Looking for strategies to stay sober for good?
I’ve been thinking a lot about how I finally managed to get and stay sober. When I look back on the millions of times I tried (and failed) to quit, I have a very good idea about what didn’t work. I could write an entire book on what NOT to do.
So what did? What’s the secret to staying sober?
I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure there’s no ONE answer to that question. Everyone is different. What works for you might not work for me and vice versa. But I do believe that there are some universal tools that can improve anyone’s chances of staying sober and having a pretty kickass life.
Here are three that I personally swear by…
1. Staying sober requires a mindset shift.
If you approach your sobriety from the mindset of, “even though I want to drink, I will fight the urge every day and hope it goes away,” I got some bad news for you.
Your brain isn’t designed to do that much fighting. Willpower alone will not keep you sober in the long term.
It’s a complex problem that requires a deeper level of personal work and understanding. You have to transform from a person trying to quit drinking to one who no longer drinks and that requires more than willpower.
In past failed attempts at sobriety, I felt like I was always fighting – fighting the urge to go to the bodega, fighting the urge to stop at the bar or grab a pack of cigarettes.
Every time I fought the urge to drink, I usually caved. So I had to eliminate that dynamic, uncover the roots of my drinking, and understand the brain chemistry that made it so damn hard to say, “NO.”
Understanding Why You Can’t Stop Drinking
It is the most maddening experience. You hate drinking, what it’s doing to your life, your health, and your relationships with others. It should be simple.
You should be able to just not buy more alcohol and not pour yourself a drink, or five, every day. It’s common to think, “Well, I’m just a worthless person who can’t do anything right, including this.”
What if you could let go of that mindset and approach it from a scientific standpoint?
Your Brain Has Gotten Used To Alcohol
The reason you feel like clawing your skin off when met with a craving is that your brain chemistry has changed to accommodate all the alcohol you’ve been consuming.
It is your primary source of dopamine. Without it, your mood is completely tanked. It takes time for your brain chemistry to adjust to sobriety, and what’s worse is that your brain knows that it is relatively easy to tamp down the discomfort. You just need to have a drink.
If you had an accessible itch on your body that was consuming your every thought, of course, you would reach to scratch it. Sobriety means keeping your hands to yourself and letting the itch play itself out. And that is really friggin’ hard!
So we cave to our craving and round and round we go. It’s not that you’re a weak person, it’s that your brain and body are withdrawing from the alcohol and that is a process that really, really sucks.
For more on the science of alcohol and your brain, visit –>> How Alcohol Damages and Changes the Chemistry in Your Brain.
There is a reason this is happening to you. It doesn’t absolve you from the responsibility of working through it, but maybe it can help you stop identifying as a person who is uniquely weak to alcohol and that you are doomed to fail at this forever.
Why do you think you drink?
I drank because I couldn’t stand anything about my life.
My job made me miserable, I was lonely and desperate for a relationship, and I honestly didn’t like myself very much. Much of that was rooted in underlying trauma and undiagnosed depression and anxiety (although I knew even if I didn’t want to know).
Drinking was my way of dealing with the fact that I hated my life.
As long as the underlying causes of your drinking exist, you will be on a continuous cycle of sobriety and relapse. Fighting the urge to drink and doing nothing else just adds to your problems.
This is why it is critical to go to therapy or counseling, join a program (if that works for you), and work on the painstaking task of forgiving yourself. You have to identify and fix whatever drove you to drink in the first place.
Be Willing to Do the Work of Sobriety
Understanding the science of addiction is the first part, but the second is accepting that you need to do some work on the underlying emotional roots of your drinking. Is there trauma under there? What happened?
I do counseling with a wonderful therapist online and it has opened my eyes to a lot of things I had mostly buried. We think we know why we do the things we do, but we really don’t. Speaking with a professional who can help draw some of those backstories out and see them differently is a game-changer!
Personally, I use BetterHelp. It has been an incredible resource for me and I could not recommend it enough.
Resources For Mindset Shifts
Here are some tools that have completely reshaped my thinking about habits and my general approach to life. If you’re looking for some additional guidance, I recommend picking these two up.
Atomic Habits by James Clear – I am in love with this book. If you are like me and have tried to use willpower to solve any number of problems in your life, this book will be a balm on your slightly deflated soul.
It gives you clear, actionable, science-backed strategies for ditching bad habits, and creating good ones. You ever read a book and think, “wow, my whole perspective in life just changed”? This book did that for me.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson – I’ve raved about this book before, but it remains a critical tool in my toolbox. The premise of this book is that the whole “positive thinking and pursuit of happiness” thing is actually making us more depressed and miserable.
We have a limited number of f*cks to give in this life, so the more discerning we are about them, and the more we accept some hard truths in this world, the happier and more fulfilled we will be.
2. If You Want To Stay Sober, Change Your Environment.
They say we are products of our environment and that is 100% CORRECT. The recovery community has a funny little take on this concept. If you hang around a barbershop long enough, eventually you will get a haircut.
Point? Your environment needs to reflect who you are trying to become. If it doesn’t, you aren’t going to succeed.
If you think you are going to quit drinking and change nothing else about your life, you are deluding yourself.
In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about this at great length. He writes, “Your culture sets your expectation for what is “normal.” Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together.”
People do not evolve and grow in a vacuum. They surround themselves with people and environments that support what they’re trying to be, do, or achieve.
The opposite is also true.
Immersing yourself in a culture of drinking and partying is not going to help you stay sober. We both know what that’s going to do.
Get rid of what doesn’t serve you.
If you want to stay sober and improve your quality of life, you need to start with your physical environment. Is your house set up for your goals right now? Full confession – mine isn’t.
I’ve got Doritos on top of the fridge, peanut butter, and jelly, cookies, biscuits – all the things I’m trying to avoid right now. Guess what I do?
You already know. I eat them! BECAUSE THEY ARE THERE.
So get rid of them.
I’m trying to be economical and because the half-eaten bag of Doritos is not a life or death situation for me like drinking was, I am going to finish the bag and not replace it. Same with any other item that is not serving my health goals right now.
Remove anything you are explicitly trying to avoid from your home.
That seems really obvious, but look around right now and ask yourself, “What have I got in here that is setting me up for failure?”
You might be surprised just how much stuff you have that is preventing you from making the changes you want in your life. I’m not just referring to food or alcohol either.
Do you spend too much time playing video games, and yet your whole gaming console is out in the open, begging you to get online and play?
Claim you’re going to start going to the gym, but your trainers are buried somewhere deep in the back of your closet, while those delectable cookies are still in that bowl on the coffee table?
You get where I’m going with this.
Dump your booze down the drain and put your replacement beverages in easy-to-access places.
Clean up your emotional environment.
If your current tribe is still getting wasted and going about their life aimlessly, you need a new one. You can’t be around that energy. This isn’t easy. In some cases, it could be a spouse or close friend we’re talking about.
At the risk of sounding insensitive, you have one life, my dear. You have to do what’s best for you.
If part of your plan to stay sober is to get in shape, then you need to hang around people who prioritize fitness in their life. Join a gym. Make friends with the people in your classes. Go out with them to that new healthy food spot that just opened up.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, we are constantly trying to fit in with the people in our “tribe”. Scientific studies have shown that human beings will actually go against their better judgment and instincts in order to go along with what the rest of the tribe is doing. We are wired for conformity.
(Yes, even you.)
Find your people.
If your tribe continues to drink, your sobriety is challenging the norms of the group. That’s not going to work for you (or them) long-term. To be successful, you need to find a tribe with whom fitting in is actually good for you.
If your goal is to lose weight, you can’t tag along with your work bestie who likes to eat at McDonald’s every day for lunch. Sorry, my friend. Those days are done.
People who quit smoking and drinking or lose weight don’t succeed because they’re stronger than you. They aren’t. They succeed because they create environments that help them meet their goals and avoid environments that don’t.
My husband still drinks, but I don’t hang out with him very often when he does. All of my friends drink, but I don’t hang out with them when the objective of the social function is to get drunk.
When I’m able to attend a party (it can be hard with a toddler), there might be drinking, but there will also be food, good conversation, and some other activity. Nobody is getting wasted.
I designed my life this way intentionally and it has served me well. I never feel like I’m missing out and I’m happy now, even if it means I had to let go of some other relationships that weren’t good for me.
3. Be purposeful with how you spend your time.
In the past two and a half years, I’ve realized that my ongoing sobriety has very little to do with alcohol.
If I ever catch myself wanting to drink, I know it’s a red flag that something serious needs to be handled and my brain is trying to find a way to bury it.
Sometimes it’s obvious – like the night we had to take our daughter to the hospital because she was hyperventilating and coughing the worst sounding cough I’d ever heard in my life.
Sometimes it takes a little unpacking – like realizing I haven’t met my professional goals and my dwindling nest egg is causing additional stress.
How you design and organize your day-to-day life will directly impact how you handle stress and find success in this world.
Actively Create a Plan for Staying Sober
Staying sober requires actionable planning. Now that you aren’t trapped in a cycle of drinking and hangovers, what are you doing with your time?
At the risk of sounding like a self-help guru trying to sell you a bunch of BS, I ask that last question because I have personally found that the greatest threat to my sobriety is stagnation.
Anytime I find myself going on autopilot and doing the same things day in and day out, other stuff starts to slip too. That’s when cravings are most likely to happen.
The more intentional I am with my day, week, month, and year, the further away I stay from drinking.
I think it’s because it gives me something to feel good about. Plus, scheduling your life out keeps you focused on what you’re trying to achieve which translates to less time dwelling on past mistakes and regrets.
It also helps me avoid time-wasting activities which I am VERY good at finding.
Start with your morning.
I’ve written about the value of morning routines, so I will keep this part short.
You have to do things in the morning that will set you up for success for the rest of the day. How you define success is entirely your prerogative. In the early days of my sobriety, success meant that I got from sun up to sun down without any personal crises.
Things will change as you do.
I used to start my mornings by hitting the snooze button five times and thinking up possible excuses for not going to work followed by more thinking about how much everything sucked.
That’s not a great start to the day, folks.
Now, the first thing I do is make my bed. After I get my daughter sorted, I meditate and either go to the gym or shower and brush my teeth and then get started with some writing and work.
My goal is to wake up around 5:30 so I can do more before my daughter wakes up, but I’m not there yet. Baby steps!
Schedule your free time.
Now that you’re not getting wasted at happy hour, what ARE you doing?
The answer to that question can determine how successful you’ll be in sobriety and beyond. If you’re binge-watching Netflix and eating a mountain of nachos every day, you haven’t improved much, have you? (Both those things sound awesome by the way.)
My ability to stay sober has been largely rooted in a constant desire to become better and actually doing things toward that end. This requires planning or else I will be joining you on the couch with those nachos.
I schedule out what I want to accomplish for my business each day because if I don’t, I’ll end up mindlessly hopping from task to task without doing anything truly significant. Kind of like driving without a roadmap.
I plan out meals ahead of time because I’m learning to be more financially responsible. My natural inclination is to add things to my basket and find uses for them later. The end result is a lot of sad, spoilt produce and takeout pizza.
Be specific about your goals and plans.
Don’t just say you’re going to read more. Choose a book, put it in a place you’ll see it, and make it a part of your day. Put it on paper. I read for 15 minutes after dinner every day.
The WHAT is less important than the HOW. It’s about personal accountability.
I’ve been able to stay sober because I have things to do and I look forward to doing most of them (can’t win them all). You need to create similar conditions for your life.
And you can! With small changes, implemented consistently, every single day.