I’ve had several conversations recently with people who have stopped drinking and then ended up caving in over Christmas and New Year. The reasons people give for reaching for the bottle are all very similar and familiar:
• I wanted to reward myself • I needed to escape the stress • I couldn’t relax without it • I needed some respite from a busy day • It helped me to cope
I remember feeling and thinking all of these things when I first stopped drinking and jumped on and off the wagon for a time. I remember how appealing the instant gratification of that first drink was and how much of a pull it had on me. I remember evenings when I would stare longingly at the expensive bottle of gin on my shelf with a war going on inside my head: one part of me arguing the benefits of feeling that instant hit of alcohol in my belly and the other part arguing why I wanted to stay sober.
I used to find that the war was really between instant gratification and longer-term gains. Yes, the gin or wine would help me feel rewarded, would help me escape, relax and cope and it would be immediate. But, the consequences of doing that would be detrimental later in the evening, overnight and the next day. Not only would I potentially become someone I didn’t like very much, I wouldn’t sleep well, I would wake up feeling rough and I would spend the next day sluggish and stressed. I would also have the additional burden of guilt and shame that I had “done it again”. That feeling of not having had the discipline and control to carry through could be debilitating.
I had to weigh up the benefits of instant gratification against the longer-term gratification of not-drinking. This was tough when my unconscious programming was urging me to do what was habitual and routine.
One of the techniques that really helped me win these battles was to “fast forward.” Whenever I noticed myself arguing the case to have a drink, I would imagine myself doing it. I would create a video screen in my imagination and I would watch myself benefitting from all the pleasure that first drink would give me. I would make the video really detailed and life-like. I would pay attention to what I could see, hear, feel, smell and taste. (The more real you can make these imagined experiences, the better – and you can do that by using your senses to really tune in).
And I would then fast forward the video to later in the evening. I would watch the person I had become. I would pay attention to how I was speaking and behaving. I would fast forward to waking up at two in the morning, restless, unhappy and unable to sleep. I would fast forward to the following morning and further into the next day and would force myself to really tune in to all of that detail.
This helped me to be more in control of the choices I was making in the moment. And, if I still felt conflicted, I would simply create another video in my head – this time of me not drinking – and I would fast forward that one into the night and the next day.
Doing this in a mindful and focused way takes some practise, but not much. You can do it in five minutes and give a useful boost to your motivation levels.
Try it next time you feel tempted and at war with yourself and notice what changes.