I stopped drinking several times during my twenties.
Looking back, shame was always the driver. I was embarrassed about something I did or said. I was embarrassed that I relied on alcohol as a crutch and that I didn’t know how not to need it in social situations. I was embarrassed simply because alcohol was something I privately wrestled with in my mind and was sure that no one else around me had to think twice about it.
I always came back to the same question: “What’s wrong with me?” Because there had to be something wrong. Why else would this be a struggle?
With shame at the helm, my resolve didn’t last very long. I always got to a point where I wanted to stop trying to answer “What’s wrong with me?” and go about being “normal” like everyone else. And the cycle of stopping and starting continued.
What finally changed?
I stopped letting shame run the show. I allowed myself to try on the idea that maybe there was nothing wrong with me. I began to consider (albeit very reluctantly) that maybe I was just doing the best I knew how.
If you’re skeptical of this approach, trust me I get it. This shift in thinking did not come easily. I had zero practice in being kind to myself as a motivator for change. I had always used self-criticism as a cudgel to compel transformation. Being kind to myself was how I stayed stuck. Being kind to myself was how I pulled the wool over my own eyes. Being kind to myself was lazy. It wasn’t for me.
Then again, I had a decade under my belt of trying and failing to shame myself into changing. Shame wasn’t working, so I tried something different. I focused on how alcohol was helping me.
Now let me tell you, at the time this seemed downright crazy. The benefits of drinking were what kept me from wanting to change. It made sense to focus on the downsides. I should be reminding myself of horrible hangovers and bad decision-making. It was because I forgot the repercussions that I kept repeating the same outcomes. Right?
Well, maybe not.
I was committed to using the painful repercussions of over-drinking to keep myself in line. All the while trying to ignore the very benefits that made alcohol so appealing.
It quieted my merciless self-critic. It put me at ease in social situations. It let me blow off steam after a hard day’s work. It gave me permission to throw caution to the wind and actually be spontaneous.
None of these things were bad or shameful. And when I gave myself permission to focus on the benefits, I realized I didn’t have a clue how to obtain these things without a drink.
Turns out, I was doing the best for myself the only way I knew how.
My reasons for using alcohol weren’t shameful. They weren’t a sign that I was broken. They actually made perfect sense.
All the times I stopped drinking in the past were exercises in beating myself up so that I wouldn’t want to drink anymore. No wonder it didn’t work.
What focusing on the benefits of drinking made me realize was that for me the challenge was less about saying no to a drink over and over again and more about figuring out how to give myself the benefits of alcohol without alcohol.
And there was no shame in that.