A couple of weeks ago, I changed the passcode on my iPhone. For most of that same day I repeatedly hit the old numbers when attempting to access my phone. By evening, I was getting the code correct about two out of every three attempts. By the second day, I had it nailed and was no longer pressing the old numbers. Randomly, a few days later, my brain shifted back to operate upon its memory of the old passcode – I suddenly remembered I’d changed it and deleted my first, incorrect, effort. Now, I never think of the old numbers and have to really concentrate to remember what they were.
This little exercise in rewiring the mind made me think about quitting drinking. I had been using the original passcode on my iPhone for just a few months but it still took a while for my brain to adopt the new numbers sufficiently until it was able to act on autopilot. But with regards to drinking, I started that little habit when I was thirteen years old and continued apace until I hit my mid-thirties. That’s twenty-two years of regular and frequent consumption of an addictive substance – and not surprisingly it took a damn sight longer than a few days to put things right.
Over the last three and a half years, I have rewired my thinking patterns completely. How so? I’ve managed this by avoiding alcohol at every turn. In the first year, it was tough. My brain automatically leapt to thoughts of crisp, cold glasses of pinot grigio whenever I felt depressed, stressed, angry or bored. Socialising without alcohol took at least eighteen months to become accustomed to. Reaching the weekend and not experiencing the overwhelming desire to get rip-roaring drunk; that little tradition took a very long time to bypass.
But eventually, and without any fanfare or celebration, I began to recognise how much I’ve changed and how far I’ve come since my last alcoholic drink in April 2011. The immediate reaction of craving booze in numerous situations ceased to occur. Alternative coping strategies opened themselves up to me, and started to become my new norm.
How adaptable our brains are, if we only give them the opportunity to grow used to a new way of living. How reassuring to know that it is possible to be free from the once-tireless chatter of the booze demons, as long as we are able to take a leap of faith and trust that things can, and will, be different.
I am a big believer in total abstinence for those, like me, who cannot moderate their alcohol consumption. By practising abstinence, the brain’s neurological pathways are able to form a whole new set of habits, and over time, these will take root until they are engrained, becoming a part of who we are.
It’s worth reminding yourself that forming new habits will take a little time in order to ensure you don’t throw the towel in when miracles don’t appear instantly – it’s an internal battle worth fighting, though, and one day you’ll wake up and realise things are very, very different.