Don’t Quit Quitting

Except maybe to quit trying to quit forever, and try just quitting for now.

I used to drink quite a bit. And by “quite a bit”, I mean a LOT. On an average day, I easily consumed an entire fifth of vodka. You might imagine that by the end of the day I was a stumbling, slurring idiot, but nothing could be further from the truth. Well, except maybe the “idiot” part. You see, I was what is sometimes referred to in substance abuse circles as a “high functioning alcoholic”. Ultimately kind of a pointless distinction, but sort of useful if you’re trying to break through your denial. The “high functioning” modifier makes you feel a little better about finally using the word “alcoholic” to refer to YOURSELF. In any case, a little over ten years ago, I finally stopped simply acknowledging I was an alcoholic, and did something about it. I quit drinking. I signed up for an outpatient counseling program, and pretty quickly was turning my life around in a lot of ways. After about six months, I thought to myself “well, I’m doing pretty well with this, it won’t hurt to drink just ONCE, right?“, and got a little drunk on my birthday. Amazingly, I didn’t even have a hangover the next day. And contrary to all the dire warnings you will hear about at AA meetings, I DIDN”T start drinking again that day, and DIDN’T spiral back into a pattern of ruin and destruction.

So a little less than six months later, New Year’s Eve rolled around, and I thought “well, things worked out okay last summer, I’m pretty sure I can go to some parties and just have a few drinks if I feel like it, right?” And I actually didn’t drink myself into a stupor; I was fairly moderate in my consumption in fact. But the next day, I was violently nauseous and hung over for the entire day. I mean with a brain-splitting headache, sweating bullets, and unable to even keep down WATER. It was awful. So I said to myself “well, I guess I learned MY lesson, huh?” and didn’t drink for over a year. The next time I drank was more like that first time I mentioned; except this time my reason was that I had met someone new, decided to let myself drink on a date. The short term repercussions frankly were almost non-existent.

I did this off and on for about five years, and thought of myself mostly as “quit”. Then things changed a little. I reached the five year point of being about 99% sober (an important point I’ll get back to below) and around the same time ended a relationship, and moved to a new home. Before long, I decided to have some drinks one night with an old friend who was in town. No big deal. Then about six months later, I found some other reason – a birthday I think. Three months later, it was something else, and then a month or two after that it was Thanksgiving, then a couple weeks later it was “the holidays”, and a week later Christmas, then New Year’s, and pretty soon I was drinking once a week, and very soon after “a couple of times a week”, and before I knew it, I was right back where I had begun.

And then I tried to quit again. And it wasn’t very easy. I “Lone Rangered it” with moderate success, I went through three outpatient counselors, and finally with considerable abandon, I checked in for 30 day inpatient treatment, because surely THAT is the ultimate solution, right? Guess what. Three months later, I drank. And before long I was drinking every day again. And I hated every minute of it, and hated MYSELF for being so weak-willed. And then some magical things happened. First, while sitting on my stoop late at night staring at my 10th vodka and cranberry and pondering how stupid it was to be drinking so much, an old friend I hadn’t even talked to in a year or so showed up out of the blue. The last time I had seen him, he had been sober for a couple of months, so I asked how that was going. “Never been better” was his reply; he had just about a year sober. I shared how stupid I felt, and he said “well why don’t you QUIT then?“, and we shared the kind of black humor chuckle that only addicts can share. But I knew what he meant. I said “well why don’t you drag my sorry ass to some meetings then?” and he said “what a coincidence! I’m going to one tomorrow at 7am!” I shuddered at the idea of going to an AA meeting jittery and bleary eyed at 7am, not only because of those factors, but because in spite of all my clean time, I had only been to a few in my entire life. But he showed up the next morning, and I went, and I went to more meetings that week, and one thing I kept hearing was “you really should do 90 in 90“, which is 90 meetings in 90 days. So I relented and did it. And before long I found a sponsor. And now it’s three and a half years later, I’m still sober, and my life is changing in positive ways that I honestly never dreamed were possible.

And that “five year point” that I mentioned above? I”m going to share a little secret about quitting drinking with you. Having drank more than about 90% of the people I meet, and having tried moderation, just plain quitting, therapy and counseling, and inpatient treatment, I can assure you that if you’ve had a persistent substance abuse problem for any extended period of time, there’s a really good chance that none of those things will work. Why? Because for many of us addicts, our malady is a spiritual malady. And by “spiritual” I don’t mean “religious”. It’s something related to the heart and “the soul”, and I STILL don’t mean anything religious when I use those words. The essence of spirituality is as simple as doing the next right thing, and it’s REALLY hard to continue doing the next right thing without some guidance. And in my opinion, the only place most addicts will find the kind of guidance they’ll need is with other addicts pursuing the same path. Although the hard research on “sobriety time” is scant, I can tell you from the personal stories I’ve heard and the  experience that I myself have had that if you quit your drugs without injecting some spirituality into your life, 3 to 5 years into your clean time you will have some kind of setback. Why? That’s about how long it takes a person to get their life in order in all sorts of mundane ways – jobs, debt, relationship mending, etc. – and then be free to realize that they still feel empty because they forgot to recognize that other aspect of things, the things that give life a depth of meaning that makes it feel full all the time.

I could go on for days about this stuff, but let me just leave you with a simple thought. Do you want to quit something? Smoking? Drinking? Some other habit or addiction? Then QUIT. Don’t make plans to “quit forever”, just quit right now, and let being quit for now be enough. And if you don’t stay quit, quit again later. All the old jokes and cliches are pretty true. Especially the one about not quitting quitting. If I hadn’t failed at quitting so many times, I would have never succeeded, and frankly, all my failures and experiments are in fact the very bedrock of my recovery, as strange as that may sound.

So have you been thinking about quitting something? I have some advice. Why don’t you just QUIT?

Each week for the next few months, Nick and I will be riffing on a theme from our recently published book 101 Ideas to Kick Your Ass Into Gear. This week’s theme is – you guessed it – Quit!

About Ian

Ian is a media consultant, writer, musician, and budding public speaker with an eye on being the next Ellen. Ian's interest in helping others find success and happiness stems from his experience with events planning and media consulting with organizations like and the Kenya/US NGO Amara Conservation from 2000-2008, which taught him how little we all know about what we're really doing. From 2008 until April of 2011, Ian wrote for and maintained the site Ian learned long ago that the journey to success may take occasional detours, and often eschews the road map in favor of taking in life's scenery. His first business venture was a small telecom company in the late 1980's, but subsequent ventures included pursuing a pop music career, screenwriting, and the foodservice and retail employment that often follows such pursuits. After struggling with addiction for years, Ian is happily embracing recovery and the clarity it brings.