Since becoming sober five years ago, I frequently have people reach out who want to meet and talk about my experience.
Usually, it’s because they’ve heard a whisper deep inside of themselves and are curious about the sober path, so they have questions they’d like me to help them answer.
One of the questions I let them know that I won’t be able to answer is whether or not their drinking is a problem. Knowing that we have a drinking problem is something I believe we have to arrive at on our own.
We can absolutely have people in our lives tell us we have a problem, but until we see and accept it for ourselves, we won’t make true and lasting change.
When I was younger, I had body image challenges. Even though I wasn’t fat, I always felt like I was. I used to swim with my shirt on as a kid, and as an adult, I kept one on during sex. In fact, it’s only been 10 years since I’ve been comfortable enough to sleep in bed at night with my shirt off.
No matter how many people told me I wasn’t fat or that I was silly for thinking I was, their words never changed how I felt. It wasn’t until I was willing to believe it for myself that I began to feel comfortable being shirtless in public without thinking I was fat.
It was the same with alcohol—it wasn’t until I looked at my relationship with drinking as dysfunctional and toxic that I finally found the courage to call things off.
When I told this to a friend recently, he asked me what I meant by a “relationship with drinking.” I explained how everything in life is a relationship. We have a relationship with ourselves and with the people in our life, but also with food, work, exercise, sex, money, and, of course, with drinking—and for a lot of us, the relationship we have with drinking is unhealthy.
It’s easy to be in a relationship with drinking and not ever realize how dysfunctional it actually is. Drinking is so socially acceptable that we’re almost considered abnormal if we don’t do it. Because of that, we often overlook our drinking behaviors and consider the things we do or say while drinking to be normal.
But what if we were to change how we saw drinking?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had various people casually tell me about nights out drinking that resulted in cracked or lost phones, lost keys, locking themselves out of apartments, arguments with friends, and breakups with boyfriends. One of my friends shared with me how he’s even turned back to drinking to calm his nerves after a stressful day at a new job.
I told him about an interview I’d recently heard on NPR with the lead singer of a local band. The singer is newly sober and was talking about how sobriety has influenced his music. What struck me most was when he said that if we’ve ever had the thought that our drinking might be a problem, chances are it probably is. He noted, “It’s your subconscious mind speaking to you and trying to send you a message.”
He said it matter-of-factly, but without any judgement. I hadn’t ever heard it put that way before, and if I was being completely honest with myself, I’d had thoughts and a subtle curiosity about quitting drinking 10 years before I actually did.
Giving up drinking, though, is easier said than done. One of the biggest obstacles to quitting is the fear of what life will look like without alcohol. What will our friends think? What will we do for fun? What about concerts, weddings, pool parties, and birthdays? What about first dates and having to tell people we don’t know?
These might seem like minor issues, but life is lived in the details. Life is also lived through our relationships.
I asked my friend what he would do if one day during lunch I let him know that the guy I was dating took my phone from me over the weekend and threw it across the room, cracking the screen. Or if I told him how he sometimes yells at me in front of my friends and encourages me to avoid my problems. Or if I said that my boyfriend is jealous, temperamental, has unhealthy eating habits, and oftentimes forgets what I tell him. He constantly loses his keys, and after a night of hanging out with him, my energy is super low. I asked him whether he would consider any of these behaviors red flags or if it seemed like I had a healthy and supportive boyfriend.
He said my imaginary scenario reminded him of his relationship with drinking. He could see his drinking taking the form of a separate person—his drinking would anthropomorphize into an abusive boyfriend and he was able to see it as a dysfunctional, toxic, and codependent relationship.
I can’t say whether my friend has a drinking problem or not. And even if I did, telling him he has one isn’t what is going to help him stop. But if we looked at our drinking as someone we’re dating, what kind of person would our drinking be? Would they be supportive, loving, generous, and kind, or would they cause us to make bad choices, deplete our energy, make us feel bad after we spend time together, and encourage us to avoid our problems?
If you’ve ever thought that maybe your drinking is a problem, chances are it probably is. Each of us is worthy and deserving of relationships that reflect the good we feel about ourselves.
Listen to that subtle whisper deep inside, trust the thoughts you’ve had, and know it’s safe and okay for you to breakup with drinking.