• Dr. D

I stopped drinking -now what?

What makes staying sober so difficult?


There’s an old joke, “Quitting alcohol isn’t hard. I’ve done it many times.”


As anyone who’s tried to stop drinking will tell you, stopping may be hard, but there’s lots more to come that’s at least as difficult, if not more so. And as the joke above tells you,

staying quit is the hardest thing of all


In my last post, I talked about stopping alcohol and things that can be done to get you

there. I didn’t try to sugarcoat it. Stopping drinking isn’t easy for a lot of people and it isn’t fun for a lot more.


But often it’s something that has to be done.


Now I want to talk about what to expect once you’re through the early stages of quitting and withdrawing. Then next time we’ll talk about relapse prevention.


The worst is over…kind of


No alcohol in at least a week. The scariest part of alcohol withdrawal is behind you. You don’t feel queasy anymore. No headache. The shakes are gone (mostly).


So why don’t you feel good?


Lots of times when we’re trying to sell people on making a change, we do it in terms of how wonderful life will be. “Ditch the guy and life will be so much better.” “Quit your job if it makes you so anxious.” “Take a sleeping pill if you can’t sleep.”


But this kind of advice makes it seem like every problem stops if you take some simple action or another. But that’s not always the way it goes.


You ditch the guy, but now you’re lonely. At least you had someone to talk to when he was there.


Your job made you anxious, but with no money and no employment, now you’re having panic attacks.


The sleeping pill gets you to sleep but now you feel hung over in the morning and have even less energy because you’re groggy all day.


So I don’t promise anyone that life will improve or they’ll feel great if they stop drinking alcohol.


Instead, I point out the problems alcohol was causing in their lives. We talk about the fact that these things absolutely have no chance of improving unless they try their lives without alcohol.


But I also try to be really upfront about the fact that it will take time for life to improve. And it truly can. It just doesn’t happen the day you don’t drink a drop.


So what are the things that keep you from feeling good?


Alcohol changes a lot about you


Alcohol is a chemical, and we’re chemical beings. So it makes sense that after exposing ourselves to a lot of alcohol over a lot of time causes chemical changes in us.


But it isn’t just our chemistry that gets altered.


Most of us know that alcohol changes how the liver works. The liver breaks down alcohol in

the body. Since it’s working so hard, over time, the anatomy of the liver changes. It’s like

pumping iron makes the biceps enlarge, drinking alcohol causes the liver to get bigger… for a awhile.


But most people aren’t aware that alcohol also changes the chemistry of the brain and actually how different areas of the brain look and are built.


And, not surprisingly, these after-alcohol changes have a huge effect on how the brain and body work and how we feel.


I’m not going into the different chemicals (neurotransmitters) in the brain and how each works after alcohol withdrawal. However, I will say that alcohol can change the levels of many brain chemicals.


And having too much of one and not enough of another neurotransmitter affects how we think and feel.


Plus, the chemical levels don’t suddenly change back to normal just because you quit drinking.


So that’s one of the reasons that just stopping your alcohol isn’t enough to get you back to the you you want to feel like.


What will I feel like?


I always hesitate to tell people how they’re going to feel. Everybody’s different. Plus, I don’t want them to expect to not feel good so they don’t feel good.


But enough people don’t feel the way they hoped to that I want to address this.


A lot of experts say there’s a period of time lasting a couple of weeks to several months where the body and brain chemistry are slowly getting back to normal. This doesn't happen to everybody, but it does happen to most.


During this time, a time they call “post acute withdrawal” there are a number of common symptoms.


Most of them are related to how the brain is functioning, but also, of course, how the body is working.


Mood: Many people feel down or irritable. Nothing excites them. Nothing really interests them. Everything gets under their skin. It’s hard to think about the future without feeling pretty hopeless about things.


It’s easy to see why a lot of people start drinking again within just a few weeks. If you’re going to feel like this, why bother to feel at all?


Sleep: most people don’t sleep well when they’re drinking. But at least they could get to sleep, even if they woke up a lot.


After drinking stops, though, they may not be sleeping at all. They’re tired, restless, can’t turn their heads off.


Again, life was supposed to be great and it just isn’t. I try to reassure them to this will get better. It just takes time.


And then there’s craving… Craving is a hard thing to describe. I looked in the dictionary for a definition, but those words don’t capture the feeling very well. Just saying the feeling is “intense” doesn’t really get to just how strong it can be.


Sometimes they can put thoughts of drinking out of their minds after they quit alcohol. But then something will happen and it’s like a gut punch. All they can think of is drinking and drinking and drin…


One of the things that can make the craving worse is “using dreams." Anybody who’s had them knows exactly what I’m talking about.


But there are a lot of people I work with who never heard of them and don’t expect them.


This is where you’re finally in dream sleep. Suddenly you’re at your favorite bar having your favorite alcoholic drink and really really enjoying it, when -


BAM! Suddenly you wake up, your heart races, you’re gasping for air. It was so real you could taste that first sip and it totally floors you. You don’t want to forget all the bad things drinking

did to you, but the dream reminds you of how great it could be sometimes.


Scientists are showing that the craving that accompanies getting sober is actually due to changes in brain chemistry and anatomy.


We know that some specific brain areas that are tied into emotions get really active when someone is craving a drug like alcohol.


And as those areas very slowly start looking more normal, the craving becomes less intense and less frequent. However, it may never go away entirely.


When it does happen that the craving is at its worst, remind yourself of why you decided to stop.


If, like suggested in my last post, you received medication for craving, take it. It can help.


Go to a meeting.


Call somebody.


And remind yourself that you just won’t drink today.


Tomorrow you can take the same pledge again.


So, what do I do now?


Just like I don't want to mislead anybody that everything is great if you don't drink, I also don’t want to sound like everything’s horrible when you quit drinking, because it’s not.


I just don’t want people to expect that everything gets better over night when alcohol isn’t part of their lives anymore.


Typically the people I work with are glad they’re overcoming their addiction to alcohol. If it hadn’t been causing some real problems in their lives, they wouldn’t have bothered.


But it will take a while.


For people in this early stage of change, I have the following suggestions:


  1. Craving doesn't mean you're weak or that there's something wrong with you. Expect it. Admit it. But don't act on it.

  2. If you do act on it, that is, if you do drink, don't use that as an excuse to keep drinking. Brush yourself off and remind yourself that you just won't drink anymore today.

  3. Keep in touch with non-drinking people in your life. Talk about how you're feeling and ask them how they got through this time if they're in recovery.

  4. Remind yourself that millions of people have gotten through this, and you can too.


Next time we'll go into some specific things that you can do to prevent relapse and continue to be alcohol-free.

Image of brain and craving by @CanStockPhoto Inc/Sangoiri

Illustration of enlarged biceps by @CanStockPhoto Inc/andrewshka

Image of upset woman by @CanStockPhoto Inc/Applikbeats777