We all have triggers. It might be a situation or an emotion; a sight, sound or smell; a holiday or a time of day. Something that our brain learned over time to associate with our addictive behavior, and that it needs to unlearn as we start to break that connection. For me, it was cocktail receptions. They weren’t the only situation I associated with drinking – far from it – but they were one of the toughest. At the end of a long day at a conference, having watched what felt like 11,000 nearly-identical presentations in a row (and gulping down way too much coffee in order to stay alert) those clinking glasses and twinkling lights exerted a powerful pull. And the few times I ‘slipped’ after I quit (fortunately, one-drink slips) were at cocktail receptions. After the second time it happened, I knew I had to confront the situation…by avoiding it.
When I first quit drinking, the idea of skipping conference receptions didn’t even occur to me. That’s where all the networking happened – not at the formal sessions – and I couldn’t miss out. But when I was honest with myself, and admitted that a big part of the allure was the free wine, I realized there were plenty of other ways to network. Chatting with people at the start or end of a session, for instance, or over lunch and during breaks. The past few conferences, many of my best conversations have taken place in the coffee line. And even if there hadn’t been any other options, was any conversation – no matter how good – worth risking my health?
The first time I decided to skip the reception to avoid the urges, I crawled up to my hotel room and spent the evening feeling sorry for myself because I ‘couldn’t’ drink. The next night I went for a swim in the hotel pool, then ordered room service – a much better idea.
After avoiding a couple of receptions in a row, I felt stronger and decided to test the waters. I figured I would get a glass of soda as soon as I arrived so I wasn’t standing around empty-handed, in danger of being offered a drink by a passing waiter. But as I waited in line, watching a dozen people step up to the bar and order a glass of wine, I could feel my resolve weakening. So I fled. Back to my room, where I changed into my sneakers and went for a walk in the warm summer evening; such a relief after spending the day shivering in air-conditioned conference halls.
Avoidance and escape worked fine for a while, but deep down, I knew that it wasn’t simply the cocktail reception vibe (the clinking glasses and twinkling lights) that was so hard for me to endure. The ABC tool that SMART recommends has been a lifesaver for me, so I tried applying it to this situation. The activating event was clear: the reception that evening. And as I pictured myself walking into the room, the beliefs became clear as well:
Nobody will talk to me.
I won’t come up with anything intelligent to say, and I’ll sound like an idiot.
People will notice that I’m alone, that nobody’s talking to me, and they’ll think I’m a loser.
These are familiar fears, ones I’ve carried since childhood. While I’ve largely tamed them, situations that provoke anxiety – like walking into a room full of strangers – can sometimes put wind in their sails. So, I wrote down the evidence to the contrary, thinking about how much I enjoy talking to other people, how I handle myself very well in conversation, and how standing by myself (even if it happens) doesn’t make me a ‘loser.’ Disputing these irrational beliefs is extremely helpful for me, so when I catch these thoughts sneaking up on me again I do a quick ABC in my hotel room, the coffee shop, restroom, elevator (I’ve used them all) and feel the anxious thoughts deflate.
Distraction and absorption
Thanks to these tools, my brain is unlearning the ‘conference reception = drinking’ connection. I still feel a little nervous right beforehand, but I know what it’s about, so these days, I walk in with the intention of finding something or someone absorbing. At the conferences I attend, receptions take place during poster sessions full of people who want nothing more than the chance to tell another person about their research. Some are more interesting than others, of course, but I’ve learned amazing things about subjects I didn’t even know existed and met many wonderful people. Best of all, I’ve had the chance to encourage many an anxious graduate student, presenting at their very first conference, afraid that they won’t explain their research right or that nobody will want to talk to them. I’m happy to be their audience.
Chapter 4 of the SMART Recovery Handbook has an excellent list of tools and techniques for coping with urges.
nwgal is a SMART volunteer who lives in the Seattle area with her husband and four cats.