Today I read an online conversation between someone who wants to stop drinking and is researching the best way to do this (I’ll call this person “N”) and a sober mentor who was giving advice and support (I’ll call this person SM for Sober Mentor).

The conversation went something like this:

N – I’ve heard about a phenomenon that some people call “spontaneous sobriety” where the person who stops drinking does it really easily. They simply decide this is what they’re going to do, commit to it and become a non-drinker without having any problem or struggle. Apparently they manage to shift their beliefs so that they end up believing that alcohol doesn’t benefit them and it isn’t a loss for them to become a non-drinker. In fact, it’s a gain. This makes sobriety easy. I want to explore and shift my own beliefs about alcohol so that I can do this too.

SM – I don’t believe in spontaneous sobriety, that sounds a bit like a religion to me. You can’t wake up knowing how to drive a car so why should you wake up just knowing how to be sober? It needs work, lessons, effort, encouragement, support and treats. If it was easy and you didn’t have to worry about alcohol anymore, more people would do it.

First of all, I want to acknowledge the positive intention and truths behind SM’s response. He/she wants N to recognise that there needs to be some commitment to stop. That it’s easier with support. And is wanting to inject a note of realism. And, this is all well-intended. SM wants the best for N and is helping in the best way he/she knows how.

And, actually, what he/she says can be true for many people. Many people find that they do have to work hard, that they do much better within a supportive community, with lots of encouragement and with some “lessons” to follow. This is pretty much the approach that Go Get Sober adopts.

However, the bit about not being able to wake up a non-drinker and not believing in spontaneous sobriety is misleading and untrue… that bit has unfortunately led N to drop their original intention of playing around with their belief system to allow them to experience sobriety as a gain or to believe they can easily be a non-drinker without any kind of support.

Of course it’s possible to wake up and be a non-drinker and experience sobriety as a pain-free gain. Did you know that more than one-third of individuals with alcohol dependence fully recover without any formal support, treatment or programme? In comparison, although it’s difficult to measure success rates of traditional recovery programmes because there isn’t much reliable data or analysis out there, experts believe them to be much lower. This is partly because of the beliefs that traditional programmes install, like every day sober is a struggle or that success has to be maintained – that it’s a chore and there has to be an ongoing fight against failure. People who stop drinking on their own are more successful and are usually more at peace and happy with their decision. They aren’t worried that they’re missing out on something by not drinking because they’re not indoctrinated by the belief system of the programme or recovery approach whose culture they join in with.

Deciding to wake up as a non-drinker and deciding to believe that this is a huge gain rather than a terrible weight you have to drag around with you is not like driving a car at all because we have to learn to drive a car from scratch. We already know what it’s like to live life sober – we did it for years as children and, some of us, into adulthood. We already know how to do it. If we believe becoming a non-drinker can be as easy as flicking a switch, and all we have to do is shift around a few beliefs about alcohol and what it does or doesn’t do for us, then that’s exactly what we can do. Certainly there might have to be a bit of practice initially while we’re changing our habits and routines but it can be a positive and healthy experience – it all depends on how we approach it.

The issue for a lot of people is that they don’t believe this can be true. Whatever your beliefs about stopping drinking and staying sober, it’s those beliefs you’ll turn into reality. If you enter a race believing you’ll come last, you’re very likely to come last. If you enter the race believing you’re going to win, you’re more likely to win.
Because SM’s belief is built around their own experience that getting sober was work and effort and every day is a challenge, it’s tricky for them to see that this doesn’t have to be the same for everybody. They’re imposing their own map of the world onto everyone else. This is normal and understandable but not helpful for people like N, for whom that option has now become closed.

What I’d like everyone reading this blog to understand is that there are lots of different ways of approaching stopping drinking. Rehab works well for some people. Traditional 12 step programmes work well for some people. Stopping with a “spontaneous sobriety” approach works well for some people. Face-to-face support and encouragement work well for some people. Online support and encouragement work well for some people. A more structured programme approach with tasks and activities works well for some people. Religion works well for some people. Mindfulness or meditation works well for some people. One-to-one coaching or therapy works well for some people. It’s really important to recognise that every method or technique has a role and a place – it depends on the context and the person.

But, by far the most important factor governing someone’s success and ability to stop drinking with ease and enjoyment is what they believe about the process before they even start. When people like N start wondering about changing their belief system so that they can experience getting sober as easy, painless and even enjoyable, that curiosity needs to be nurtured and encouraged. The right tools and support need to be given so that N can be given the best chance of waking up as a happy non-drinker when they decide they want to do it.

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