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Despite what you think you know about staying sober, the reality is that many people only have a vague idea of what it really takes. For some, talk of being sober is a bit of a joke, something to toss out in party chitchat as in, “I’m going to get serious about sobering up.” Others think that staying sober is easy, that anybody can do it with no problem. They obviously don’t have a problem with alcohol. Anyone who is dependent on alcohol or has an alcohol addiction knows it’s not only not easy to quit drinking to begin with, it’s even more difficult to keep away from alcohol.
So what does it take to stay sober? Let’s look at this issue in more detail.
Before you can stay sober you have to first get sober. The process isn’t as simple as just putting down a drink and walking away. There are a lot of different factors that come into play. Each person’s circumstance is different. Each person carries a unique set of life experiences, expectations, upbringing, hereditary or biological factors, education, socio-economic background, and much more. How each person approaches getting sober depends greatly on what kind of drinker they are.
If you’re among those who only drink socially and it’s been getting a little out of hand lately – but you haven’t had demonstrable problems in the past – you could, with some concerted effort, change your behavior so that you cut down and cut out drinking. You might just want to wean yourself off alcohol after the holidays or you may have a longer term goal of kicking alcohol for good. Buy a few books or download some tips from the Internet, maybe research “How to Quit Drinking” on the Web, and practice the recommendations. This might work. It has for many people.
But those who have been chronic drinkers, who reach for a drink as soon as they get home from work or have to stop off at the bar on a daily basis, who stash liquor around the house to hide it from family members who might cause a fuss – these individuals have a much harder time of getting sober. They’ve gone far past the social drinker stage to dependence on or even addiction to alcohol. They won’t be able to quit drinking by just doing some research and reading a few books or pamphlets. In fact, trying to quit drinking “cold turkey” could prove to be dangerous, even life-threatening.
To safely get sober, these individuals need medical supervision during the entire detoxification process. Detoxification, or detox, is the process during which alcohol (and other harmful substances such as illicit or street drugs, prescription drugs used nonmedically, and/or a combination of alcohol and drugs) leaves the body. Typical detox time can range from three to seven days, depending on type of substance, length of time using, dosage, and other factors (including overall physical condition and presence of any other medical or mental health issues). In cases of alcoholism, detox may last up to two weeks.
Suffice to say that there are treatment facilities – both residential alcohol rehab centers and hospital inpatient or outpatient treatment settings – where you can go to get treatment for trying to quit drinking. Many, but not all, have detox facilities on site. The ones that don’t won’t accept a patient for an alcohol or other substance abuse problem until they have already undergone detox.
During detox from alcohol, the patient will experience withdrawal symptoms. These range from mild to moderate and include headaches, vomiting, tremors, perspiration, dizziness, insomnia, restlessness and loss of appetite to severe reactions that include convulsions, hyperactivity, and delerium tremens (DTs). When someone abruptly stops drinking after being a chronic drinker, the resulting withdrawal symptoms, if not medically monitored, can prove fatal.
Bottom line, you can’t stay sober if you don’t get sober. Once you’re clean, you can begin the next phase of treatment – known as active treatment.
Before we talk about treatment for alcohol abuse, however, let’s go into some other points about the goal of sobriety.
What Do You Want?
Examine your motives for wanting to stay sober. Have you reached a time in your life where you feel that you’ve wasted your opportunities, not taken advantage of what came your way? Is it because you spend much or all of your leisure (and other) time drinking, thinking about drinking, reminiscing about the good times you had drinking – and then suffer the inevitable hangovers, lost time from work, blackouts, auto accidents, DUIs, arrests, injuries, even violence to loved ones? Maybe you’ve had to reach bottom before you get serious about getting and staying sober.
Still, is it just a brief hiatus from drinking that you’re after or are you genuinely committed to giving up alcohol? If you’re racking up serious negative consequences due to alcohol, it’s only going to get worse. Once your addicted, alcoholism is a progressive disease. You will never be cured from the addiction, but you can learn how to overcome it – and live a life in sobriety.
Imagine that. Being able to wake up clear-headed and in full grasp of your faculties. You have goals, are eager to tackle projects, spend quality time with loved ones and close friends, engage in healthy physical and recreational activities – all the things we associate with a good life.
You can achieve this goal – if you really want it and work very hard to get it. No, your future isn’t guaranteed. No one’s is. But if you don’t get help to overcome your problem with alcohol, that future is pretty much predictable: you could wind up losing family, friends, job, home, suffer increasing medical problems, wind up in jail, bankrupt, or even die.
Ask yourself these questions. The answers may tell you how committed you are to staying sober.
If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, you have a drinking problem. If you truly want to get help to overcome problems with alcohol, you’re in the right frame of mind to do something about it.
Steps to Getting Help
Getting sober may mean that you talk with your doctor first about your intentions. He or she may be able to refer you to an alcohol rehab facility or make recommendations about how to approach getting sober. Whether you take the rehab approach or go to private therapy, get involved with self-help groups, or prefer a more self-directed approach, the most important thing is that you do something to get help.
You can’t stay sober on your own. You need support from professionals, family, friends, and self-help groups in the form of 12-step fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Why do you need support? The fact is that it’s much too easy to engage in self-denial, to think you can solve your problems on your own. Not only are you not the best judge of what’s good for you, you fall back into old self-destructive patterns if you try to kick alcohol on your own. Sure, you may get yourself sober – but you’ll likely not stay that way unless you have a solid support network.
As recovery experts are the first to tell you, recovering from addiction is easier when you have the support and encouragement, comfort and guidance from people who know and care about you.
Let’s assume that you want to go to a treatment facility to go through detox and treatment for alcohol abuse. How do you find such a facility? Start with the Treatment Facility Locator maintained by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) or call their toll-free treatment referral helpline at 1-800-662-HELP. The locator is a searchable database of more than 11,000 treatment facilities across the United States offering treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. Use the List Search or Detailed Search functions to refine your search. You can specify service provided, type of care, special groups/programs, forms of payment accepted, payment assistance, or special language services. The search tools will return listings of facilities within a maximum of 100 miles. Comb through the listings to find the type of alcohol rehab facility that offers what you need. Then do your homework and check out the listings that you’re most interested in.
Don’t assume that because an alcohol rehab facility is residential that you can’t afford it. If you have private medical insurance, your policy may cover some or a good part of treatment. There are also state substance abuse agencies that may be able to provide assistance locating the appropriate treatment facility. Maybe you go for an alcohol rehab center that offers sliding-fee scale or payment assistance. Other facilities may offer financing or have grants or other programs to help you get treatment.
Go to Treatment
Since detox is a prerequisite to treatment, after the alcohol is gone from your body, then the active treatment phase begins. Keep in mind that each patient receives a personalized treatment program based on their wants and needs. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment program.
Typical treatment programs for alcohol abuse and addiction, as with other addictions, include individual and group counseling, learning how to identify and recognize triggers, learning healthier coping strategies, how to make better decisions when dealing with life’s challenges. When you enroll in a treatment program, if your goal is long-term sobriety, you’ll also need to face the underlying problems that led to your alcohol abuse or alcoholism in the first place. Most treatment programs for alcohol abuse also utilize the 12-step group approach – although not all do. Those that do introduce the concept of the 12-step group and patients attend 12-step meetings as part of the overall treatment program.
You’ll also learn relapse prevention skills and develop a recovery program along with your therapist. Once you leave treatment, your counselor or therapist will recommend that you continue to attend 12-step meetings for at least the first year following treatment.
It Takes More Than Treatment to Stay Sober
Okay, you’ve gone through detox and treatment and return home sober and ready to resume your life. You’ve got everything you need to stay sober, right? Not so fast. It takes more than going to treatment to stay sober. In fact, now the hard part begins. Now you need to put into practice all the things you learned during treatment.
You need to be sure you make the most of your two critical support networks: your family and 12-step group. If your family members attended family counseling or treatment during the time when you were in treatment, they’ll have a better idea how to better support and encourage your recovery goals. If not, encourage them to attend Al-Anon (the family component of Alcoholics Anonymous for family members of loved ones who have a problem with alcohol. Alateen is the group for older adolescents.
The first 90 days are going to be the roughest. It’s during this time that relapse is most likely to occur. It’s important to remember that not everyone relapses. It’s not an automatic that you will fall off the wagon just because you have a series of disappointments or setbacks. What separates who relapses from who doesn’t often boils down to the strength and solidity of their support networks.
In line with that, have a candid and loving discussion with your spouse or partner about your recovery goals. Brainstorm ways that you can work toward achieving your goals, and ask for your partner’s encouragement and support as you enter early recovery. It is, however, your recovery, and this has to be your constant focus. Recovery comes first – before making money and getting back into the normal ebb and flow of your social (non-drinking) milieu.
Many in recovery find it helpful – even essential – to attend 90 meeting in 90 days. This is known in A.A. circles as the “ninety in ninety” rule. It doesn’t have to be 90 consecutive days. You could – and many do – attend meetings morning, noon and night in the first couple of weeks of recovery. The point is that you make use of the solidarity, support and encouragement that you have readily available in the 12-step groups.
As soon as you can, find someone to sponsor you. Your 12-step sponsor will prove to be your lifeline when things get tough – and they undoubtedly will – in the days, weeks and months ahead. When you awake in the middle of the night with overwhelming cravings and urges or suffer horrendous nightmares and can’t sleep, when you find yourself driving to the bar where you used to drink with friends, when you can’t stand the pain anymore (anxiety, depression, other medical conditions, or what have you), your sponsor on the other end of the line may be just what you need to stay sober.
Now that you’re sober, some of those unresolved issues such as stress, depression, unresolved trauma from your childhood, domestic violence or sexual abuse, may require continuing counseling. You’re no longer covering them up with alcohol, dulling the pain, but you do need to learn how to overcome them. Now that you’re healthier, you will be in a better position to address them and seek the help you need – perhaps through continuing counseling.
The Importance of Goals and Attitude
Everyone needs something to look forward to and goals to work toward. When you’re in recovery, this is critically important. Think of goal-setting as one of the best proactive things you can do for your recovery. When you achieve one goal, you should always have another one to replace it. Sometimes, when you arrive at one goal, you find that you want to go in a different direction. This flexibility to alter your goals to fit your changing wants and needs is a sign of healthy recovery.
Keep a positive and upbeat attitude. No, you don’t have to be a Pollyanna. That’s not realistic. Some days will be good and others will be more than challenging. But keep in mind that this is your life in recovery and you have chosen to live it in sobriety. What you envision for your future depends on what you do today. Embrace your life. Demonstrate affection to your loved ones. Begin to help others new to recovery as they set off on their journey.
Live life in the present – one day, today, at a time. Be fully present, be aware, and give life all you’ve got. What does it take to stay sober? Now, you’ve got some answers. Tailor your own recovery plan and do what’s right for you. Getting and staying sober is doable. You can do it just as millions of others have. It all begins with the first step: making the decision that this is what you want.