On both my website and this blog, I have written rather extensively about how sobriety is a necessary requirement to a successful license appeal. This is also the big turning point for someone facing a DUI, and who is determined to make it his or her last. I’ve tried to describe sobriety, distinguishing it as a state of being, rather than merely the state of not being intoxicated. In this article, we’ll take one step back from all of that and look at the decision to really get sober. For anyone in recovery, this will always be amongst the most important decisions of his or her life. There is absolutely nothing that can compare with the gravity and impact of the choice to become clean and sober. In almost every case, the decision to quit drinking comes as a result of some emotionally significant, and usually negative event. In other words, no one quits drinking because it was working out so well. To be clear, lots of people quit drinking all the time, and often, many times, as well. Here we’re talking about those decisions to quit that actually stick.
For most people, the path of true recovery involves any number of false starts. The primary catalyst for someone to really “put the plug in the jug” is often described as an “epiphany moment,” a “light bulb moment,” or, more simply, as “hitting bottom.” However one describes it, there comes a point when a person just “knows,” in the core of his or her soul, that enough is enough. AA people sometimes describe this as “being sick and tired of being sick and tired.” For just about everyone that gets to this point, drinking isn’t fun anymore, and hasn’t been for a while. Every attempt to cut down, control or manage one’s drinking has failed. When you get honest with yourself, you see your drinking as having been the common denominator to many, if not all, of your life’s problems. You don’t rack up another drunk driving, or lose your license because your drinking is just fine. You’ve moved way past the ability to deny or rationalize any more, and you stand at the fork in the road: Continue drinking, and watch your life go down the tubes, or quit drinking.
From the outside, the choice is obvious. On the inside, it’s much harder. Just because something is good for you doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Quitting drinking is about a lot more than just quitting drinking; it’s about changing everything you do, everywhere you go, and just about everyone you hang with. When a person decides to drink no more, he or she is also deciding to change his or her entire social life. For all the analysis that has gone into the subject of alcoholism and recovery, we’ve spent comparatively little time acknowledging the fact – and it is a fact – that when a person with a drinking problem suddenly removes alcohol from his or her life, there is a kind of adjustment, or “mourning” period that takes place. You don’t seamlessly go from hanging out at the bar every weekend to sitting at home all by yourself. Some people find support in AA, while others don’t, and just tough it out, but the point is that the wholehearted decision to quit drinking triggers an avalanche of life changes that take some getting used to…
One of the most important clinical observations that has been made about getting sober is that it is really “self change.” In other words, whether a person goes to rehab, AA, or counseling, it isn’t those things that are ultimately responsible for the cessation of drinking behavior, it is the person him or herself. Talk therapy can help a person come to the decision to stop, but no matter how you cut it, the decision comes from within. And there is often no clearer evidence of this than the fact that the person who ultimately does stop drinking had probably been “talked to,” if not yelled at, a million times before about all the damage caused by his or her alcohol abuse. The only thing different, when a person finally decides to quit, is that he or she finally decided to quit. As we all know, and have probably said a million times on our own, “you have to want it,” the “it” being sobriety. The decision to get sober can be motivated by external factors, but the decision always, and without exception, comes from within.
Most of the time, when a person decides that “enough is enough,” he or she really has had more than enough. If there’s one thing for sure, it’s that no one ever quits drinking too soon, or even soon enough, for that matter. Part of getting sober is making peace with your past; the opportunities that have been lost, the relationships that have been damaged, and all the wreckage left by alcohol. However, one of the most accurate things I’ve ever heard about quitting drinking is that there is victory in surrender. This simply means that when a person just gives up the fight with alcohol – the battle to control, limit or manage one’s drinking – there is a peace that takes over because having removed alcohol from his or her life, the person is ultimately victorious and at peace.
This is something that experience proves and that “feels” a lot different than it sounds. On the outside, the idea that there is some kind of “victory in surrender” sounds like a bunch of feel-good hot air. When you’ve gone through it, though, you know that it is as real as the nose on your face. Once you let go of the fight, once you accept that you just can’t pick up that first drink, everything seems to fall into place. Of course, getting sober doesn’t cure all of your problems, but, at a minimum, it ends you piling on more of your own creation. A client of mine who was very active in AA said of its first step that you can “say” powerless (“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol and that our lives became unmanageable”) over alcohol all day long, but it is only upon truly accepting the truth of that statement that you find any kind of real sobriety.
I often think of it like this: You just hit the wall with your drinking. Sometimes, this comes from an arrest, or going to jail, or losing a partner (one client hit his bottom when he woke up in his somewhat new bed and realized he had urinated in his sleep, and was disgusted with how low things had sunk) or just feeling lost, but however it happens, there is just a sense of having taken too much: Enough is enough; this isn’t fun anymore; we’re done here. And in this magic moment, the real you, almost buried within, rises up, makes a stand and throws the gauntlet down: No more! This is when you retake control of your life.
But is has to last. As I noted before, most genuine recovery begins after a lot of false starts. It takes a lot to get to the point of really quitting, but then you have to stay quit. You have to make it stick. Here is where we can separate the wheat from the chaff. As anyone who is genuinely sober knows, the decision to quit not only comes from within, but staying quit can only occur if your life gets better. The world can threaten you with all kinds of consequences for drinking, and that can work, but only for a while. Eventually, those “consequences” will seem remote or unlikely enough and the reason to not drink is gone. When a person really gets sober, however, the prize isn’t about just not getting in trouble, it’s about enjoying life on life’s terms. Forget the drinking friends, because nothing can compare with the better relationships that are made, or re-made, when a person gets sober. Everything just gets better; you feel better, you think better, your money situation is often better, and your whole outlook on life improves. This is a point you either get, or you don’t. You get it because you’ve lived it, or you don’t because you’re not there, at least not yet.
Staying quit is the ultimate goal, but it won’t happen until you quit drinking in the first place, and, as we’ve seen, that decision just happens when a person gets fed up with the destructive force that alcohol has played in his or her life. We all know that, however you describe it, a person has to “hit bottom” before he or she decides to quit, but we all, no matter what our experiences, will also routinely try to make the mistake of raising the bottom on someone else we see struggling. If it’s a family member, we may threaten to withhold money, or to leave the relationship, not because we want to be cruel, but because we hope the threat may someone motivate the person to see the light. The problem is that everyone has his or her own bottom, and you can’t bring the bottom up to hit the person, you can only wait for him or her to land hard upon it. The epiphany moment comes when it comes, and it has to come from within. Worse yet, many people have no bottom. Do you think the homeless panhandlers who sleep under the freeway bridges have anything left to lose? Only a single digit percentage of people with a drinking problem ever maintain any kind of long-term abstinence. These are the lucky ones.
Yet everyone in recovery can recall, as if the moment has been seared into his or her memory, when the light bulb really went off. When you’ve had enough, you’ve had enough. There is no faking this, and no mistaking it, either. Some people will call out to God, and many people in recovery just “know” that their prayer was answered. Even the most faithful believer, however, would agree that part and parcel of that whole experience is the notion that “God helps those who help themselves.” Perhaps it is in that moment of complete surrender to one’s powerlessness that, almost without notice, a person summons a strength he or she has never had before to really quit, and make it stick.
However you describe it, it is powerful, and life changing. And if you’ve gone through it, then you have the right ingredients to win your license back. If you’re facing a DUI charge, and you’ve had this experience, then you know you’ve faced your last DUI. Whoever you are, if this resonates with you, then you’re on the real road to recovery. Safe travels, my friend…