I recently heard an interview with a man who’d quit drinking four years earlier after decades of heavy drinking. “So basically I’m now an emotional 17-year-old, since I started drinking when I was 13.” This feeling of emotional immaturity rings true for many people who have given up addictions. When I quit drinking, I didn’t feel like an adolescent—I’d been successful in many areas of my life even while knocking back too much wine—but neither did I feel quite like a grown-up no matter what my birth certificate or my mirror claimed.
This cut in two directions. The first was a kind of voluntary emotional immaturity, also known as Finding Reasons to Drink: Wow, I really need to pick up some wine because that was the 2,798th most stressful day I’ve ever had! Tonight will be more fun if I pop a cork to celebrate the fact that it’s an obscure holiday in another country! I can’t believe that person I sort-of work with disagreed with me on a minor point, so I’d better blow it out of proportion while I give myself a hangover! Even the more serious versions of such statements are relatively easy to dispute when motivated to do so, and SMART—both its informational resources and the members of its online community—can help someone who wants to give up an addiction deal with the addictive voice that some people call “the salesman” and one SMART participant calls “the skank.” Not easy (when my inner wino wants wine, she really wants wine), but relatively easy.
Over time, though, I’ve had to deal with the more complex work involved in the third point of SMART’s four-point program: managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Many of my defenses, coping strategies, reactions, and ways of negotiating through life had become intricately tangled with drinking. Speaking in public without a glass of wine to loosen my tongue was terrifying, I had no idea what to do with myself when I got home from really bad day, and I didn’t even know how to celebrate good news without poisoning myself.
Fortunately for me, SMART doesn’t simply say “abstain and then lean on the program” but rather offers each person a set of science-backed tools, approaches, and resources to choose from. Some of these fall into the category of mindfulness. Others derive from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) research and themselves have additional acronyms. But don’t be scared off by the alphabet soup; most of the techniques are straightforward. A lot of them come down to what some people call “reality checking” and simply involve bringing some rational questions and ways of thinking to the unexamined assumptions and irrational conclusions that can get us into trouble. It may take some practice to implement the tools, but they are accessible and the community offers wisdom and support along the way.
Navigating an emotional and cognitive terrain landscaped across years of using drinking as an all-occasion coping mechanism was and remains crucial—not just to hanging onto my status as a nondrinker but to thriving as a happy nondrinker. And the point of changing, as well as its reward, is not abstaining for its own sake but to live a richer, better life. It’s possible I would have figured some of this out on my own—or not—but SMART made the process a lot more pleasant.
Elspeth has been a member of SMART Recovery for about 14 months. She is a writer interested in fitness and nutrition.