How I Embraced Sobriety Without Quitting Alcohol Completely

mbg Contributor By Caitlin Padgett
mbg Contributor
Caitlin Padgett is a transformational coach for successful women who struggle with alcohol

As someone who struggled with alcohol off and on from my midteens to my early thirties, I resisted getting “help” for many years because I thought it meant I would have to give up alcohol, something I intuitively felt wasn’t the right approach for me.

While some people may use this as an excuse to continue a toxic habit, for me, it was true.

I resisted the help I needed because I didn't want to go to an AA meeting and have to spend the rest of my life introducing myself as an alcoholic.

So, instead of getting help, I maintained an unhealthy relationship with booze for more than a decade. More blackouts than I can count; hangovers that led to foggy, wasted days; missed meetings and deadlines; fights with loved ones; and the nagging underlying anxiety that comes with being an overachiever certain her life might unravel at any second.

My drinking went through phases, as is normal. My binges were often triggered by stress or uncertainty and the desire to escape the intensely critical or fearful voices in my head. The periods of nightly drinking were a remedy for anxiety, sleeplessness, and the too-painful-to-admit feeling of unlovability and unworthiness that would consume me at times.

A little more than two years ago, a month before I turned 32, I finally decided I was done. Done with getting drunk. Done with blackouts, horrible hangovers, an inability to focus, low energy, and an overreliance on alcohol as my coping mechanism for low confidence, stress, and anxiety.

I should say, I went through the same process after my 30th birthday, when I woke up to a giant goose-egg on my forehead, reminding me of a stumble that landed me headfirst on the pavement. The same thing happened the day after I turned 31, when I woke up realizing I had passed out and missed most of the party after a little too much absinthe.

This time around, I decided to do things differently. First, I announced my intention to two of my closest friends. “I’m not getting drunk anymore.” They might have laughed, since this was a fairly common refrain during those regret-filled mornings. “I mean it,” I said. And I knew in my heart that I did.

But I also knew that simply declaring my goal wasn’t enough, because I had done that in the past with little long-term success. This time I got super-clear on my intentions, how I wanted to feel, and what my life would look like when I stop this negative cycle with alcohol. I had to dig deep, do a lot of healing, and work on making my mindset more positive.

This had many facets. I journaled on gratitude, desires, and affirmations every day. I started attending regular meetings for family members and partners of people struggling with addictions, which helped me heal and understand some of the familial patterns that were affecting me.

These meetings also emphasized the importance of taking responsibility for one’s own life. I told the people closest to me that I was done drinking to get drunk. I often told acquaintances I had stopped drinking completely because it was easier and I felt less pressure.

I was several months into a yearlong holistic health-coaching certification program with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and I began applying everything I was learning to my own healing. I developed daily rituals that included a combination of nourishing for mind, body, and spirit, and found that following this routine equipped me with the inner strength I needed to handle my triggers and stressors differently.

I danced, a lot. I took Latin dance classes, which ignited a passionate spark in me, and African dance with live drumming, which really grounded me. It quite literally shook the stress right out of my body.

Since that time, I’ve gone through phases of total abstinence and now reside comfortably in moderation, which in my case means no more than one 5- to 7-ounce serving of wine with dinner, or the very occasional half-bottle of beer. I can go for weeks without drinking or really thinking about it, then have alcohol a few times in a week, though I never drink more in one sitting than my one-serving limit.

I eliminated hard alcohol completely because I realized that nothing good ever came from drinking it (for me). I explored my limits and realized that I could savor the equivalent of a standard-size glass of wine throughout an evening and enjoy it, but more than that would likely turn on that “must-have-more” switch.

I’ve learned which situations and people are “safe zones” and which should be avoided or only approached with abstinence. I’ve become incredibly tuned in to my triggers, and my mental and emotional states, and have developed an extensive “toolkit” for feeling and dealing, sans alcohol.

My toolkit is holistic and includes nutrition, exercise, a spiritual practice, journaling, a nonjudgmental and compassionate support system, and external accountability — such as being open and honest about my intentions. This goes beyond my relationship to alcohol and has also allowed me to have a better relationship to my body and to life in general.

Has it been easy? No, not really. In the beginning, there were many internal debates between the drunk devil still firmly sitting on one shoulder, and the angel of abstinence on the other. A few months after my “never getting drunk again” declaration, I was going through a particularly heart-wrenching time in my relationship.

I felt all of my deepest fears bubbling to the surface, and at times all I wanted to do was switch back to autopilot and go back to what I knew would ease the pain, albeit temporarily. There have been other times more recently when I felt the stress of running a business and becoming a new mom that I would long for those wild nights when alcohol allowed me to feel completely carefree.

Yet as I became more confident that moderation could work for me and I learned how to set clear intentions, develop the positive mindset and accountability strategies to support me, and create new, healthier habits, the internal debate began to take up much less mental space.

I have also become an expert in identifying what alternatives will give me a similar feeling to the one I was previously trying to access with alcohol. In short: moderation has worked for me. I drink less. And when I do drink, I'm comfortable with my behavior and confident that I can remain in control.

It saddens me that there are so many outright attacks on moderation as a viable approach for someone who is struggling with alcohol, even on this website. I’ve read comments suggesting that mindbodygreen is irresponsible for publishing articles offering a solution other than abstinence for people struggling with alcohol.

While total abstinence might be an important strategy for those who suffer from a physical dependence on alcohol, it excludes the many of us who fit somewhere on the spectrum between what might be considered a low-risk drinker (never drinking more than the daily recommended amount) and someone experiencing a physical dependency.

One the one hand, I get it. If your life has become unmanageable due to alcohol and an abstinence-based program is what worked for you to become a healthier, happier person, you are likely to defend it tooth and nail.

The problem with saying that abstinence is the “only” approach for someone who is struggling with alcohol is that excludes people who are trying to make a change in their life before they hit some kind of crazy rock bottom, lose their job, destroy their relationship, or end up in jail. I resisted the help I needed because I didn't want to go to an AA meeting and have to spend the rest of my life introducing myself as an alcoholic. I couldn’t relate to the mainstream image of what a “problem drinker” was, therefore I resisted admitting I had a problem at all for many years.

Shouldn’t we strive to provide more options to people who are struggling instead of forcing them into a box, identity, or program that doesn’t feel right? It's a gross disservice to people who will suffer negative effects from alcohol at some point in their lives, even if they aren't technically "addicted." Ninety percent of excessive drinkers don't meet the criteria for alcohol dependence.

I suffered for an unnecessarily long time because my unique “shape” didn’t fit into the only box I saw as available to me — total abstinence.

Whether it was easy or not is beside the point. The point is that I found an approach that worked for me and that has the potential to work for many others. It is my desire that every person who wants to redefine their relationship to alcohol have access to the tools and resources to do so, on his or her own terms.

So let’s practice compassion, open our minds and hearts, and work together to make that a reality, shall we?

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