Quitting alcohol is the easy bit. Staying stopped is the hard part.
It’s with that in mind that I tackle an important question: why is it important to have a strategy for staying alcohol-free?
In this article, we look at why a strategy for staying sober is so important, AND at some of the things your plan could involve.
- Why Read This?
- A Bit About Me
- WHY You Need A Strategy for Staying Alcohol Free
- How to Form Your Strategy for Remaining Alcohol Free
- An Example Strategy for Staying Alcohol Free
- While You’re Here:
Why Read This?
There are many reasons why you may want (or need) to stay alcohol free. Perhaps you’re in recovery and fiercely protecting your sobriety. Maybe you’re simply aiming for a period of abstinence (for something like Sober October) and don’t wish to be knocked off course.
Regardless of your reasons, the reality is that staying away from booze is way harder on some days than it is on others. Sometimes it’s easy to predict which days will be difficult – but at other times they creep up on you.
The thing about having a strategy for staying booze free is that you’re pre-prepared. That means:
- Having a plan for specific special occasions where you know you’re going to struggle and…
- Building awareness of when certain triggers might suddenly put your alcohol free life on rocky foundations.
We cover all of that below.
A Bit About Me
I’ve written several articles about quitting drinking for this site already, so I won’t go over my own story in huge detail here.
The short version is that I quit drinking (just over a year ago, at the time of writing) after realising that I was leaning harder on alcohol than I should have been. What began as an alcohol free month evolved into a surprising enjoyment of sober life.
While I’ve made no commitment to permanent abstinence, I like my life better now. I’m passionate about helping others enjoy the (relative) peace that sobriety brings. I understand that staying alcohol free is the main challenge for many, which is why I’ve written this article.
If you want to learn more about my own journey, this article discusses my first year off the booze.
WHY You Need A Strategy for Staying Alcohol Free
If we could all just stay in our bedrooms and hide, avoiding alcohol would be easy.
But life happens, and life involves things we have to cope with: other people, stressful occasions, conflicts, scary world events, and endless reasons why it seems desirable to crack a bottle to cope, celebrate or commiserate.
Furthermore, alcohol is EVERYWHERE – and everything from high-budget advertising to Hollywood film perpetuates the myth that drinking is the answer. (I highly recommend reading Alcohol Explained to learn more about that).
Here are a few key reasons why people who’ve committed to being alcohol free can find themselves tempted back to the bottle:
Your Brain Forgets The Worst Stuff
If you quit drinking because it was starting to have a detrimental effect on your life, it’s easy to remind yourself of all of the bad sides – in the early days.
But as time goes on, you forget how severe the hangovers got…how bad the anxiety was….how stupid you felt when you read back the Facebook messages you sent the night before.
Obviously everybody’s exact list will differ. But the point is, over time those bad memories fade. You begin to remember the good times more than the bad, and coupled with constant imagery of people having a “fabulous” time whilst drinking, you can begin to feel it must be OK. Maybe one or two won’t hurt?
A popular tip in sobriety circles is to “play it forward” when you’re tempted to have a drink. Don’t think about the first crack of a cold can, think instead about the regret, the struggle through the next day at work, or the nagging feeling that you may have offended somebody. That tactic, in itself, can contribute to your strategy.
Triggers Are EVERYWHERE
I remember the first few weeks after quitting drinking.
You associate drinking with everything.
In time, you get completely used to doing all the same things sober. You actually get to enjoy them all just as much (which was certainly a happy surprise for me!) But you have to actually do the things without drinking a couple of times before you break the link.
For me, some of the hardest triggers to break were:
- Having friends over.
- Having a barbecue.
- Finishing work on a Friday night.
- Being on holiday.
The trouble is, there are plenty more less obvious triggers that you don’t necessarily have to deal with straight away. Things like:
- Being at a wedding.
- Meeting certain old friends you always drank with.
- Visiting places you associate with your drinking days.
One trigger I’ve yet to conquer myself is a holiday abroad (thank you pandemic…) I’ve taken a couple of local breaks, and while I thoroughly enjoyed them, on one of them the cravings hit hard on certain days.
Beach breaks for me have always been about beers on the beach, beers on the balcony, all-inclusive cocktails, cheap wine and strange local liqueurs. I WILL deal with it (by employing some of the tactics suggested below), but I KNOW it will be a time when it’s all the more important for me to have an alcohol free strategy.
My point: the strategy is there both for when a trigger catches you unawares, AND for when you know you’re entering a situation when you’ll likely to want to drink. People, places, situations – all of them can trigger you to revert to drinking.
Sometimes the Relapse Happens Before You Drink
This is an interesting phenomenon that I’ve seen discussed on sobriety forums.
The theory is that a “relapse” often doesn’t begin at the point when your willpower gives out and you stop at the off-licence on the way home. It can be a trigger from days or weeks before that set the wheels in motion.
You’re then into a bit of a “danger zone” where it will take much less to tip you towards drinking again.
The more self aware you can become about this, the more you can solidify your strategy. Meeting a family member who stresses you out or makes you feel worthless? Be aware that the desire to bury your feelings in booze could come several days after, not on your way home.
Failing To Plan Is Planning To Fail
Yes, it’s a cliche – but it’s hugely relevant here.
It’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen if you head off to the holiday, the wedding, or the family visit without giving some thought to how you’re going to keep your alcohol free resolve.
You’re playing with fire, and massively increasing your likelihood of falling off the wagon.
In the next section, we talk about how you form a plan. There are plenty of things you can do – from avoiding the most risky situations entirely, to giving yourself escape routes and alcohol alternatives.
Just before we move onto that, something you must be careful of: Self delusion.
Alcohol is a powerful and addictive drug, with the power to make you lie to yourself. Something I’ve seen a lot is people heading into a triggering situation when they KNOW deep down that they’re going to give in. Not planning becomes the plan.
Sobriety takes ongoing effort, as you likely know if you’re reading this. So try not to let self-delusion be your downfall.
How to Form Your Strategy for Remaining Alcohol Free
1. Become Comfortable With Saying “No”
You don’t have to say “yes” to every invitation. In fact, if you’ve chosen a (permanent or temporary) alcohol-free lifestyle, there are probably some things you should say “no” to!
Being around drunk people can get pretty boring if you’re not partaking. And after a period of abstinence you may find that some friendships – the ones built on little more than a shared passion for partying – fall away completely.
Get used to saying “no.” The people that matter won’t mind, and may even respect you for it. And if there are people who “mind,” they’re probably the very people you should be editing out of your life.
This week’s “big Friday night” will always be next week’s fading memory. If you don’t want to be there, it doesn’t matter.
The same applies if there are certain people you find toxic or triggering. There are probably some people in your life who you can’t cut out altogether, but you do have the ability to minimise contact and set boundaries. In my experience, the longer you have sober clarity, the more you have the confidence and will to do this.
2. Get Some Support
If you attend Alcoholic Anonymous you can get a sponsor – traditionally there so you can turn to them if you’re struggling.
You don’t necessarily need that. The advice in this article is as much for those who see sobriety as a lifestyle choice as for those coping with full-blown addiction.
Regardless, it does help to have people to turn to who empathise. This usually means other non-drinkers, but could also mean a supportive partner, friend or family member, who understands your desire to stay alcohol free.
The internet is a wonderful thing in this regard. Support groups abound, and I particularly love the StopDrinking thread on Reddit. Hundreds of members are online at any one time, and sometimes it’s enough just to take five minutes and scroll through some of the message threads. There’s nothing quite like hearing other people’s stories (of success or relapse) to bolster you.
3. Have Some “Ways Out”
This tip is particularly valid if you’re attending a social occasion: Try to establish some escape routes ahead of time.
“Are you coming to the party on Friday?”
“Oh, yes, I am, but I may just pop in, because I have some work to finish.”
POINT 1: People don’t mind when you leave.
POINT 2: People who’ve had more than a few drinks barely notice, and certainly don’t care when they’re hungover the next day.
Don’t be afraid to duck out – even if you’ve not prepared the ground to do so. That said, it can be easier in some situations if you manage expectations in advance.
4. Line Up Some Alcohol Free Alternatives
One thing I struggled with in the early days was alternatives to alcohol. Thankfully, the days when all you had was Diet Coke and Lime and Soda are long gone – but you can still find yourself in situations where it’s very useful to plan what you’re going to drink instead of alcohol.
This can be especially valid at more “old school” pubs and bars, and when you visit other people’s homes.
Some things you can do:
- Take or buy a huge stock of alcohol free treats when you go on holiday – so many, in fact, that you’re spoiled for choice.
- Take your own spritzers, alcohol free beers or even AF spirits when visiting other people’s houses.
- Research ahead when visiting bars or restaurants, to see what the zero alcohol options are.
- When choosing venues, specifically select somewhere with a good range of alcohol alternatives. An interesting selection of alcohol free craft beers means you can “join in” with the drinkers. Choosing the right venue can be way more important when your priorities go beyond “anywhere that sells booze!”
The point of doing all this stuff is not just about resisting the temptation to drink – it’s about giving yourself a chance to still have fun!
If I know I’m visiting a venue where I can try a couple of new alcohol free beers and have a Seedlip and tonic, that gives me something to look forward to. In fact, working through loads of different alcohol free drinks has become a bit of an obsession for me.
This may all sound like a load of fuss, but if it makes the difference between you remaining alcohol free and not, surely it’s worth the effort?
5. Learn (and Note) Your Reasons For Not Drinking
You’re way more likely to persevere with not drinking if you know why you’re doing it – simple, right?
So write a list of all the reasons you’ve made this lifestyle choice, and stick it in your phone so you can always refer to it.
They could be incredibly serious reasons, such as “the doctor says I’ll die if I don’t give my liver a break,” or far more lifestyle-orientated reasons, such as “I really don’t want to break my 30 day streak on day 25.”
Even if you don’t “believe” in lists and self-help exercises like this, please try to do it. It could one day be the thing that makes the difference.
An Example Strategy for Staying Alcohol Free
Let’s put all of this together into an example strategy.
Say you’re going to a wedding, your strategy could be:
- I’ve already said I may have to leave early for a work call, so I have an exit route if it gets a bit much.
- My friend / sponsor knows about it and I’ve said I might call.
- I can always take a walk around the block and scroll through a sobriety forum for ten minutes.
- When I arrive, I’ve going to have a Diet Coke. I’ve checked the menu for the venue, and later on I’ll try that alcohol free ale that looked interesting.
- If I start to really struggle, I’ll scroll through my list of reasons to stay sober.
How much more likely are you to succeed if you have a plan like that in place? Hopefully the answer is clear.
Why is it important to have a strategy for staying alcohol free? Because you’re WAY more likely to drink if you don’t. It’s that simple.
While You’re Here:
- Check out the reviews section, where I cover all kinds of alcohol free drinks.
- Read about my first year away from alcohol.
- Check out seven things that will help you stop drinking.