How do you do it?
“I don’t want to stop drinking completely. I just want to cut it down. “
I hear that at least once, and usually several, times a day. I work with people with all kinds of addiction problems: street drugs, internet, sex. But the problem that brings in the most
people is the legal drug – alcohol.
And this is especially true now. I think we’re all sick of hearing about all the awful things that happened as a result of the pandemic. But it’s a fact that a lot of us drank way more alcohol while we were stuck at home than we did before.
We couldn’t go out, socially isolated, frustrated with our lack of options. And one of the few things available to help us escape from everything was drinking.
And that habit has followed us.
Is Alcohol a Problem for You?
I have a lot of people who are coming to see me who "aren’t sure" if their alcohol use is a problem. They’re not getting hung over and going to work sick. They don’t miss their kids’ ball games or parent-teacher conferences. They’re not fighting with their spouses all the time.
But they’re just not sure.
Now, in the back of my mind I always suspect that if someone tells me they think “maybe” they have a drinking problem they’re probably right.
If they’re questioning it, it probably means they know they’re over doing it.
That doesn’t mean they’re an alcoholic.
It just means they’re using more than they know they should.
My next question is usually – what is it about your drinking that makes you think maybe you shouldn’t be using alcohol so much?
At that point they might say they know they’re getting way too many of their daily calories from alcohol. They work out. They’re healthy appearing. They don’t have any particular health problems that they’re aware of.
But if they’re having three glasses of wine a night or a couple of beers, they’re really racking up the calories. In fact, if the average number of calories needed per person per day is around 2000, this can be almost a third of their daily calories.
And they’re not getting any vitamins, minerals, protein or fats they need.
All they’re getting is calories.
Or maybe they realize that the grocery budget is way out of balance. Half the money goes to buy food and an embarrassingly high amount is buying beer.
Or they may admit they like the "buzzed" feeling they get without being sloppy drunk.
So they don’t want to stop. But they’d like to feel they’re controlling their use.
I don’t want to drink anymore …
... But I don’t want to drink any less either
This is the dilemma for a lot of people. They like their nightly cocktail, their beer at the football game or their wine before bed.
But they suspect that what they’re doing isn’t healthy.
They don’t want to give it up entirely. But they’re concerned that they’re headed for trouble.
So what can they do?
You don’t have to stop completely
At one time it was thought that the only way to overcome your problem drinking was to stop all alcohol use completely. You couldn’t drink even a drop or you were on the highway to hell.
Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) has helped millions of people to get sober and alcohol free. And they tell us that the very first step in getting sober is to recognize that you are “…powerless over alcohol.”
And this does seem to be the case with some people.
For them it’s like a light switch is turned on when they have just a little bit of alcohol. A little bit means a little bit more…
And a little bit more…
And a little bit more…
They don’t seem to be able to put on the brakes and stop.
But for most people this isn’t the case. They can stop but don’t. What they need is help controlling their alcohol use.
So I’m going to give you some suggestions for how to get a handle on, and get control of, your drinking.
Keep a Record of Your Drinking
…And of your concerns.
The first step I recommend in getting a behavior under control is to get a handle on just how extensive it is.
I ask people to write a list of the things that makes them suspect they're using too much.
And I don’t mean I want them to make a mental inventory. I want them to list out on paper – not on the phone or some other electronic gadget that could “accidentally” get erased.
I mean to make a list that they’ll type up and tape to the bathroom mirror, attach to the computer monitor, hang on a bulletin board they see every day.
…And I want them to really look at that list each day. Evaluate how many of these concerns are affecting you today.
Next, keep a “Drinking Diary.” This is a record of your actual alcohol use. How often do you drink? When (what time) do you start drinking? Stop drinking? What do you drink? How much? How did you feel before you started? When you finished?
You can make this list on your phone so you can look at and add to it anytime.
This can feel like a real nuisance to do and some people balk at the idea.
But the intention is to make you truly aware of what it is that you’re doing.
You may know in the back of your mind that you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing.
But you may not truly know how much you’re actually drinking. And this technique forces you to look at that. It’s not just some vague notion in the back of your mind that you can reject and say it probably isn’t that bad.
It takes an unconscious act – going back for a second drink… or a third… or… And makes it a conscious decision.
What usually happens is that within a few days people drink less… for a while. They’re surprised at just how much they’re drinking and immediately cut it back.
But this isn’t a strategy that will last. You start "forgetting" to keep the diary. You leave your phone in the other room. You get tired of keeping a record and figure you’ll remember…
This is only the beginning.
Really look at your record
Next, examine the information you have about your drinking.
From here, you can start to develop a plan for changing the pattern and reducing your use.
Maybe you didn’t realize (or maybe you did) that you drink alcohol every day. Can you limit your intake to just weekends? To every other day without increasing the amount at each time you use?
Or maybe let’s say you start at 8 when the kids go to bed and stop when you hit the sack. You have a glass of beer in your hand the entire time and figure you take in about 36 ounces (3 beers) or about 432 calories.
When you started you were feeling tense and when you stopped you no longer feel that way and are ready to sleep. But your sleep is interrupted, so you feel more tense when you get up in the morning.
So now that you know the pattern, what things can you do to change it?
I’m not going to go into maybe you should find better ways to feeling relaxed and calm enough for sleep. That’s a conversation for another day.
Instead, we’ll look just at how to reduce your alcohol.
If you know you want to have alcohol and you like the relaxed feeling you get from it, how much alcohol does it take to get that nice feeling?
Instead of three drinks, can two spread out over the same period of time do the trick? If you always fill an eight ounce glass to the brim and you do this three times over the evening, will filling a six ounce glass all the way up three times get you the same good feelings?
Or – could you substitute something non-alcoholic in between the beers and still feel good? Maybe a non-alcoholic beer or even juice or water?
Or maybe – is there someone you can talk to who could encourage you to not drink right this minute?
There are also a huge number of apps for your phone that are designed to help people cut back on their alcohol. Your might want to look at several of these.
And just like with the drinking diary, I want you to write out your plan. This way you can review it often. You may also need to change it to suggest new possibilities or to get rid of things that aren't working
The most important thing is, if you think you have a problem, keep working to resolve it.
If nothing is changing – stop
However, as I mentioned at the beginning, some people just can’t seem to get a handle on their drinking. They feel that they lose control when they start. For those people, it may mean it’s time to stop.
And I'll talk about that in a future post.
Images of bottles of alcohol by @CanStockPhoto Inc/Bialasiewicz
Image of questioning by @CanStockPhoto Inc/Orla
Image of hand making a list by @CanStockPhoto Inc/Happy Pictures
Image of magnifying glass examining a list by @CanStockPhoto Inc/artinspiring