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Staying sober more of a challenge than getting sober

I’ve heard the same or at least a similar question several times in the past few weeks from those who recently entered recovery. It goes something like this:

“I don’t have any desire to drink right now, but I’m thinking about going to my [sister’s, parent’s, friend’s] house this weekend where they’ll be partying as usual. They say they’re proud of me and wouldn’t push a drink on me. Should I go? I can’t isolate myself or disregard my [family, friends] just because I don’t drink.”

So let’s talk about relapse and relapse prevention, because this is really the topic. Alcoholism is a thinking disorder manifested by the singular ability to rationalize drinking alcohol (or the use of other substances). Stopping drinking is the first step in a process of uncovering the mental irregularities and emotional twists that have supported this behavior. Stopping the drinking is a good and necessary start for recovery, but that is all it is. The real problem is staying stopped.

Thinking just because someone doesn’t want a drink right now somehow provides safety from drinking later is faulty thinking. Most alcoholics could “swear off” for a periods of time – days, weeks, months or sometimes years – only to have the unbidden thought that since they hadn’t had a drink in that amount of time, one drink wouldn’t hurt. After that first drink, for the alcoholic, all bets are off.

Alcoholics are told quite plainly, “it’s the first drink, not the last, that gets you drunk.”

So my answer is, although it might seem over-protective and feel like isolation right now, the priority should be to recognize the danger – not of “accidentally” picking up a drink, but the thinking that surrounds the need to be in a drinking situation. My suggestion usually is to talk first to an AA sponsor, and if the there is a good reason to be at the event besides “I just want to,” then go, but take a sober friend.

• Richard Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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