5 Steps Alcoholics Can Take To Stop Drinking – On Their Terms

I go public in every Psychopharmacology seminar that I teach by stating that I don’t treat substance abuse in any manifestation. It’s noble work, and for those of you doing it, my hat is off to you. It’s not for me though. That famous line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – “to thine own self be true” – defines why I wouldn’t be good at it. Substance abuse is fraught with manipulation, deception, denial and minimizing. Extracting the truth from a substance abuser is a yeoman’s task for the treating professional. Doing this type of work requires an inordinate amount of patience as the clinician attempts to sift through layers of deceit to determine if the abuser has the motivation to jettison the recklessness that is defining their lives. I’m not wired in such a way to manage these treatment challenges effectively, so I don’t accept these patients.

I have however given considerable thought to how abusers can help themselves – whether they seek professional assistance or not. My comments and suggestions below focus on alcohol abuse, but can be applied to any drug or behavior for that matter, with abuse potential. So as an outsider looking in, here goes:

Step One: Ask, “Do I Really Have a Problem?” Our contemporary recovery culture has set the bar for being an alcoholic very low (much in the same way it has for depression, I might add). Anyone who can have one or two drinks and then return to the activities that define their daily living is almost certainly not an alcoholic. If none of their friends or trusted colleagues has ever pulled them aside and mentioned that their life would be much improved if they quit drinking, they’re probably not an alcoholic. If they can drink without their life going into the toilet, they shouldn’t allow anyone to even attempt to stop them.

Step Two: Tell Key People in Their Life That They Have a Problem and Are Trying to Fix It. It’s possible to get sober without spilling one’s guts at AA meetings. It’s impossible to quit drinking in secret. Alcoholics are very bad at turning down the opportunity to drink, and the world around them is replete with opportunities – cocktail parties, weddings, happy hours, birthdays and wakes. And as an alcoholic, they will seek out these opportunities and give into them. So the alcoholic has to enlist the support of trusted people in their lives by telling them about their problem and how they are trying to fix it. These key people are the ones who will be the alcoholic’s greatest allies pursuant to quitting.

Step Three:  Initial Failure May be a Step Toward Future Success. Falling off the wagon doesn’t have to be a harbinger of doom. If the alcoholic messes up once, this should be embraced as part of the human condition. They get one mulligan and shouldn’t feel the need to share that one failure with anyone. They should soul search why this happened and make a personal vow not to do it again. Screwing up twice though means they’ve got to go public with that failure. Friends and loved ones will likely offer support and praise for being honest. The alcoholic should take that praise and redouble their efforts.

Step Four: Quit Apologizing. The alcoholic will never be able to make adequate amends to those he or she has wronged. Talk is cheap and we all know how much more loudly actions speak. The best amends any alcoholic can make is to stay on the wagon – assuming they’re really sorry for how they’ve behaved.

Step Five: Figure Out What was Enjoyable About Drinking and How to Keep Those Things Alive Through Sobriety. No alcoholic becomes a different person merely by becoming sober. Their core personality remains; they’re just not using alcohol any longer to feel differently and perceive the world in a dissociative state. Anything done while inebriated can be done while sober. An alcoholic who had a streak for adventure, enjoyed dating or making others laugh for example, can keep those very same traits and pursuits alive through sobriety.

Those who drink too much have to figure out the causes for this and how the better aspects of their character can be pressed into service to aid in their recovery.


Joseph Wegmann, R.Ph., LCSW is a licensed clinical pharmacist and a clinical social worker with more than thirty years of experience in the field of psychopharmacology. His diverse professional background in psychopharmacology and counseling affords him a unique perspective on medication management issues. In addition to consulting with numerous psychiatric facilities, he has presented psychopharmacology seminars to thousands of clinicians in 46 states.

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