woman running through avenue of trees with sunlight filtering through

How to stay strong when you stop drinking

Well here I am again, about to put on my running gear and get out into the cold and dark at 6.30 in the morning. I can’t quite believe I’m doing this, that I’m putting myself through all this discomfort and that I’m mad enough to do it. That I've actually set my alarm earlier than I had to on a work day!

And I find myself drawing comparisons between this running experience and the stopping drinking experience.

I’m new to running and I’ve been hating it. I’m doing it for all sorts of reasons but enjoyment isn’t one of them, though I’m hoping I might get to that point. The point I have got to is one where I don't dread the runs anymore - I now know I can do them when I thought I couldn’t at the start. They're definitely getting easier. Each time I complete one, I realise it hasn't been as painful or difficult as it was the time before.

In fact, I recently did a 30-minute run (applause please!) where I spent several moments forgetting that I was running and finding my mind drifting and thinking about things. I started planning for work and rehearsing conversations instead of counting my breathing and focusing on how much further I had to go. This made the time go quicker and made the run easier.

I recognise that, as my running muscles get stronger, my breathing settles and my body finds its rhythm, I’ll be able to forget about the running more and more and use the time to look around me, take in some nature, let my mind drift and the time will pass more quickly. It will all become less of a challenge and more pleasurable.

This is exactly how I experienced stopping drinking too.

To start with, each new sober experience felt like an ordeal. I had to be focused, strong and determined. I had to plan, prepare and push myself. The first few times I went to a pub, the first few times I went to family gatherings, the first few times I went to gigs and parties – even the first few times I did Saturday evenings chilling at home with food and TV – all of these things were like learning to run in that they were hard work to start with.

Like the running, all I could focus on was getting through and surviving. Like the running, I could only focus on the next step in front of me and not think about the rest. Like the running, it was a painful chore that I knew would do me good but took some dedication and practice.

And then it started to become easier. After a few times of staying home in the evenings and drinking herbal tea instead of alcohol, I stopped having to tell myself what I was gaining by staying sober and what I was missing out on by not drinking – I stopped thinking about drinking or not drinking -  and I started to be present in the moment. My attention started to shift onto what was around me: the menu I was following, the music I was listening to, the taste of the food I was eating, the connection and conversation with my partner. I started to forget that alcohol was an issue and started to live instead. Not drinking eventually became as automatic as drinking had been.

Running is a new skill that is going to take some practice before it becomes easy enough that I can enjoy it and look forward to each new run. But after only a few weeks of slowly building up the length of my runs and reducing the walking breaks, I’m noticing that it’s less effort and less of a challenge. I’m putting my running gear on and leaving the house with more confidence and less reluctance. And my mind is starting to forget that I’m running and is becoming distracted by other things. These are little things but they are differences and developments. 

I've gone from huffing and puffing after a 30 second run to managing 30 minutes with no walking breaks! Granted, it's no marathon but it's a HUGE win for me! 

It could be easy to get impatient because I’m not experiencing this running high that other people describe. Do you ever get that frustration when you hear other people talking about how wonderful life is sober? Do you ever feel impatient and think it’s not possible for you? Do you ever allow this to demotivate you? With the running, it would be easy to become demotivated by impatience and because I’m not experiencing what everyone else seems to be and to tell myself that I’m just not a runner. That this isn’t for me. But noticing my little improvements, acknowledging them and even celebrating them helps me to stay motivated.

To help yourself stay motivated, think of living your life sober as a new skill that takes practice, commitment and determination before it becomes so easy and automatic that you don't have to concentrate on it anymore. And, it's so important to acknowledge and celebrate each improvement, no matter how small. The important thing to remember is that, like any new skill that you’re practising, like my running, it DOES get easier. In fact, it gets to the point where you’re not having to think about drinking at all – you’re simply living and giving all your headspace and energy to what’s happening in the moment.

I have no doubt that in a couple of months’ time, my runs will be confident enough that I won’t be thinking about the breathing and the running but will be thinking about other things for most of the run rather than just the odd few seconds here and there. I imagine that this will be liberating and highly motivating and will free me up to start enjoying them more.

And, you can have no doubt that, with practice and patience, living life alcohol-free will become the automatic, effortless and enjoyable way of life you want it to be.

Be reassured that the day will come when you’ll be sailing sober through life like a breeze. Stay motivated by being patient with yourself and celebrating each small win along the way. It’s easy to overlook the wins as they can be hidden inside negative feelings and experiences. The night I went to my first party sober, stayed for two hours, felt bored and self-conscious, hated every minute of it, went home with a clear head, got a good night’s sleep, woke up refreshed and rested with clear memories of the all the boring conversations I’d had, woke up with my self-respect intact, a smug smile on my face and my confidence levels a little higher – that night was a win.

Now, parties are a doddle. I go if I want and don’t if I don’t. I stay if I’m enjoying myself and leave if I’m not. Drink no longer takes up any headspace at all. No FOMO (fear of missing out) because I know I’d miss out on more if I was drinking. Sober living is easy living when you’ve practised it for long enough and are approaching it with the right mindset.

My three tips for how to approach getting sober so you can stay motivated and strong are:

  1. Be patient and think of living life sober as a new skill you need to learn and practise (just like learning to run or dance or play an instrument or speak a new language).
  2. Understand that progress is happening and whatever it is you dread doing sober now will get easier until you’re actively enjoying it without thinking about alcohol at all.
  3. Notice and celebrate each little or “hidden” win - put your attention on the wins and you'll find more of them. You'll also stay more positive and motivated.


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