This guide is not designed to offer medical advice. I’d recommend you seek professional help before giving up.
Do you need to quit drinking?
The first question you’re going to need to answer is do you actually need to quit? I’m guessing if you’re on this page that alcohol isn’t working out that well for you. It is not always easy to answer if you have a drinking problem. Some of us have a tendency to worry about everything and maybe alcohol isn’t as bad as we think. However, as a general rule of thumb, if you’re questioning your drinking habits and you’re researching online, it’s likely there is a problem that needs to be addressed.
How I decided to give up
In my mid 20’s I’d started to question my drinking habits. I began reading forums about addiction and there were several red flags. I should have acted but didn’t. My problem was that I always compared myself to someone who was further progressed in their addiction. This is a big mistake. There will always be someone who’s in a worse place than you; if your alcoholism continues to progress you’ll eventually be the one other people compare themselves to.
I wish I’d stopped 15-20 years earlier. It would have saved me a huge amount of money and heartache. Don’t follow my mistakes – make the decision to get help if you think you’re:
- drinking too much or too often
- your life if being negatively impacted by drinking
- you feel guilt after drinking
- others have expressed concern over your drinking
There are other tell-tale signs but, generally, you’ll know inside if you are developing a bad habit.
In the end, I stopped because I was on the verge of daytime drinking to get myself through the day. I knew this would take me from a functioning alcoholic to a dysfunctional one and, having a wife and daughter, I couldn’t allow that to happen.
Week 1: Acute Withdrawal
For some, this will be the hardest week of sobriety. If you’re a heavy drinker then you should be under medical supervision as you begin your detox. Do not underestimate the risks involved in the first few days of giving up.
Possible symptoms during the first week
- body pain
- high temperature
- heart palpitations
- high blood pressure
- anger, depression, confusion
Although I had been drinking for 25 years I didn’t experience most of these symptoms. It was mostly mood swings similar to what you’d get from stopping coffee or smoking. For me, the biggest struggle was the mental addiction in the first week. I would finish work and feel excited at the thought of having a drink; then the realisation would hit me that I’d given up and that was very depressing.
Helpful hint #1: In the early stages of sobriety live life one day at a time. Try to just get through the day without alcohol. When you start to think ahead about the prospect of never drinking again in the early days it is an awful feeling; really depressing and you’re likely to cave. Just get through the day then tomorrow, think about that day only.
Kindling is a term that refers to the worsening symptoms that are experienced every time a problem drinker makes another attempt at giving up alcohol. Kindling is not uncommon and you need to consider this before giving up. If you have tried giving up before and your symptoms were bad, there is a real chance that they could be worse this time. Seek medical advice before giving up.
You can use kindling as a powerful source of motivation as you begin your life of sobriety. Be aware of your symptoms and make sure you remember them in great detail. Write them down and don’t ever forget them. Next time you fantasize about drinking, revisit those symptoms and try to imagine them even worse. That’s what you could have to deal with next time you give up. Maybe kindling won’t affect you, but is that a chance you’re willing to take?
My strategy for dealing with week 1
The cravings for alcohol in the first week can be extreme, they were for me! It will take a lot of willpower. The key is to focus in great detail on some of the worst things that have happened because of drinking. Remember how bad those hangovers were and all those silly things you did under the influence. Use those to get you through that first week. Your life may depend on this.
Some general steps I took:
- Consulted a Doctor and got the all clear to give up “Cold Turkey”.
- Advised those close to me that I was giving up so that they’d be on the lookout for health issues, they’d be more understanding to my moods and wouldn’t offer me drinks.
- Stopped drinking on a Friday night so that I had all weekend to rest and deal with any side effects of quitting.
- Stocked up on the necessary supplements to help reduce cravings and reduce symptoms.
- Stocked up on junk food: my body was craving carbs so I gave it some slack by giving it what it wanted. It’s hard enough in the first week giving up the booze, no need to be too hard on myself with strict dieting as well.
- Stocked up on movies and rested as much as possible over the weekend.
- Stayed away from everyone that could be a distraction to my goal of sobriety.
- Made a diary of how I was feeling. This is really important, trust me.
Once Monday hit, I was happy to be distracted by work. It had been a few days and I was feeling okay. Getting through the weekend meant I was through my drinking danger zone. The rest of the first week was problem free.
Week 2-4: Mind Games
Congratulations, you’ve made it through the first week. You deserve a huge pat on the back because most don’t make it this far. You body will have gone through its acute withdrawal phase and so the physical addiction is no longer the issue; it’s the mental addiction.
Do not underestimate the power of the mind. Your alcoholic voice will be tempting you whenever it gets the chance. Those Friday nights when you used to party until dawn, they’re no longer an option. This will be frustrating and also depressing. You need a strategy to overcome this.
My experience within the first month
After the first week I was feeling quietly confident. The mood swings had regulated and my energy levels were better. I was bouncing out of bed in the mornings and my productivity at work had skyrocketed. I had more energy, felt confident and my loved ones were noticing the difference – I was less moody and more engaged.
The problem was, I had massive cravings for alcohol and I was at risk of crumbling at any point. It was also becoming obvious that drinking uses up a lot of time, I needed to fill this space or risk drinking due to boredom.
My strategy for dealing with the first month
Activity, activity, and more activity. It’s essential to long term sobriety. Here’s what I did:
- Trail running, and lots of it. Hours and hours when possible. I started slow and built up the miles.
- Many hours on recovery forums reading the horror stories to remind me of what drinking does.
- Journal writing to help remind myself of what I went through.
- Started a food blog which was really time intensive but very rewarding.
- Took a photography course and started taking pics.
These activities, along with spending time with my family, kept me so busy I didn’t have time to scratch my head.
The purple cloud
One unexpected benefit of quitting drinking was the purple cloud that I experienced at the end of the first month. I hadn’t heard of this expression and wasn’t expecting it. A purple cloud is when you become overwhelmed by extremely happy, positive emotions after a prolonged period of abstinence. It kicked in when I was standing in an electronics store and some music was playing over the speakers. I never took LSD but I can imagine a happy trip would have been something like what I was feeling. Never had I felt that way before and it was incredible. I could have hugged anyone that walked past and the music was so clear. I felt 10 feet tall and unstoppable. Everything was good in the world and I was the happiest I’d ever felt. The next day, I was hit by PAWS but I’ll go into that in detail in the next section.
Week 5-12: Caution – Beware of PAWS
If you’ve achieved one month without booze then I take my hat off to you, well done! It is no small feat for an alcoholic to go for this long sober. Maybe you’re starting to see some of the many benefits to your new life?
In this phase of sobriety there are two very important points to keep top of mind:
- Don’t get over confident: Many will. It’s like they see one month as the big milestone and, once there, they have made it. Wrong. You need to work at your sobriety every day. Stay busy, eat well, sleep, be wary of HALT, keep reading the recovery forums and other relevant articles, attend meetings. Don’t drop your guard.
- Be mindful that you’re entering PAWS territory: Not everyone gets it, but plenty do so I’ll go into this in more detail now.
My PAWS story
My life of sobriety, although very challenging, had been uneventful so far. I had some serious cravings but fought my way through it. I had a nice purple cloud for a very short time then things started to go down hill.
Post Acute Withdrawal Symptoms (PAWS) is a group of symptoms that can occur after you’ve gone through the initial acute withdrawal symptoms. It can occur any time: from a few weeks to several months into sobriety. They can last days, weeks, months or years. From my experience, PAWS seems to be a controversial subject. Over at Sober Recovery forum I have read every post there has ever been written on the subject. So while I don’t have a medical background, I do have a lot of anecdotal evidence from recovering alcoholics about the subject.
Many of the long time sober members don’t seem to like talking about PAWS. There is a theory that if alcoholics that were considering giving up learnt about all the symptoms of PAWS they would be put off forever from trying. Some, in the medical field, don’t even acknowledge that PAWS exists.
I’m only going to make the comment that PAWS was very real for me and I wish I’d known there was more than just the initial acute withdrawal symptoms waiting for me. If I’d known, I would still have given up. I just wouldn’t have spent months of my life extremely stressed thinking that I had some life threatening illness.
These were my symptoms
- extreme anxiety
- low motivation
- hyper emotional/zero emotions
- brain fog
- chronic fatigue
- very shaky
- unable to concentrate
- difficulty with simple logic problems
- extreme flight response
- pins and needles in toes and fingers
- muscle spasms/shocks through limbs
- numb legs/no feeling in legs
- numb mouth
- feeling of near fainting
I’m sure there were more too. I was busy googling all this and you can imagine what results were coming back to me. The anxiety this caused only made things worse.
Eventually one day I was driving home from work and I began to black out. I found the nearist Doctor immediately. It should have been done days earlier but for some silly reason I didn’t. Over the next few days I was tested for every conceivable health issue and everything came back fine. The symptoms fell into the PAWS category and were intertwined with anxiety.
How I dealt with my symptoms
- Counselling – provided me with strategies to help deal with anxiety
- Reading and seeking out as much information as possible.
- Being patient.
- Learning to lighten up.
- Sleeping lots.
- Eating well and exercising regularly.
The golden rule
Get medical help if you’re not well. Don’t be a hero. Don’t google symptoms. Get help and put your mind at ease.
Eventually my PAWS symptoms started to subside. The ferocity reduced. I still have very mild symptoms approaching two years of sobriety but I can live with it. These days I just have a few issues with concentrating and logic but in general, it’s all good.
You can read about my guide to PAWS here.
Week 13 – 52
If you’ve made it past the 3 month stage you’re a legend. A huge congratulations. Your body is healing every day and your brain is rewiring itself. Your kidneys are thanking you for the rest.
But how are you feeling? It is important you stay aware of what’s going through your head so that you can fix any problems.
Some common problems as your sobriety increases
- Overconfident: You’re entering a phase where you’ll start to feel confident about your sobriety. Up until now you probably doubted you could reach this milestone and you were doing everything you could to stay away from alcohol. The cravings are likely to have reduced and your life of drinking hell is over. Or is it? It is very easy at this stage to start drinking again. Your subconscious will happily guide you into a bar. At dinner, if a friend offers you a drink you may take it without thinking. It’s easy to do when you’re over confident. Every day, wake up and be thankful you’re sober. Stay focused on your goal – sobriety.
- Depressed: It isn’t uncommon to feel like crap after a few months of giving up booze. I did, and still do although things slowly get better. Your body has the tough job of dealing with life’s challenges without alcohol. It’s a big change and the chemicals in your brain are going haywire. Stay strong and seek professional help if it’s affecting you.
- Bored/Antsy: We alcoholics have a tendency to feel our life isn’t complete without beer, wine or spirits. I still occasionally get an antsy feeling. I just want to go crazy and hit the beer to break out from my life. This is usually when I have some down time. I need to keep busy all the time or these feelings will creep in. You’ll need to keep yourself busy too.
Paying it back
As you approach the 1 year milestone you might want to give some thought into helping others wanting to give up alcohol. It will provide them with some experienced advice which will be a huge help. But also, you’ll benefit yourself. It will provide you with a sense of accomplishment and give you another purpose in life. You could be helping to save someone’s life which is a beautiful thing.
Beyond 1 year of sobriety you’ll probably find the cravings are few and far between. Your alcoholic voice has been put inside it’s box and you’re running the show now. The skills and knowledge you acquired in the first year will need to be applied throughout your life. That voice is waiting for a moment of weakness to whisper in your ear “just one won’t hurt”. Don’t listen, I beg you.
Every time you go through the “giving up” process it tends to get a little harder. The symptoms you struggle through can become more and more fierce and life threatening.
The good news is that you never have to have another hangover for the rest of your life. That’s a special thing. You’re starting out on a new phase of your life. One that’s more productive. You’ll feel more at peace and less driven by anxiety. Family, friends and hobbies will replace drinking, wasted money, poor health, mistakes, guilt and embarrassment.
Your life is alcohol free and anything is possible. So go and enjoy it.