The “Why” Matters: On Motivation (by Elspeth)

Ijogging on beach’ve never crashed a car or received a DUI, never drunk while pregnant, never been fired from a job, never punched someone in a bar, and never set the house on fire. My marriage is long and happy, my daughter excels at school and is socially happy, and I have a successful career in an competitive field. Yet I was also a lush for twenty years, and wine increasingly eroded my productivity as well as my enjoyment of daily life. Most bothersome, wine—drinking it, planning around it, figuring out how to get enough of it, recovering from it—was a squatter on my psychic landscape. Its role in my life had grown too large, but (like many people who drink too much to cope with stress), I found it difficult to moderate. “In for a glass, in for a bottle” was my usual approach. I didn’t identify with the word alcoholic, at least not as a label of who I am, but I knew I needed to quit drinking in order to preserve the other things I am. Still, I found it difficult to maintain the motivation to quit for more than a month-long “liver holiday” now and again.


One of the appealing things about SMART Recovery is that it doesn’t insist you have to hit “rock bottom” to know that your life could be better.

(Why should someone have to ruin a life in order to save that life?) After joining online, I began with an exercise called the cost-benefit analysis, which is simply four lists enumerating the advantages and disadvantages of drinking and of not drinking. All four are important, which you can read more about on SMART’s website, but I was initially motivated most by the “costs of drinking.” After all, that’s what drives most addicts to take action: they are experiencing negative consequences. As I’ve said, mine weren’t of the super-scary, rock-bottom variety, but cumulatively they were persuasive: headaches endured, money spent, sleep quality eroded, time wasted, workouts skipped, conversations misremembered, health risks elevated, books unread, and so on.


Even more helpful in maintaining motivation over time, though, has been my “benefits of not drinking” list. This list grows longer and more detailed every week, and the process of revising and adding to the list has helped me experience life without wine as liberating and empowering rather than as punishing and self-abnegating. A key question: Who do I get to be without alcohol?


I’m a regular participant in SMART’s online forum, and there I have encountered people who have used their freedom from addiction to reclaim careers and hobbies and others who have embarked on new adventures, becoming avid photographers or cyclists or moving into higher-paying or more satisfying jobs. People (some of whom experienced far worse consequences from their addictions than I did) are running marathons, taking up pottery, and starting new and happy relationships. They are living lives that have less room for alcohol—and lives worth protecting from relapse. It’s a non-vicious cycle of positive motivation.


Of course major transformations aren’t complete the instant you leave the cork in the bottle. Life can even be harder at first, because you are actually dealing with stuff instead of escaping from it. The motivation to change can feel weakest when the memory of your last hangover fades and your new life isn’t yet sparkly—or even just when life’s normal obstacles and irritations crop up. It’s during such times that I turn for motivation to the seemingly minor items on my benefits list, from “better skin” to “more likely to crave salad than a Mexican combo platter.” This morning was gorgeous, and I took my dogs for a long walk. In my pre-liberation days, the sun would have made my head pound, I would have avoided eye contact with friendly neighbors, and the highlight of my dogs’ day would have been abbreviated as I pulled their leashes to hurry home. Today it went like this: I noticed the particular blueness of sky, the freshness of the air, the unusual song of a bird, the pleasure my dogs took in the smells along our route. These, too, are reasons not to drink, and I thank myself and SMART Recovery for such things every day.


Elspeth has been a member of SMART Recovery for 12 months. She is a writer interested in fitness and nutrition.

This article was originally posted May 19, 2015.

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