The next week I would try again. Or I'd just say fuck it and drink every day until I’d amassed enough misery that I would cut back again. It was exhausting. I was getting fed up with myself. If I went out drinking for a night, I might enjoy myself for the first couple hours, but the night would usually end with me being choked by my own anger, sadness, and self-pity. Usually walking home, feeling delirious and upset. The tiny joy that alcohol gave me continued to diminish, while the misery continued to escalate. Side effects that used to be subtle had become impossible to ignore, though I definitely still tried to ignore them.
I failed and gave up on a regular basis but the desire to stop still lingered. Alcohol left me feeling imprisoned, stuck, and I wanted to to be free. I would look at each failure and discern: What worked? What didn’t work? How can I do things differently this time? Then I’d try again.
Fail. Evaluate. Re-try.
Repeatedly for years.
It made me want to tear my hair out. Every time I failed, I felt like I was getting nowhere, but I’d look back and see that, over the years, I had made some progress. In the moment, it would feel like my efforts were useless, but if I thought about it, I was in a much better place than I used to be. This helped me to keep going. It also helped me learn to be kinder to myself, to have some patience for myself and the process.
To shift my focus and lighten my mood, I’d call to mind whatever I could find to appreciate in my life. I’d remind myself of the qualities I’m proud of in myself. I’d remind myself of the caring friends and family who bring so much love, laughter, and beauty into my life.
If I was feeling sour or flustered, I’d take a moment to slow down to notice, feel, and appreciate whatever was near me in that moment. A comfortable chair. A tree. A breeze. A sandwich. A smile. The comfort of sitting in my bedroom in my underwear. The carefree silliness of the kids I was teaching back then who would shout “BOOGER!” without any pretext. [Side note: As I am now editing this paragraph, I shouted “BOOGER!” out loud alone in my room. It’s an effective, albeit absurd, agent of levity. Those kids were wise.]
When I felt difficulty and frustration, I’d shift my attention toward anything that would remove it from the tunnel vision of self-loathing. Cultivating these quiet moments of contentment helped me to transmute the internal conflict that self-destructive habits had been brewing inside of me. It gave me some respite from booze-induced suffering, and helped me to remember what I wanted from life: to feel free, to feel closer to love and joy. This would give me the resolve to keep going, to keep digging away at the mountain of my detrimental habits. To take the failures with more stride, be easier on myself, pick myself up, and persist.
Things not working out is part of the process of working things out. Failing and falling--and getting back up--is part of resolution.
4 STAKES, SUPPORT, AND ACCOUNTABILITY
I started telling myself I would cut back on my drinking about a year or two after I started drinking. I didn’t follow through until several years later.
What finally helped me stick to my goal? Two simple but extremely effective practices: Stakes and accountability.
Before I implemented these practices, I would tell myself, Today is the day! Today is the day I stop drinking!
Sometimes I lasted a few hours. Sometimes I lasted a few days. Very rarely I would follow through and stick to my intention. Throughout the process, I would be constantly battling myself in my mind. Two voices bickering at each other every hour.
Voice One would say, Drink!
Voice Two would say, No, don’t drink. We said we wouldn’t. Remember?
Yes, we said that, but… what if we drank anyway? Wouldn’t that be nice?
No! We have goals! Dreams! Potential! The horizon of our future is vast and filled with wonder, waiting for us to canalize our energies and create our own paradise filled with tongue-tickling daisies of optimism, gaggles of orgasmic giggles, and enough love to fill the Atlantic Ocean.
Alright… But what if we had just one drink?
You’re right. That’s a great idea. Let’s do it. The horizon will still be there tomorrow, right?
Each of these resignations would start with intentions of moderation. Only one drink. Or only one night of drinks. They would end in abandon. One drink would become many drinks. One night of drinks would become several nights. Then the inevitable spinwheel of misery and self-hatred, coming back harder and faster each time.
It seldom worked, but I kept trying. Then I read The Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. In it, he suggests that if you want to make a change, you can add stakes and hold yourself accountable. The stakes are consequences for not following through on your intention. Accountability means telling someone else about your intention, checking in with them throughout your progress, and letting them know if you follow through or not.
Since then, I’ve used these two methods to curb my boozing and have also applied them to make other changes (going vegan, meditating daily, making art regularly). My process for putting them into play goes something like this:
- I articulate my intention.
What do I want to do (or not do)? For how long? Three days? One week? One month? Start with something manageable.
- I find an accountability buddy. I tell a friend what my intention is and ask them if I can check in with them on a specific basis or day for the duration of my goal. When I first did a month of no drinking, I asked my friend if I could message him every Sunday to tell him whether or not I had stuck to my goal. Sometimes, simply knowing that I’d have to tell my friend if I caved would be enough to prevent me from regressing. When I didn’t hold myself accountable to someone else, it was much easier for me to go back on my word and go against my conviction. I was shy, even scared, to admit my problem to a friend and ask for help, but I was lucky to find that my friends were happy to support me.
- I set my stakes.
At first, I chose small stakes. For example, if I drank when I said I wouldn’t, I had to give my friend $10. However, losing $10 wasn’t a very big deal. After wavering on this a few times, I set higher stakes, stakes that were severe enough that I wouldn’t consider breaking my intention.
A few months ago, I told my accountability buddy that I wouldn’t drink alcohol for a year and would check in with him on the first day of each month. If I tell him that I have caved and drank, I have to send him a video of me burning $500. Ridiculous, right? But that’s exactly why it works. I don’t have an extra $500 to toss away. I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent. Though a part of me wants to drink, there’s no way it would be worth $500 so I don’t even question it. Previously, I would have had a painstaking internal dialogue teetering between abstaining and drinking. I would rationalize it and convince myself that the negative consequences of returning to booze would be negligible. I would forget the conviction with which I had initially set out upon my goal.
Now, since I know I’d have to pay $500 to the flames of failure if I drink, that inner dialogue of self-conflict is swept aside. The desire to drink still arises, but I no longer entertain the notion because I know don’t want to reap the consequences. Choosing absurd, severe stakes may sound drastic, but they can be extremely effective.
The more I want to achieve a goal, the higher I set my stakes. When I was wishy-washy about wanting to quit drinking, I set small stakes. When I reached a point where I was so exasperated by booze that I was all but desperate to make a change, then I chose stakes I knew I wouldn’t violate. Like burning $500.
I have tried the alternative of rewarding myself with positive rewards for following through on an intention. Promising myself a gift for my progress sounds kinder, less harsh. I’d love to say that worked, but I’ve found that avoiding unwanted consequences, rather than striving for a reward, has been more effective for me. Ideally, I won’t be experiencing the negative stakes anyway and the accomplishment of following through on my intention will be its own gift.
There are many personal changes I’ve made on my own, without stakes or accountability. It’s only for the exceptionally challenging changes that I use stakes and accountability. They are usually preceded by several fruitless attempts to leave behind an unwanted habit, where I’ve tried and tried at something but have repeatedly misstepped. If there’s a lifestyle adjustment that I can’t seem to make on my own, and if my desire to make that change is strong enough, then I set some stakes and ask a friend if I can check in with them. Most of the time, this has made it immensely easier to follow through on a goal that I had been failing at for months or years prior.
When I drank, and when I perform other habits that impair me, I am doing so in order to erase discontent and invoke relief. I didn’t consciously think this when grabbing for a drink, but looking back, this has been the motive steering my actions from behind the scenes. If the motives of a habit are unconscious, I’ll experience them as a visceral craving, not a thought-out decision. In a way, it’s as if my subconscious mind is attempting to protect me from the disturbances beneath the surface.
These instinctual impulses to erase the pain only mask it for a brief moment. Then the pain returns, and because I have been avoiding it, I feel even less capable of dealing with it than before. Small nuisances become monstrous hindrances. Extend this process for the course of several years and what started as a meager puddle of pent-up tension will become a massive torrent that breaks the dam and floods daily life. Work. Family and friends. Sleep. Health. Creativity. If unheeded, that inner pain will seep into every facet of life.
In order to make an effective change--not just a momentary escape--I must make some intentional effort to address the root of the pain. If you cut off the head, stem, and leaves of a weed, it will disappear for a few days, but so long as the root remains, it will always return, thorns and all.
I have found meditation to be the best tool for removing my inner weeds. Years ago, I began meditating out of desperation. I was miserable, mean, embittered, and depressed. It reached a point where I couldn’t go on living as I had been, so I looked for ways to implement some shifting. I didn’t really think change was possible, but I knew that if my life continued to go on as it had been, I didn’t much want to live anymore. So I looked for ways to dig myself out of the hole I had made. Since then, meditation has been the most effective tool I’ve known to lift me out of those periods of darkness.
Each time I sit down to meditate, I am practicing the ability to simply be alive in this moment, however I am, however I feel, whatever thoughts may be running through my mind. Each meditation gives me the chance to foster a small ball of harmony within myself. The more I do it, the more that harmony grows.
Like watering a flower. I start with a seed. I try to tend to it every day. I water it. It won’t grow overnight, but if I take care of it, it will blossom and bring some beauty into my life. One seed becomes one flower. One flower becomes several. Several flowers become a garden. What started as a patch of parched, empty soil has yielded something that brings joy into my life. But only if I have been consistently taking care of it.