This whole idea that we need to hit “rock bottom” in order to change our relationship with alcohol is a pervasive myth that not only keeps people stuck in their spiral of alcohol use but also prevents earlier changes to improve wellness. To be clear: you do not need to be at your lowest with drinking in order to ask yourself, “Should I quit drinking?”
Alcohol use disorder exists on a spectrum. Similarly, awareness is a continuum during which we gain insight into the impact alcohol has on our lives. Whether you’re relying on alcohol to get you through your day, or you just don’t like waking up with a hangover anymore, both are equally valid reasons to examine what role alcohol plays in your life.
Kristine De Jesus, PsyD, relays information about the rock bottom myth, why someone might question their relationship with alcohol, and provides helpful ways to aid that exploration. Additionally, Alison Wu, founder and creative director of Wu Haus, recently shared about her journey to becoming alcohol-free on Instagram and provided insight into her own questioning journey.
First, though, let’s look at the dominant narratives about addiction and recovery.
The Dominant Narrative About Alcohol Use and Recovery
So often we think that people who have a problem with alcohol are those who fit the stereotype of an “alcoholic”—a person with alcohol use disorder — as someone at rock bottom. De Jesus states that this narrative is flawed. The “should I quit drinking?” question can come long before one lives into the stereotype.
“The dominant narrative is that people have to hit ‘rock bottom’ and that isn’t true for most people.” She contends “People generally question their relationship with alcohol when their relationship is not providing the desired outcomes. For some, it is as simply (that) they realize they don’t like the way they feel the day after consuming alcohol, for others it is when the use of alcohol is no longer beneficial to their life.”
These dominant narratives also relate to our conception of recovery, which is still largely associated with people recovering in rehab or 12-step groups in church basements, when the reality is very different. In fact, just over half of those who resolve a problem with alcohol or drugs do so without formal assistance. This is called natural recovery.
According to the Recovery Research Institute, 22.35 million Americans have resolved a substance use problem and 46 percent of those have recovered unassisted. Half of those who used no formal services don’t even identify as being a person “in recovery.”
The SAMHSA definition states that recovery simply means, “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.” Nowhere in that definition does it say that someone needs to exist on the spectrum of AUD to make a decision to improve their wellness. Also, it doesn’t state that there is one specific or better way to achieve one’s goals.
What does questioning your relationship with alcohol look like?
Much of the time, this idea of questioning one’s relationship with alcohol isn’t a part of the recovery narrative at all. Longstanding societal ideas state that a person either has a problem with drinking and needs to stop or that a person is simply a social drinker and can continue on as desired. Questioning whether or not alcohol is serving any kind of purpose in life is left out of the conversation.
De Jesus explained that the use of alcohol (and other drugs) is meant to create “space from stress, pain, anxiety, and many other emotions.”
She continued, “When the use no longer provides relief (even with increased use), people will self-reflect to assess why they aren’t getting the positive impact they once did from their substance use.”
She contends that this self-assessment “offers an opportunity for change.”
Exploring How You Feel
De Jesus recommends exploring your relationship with alcohol by starting to notice after you feel after a period of use.
“Our body is an amazing resource that provides information by way of emotions and sensations about the impact of experiences in our life. Taking the time to notice our body and how it feels is a powerful tool in the change process,” she explains.
For Alison Wu, the Somatic Experience (SE)–a type of therapy that focuses on the connection between the mind and body–helped her define how her alcohol use was affecting her emotional and physical well-being.
“Alcohol really messes with me. As someone who deals with anxiety, alcohol is probably the worst thing for it,” she said. “I’ve always been a super energetic person as well, and I was noticing how much alcohol was messing with my sleep cycle. One drink at a dinner with friends oftentimes turned into two, three, four drinks, and I would wake up on a Wednesday morning feeling exhausted, cloudy, and anxious.”
Using a Period of Sobriety as Information
Wu decided to make a change. “I took several breaks from alcohol over 2021 (and throughout my drinking life), but decided in 2022 I was going to stop drinking for the month of January, thinking I would potentially continue (abstaining) from there. And that’s what I’ve done,” she explained.
Dry January gave Wu the opportunity to reflect and get curious. “The way I’ve been looking at it and the question I’ve been asking myself is, ‘What positive effects does alcohol have on your life?’ I really struggled to find any, so it seemed obvious that I should be questioning my relationship to it,” she explained.
Her insights revealed how alcohol had inserted itself into her life. “Through this process, I’ve been really looking at how I used alcohol as a social crutch. It was almost without thinking. Whenever I’d arrive to a friend‘s house: a drink immediately. Whenever I’d arrive to a dinner: a drink immediately. Whenever I’d arrive to a party or event: a drink immediately.”
Learning to Navigate Life Without Alcohol
Wu was initially nervous about navigating her social life sober, as a self-described “super social person,” but she was pleasantly surprised. “What has surprised me the most is that I actually enjoy being sober at social gatherings more than I enjoyed drinking. I feel clear. I interact more intentionally. I feel less attached to the outcomes of social situations. I wake up the next day remembering everything from the night before. I’ve been really grateful that people have been super supportive, too. No one has tried to pressure me into drinking or make me feel outcasted because I’m not.”
Curiosity and Dry January have been helpful to Alison’s process, and so has her community. When sharing her story on Instagram many people recommended resources, one of which was Holly Whitaker’s book, Quit Like a Woman. I asked her what she learned from the book. “Honestly it’s been a game-changer. The book resonated on so many levels that it really validated my decision to stop drinking. I love Holly’s commentary on alcohol and wellness culture, and just how predominant alcohol is in so many aspects of our culture,” says Alison.
Resources to explore your relationship with alcohol
Several resources and methods are available to explore your relationship with alcohol. Some that De Jesus recommends include:
- Self-reflection – noticing why and when you’re drinking and getting curious about it all. This might involve journaling about your experience or finding another way to document your experience.
- Online Tools – Check-up and Go (e-chug) is an online platform that can be used to log alcohol use and provide feedback on patterns of use.
- Therapy – a clinician can help you work through your thoughts around drinking, help identify patterns, and hone in on feelings and behaviors associated with your drinking.
- Community – Being in the company of others who have or are currently questioning their relationships with alcohol can provide insights for you to draw on.
- Friends and family – Even if you aren’t necessarily ready to question your relationship with alcohol, the family can use something called the Be A Loving Mirror (BALM) Method to provide loved ones with an opportunity for reflection.
Luckily, the narrative around drinking is shifting, and more people are questioning the role alcohol plays in their lives. Many of those people are sharing their experiences through books, blogs, podcasts, and communities, and we’ve rounded up many of them.
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The bottom line? You don’t have to wait for any reason to question the role alcohol plays in your life. You don’t have to wait until society deems it “normal” to rethink drinking. You don’t have to wait until alcohol causes a problem in your life. You don’t have to wait until you experience consequences like hangovers or blacking out. You can do so whenever you want, and there are support systems like Tempest out there to accompany you along the journey.