A drunk-driving accident or losing a loved one due to alcoholism can be a traumatic event that might force a drinker to give up alcohol for good.
But in some cases, the simple desire for change is plenty for those who imbibe to kick the drinking habit permanently. For some individuals, the simple realization that their lives could be better without booze is enough.
Lena DeMonte, for instance, celebrated her first day of sobriety on May 1 of 2010. The Camarillo resident was in her mid-50s at the time, and had been drinking since high school.
“Only the last five or six years had I tried to cut down and stop,” said DeMonte, now 60. “To my surprise at first, then later alarm, found I couldn’t.”
She had given herself many ultimatums and chances to drink normally, “but the more I sensed that I had a problem, the more I drank — the faster, the more fervent, the more obsessively, sneakily,” she said. “I could not go for 24 hours without drinking.”
Somewhere along the way, DeMonte’s social drinking and partying morphed into something that was “increasingly difficult to control.”
“I couldn’t anticipate when I would have fun with it, or instead become someone very unpleasant to be around,” DeMonte recalled. “The fun was less evident.”
Her desire to quit drinking for good occurred when she noticed her obsession with alcohol.
“I feared running out, always had to know that I had more at home,” remembered DeMonte, who started hiding booze around her house to avoid an argument with her spouse at the time.
“I began to fear getting pulled over, or causing an accident,” she said. “I was afraid I would hurt someone as I was drinking while driving.”
“My alcoholism looked different”
DeMonte grew up in a home where alcoholism was present.
“But my alcoholism looked different and didn’t look like my definition of alcoholism, so I was in denial for a long time,” she said. “But I didn’t want to go to rehab or jail or hurt someone. And I knew it was just a matter of time before my luck would run out. I sensed I needed to stop on my own before I was forced to.”
With that, DeMonte gave herself an ultimatum when she was invited to hear a friend play music in a club. She told herself she was only going to have one or two drinks.
“I had to prove to myself I could handle it. And if I couldn’t, I was finally ready to admit that I would have to get help,” she said. “But I couldn’t do it.”
The last thing DeMonte remembers was dancing on the dance floor with a group of women she didn’t know, and seeing her husband at the time looking at her with a look of disgust.
“I left the dance floor and that’s the last thing I remember of that evening — it was a blackout,” DeMonte said.
“Alcoholism is progressive. So is sobriety”
The next day, DeMonte went to an AA meeting — and at first, she didn’t want to go because she thought “it would be pitiful and depressing.”
Instead, “I was surprised at how nice and normal most of the people seemed. I was surprised how friendly many were … and actually found that it was fun. I sensed it was going to be OK.”
While moving towards sobriety “was not always easy,” it was “very doable because I wanted to stop,” she said.
Soon, she started to feel and see the benefits of not drinking.
“I don’t go to as many meetings now as I used to, but I do find them helpful,” DeMonte said. “And I have met some of the most amazing people in the rooms. I am grateful I didn’t give up on myself. I am grateful I checked out AA and found a way to work it that works for me.”
Today, she helps others on their journey to sobriety by writing and publishing a blog called New Thought Sobriety
She is also more present, “not thinking in the back of my mind where, when and how I would get my next drink,” DeMonte said. “I laugh more. I can stay awake to see the end of the movie. I have more energy. I have not been sick in years. I do not have black and blue marks on me that I don’t know how they got there.”
If anyone suspects they have a problem with alcohol, they do, DeMonte added.
“If that’s the case, there is a way to stop,” she said. “Alcoholism is progressive. So is sobriety.”
Alcohol affects people differently with aging
As people age, alcohol affects them differently because their biochemistry changes over the course of a life span, said Wendy Walsh, who teaches psychology of health counseling at California State University, Channel Islands, in Camarillo.
As a result, “People will quit drinking because their chemistry changes — they start getting the headaches from the red wine they loved when they were young; they’re tired in the morning and they want their mornings back,” Walsh said.
Walsh noted an interview she watched with Jane Fonda, 79, who quit drinking alcohol.
“It wasn’t that she was dysfunctional with alcohol, it was just that she could be living better,” Walsh said.
Many older adults are giving up alcohol, or transitioning to drinking spirits in moderation, because they are concerned about the negative effects alcohol can potentially have on the body and brain.
“With one in eight Americans coming down with dementia or Alzheimer’s, obviously they know the damage that heavy drinking can have on the brain,” Walsh said. “And many women are aware of the correlation between alcohol consumption and breast cancer.”
As far as “moderate” drinking is concerned, “this is the big million-dollar question because it really depends on who you are,” Walsh said.
For instance, people who are diabetic or pre-diabetic need to watch their sugar and carbs, “and alcohol is mainly sugar,” Walsh said. “Many women have menopause-induced resistance where they get the belly fat … and wine doesn’t help.”
There’s data, however, that claims that people who drink moderately — one glass per day for women and two glasses per day for men — actually have lowered rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s than abstainers, Walsh noted.
“The problem is, who has one drink?” she said. “One drink wants another drink. Alcohol dampens your executive functions, and as soon as it’s out of play, that alcohol asks for another alcohol.”
Not all people who drink are alcoholics
Alcoholism is a brain disease, said Dr. Walter Thomas, an addiction specialist at Adventist Health Simi Valley.
There is a perception that alcoholism is a character flaw and something that people can turn on or turn off, “but it’s a biological illness,” he said. “Forty percent of it is environmental, and 60 percent is inheritance. The person who has this gene can never go back to controlled drinking.”
When you have this disease, it affects all aspects of your being — your relationships, your emotions, your ability to connect and overall quality of life, Thomas continued.
“So why would someone give it up? They realize they can’t drink safely or in a controlled way,” Thomas noted. “They always have great intentions of not drinking too much. But they don’t have the ability to turn the switch off. That’s the difference between someone who has addictive chemistry and someone who doesn’t.”
Not all people who drink alcohol are alcoholics, he added.
“It’s similar to diabetes and high blood pressure — a diabetic knows he can’t manage his sugar so he avoids sugar,” Thomas said. “That’s inherited just like alcoholism. But a lot of people that eat sugar have no problem with sugar. The alcoholic has problems with alcohol, but the nonalcoholic doesn’t have that problem.”
People who can give up alcohol because they feel their lives will be better are most likely not alcoholics.
“They can stop drinking because it’s creating problems with their health; they’re gaining weight, their mind is not as clear — that’s not an alcoholic,” he said. “A typical alcoholic doesn’t give it up when he has adverse consequences. They will continue despite the fact that they have adverse consequences. So when you have the disease, no matter how bad it gets, they don’t stop.
Switching to moderation
If you’re currently a regular drinker and want to switch to moderation, Walsh offers the following tips.
First, find a nonalcoholic replacement drink that’s your go-to order.
“So if you’re in a place surrounded by alcohol and everyone is around you is drinking, figure out what your next drink is,” said Walsh, noting that her go-to drink is a nonalcoholic beer poured over ice with fresh-squeezed limes.
Second, “Make a drinking schedule for the week,” Walsh advised.
For instance, “On Sunday, look at your week and think about what days you’re going to be more vulnerable, and know if you have a business dinner or a cocktail party,” Walsh said. “Plan not to drink until then — schedule it and appropriately schedule your dry days.”
And lastly, try to abstain from alcohol for at least 24 hours at a time.
“You need to take 24 hours in between so your liver dries out,” Walsh explained. “Then, you’ve lowered your tolerance, and one glass of wine is enough.”
“There are other ways to relax”
In the case of Camarillo resident Karin Grennan, there was no DUI or major incident that prompted her decision to quit alcohol. She drank only occasionally, only a couple of times a month, and usually only had one drink, sometimes two.
“I had been noticing that I seemed to get headaches from drinking more often, even though I wasn’t drinking a lot,” recalled Grennan, 50. “One night I was out with girlfriends and I had two mixed drinks … and I threw up in the middle of the night. I started thinking, ‘why am I even drinking at all?’ ”
With that, she decided she didn’t need to drink to feel comfortable on social situations.
“There are other ways to relax, such as exercising,” Grennan said. “And my oldest daughter was getting ready to start high school and I thought it would be good to set an example by demonstrating that you can have a good time with friends without drinking.”
Since then, Grennan has had only two drinks, including an after-dinner liqueur a couple of years ago, and a Corona she drank at her 50th birthday party in December.
Both times, I thought, ‘Yep, I can do without this,’ ” Grennan recalled. “I realized that drinking really wasn’t an important part of my life.”
Today, when she goes out with friends or attends a social event where alcohol is served, “I don’t mind being the only nondrinker, but I can see that maybe other people may not feel comfortable drinking if I’m not,” Grennan said. “It may also seem strange to invite a nondrinker to go out for drinks, but there are always options — coffee drinks, iced tea, water. For me, it’s just a way to spend time together and talk and laugh, and it doesn’t matter what is in everyone’s glass.”
In April, to her surprise, Grennan was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain important hormones.
“And it turns out that many people with this condition experience an intolerance to alcohol, so I think that explains what I experienced,” she said.
She has since started taking medication for the hypothyroidism and it corrected her thyroid levels.
“My doctor said I could try drinking a small amount of alcohol to see if I can better tolerate it now, but I haven’t,” said Grennan, adding that she never experiences the headaches, sleeping difficulties or other ailments that drinking can cause. “Sleep and time are pretty precious to me now and it’s nice that I don’t lose any of either to the effects of drinking.”
“I couldn’t be an alcoholic”
Oct. 16 of 2014 was the day that marked sobriety for Jeff, a 45-year-old Ventura County resident who has asked to remain anonymous
“Initially, I actually didn’t want to quit completely,” he said. “I just wanted to be able to control my drinking. As it turned out, that simply isn’t possible for the alcoholic.”
Before he gave up booze, he drank only on social occasions and weekends. He was a big fan of wine, but also enjoyed beer and spirits.
“Over time, the frequency and amount of alcohol I was consuming increased — I would celebrate a good day with a drink or two, I would commiserate a bad day with a drink or three,” Jeff recalled. “I would cook dinner with a drink. I would eat dinner with a drink. And I would round off the evening with another.”
Toward the end, he was drinking until blackout every night of the week — predominantly vodka or Cadillac margaritas, heavy on the Grand Marnier.
Jeff soon realized that he was extremely miserable and basically living a double life. Publicly, he was a successful professional, with a wife and two young kids.
“We had a home and two cars. I couldn’t be an alcoholic,” he said. “But in reality, I was a wreck.”
Simultaneously, he had been extremely fortunate.
“I never had a DUI though I assuredly drove while under the influence; never lost my job or my wife or my kids or my home,” Jeff said. “But I was a wreck. Hungover every morning and vowing not to drink again that day, but was unable to stop.”
A life-changing experience
On the morning of Oct. 16 of 2014, “I couldn’t go on, and so I asked for help,” Jeff remembered.
As an employee for the County of Ventura, he connected with the Employee Assistance Program, which referred him to a specialist the next day. They talked at length, and Jeff attended his first AA meeting.
“It was, and continues to be, a life-changing experience,” he said. “All of the isolation and depression I had been feeling because no one could possibly feel like me were immediately alleviated. I was surrounded by people who were just like me. And even better, they had the solution to my drinking problem. I was out of options and so I jumped in with both feet — and haven’t looked back since.”
Now that he’s sober, the changes in his life “have been truly wonderful,” and he feels “reconnected to everything and everyone in my life.”
“I hope I have become a better husband, a better father, a better employee,” Jeff said.
“I can drive on the freeways and … I don’t have to watch the rearview mirror praying that I don’t get pulled over,” he added. “And speaking of prayer, I have joined a local church, something I never thought I would do in a million years. I am truly blessed, in every sense of the word.”