Just one drink

I’ve been doing so well…

Can’t I just drink one? 

This is a common issue in alcohol addiction recovery. People in early sobriety get a few days, weeks, or even months “under their belt”, and begin to feel really good for the first time in awhile. That feeling can be exhilarating. You may finally feel like you’ve got things under control again. The problems in your life that were caused by drinking have either lessened or vanished completely. It’s around this time people begin to say things like, “I’ve been doing so well, can’t I just drink one?” 

After all, if your life feels back in order, surely one beer or drink won’t derail that, right? You addressed the issues that were seemingly caused by the excessive drinking, and now it just seems natural to get back to normal, and “normal people” drink without consequences all the time. 

Here’s why this is a problem

The idea that normal people drink without consequences is a myth. Drinking causes dehydration, headaches, taxes your liver and other internal organs, it makes your experience of life fuzzy, even if only for a few hours. There are consequences to any amount of drinking, for any person, they may just not appear to be that tough to deal with. Second, if we’re labeling “normal people” as those that have never been addicted to alcohol, then these are people who don’t have ingrained habit loops around drinking. They may be able to drink one night and not again for weeks, months, or even years. It simply doesn’t turn into anything more. 

What are ingrained habit loops? 

Think about the last time you tied your shoes. Did you have to think about how to tie them? Did you have to recite a poem to get the loops knotted correctly? Likely not. Most of us have tied our shoes so many times that all you have to do is stick your feet into shoes and the rest comes automatically. Our brain knows that tying just automatically follows putting on shoes with laces. This seems obvious, right? 

Habit loops exist because our brains are always looking for shortcuts. Your brain knows what to do when you pick up a toothbrush, get in the shower, or drive to work because you’ve done it so many times it has made a habit loop for you to follow without much effort required from you. It makes life easier, and frees up mental space for you to start thinking about or working on something else. 

But sometimes, it makes habit loops around things that aren’t necessarily helpful to you. Because this part of your brain doesn’t judge your actions as “good” or “bad”, it only notices when you do something repeatedly, and tries to cut down on the brainpower needed for that in the future. This means if you have a well-worn habit loop around drinking, your brain will notice when you have a beer in your hand, and immediately attempt to repeat whatever it was that you did in the past. 

Just like riding a bike

You know how you can get on a bike after 10 years, and after a few rusty pedals, you’re off to the races like you were ten years old again? Those habit loops are so well established, you don’t even need to have ridden a bike recently to know exactly how to balance, pedal, or steer. Your brain just takes over and away you go! Now think about how long you have been drinking, or how long you drank in the past. Maybe it was every weekend or just during football season, but you made a habit loop. Your brain connected drinking one with drinking X many more, or for X many nights, and your brain wants nothing more than to complete the loop for you so you don’t have to think about it. 

This is exactly why people are so surprised at their inability to stop at just one drink or just one day. They intellectually know better now, but their habit-loving brain wasn’t a part of that thought process. It takes immense levels of awareness and concentration to the moment: how you feel, what you’re thinking, what you’re doing, in order to pull yourself out of auto-pilot and pay attention in order to stop at just one drink, tie your shoes in a new way, or brush your teeth in a different order. And guess what alcohol is good at obscuring? Awareness of the present moment, the very thing you need in order to not be on auto-pilot! 

If you’re questioning, the answer is no

This is why we always say to our clients, “if you’re questioning whether or not you are able to handle drinking just one drink, or one time, then the answer is no.” Where there is uncertainty, there is the possibility that you will fall right back into old habit loops and drink way more than you planned. If there is even the slightest bit of uncertainty that drinking may be a bad idea for you, then that means the option for it to be a bad idea is still on the table, and you should bypass that table altogether. 

Back to our shoelace analogy, if there were any doubt in your mind that you would remember how to tie your shoes, or more importantly, that tying your shoes might somehow be unhealthy for you, you’d think twice about tying them. But since you know that tying your shoes is fine, that your laces have never caused you harm (at least while being tied properly!), you don’t question whether or not you should tie them. You just do it. It is that certainty that you will be fine, that this is useful, that prevents the need to consider whether or not tying your shoes is “okay”. 

If you don’t have that same level of certainty about drinking, that same awareness and confidence that toasting your daughter at her wedding with champagne or having a beer at a football game will absolutely not cause you any long term effect, then the answer should be no. You aren’t ready to “tie one on”. And that is perfectly okay. Maybe that day will come where you are no longer stuck on autopilot where drinking is concerned. Maybe you never will. But understanding why drinking just one can take you places you never meant to tread again may prevent you from fooling yourself into filling that glass again. And your brain will find new habits to celebrate instead. 

If you’re curious about sobriety or ready to put down the glass for good, call Reed at 800-556-2966 to see if Centered’s mindfulness based recovery program is right for you.