When someone has a concern about their own drinking or drug use, they tend to ask whether they are an “alcoholic.” For many people, being an alcoholic is an extreme category that applies only to people whose lives have clearly been destroyed by alcohol.
For example, many people will tell you they are not alcoholic because they don’t drink before 5:00 p.m., even though their drinking after 5:00 is clearly out of control and highly destructive. Not asking questions about your use of alcohol or drugs before wondering if you are an alcoholic or addict is like waiting until you have stage four lung cancer and then asking your oncologist for a prognosis. Cancer is detectable far earlier than that, and your prognosis is a lot better if you start asking different questions much earlier.
For alcohol and other substances, a more helpful starting place is to look at your relationship with this substance. What role does the substance play in your life? How does it impact your life, and in what ways is your use of this substance creating problems in your life?
Habits are an inevitable part of life.
They not only help us to live more efficiently, they are comforting as well. Most of us follow a consistent pattern in our morning ritual; bathing, dressing and eating in a particular order. There is a long-forgotten rationale for this sequence, but we do not consider the problem anew each morning, re-evaluating the most efficient sequence, or gauging our internal readiness to bathe, dress or eat. It might be more authentic to reconsider the sequence of our morning tasks each day; on the other hand, we might never get to work on time.
While habits are essential, they become problematic to the extent that they separate us from our lives. I would like to suggest that any habitual pattern of substance use that restricts your capacity to experience life fully and compromises your quality of life is problematic use.
For example, the person who has a cocktail at 5:00 p.m. daily is unlikely to think of himself as an alcoholic because he never drinks before 5:00 and rarely has more than that one drink. However, having even one drink at 5:00 p.m. every day can be problematic use if it creates separations between you and the ongoing experience of your life, such as avoiding any evening social event where alcohol is not available, or telling your son to wait to play catch until you finish your drink.
In the same way, watching the news every night at 6:00 p.m. can be problematic if your wife greets you at the door at 5:55 with a bottle of wine and says that he has arranged for the kids to play next door so that you can have some private time together and you ask her to wait until after the news.
One of the best ways to stimulate change and revitalize your life is to periodically experiment with suspending some of the habits in your life. Suspending a habit is not a test of your will power, it’s just an experiment to help you learn more about yourself. You cannot fail an experiment. This is not an attempt to “break” a habit, because attempting to break a habit is just going to war with yourself, and when you go to war with yourself all the casualties are on your side.
For example, if you want to know if your drinking is a problem, try experimenting with not drinking for thirty days and pay close attention to your experience. If you want to know if watching television is a problem, experiment with unplugging it for thirty days and pay attention to your experience. The more resistant and anxious you are about suspending a particular habit; the more likely it is that your habit is a problem.
At the end of the thirty days, you will have a lot more information about the role this habit plays in your life, and then you will have the opportunity to make some fresh choices about the role you want this habit to play in your life.
For example, you may find that your life has not changed considerably after thirty days of not drinking, that you do not miss it much, and your ability to live your life fully is not greatly impacted by your use of alcohol. In this case, you may conclude that your use of alcohol is not habitual and decide to continue your current relationship with alcohol.
On the other hand, if after you have turned off the television for thirty days you find your relationship with your kids is noticeably improved and your sexual relationship with your wife is re-energized, you may conclude that your television watching habits are problematic. You may decide to stop watching all together or try a new experiment of watching less often to see what more you can learn.
Good luck with whatever you decide to experiment with. Even if you end up not changing a thing, you are bound to learn a lot about yourself.
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