When a person recognizes there’s a problem with his or her drinking, it's usually followed by promises (often broken) to quit or cut back. Quitting or cutting back can be as life-changing as pledges to lose weight or goals for getting a new job. Here are five things to know about drinking, quitting and staying sober during Recovery Month, a national observance throughout September to educate Americans on how treatment can enable those with an alcohol use disorder to live a healthy and rewarding life.
1. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism are not the same thing, though are often treated as such. The newest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5), the clinicians' diagnostic guide for related disorders, categorizes them together, but the conditions are different. Cutting back on alcohol consumption may be a practical outcome for an alcohol abuser. If a person has the disease of alcoholism, total abstinence is the only way to put the disease into remission.
2. Nine out of ten people who quit drinking fail to stay sober the first time they quit. More than half drink again within six months. Set your expectations accordingly. Lapse or relapse or slips are as likely with alcoholism than with any other disease. They are not the end of recovery. It just means you have another chance to quit. One man, who might be the most famous alcoholic ever, lapsed four times in 22 months. He quit a fifth time though. That’s Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
3. AA is not the only game in town. There is rehab if you have the resources or insurance, either inpatient or intensive outpatient. There is counseling, either one-to-one or as part of a group… there are also several other self-help groups, such as Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART), Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS) and Women for Sobriety (WFS). None of the latter enjoys the widespread availability of the 12-step program of AA however. Those who have success in sobriety acknowledge one common thing: No one gets sober and stays that way without help, whether through counseling or self-help groups or both.
4. A chronic, heavy drinker should never attempt to stop drinking on his or her own. Alcohol is the only drug aside from benzodiazepines (think Valium) in which the withdrawal can be fatal. Heroin withdrawal is not fatal. Cocaine withdrawal is not fatal. Alcohol withdrawal can be. Alcohol changes the body tissues. Once the tissues become dependent upon alcohol, it is possible that taking the alcohol away will cause cardiac arrest, stroke or seizures. Supervised detox means medical assistance is nearby and nearly all supervised detox involves medication to ease the physical discomfort of withdrawal, which increases the probability for success.
5. Changing a habit takes three to four weeks, which is one reason many inpatient rehabs have a 28-day program. But that isn’t nearly the end. More severe alcoholics are barely medically stable after just a month. It takes effort – some days more than others – for the first year of sobriety, and an acknowledgement that alcoholism is not curable so the change will mean making adjustments for the rest of one’s life. Alcoholics and non-alcoholics alike return to alcohol for the same reasons of stress, grief, guilt or shame. Getting sober and staying sober only begins with a desire to stop drinking and getting some help in the first part of abstinence. The rest of recovery is learning to live without alcohol for those stressors.