Uh oh: What if I quit drinking too soon?

By Anna Jolliff 03/12/19
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The other day in a recovery meeting, I heard from a 32-year-old woman who has been sober for 10 years. She made a terrifyingly relatable joke: “What if this was all a huge mistake? What if I still had some really great drinking to do?”

I cackled. Laughing loudly and at inappropriate times is my tell: it almost always means, Me too. I was thinking the same thing.

Truth be told, I’ve had that particular thought a lot. What if I had some really great drinking left in me? Around the time I got sober, drinking wasn’t miserable every time. In fact, it occasionally provided relief. I can describe in detail the last five times I drank before quitting entirely; two out of five are relatively good memories. A 40% success rate might as well be 100% when you aren’t in the business of learning from experience.

All that to say: drinking was an integral and mostly-subtle influence in my life up until the very day that I stopped. (The not-so-subtle effects were clearer in retrospect.) Even on the day of my very last drink, I was still having thought like, The problem is my job. The problem is my boyfriend. The problem is my anxiety. The problem is definitely not alcohol.

My dad once told me that he used to smoke cigarettes. Quitting cigarettes, I've heard, is even harder than quitting alcohol. When I asked him how he managed to quit, he said simply: “I was delivered.”

Maybe that strikes you as a bit irritating. If my dad were more L.A., rather than conclusively Midwestern, it would irritate me, too. I can see Oprah drumming up quite a crowd around the vague notion of “deliverance.” ("If you haven't been delivered, it's because you don't believe you deserve it!") But let me assure you: my dad is less Oprah than anyone I know.

I was delivered, too. On the day of my last drink, I had every intention of drinking tomorrow. It wasn't a question of whether I wanted to be done - whether it was probably for the better, whether it would be preferable all else equal. Alcohol felt inevitable, unstoppable. In my mind, it was about willpower - and I didn't have it. (I later learned that, as an alcoholic, the problem is not willpower - and neither is the solution.)

What if I still had some great drinking to do? Three years later, I've had the same worries that were voiced by the woman in the recovery meeting. Did I quit too soon? Was it about to get really fun again? Were all the really disastrous parts of my life merely situational - not due to alcohol at all? Maybe it all goes back to the world’s weariest statistics lesson, and correlation doesn’t equal causation….

(That particular phrase, and the people who say it - “correlation does not equal causation” - can be found in the Notes app of my phone. That's where I keep a running list of things I hate. That way I don't forget, and wake up one day unexpectedly good-natured.)

Sometimes, when I sit in a recovery meeting, I’m listening for the differences. A happy byproduct of getting sober when I was 22 is that there are a lot of them. More often than not, it got worse for others than it did me. On days where my brain is functioning properly, I’m thankful for the differences. I'm glad I hopped off the elevator before it hit the ground floor. On alcoholic days, I think: If I was never that bad, does that mean I wasn’t actually alcoholic? That guy over there didn’t hit bottom until he was 40. Are you telling me I had 18 years of fabulous (albeit increasingly less fabulous) drinking to do before I bottomed out?

Luckily, meetings are an hour long, and they look at you funny if you crack a beer right in the middle. So I keep listening. The guy who quit when he was forty inevitably says something like, “I quit because my wife threatened to take the kids. But you know… sometimes I think she was over-reacting. When I got that DUI, I wasn’t even drunk. Sometimes I wonder if I still have some good drinking to do.”

Oh.

That thought - I had more drinking left to do - is not a thought that I have because I was only 22 when I quit. It’s a symptom of the disease. It’s a thought had by many alcoholics. The fact that I have that thought at all only confirms my membership in this club. After all: what reasonable human feels cheated out of 18 years of increasing misery? Who says, “I’m hanging on to this misery until it’s complete!” Even when I’m doing my best to focus on the differences, the similarities sometimes slap me across the face.

When I attend meetings, I see how my life would have been if I’d kept drinking. Paradoxically, I see myself in the experiences I never had: Oh. So that's how it would have been to be a drunk graduate student. Or a drunk wife. Or mom. Or grandma. That’s how it would be to go out again. That’s how it would be to die a drunk.

This is one of the many reasons that a sober community is important. It’s not “woo woo,” and it’s not Oprah. It’s observational learning - gaining valuable and potentially life-saving information by observing the experiences of others. If you’re stuck in that question - Did I still have some good drinking to do? - find others who played the tape a little farther than you did. If you’re open - and potentially, even, if you’re not - you’ll find the answer.

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