Long Term Sobriety: Making it Stick

Long Term Sobriety: Making it Stick

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A friend of mine, who’s been sober for a few years now, is quite the raconteur. I love to hear her tales of drunken mayhem and redemption. She’s a female Tom Waits – Nighthawks at the Diner kind of stuff – with a sharp-edged gravel voice, and a verbal cocktail made up of equal parts regret and longing…

She paces back and forth trailing cigarette ash in her wake and says, “Yeah, the first few times I went to jail, I had a friend pick me up with a cold, 12 pack and a crack pipe in the car…” I’m two years sober, and I’ve got plenty of drinking stories to tell, but I’m innocent enough about jail time to think, “Wow, don’t they check the cars that pick up released prisoners?” and “So, how many times did you go to prison, and how many times did you quit?”

When I hear someone talk about recovery like it’s a recurring virus, I find myself reevaluating what it takes to make sobriety stick and whether the motivators to quitting are a factor in long term sobriety. In my article for Recovery Connection called “What is Rock Bottom?” I talked about the four motivators to quitting drinking: 1.court mandated, 2.family/friends intervention, 3.half-hearted self motivation; and 4, whole-hearted, do-or-die self motivation.

I still believe that the safest, most enduring way to quit drinking is number 4. Without readiness, we grapple with defiance and denial and the low grade hope that after a grace period of abstinence or incarceration, we can “drink responsibly”. The most difficult part about quitting for me was the notion that I could never drink again. I was like a dog with a sock, chewing on the frayed hope that I could have a glass of wine with dinner, an alfresco highball on an exotic terrace… However, one drink for me is like opening the silo and shouting, “RELEASE THE KRACKEN!” A single drink escalates to four or eight, and when I wake cities are burning…

When making the decision to stop drinking, one is really embarking on a major lifestyle change. The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change, is oftentimes used to help guide the addict through the steps of change effectively.

Following are the six stages of behavioral change according to The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (with my two cents thrown in):

  1. Precontemplative – This stage is characterized by denial. We do not believe there is a problem. “What me? I don’t know what you are talking about – I don’t have a drinking problem… And that dent in the car is not my fault!”
  2. Contemplative – This stage is about acceptance. “Okay, okay – I shouldn’t have had that tenth shot of tequila…. or told your boss his toupee looks like road kill…”
  3. Preparation – This is the all important realization stage. “Okay, I’ll read the Big Book, and I’ll think about why I need to change. I know I need to change.”
  4. Action – This is the stage where we are galvanized to action. There is empowerment and we are receptive to proffered help, and open to information that will guide us. “Start running? Okay! I can’t drink while I’m running, right?”
  5. Maintenance – This is the stage where we reinforce our positive behavior and develop new coping skills – and this is where some of our old, unwanted thoughts or behaviors rear their ugly heads. There is nostalgia. We go to meetings, write blog posts and read all the available literature. “I am so grateful to be standing here… alive . Help me to stay sober. Please.”
  6. Termination – This is where the paradigm shift is supposed to happen. This is the stage where our thoughts of alcohol are totally changed… “Yuck. No interest in that stuff. Who would EVER drink alcohol?”

Behavior models are just that: models. Not everyone responds the same way, and I am not sure I will ever reach the Termination Stage. I am happy to be ensconced in the Maintenance Phase and grateful to have intuitively made the right choices to change my life for the better. Readiness. Motivation. Behavior Modification. My friend who was in an out of jail so many times, realizes now that she had to make the conscious decision to quit and the personal decision to reinforce her good habits. Orange IS NOT the New Black. Don’t you believe it.

Sober is the new black.


Marilyn Spiller is a freelance writer, speaker and sober coach living in Jacksonville, Florida. She writes a sobriety blog called Waking Up the Ghost, a humorous and honest look at her wobbly journey toward recovery. She can be reached on Facebook at Waking Up the Ghost; on Twitter @MarilynSpiller and at www.wakinguptheghost.com.