How to Quit Being a Drunk – The Problem with Ambivalence

This is part 5 in an ongoing series.

During my final years of drunkenness it felt as if there were two people living inside of my head. Maybe if there had only been one of us in there I would have been able to keep my wall of denial intact. Being a drunk would not have been so bad if I could still pretend that it was benefiting me in some way. Instead there was this knowingness that alcohol was destroying everything of value in my life. It felt like my thoughts had divided into two factions; one side determined to keep me trapped in addiction while the other side worked desperately for escape. Apparently this type of ambivalence is common among addicts, and my bet is that it kills more of us than denial.

The Ambivalence Trap

To say that we are ambivalent about something means that we hold simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings . In the case of being a drunk it means that we have accepted that alcohol is causing us problems, but we have other thoughts and feelings that compel us to continue with the behavior. We get caught in the trap of ambivalence and we can remain this way indefinitely. It is the reason why we become chronic relapsers or get caught in ‘rehab revolving door syndrome’.

I used to view my ambivalence toward being a drunk as like two opposing armies. There were always battles being won and lost. When my life became particularly painful it would strengthen the troops fighting for my survival, and sometimes this would be enough so that I could stop drinking for a few weeks. The problem was that I would always become complacent as the memory of the pain subsided, and this would give the addicted troops a chance to regroup. The balance would once again tip in their favor, and I’d relapse.

The reason why I remained trapped in ambivalence for so long was the simple idea that maybe the good drinking days would return. I would regularly devise master plans to make this aspiration a reality. This would most usually involve special drinking rules such as; only drinking in the evenings, having x number of sober days each week, sticking to safe alcohol levels, only drinking beer, or staying dry for x number of weeks. I always felt so enthusiastic when implementing these new regimes, but I’d always end up right back where I started. The most persistent of these dangerous beliefs was that if I could remain sober for a certain length of time it would cure me – even though I’d previously been sober for 2 years and still returned almost immediately to drunkenness when I relapsed.

How I Defeated Ambivalence

I’m not sure if it is possible for anyone who is ambivalent towards alcohol to be able to stay sober long term. So long as we hold onto even the tiniest glimmer of hope that we will be able to one day ‘drink safely’ we are screwed. I found that even being 99% committed to sobriety was not enough – that remaining 1% of ambivalence would trip me up later. It was only when I reached the point of saying ‘never again’ with complete certainty this that I was able to overcome my ambivalence. I know that it will never be possible for me to drink alcohol safely. I do not hold onto any secret hope that they might discover a secret treatment for alcoholism that will allow me to join my old friends in the bar. The really amazing thing is that I also came to the realization that even if such a future cure was discovered I wouldn’t want it.

The trick to winning the war against ambivalence is ruthless honesty. It means weeding out the bullshit that could later be used as an excuse to relapse. Most drunks will already have plenty of compelling evidence that proves to them that they will never be able to drink safely, but they choose to ignore it. The key then is to just accept the evidence and admit defeat. People will know that they’ve reached this point because they will feel a sense of relief by admitting that there is not one drop of enjoyment left in alcohol for them. The war is truly over and now they can focus on building a good life. As John Lennon and Yoko Ono once said “war is over, if you want it”.

How to Quit Being a Drunk Series

Part one – Welcome to the Series
Part two – The Payoff
Part Three -Alcoholism is a choice
Part Four – Rock Bottom Myth
Part Five- The Problem with Ambivalence
Part Six- Getting Motivated
Part Seven – From Arrogance to Willingness

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2 thoughts on “How to Quit Being a Drunk – The Problem with Ambivalence

  1. I can relate to this article very well. The two voices. I guess if i am honest i am ambivalent.

    I’ve done stints at not drinking, just to take a break from it. Anything that one needs to take a break from i guess is not that great.

    On thing i am not clear on is. What is the moment that signifies making the decision not to drink again. If rock bottom is not necessary, or the years of pain and misery being strikingly obvious, what then does it come down to? A decision? What is a decision? Is a one off thing or is a decision a thing to be made over and over in each moment.

    What was different about your experience in the monastery compared to your other stints at sobriety?

    1. Hi Rob, this is what I’ll be talking about in future articles, but basically we reach a point where we decide we’ve had enough. It is then that we make the decision to quit and afterwards it becomes a case of sticking to this – we do not have to make the decision over and over again because drinking just becomes something we do not do anymore. The problem that most of us have is how do we reach this point of complete surrender. We may develop the dangerous notion that we need to wait until some special day arrives when we are ready. The answer is to make ourselves reach that point of surrender now and take a leap of faith. We do this by completely letting go of alcohol and becoming 100% willing to do whatever it takes to get sober.There are also tools we can use to help us now and in the future – simple things like mindfulness and journaling. The fact that we are now completely willing means that we will consider anything and we won’t reject anything out of hand. Some people will need plenty of support in early sobriety so they will benefit from something like Alcoholics Anonymous, but this is not something that works for everyone. Another key ingredient is that we have complete faith in the following three ideas:

      – we can change
      – We deserve better
      – If we stay sober our life will keep on getting better

      The monastery turned out to be the perfect solution for me but only because I was ready. I believe that when the student is ready the teacher appears. I know other people who went to the temple, and it did not work for them. The key to my success was that for the first time in my life I was completely willing to change.

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