Why is it so Hard for Habitual Drinkers to Just Stop Drinking?

Help! to Stop Drinking , Message in a bottle

How the Little Voice works

Full disclosure:

Everything that follows is my personal opinion. Feel free to throw rocks, but if you don’t mind, pick small ones with rounded edges. Pillows would be good!

The human mind is associative. Our thoughts and experiences create associations in memory.


When I was very young, we went to visit an uncle who lived on a farm. On the way we drove by a skunk that had been hit and killed a bit earlier. Now, every time I smell a dead skunk I think of my uncle’s farm.

Eight times seven => fifty six.

It’s five PM => Let’s have a drink.

Mental associations have various strengths. A child just learning their “multiplication facts” has a hard time remembering 8 times 7 = 56, and even if they do, they may have problems with 7 times 8. Two things which make mental associations stronger are: repetition and reinforcement.

Drinkers have both.

When we’re drinking, we tend to repeat: The same drink or kinds of drinks, the same settings, the same times, the same “logic”. Our alcoholic “high” reinforces our behavior. Not surprisingly, these associations become firmly embedded. It’s five PM, and we want a drink, badly, and almost automatically.

I call these strong associations “mental ruts”, because they act like deep ruts in a dirt road. Riding a bike across a rut filled road is very difficult, because every time you come to a rut your bike twists to follow it.

What to do?


Drum roll.

Here’s The Main Point:

It is impossible to “break” strong mental associations; You can only replace them with new associations which, over time, become stronger and “take over” from the old ones.


Understand that your Little Voice is really some association that has been triggered in your mind, like my dead skunk

Keep an eye on yourself, and make a list of the associations. They can be times, places, people, feelings.

If you have stopped drinking repeatedly and then fallen back into it, you may be surprised to find that success in not drinking is associated in your mind with drinking, the I deserve a reward” association.

A complete list of your associations with drinking amounts to a list of your Little Voice’s best “lines”. He uses them because they have worked in the past, but they are not valid or good, they are just associations.

Just say, “No!” Avoid repeating your old drinking behavior as much as possible. Pavlov’s dogs taught us that reinforcing an old association, even one time in ten or twenty, is enough to keep it going.

Organize your life to avoid these associations:

Don’t go to the old pub. Plan something at 5 PM, like going for a walk, what will make it inconvenient or impossible to drink.

Make new associations. Put new things and activities in your life. It is MUCH easier to move into new interests and activities than it is to try to stop drinking while keeping everything the same. That just gives your Little Voice a lot of free time to hit you with one old, dysfunctional association after another.

Some new associations work by directly replacing old ones. “I’m down, so I drink” can be replaced directly by, “I’m down, so I will do my stretching exercises.”

Some new associations work by giving us a whole new direction. Training for a 5k, or getting into quilting or ham radio doesn’t directly oppose our old behavior, but it does take away its energy, putting it toward new and better things.

Work to be mentally “engaged”. If we are thinking about what we are doing, there is less mental “room” for the Little Voice to work.


Try NOT to think about elephants for the next 30 seconds. Almost impossible.

But, most of the time we are not thinking about elephants, because we are thinking about something else. If our mind is “idling” – watching TV or sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves – our Little Voice has room to work. If we are learning ballroom dancing or studying French we shut him out.


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This poem was composed by Floss The author of  The Runaway Train   and many more poems that have helped her stick to sober one expressed rather than swallowed word at a time

The Elephant in the Room Boozemusings Blog

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Guide to your First Month of Sobriety : Why and How to Quit

Posts from Inside the BOOM Community :

Why I Drank Last Night
Staying Sober Without AA
Filling the Hole

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