of carelessness you spill the gravy boat. The tablecloth is already dirty now and you take much less care to keep it clean. You litter it with with food and stains. When you binge on anything, you dirty your own table cloth. Avoid excess in all areas.
Accepting suffering without an escape hatch.
As sure as the tide goes in and out, so too will our fortunes. Sadness, pain, anxiety, anger, pity, terror and depression are all inevitable. Drinking diffuses and depress these feelings. In the drunk, unthinking state we are free from the suffering of our reality. For those who have been drinking since they were young, this escape hatch is well used. Absent of alcohol you will have to learn to accept suffering as part of your condition. It has been a good bandaid for the problems of rich, western life; a lack of purpose, materialistic unfulfillment, career stagnation, a lack of rich interpersonal relationships and mortality. This is the true challenge of sobriety. Putting down the drink is the easy part. Our real task is to deal with these problems head on and free from intoxication. We are not broken because we suffer. There is no need to escape it.

Action

The 'Someday Soon' List.

The easiest way to stay on the path to sobriety is to replace drinking with activities that bring you joy. These activities will act as powerful motivators to remain sober. They will fill your new found time and use your renewed energy. We all have a mental ‘someday soon’ list of aspirations we never quite get round too. With the distraction of drinking removed, now is the time to start actioning this list. For example it might look a little like this:

  • Learn to play the piano
  • Build your dream garden
  • Convert retro caravan
  • Learn Woodworking

This now becomes the list of things you will do instead of drinking. By starting with your most important aspirations we get immediate rewards. Do not wait for some magical moment where sobriety will unlock your future dreams - start today. Let these goals absorb your time, energy and money in the way drinking used to absorb them.

Start with a Sober Month.
If you doubt the impact that drinking is having, then begin now with four weeks away from the booze. Instead of making the major decision to be sober now, experiment with how it feels with a short break. It will allow the mental fog of regular drinking to lift for the first time. You can make a decision on the future with clarity. It will be a good test if reduction will be a possible strategy for you. If after this month you reward yourself with a massive binge, reduction is not possible. Sobriety will be a better option.
Be Selfish, Today.
Sobriety is a personal journey. You will learn that no one else will care. So be selfish with its benefits, and be selfish right now. Book a class you’ve always wanted to go to. Go to a spa. Get a taste of the benefits of life outside of the bottle. All the time, energy and money you win back from not drinking is all for you. Be excited about how you will use it. This excitement will give energy and drive to your journey. Don’t hesitate, do it right now.
Non-Alcoholic Drinks.
Use this tool with great care. If you swap your current drinking habit for alcohol free drinks you gain few benefits. These drinks are still expensive. You will still spend the same amount of time drinking. Temptation will surround you in these settings. They will serve you well at times where drinking is part of the occasion. Weddings, birthdays and funerals. But as a daily driver they will make things much harder. In certain social situations (e.g work parties) the pressure to drink can be very high. A non-alcoholic drinks can relieve some pressure.
Building a sober social life.
You will need to rebuild your social life from the ground up. There is no two ways about it. I was surprising to find how much of my social needs I met with drinking alone. You will lose some people, their friendship being more of a ‘drinkingship’. Without alcohol as a social lubricant you will have to learn to talk to people without it. The new activities and hobbies that you replace drinking with will be a fertile ground for making new friends. Each time you fulfil your social needs outside of drinking you cement your new identity as a non-drinker. Convince friends and family to try the new things that interest you. This builds richer, deeper and more meaningful relationships. A sober social life enriches you with support and opportunity. A far cry from the dramatic, stressful and often traumatic drunk social life.
Defeat your 'trigger points'.
Repeated cues trigger our habit of drinking. I call these cues as a ‘trigger point’. Always have a glass of wine before bed? Trigger point. Open a beer after you get in from work? Trigger point. The temptation to drink will reach a crescendo at each of these trigger points. But, your resistance is crucial. Each time you resist, you retrain your brain to forget that trigger. Each win lessens the strength of them, until you defeat it all together. Some trigger points will be impossible to resist and cause failure again and again. There is a better way to defeat these. Avoid them.
Sharing your Sobriety.
How do you know someone isn’t drinking? They’ll tell you. An old joke, but it rings true. When I passed one year sober the occasion, though special to me, passed with no fanfare. When you mention it, people will mutter their congratulations before changing the subject. But you must share you sobriety. You must talk about and you must be proud of it. In a culture where drinking dominates, you mustn’t keep your sobriety to yourself. It is too great a mental effort to hide it. Each time you say it out loud you reaffirm your commitment to sobriety. Before long your response will become automatic.
The 'Before You Drink' Checklist.

There will be a time when you will feel like you are going to drink. Before you do, ask yourself;

  • Am I ready to sacrifice tomorrow and the rest of the week to this moment?
  • Is this moment so unique that I will regret it forever if I don’t drink?
  • Am I willing to sacrifice my new hobbies, time and money to drink?
  • Is this a better solution than going to bed?
  • Will drinking solve this problem? If any of the answers to these questions are “No.”, then you have your answer. You will notice that the last question has only one answer - it is always “no”. This list will always save you from a moment of weakness, as long as you remember to use it.
Save & Treat Yourself.
Open Amazon. Find Something you want that costs less than £100. Buy it. Why did you hesitate? You haven’t been hesitating to spend this much and more every week on drinking. It’s time to relish in what that money can do for you when you spend it on other things. I always felt that money spent drunk didn’t count. Your bank doesn’t agree. It’s a big difference in finances and in the first few months you should track all that money and set it aside. Then use it to buy things you want and enjoy. This immediate satisfaction is great at helping you stick with it. Every time you don’t go out drinking, move however much you would of spent to a savings account. In time, you can end your splurge and keep the money. Treat yourself, you’re making big steps towards a better future!
Dealing With Peer Pressure.
As soon as you insist on your sobriety, there will be another that insists you need to drink. People express their own guilt around alcohol consumption by making everyone else drink. Sobriety shines a light into dark places. It may reveal friends and family who are unable to give their support. Visualise what you will say and do in advance when offered drinks or pressured into drinking. Some workplace cultures frown on sobriety, so it is useful to have some pre-canned excuses.

One Year On

Though I’ve tried to answer “how did you do it?” I’ve always thought the more interesting question will always be “why did it work?”. I make no claim that this set of advice will be any better than any other advice. In sobriety, and most other things, the journey is more personal that we are lead to believe by gurus and self help merchants . You can only collect the many hundreds of tools, tips and techniques that others have tried and find what works for you. But if there is no one right path, what is it about each unique path that leads to success? Is there a common thread that binds them? Is there a universal answer to “why did it work?”

In the last twelve months the reason I’ve struggled to put to words the ‘how?’ of my sobriety is that I had confused it with this second question. I knew the actions I had taken, but what was the change behind the changes that made them work? I’ve come to understand that we are all asking ‘how?’ as a poor facsimile of what we really want to know. The question behind the question, about the change behind the changes. The question that we are asking is “why is it working for you? and not for me?”

The answer to this question goes far beyond sobriety. Though sobriety might be a powerful tool for teaching it. It’s the answer behind every big achievement, every outlandish success, every major life change. It’s why some people lose 400 pounds when others struggle for years. It’s why some people write a book and others talk about it for life. It’s why some people are always moving forwards and others are stuck in a rut.

The solution to this puzzle came to me from the very same question that triggered my sobriety in the first place. “If I’m so great, why isn’t it going great?”. For all my intelligence, good intention, dreams, plans and goals things were not going so well. My perception of myself was growing ever more discordant with my actual place in reality. I realised that there was a disconnect between thought and reality. That disconnect is action.

This difference between thought and action is the undefinable X-Factor that answers “why did it work?”. Why did it work? Because I actually did it. Because I acted on it. Nothing is real until action makes it so. Your inner dialogue counts for nothing. Your good intention counts for nothing. Your reading and research counts for nothing. Until you take action nothing will happen. It’s so simple and obvious it seems hardly worth noting at all. But look around you and you will notice how few act on what they think.

When I think of a “sober person” I no longer consider them only free from addiction and intoxication. Sobriety is to perceive things as they are. To make honest judgement of ourselves based on the actions we take rather than what we intend. To speak not of dreams but of things done. To measure a person by the frequency they take action, rather than the frequency that they talk.

So how do you get sober?

You just do it.

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