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Why Does it Take So Long to Stop Drinking?

A woman in a green top wearing a watch and wondering about timeImage via Allef Vinicius/Unsplash

In a 2001 study published by the JAMA Psychiatry journal, experts found that it takes someone with substance use disorder an average of a decade between the onset of symptoms and the initiation of treatment.

Ten years. 

A large number of people who struggle with addiction and find recovery would likely say that they wish they’d found recovery sooner rather than later.

Though that number is shrinking and people are finding recovery sooner, said the study, it’s unclear as to why. It could be more access to care or reduced stigma. It could be that people are more aware of the dangers alcohol presents. 

One thing is clear though: there are myriad reasons why it might take someone a long time to quit drinking. So if you’re wondering to yourself “Why does it take so long to stop drinking?”, there may be some answers. Here are five reasons that may be why it takes so long to stop drinking.

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1. The initial dopamine hit alcohol provides.

Let’s face it: most of us didn’t pick up alcohol because we hated it. Most people pick up drinking because they have a positive reaction. 

We turn to alcohol, again and again, says Ruby Mehta, Director of Clinical Operations at Tempest, because once our brains get a taste of that dopamine hit, we just want more. 

“It actually takes your brain some time after you stop drinking to readjust your pleasure center to where you find pleasure from everyday joys again.”

That’s right—alcohol literally has the power to change your brain chemistry, and not in a good way. That means that things that normally cause a release of dopamine, things that might have made a person happy before alcohol—exercise, good music, dancing, having a laugh with friends—might not have the same effect after that person starts using alcohol instead. 

The “come down” from alcohol is a hard transition while the brain reprograms itself, which can make staying sober difficult. 

“Because things may seem flat without alcohol for a period of months, people struggle to give it up,” Mehta says.

2. Drinking is socially acceptable.

From sorority life to mom life, drinking is a socially acceptable—and encouraged—means of having fun and relieving stress, says Dr. Nichola Marchant, Chartered Clinical Psychologist and Sex Therapist in Ambergate, England.

“(Alcohol) is absolutely everywhere and social media is full of jokey memes about using alcohol to cope with the stresses of everyday life (particularly during the pandemic) and as a celebration,” she says.

And because it is everywhere, glamorized, and normalized, problem drinking isn’t really noticeable, at least on a societal level, until the consequences are so great that they raise cause for alarm. That makes it much harder to notice when drinking is becoming a problem on a personal level.

“It’s hard to recognize the problem when everyone around you is behaving similarly until the consequences get large,” Mehta says. 

Small consequences like a hangover or overspending at a bar, she continues, are considered “normal” behavior and are oftentimes written off as rites of passage. When it comes to mental health, drinking is often touted as a salve, even though research shows again and again that alcohol use perpetuates further mental health complications (such as alcohol’s impact on anxiety). 

When such behavior is considered normal, quitting drinking doesn’t seem necessary.

3. The stigma and shame associated with addiction.

Even though alcohol use is accepted in society, addiction is stigmatized, which creates what Dr. Marchant calls a complicated relationship.

“The message is that everyone drinks and that drinking is fun and necessary. However, when drinking becomes problematic we often turn the other cheek,” she explains. “Drinking problems are ignored or minimized until they reach crisis proportions, and then we often feel disgusted that someone has become reliant on alcohol.”

This dichotomy, she said, means when drinking becomes a problem, people often try to hide it for fear of judgment and retaliation from family and friends. 

This said, Mehta, can delay seeking help.

“There is the internalized shame of feeling that your drinking is out of control and blaming yourself for doing harmful things when we believe we ‘should’ be able to control our drinking,” Mehta says. “Sometimes this shame is so hard to bear that our body’s mental defenses kick in and we avoid facing the issue.”

Someone with a drinking problem is more likely to beat themselves up for not being able to “have discipline,” not realizing that what they really need is help. We live in a society that makes it a weakness to ask for help. 

4. Recovery is subjective and personal.

It’s important to understand that for each individual, recovery is a different experience, says Dr. Marchant. There is no “one size fits all” approach to quitting drinking because we all come from different life experiences. 

Trauma, for one, can make recovery complicated. 

“For some people, recovery refers to the idea of moving back to their pre-problem drinking lives where things were generally healthy and stable. However, for others with alcohol problems, there is no real sense of a healthy past,” she explains. “Lots of people who experience issues with addictions or compulsive behaviors of any kind have a long history of difficult (often traumatic experiences) which have resulted in problems with managing emotions, difficulties with shame and an extremely negative and self-critical, self-concept.”

For these people, quitting drinking can’t be done in a vacuum and oftentimes more help is needed to regulate emotions and work through traumatic experiences. Putting down alcohol isn’t the one and only solution—it’s just part of a complex road back to physical and mental health.

5. All parties are not treated the same. 

It’s been well-documented that nonwhite people have a harder time quitting drinking, and not because they are any less entitled to the option. Society is set up to make it harder for them. 

For example, Black Americans are at a higher risk of substance use disorders being characterized as a criminal issue rather than a medical issue. 

An American Addiction Centers report stated that even though “African Americans make up (only) 12.5% of illicit drug users,” a staggering 33% of those incarcerated for drugs are Black. 

The report also states that Black Americans are less likely to recover from drug and alcohol use even after treatment because our current recovery options are not set up to meet this particular population’s needs. 

Staffing is too white and resources do not address the Black population’s unique life experiences or mental health needs.

Currently, the ability to quit drinking and obtain the help needed has largely been set up to benefit white people even though alcohol use disorder affects all populations regardless of race. 

* * * 

As societal views on alcohol use continue to evolve, quitting drinking might not take so long. Know that if you feel like alcohol use is causing issues in your life, you don’t have to wait to quit drinking, even if the people around you don’t understand your choice. 

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