Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Trigger: Not Just Roy Rogers' Horse

In recovery, we spend a lot of time talking about triggers - events, feelings or situations that can prompt a craving, or a feeling of wanting to drink. In early sobriety, for me, they were everywhere. As I left my final treatment, the counselors gave me this advice: "the only thing you have to change is everything."

If you've ever tried to quit or cut back on something you love that is bad for you - like overeating, or cigarettes - you know how routine can trigger a craving. If you smoke cigarettes on your daily commute, your desire to smoke when you're in your car is elevated. If you like to eat while you watch your nightly television, settling in to watch a show will prompt the desire to snack.

For me it was the same with alcohol; I was a creature of habit. There was a consistency to what triggered me. In the early days of drinking, it was the end of the day - or perhaps more accurately, five o'clock. Despite the fact that I would start thinking about my first drink around 3pm, I felt that "normal" people drank at five o'clock, so that is what I did, too. As my disease progressed, triggers became more frequent. Confrontation or any negative emotion made me want to drink. I couldn't imagine attending any social situation without the help of alcohol, my liquid courage. If I was bored, or stressed - I felt like a drink would make me feel better. But, of course, as time went on there was no such thing as one drink.

As I slipped into physical addiction to alcohol - without, incredibly, even knowing it - a drink became the only way to quell the near constant anxiety I felt. I lived in fear that my dirty secret would be discovered, I felt physically awful most of the time, and drinking made these feelings stop, if only temporarily. Kind of like putting a band-aid over a bullet hole, but it was my only coping mechanism.

In early recovery, I was advised to stay away from situations and places that made me want to drink. No small task, because by the time I stopped just about everything made me want to drink. I was a secret drinker, so reminders of alcohol were all over my house. I had to drive by liquor stores I used to frequent all the time. And I was still full of anxiety and fear: my biggest triggers.

So I changed everything. I drove long, circuitous routes around town to pick up my kids from school, so I wouldn't have to drive by a liquor store. I started going in a different front door of my house. I mucked out closets and cabinets, rearranged furniture. When five o'clock came, I would talk to another recovering alcoholic or go to a meeting. Little by little, I found my new normal. The anxiety eased, I physically felt better, and I was slowly filling up the hole alcoholism had left in my life with new friends, a network of people in recovery, and a sense of hope.

And now? The triggers are still there, and I don't always know what they will be. It usually isn't something most people would expect would be a trigger, like a party, or the sight of alcohol. It is sneakier than that. For instance, I discovered that the time change triggered me. I used to love it when it got darker earlier, because drinking after the sun went down felt more 'normal' somehow. Being sick is a big trigger. It was my old cure for any physical ailment - headache? have a drink. Body aches? have a drink. I enjoy going to parties now, and being around other people who are drinking doesn't bother me. As an evening progresses, though, and there is that subtle shift in the atmosphere of the room, as people loosen up and get a little tipsy - I make my exit.

I no longer resent the fact that the cravings come. For a long while, I would get frustrated, thinking: shouldn't I be past this by now? Now I understand it is part of the disease; I can't expect that the cravings will stop. I am more forgiving of myself when this happens. I recognize when my disease is talking to me. That little voice that says: go ahead, take the edge off. One won't hurt. This is why recovery is a day-at-a-time deal. I never know when these thoughts will come. The trick is to keep my other voice, my Recovery Voice, stronger. "Yes, it will hurt," that Voice says. "It will hurt you, and everyone who loves you." I think through the drink, as I hear over and over in recovery. I try to stay grateful for everything I have now.

And best of all? I don't do this alone. I couldn't do it alone. I have amazing, strong, funny, smart, loving people all around me. I have more than I ever could have imagined. So even when it is tough, even when things aren't going well, I lean on my support system to see me through. And they always do.


  1. I remember early in sobriety laying on my bed one day wanting to fix everything with a six pack of beer. I was not in AA then. That gaping hole - the one we think is a drink will fix it hole, or shopping will fix it hole or eating will fix it really a God shaped hole and it was only by the grace of God that I didn't go and try to fill it with something else that day.

    So glad to be journeying with you.

  2. Oh, thank you for this my solution to getting past the liquor store (1 1/2 blocks from my house, if I stand in my yard I can see it) was to call my sponsor when I left work, and stay on the phone with her until I got home. Funny that it worked, because I COULD have just hung up the phone and walked down the block, but it DID work...:) Now I've been unemployed since May, still no work, stressors all over the place, yet I have such a sense of peace - no more vague sense of impending doom... hooray!

  3. Thanks for the post El. As someone who as you probably know had anorexia when I was young, I easily fall into REALLY not wanting to eat especially when badly depressed, feeling abandoned. Obviously that is a real challenge considering my chronic condition.

  4. Your post reminded me of an Oprah show I watched a few years ago on women who drink. One of the mum's said that she didn't have a drinking problem because she never drank before 5pm and she only ever had two drinks if she was alone with her kids. The "expert" on the show said that still meant she had a problem, because people who don't have a problem, don't have "RULES" for their drinking.

    This was an insightful statement that stays with me today.

    I don't know much about alcoholism, but I know a lot about anxiety, so all the best for your future of sobriety.


  5. Tammy - great comment, thank you. One of the best things I've heard, for people who may have a problem with alcohol was this: "when you control it, you can't enjoy it -- and when you enjoy it, you can't control it."

  6. When I was in treatment, I had to make a list of triggers. A list of things that were not my triggers would have been much shorter. In fact, thinking about it now, I think everything was a trigger for me because it was my brain. I can relate to the time change as being a trigger. I even liked when the time changed in the Spring because that meant I could drink "normally" an hour earlier in the day. Cold winter days were great days to drink, as were warm sunny days. I bought my alcohol at the grocery store. The sight of all the bottles of wine can still take my breath away some days. Now that the holidays are here, they have even more random displays of beer and wine in places I wouldn't expect, like the bread aisle. That's why staying in the middle of the bed in AA is so important to me. My disease could push me out at any given moment. I love that I found your site!

  7. While my problems aren't alcohol-related, I do have certain issues that respond to specific triggers and understand exactly how hard it is to predict when they're going to jump out and catch you. It's interesting for me to note that seeing the title of this post from time to time as I'm checking your website, my heart skips a little beat every time I see the word "Trigger" up in bold letters.

  8. Ellie very timely - thank you!