For most social drinkers, there are few to no physical withdrawal symptoms other than what you experience during a hangover, which usually ends within 24 hours. The toughest challenge after quitting alcohol is overcoming the habit to drink during certain times of day and circumstances, as well as managing the cravings that you’ve grown accustomed to giving in to. This area is what I'm particularly familiar with and I provide my own personal timeline below to describe how long it took to recover from my drinking habit.
That being said, abstinence may cause a number of symptoms of alcohol withdrawal for serious heavy drinkers. These include:
- mild to moderate tremors
More severe withdrawal symptoms include hallucinations and seizures. If your alcohol habit is entrenched in your lifestyle, professional help may be necessary to quit drinking alcohol.
The American Addiction Centre offers the following timeline for those who struggle with serious alcoholism:
8 hours after the last drink: anxiety, insomnia, nausea, and abdominal pain characterize this stage.
24-72 hours after the last drink: high blood pressure, increased body temperature, unusual heart rate, and confusion.
2-4 days after the last drink: hallucinations, fever, seizures, and agitation.
All symptoms tend to decrease within 5 to 7 days.
For the rest of us, heavy drinking might include a few nightly drinks with regular or occasional weekend binges. If you find yourself sneaking drinks in the morning, the sooner you curb that habit, the better. Clearly, the heavier the drinking habit, the worse the symptoms if you choose to quit.
How do I know how dependent I am on alcohol?
The most straight-forward answer to this is, the more you drink, the more dependent you are. Keeping a journal of how much you drink day to day over a month is an ideal way to get a clear, objective perspective on the intensity of your habit.
I experienced no physical withdrawal symptoms when I quit drinking alcohol. I drank wine almost nightly (one to three glasses) and binge drank periodically on weekends which resulted in toxic hangovers. In fact, the absolute worst withdrawals from my drinking habit were manifested in those epic hangovers. Quitting alcohol eliminated these and I am forever grateful for that. Nothing else in my life caused me more misery and discomfort than those mornings after a big drink up.
I’ve heard that some family doctors recommend a slow and steady decline in drinking instead of cutting alcohol cold turkey. I assume this is because of the possibility of withdrawal symptoms. But I’ll have to disagree with this advice; in fact, I’d say it’s terrible advice. As someone who tried, for years, to moderate my drinking, cutting back alcohol simply does not work. I’m speaking from experience when I say that moderation is not likely to succeed for anyone who has developed a regular drinking habit. The mind always wants to return to what it’s used to. For myself, and for many others, the only way to moderate is to quit. It’s a tough sell, but it’s the honest truth.
The mental challenges of alcohol withdrawal
This is where the withdrawal symptoms are a bit murky. While the medical community focuses on physical symptoms, those are short-lived, if they manifest at all. The much tougher symptoms that arise from quitting alcohol manifest in the mind because you’re breaking down entrenched habits and behavior patterns that have been conditioned to turn to an alcoholic beverage in response to a wide range of stimuli.
The triggers that lead to a drink can be as innocuous as sitting on a patio in the summer. If, for 20 years, you’ve enjoyed sipping a cold one every time you eat outside at a restaurant under the sun, that’s an engrained experience that you now equate with happiness, friends, summer and a lot of other positive attributes. It’s going to be hard to hang out at restaurants in the summer and not drink. So, does this mean no more patios ever again? Or, conversely, no chance you’ll ever be able to quit drinking? Well, those are tough questions to answer and only you can decide which way you will go. Yes, you can learn to immensely enjoy summer patios without alcohol. It will take time, though, and patience with yourself.
Triggers, such as summertime patios, are the most difficult challenge when it comes to alcohol abstinence. I write more about my own experience with managing all my triggers in my post: Tackling triggers. It was written only three months into my sober journey, so is a great source of insight into those early day struggles.
How long does it take to break the habit?
There is a common perception that 21 days is the magic number for forming or breaking a habit. Unfortunately, there is no truth to that. The number of days depends on the person and the circumstances, as well as a litany of other factors. The best source for understanding how to address your habits is the book, Good Habits Bad Habits by Wendy Wood. I highly recommend it if you’re serious about replacing bad habits with good habits. She offers a tremendous amount of research and evidence that proves new habits can be formed, and not necessarily with all the mental struggles we typically experience in the process.
Now that I’m past one year sober (482 days to be exact), I can share some insights on how long it took me to overcome certain mental hurdles. Below is my timeline on what happened after I quit drinking alcohol:
One week sober:
The first week wasn't too hard. It was hitting the next week that the cravings started to kick in. My strategy was to get through it one day at a time. I couldn't think about the longer term plan to abstain from alcohol because that felt way too overwhelming. I replaced grabbing the wine glass and bottle with turning on the kettle. I sipped tea while making dinner, rather than wine. I avoided driving by the liquor store and avoided wine aisles in grocery stores. Avoiding temptation was my saviour.
One month sober:
I no longer craved my nightly glass of wine. I still missed drinking, but the habit of filling a glass of wine every night was gone. I did not, however, go out for dinners with friends and refrained from parties during this time to avoid temptations and pressure from friends who prefer “drinking Danielle.”
Two months sober:
I travelled to Florida for a short getaway and really struggled to not drink at the outdoor bar or any of the restaurants. I had always drank more during my trips, not less! I felt resentment and frustration at my sober boyfriend who had no desire to drink. (I didn’t tell him this though.) I managed to stay sober the entire time and felt proud of my accomplishment.
Three months sober:
I had stronger control over my impulse to drink. Although I still craved alcohol pretty regularly, I could recognize my triggers that were causing the craving and would distract myself with something else until the impulse passed.
Five months sober:
I travelled for two weeks across Spain, Portugal and France with a tour, vowing to not drink the entire duration of the trip. Wow, this was tough. I love wine and it seemed such a waste to not drink it while there! I write about my trip on my post: Travelling sober. I was tempted to drink at meals because everyone around me was drinking. On the other hand, I was also starting to recognize how alcohol affected other people’s behaviour (and, previously mine). They chat more, act sillier and, well, appear less intelligent. This was a bit of a turning point for me. I was feeling better about my abstinence. I didn’t want to act like that anymore.
Six months sober:
For the first time since I quit drinking, I walked into the LCBO (Ontario’s equivalent to a liquor store) to buy wine for a book launch I was hosting. I had no desire to buy wine for myself. Keep in mind, I used to love shopping for wine. It brought me great pleasure to read the labels, compare prices and then, ultimately head home and pop one open. Oh yeah. That was awesome. But, this time, I felt empowered by my ability to shop without any triggers. I was gaining increasing control over my old habit and it was getting easier to continue on the path.
Nine months sober:
I made it to the end of my first sober summer. It was a first since I was 15 years old. I’m 47 years old now. I had learned to replace my extra hangover-free time with new activities. I walked about an hour every day, went on hikes, practiced more yoga, joined Orange Theory, and started a new daily routine of waking up at 5:30am every morning (ok, most!) I still missed my alcohol sometimes, particularly when relaxing in my backyard under the sun or sitting on a patio. But it was manageable, and I only had to remind myself of all the benefits I was experiencing as a direct result of my sobriety. There were way too many by this time for me to turn back now.
One year sober:
I was heading into my second Christmas season without alcohol and, this time, had zero desire to drink. I no longer felt the need to stay away from restaurants or parties. The desire to drink in social situations had completely disappeared. In fact, I’d become completely comfortable being myself at parties, no longer needing the social lubricant of alcohol to feel confident. I was just as social as I used to be half-drunk, but now, I was speaking intelligently and with awareness. The effects of alcohol on those around me, was that much more obvious. The glazed eyes, silly talk, slurred speech. Now, when I looked at them, I wondered how I could have ever been ok with acting like that? I was happier than ever that I’d quit drinking.
13 months sober:
This was a pivotal point for me. I had fulfilled my vow to quit drinking for one year. Now what? I write about it in my post: Year two of no booze, now what?
I could return to moderate drinking or stay sober. I’m not going to lie. I was tempted to have a drink. Wouldn’t it be nice to enjoy a glass of wine with friends just once in a while? I decided to continue abstaining from alcohol. This is why: I knew I would eventually slide down that slippery slope of drinking regularly and, eventually, return to periodic hangovers. It wasn’t a maybe, in my opinion, it was a most definitely gonna happen fact. I’d talked to others who had given up alcohol for a year, some two or three, and they all had returned to regular drinking habits. And, I don’t mean they became heavy drinkers. They simply drank every weekend, or the odd weeknight. I knew I did not want that. I’d worked so so hard to get where I was. It felt good to have so much power over my life. I was proud of myself.
16 months sober (today!):
This brings me to the present. It is, yet, another milestone for me. I have come to a new point in my sober journey. Just last week, I realized I’ve reached a point where I am repulsed by alcohol. Not only do I have no desire to drink, I look at a bottle of liquor or wine and wonder, why would I ever want to put that in my body? I want to clarify, I am not judgmental of anyone who drinks. I get it. I did it for 30 years. What I’m saying is this: I now, fully realize there is little (if any) benefit to drinking alcohol and it baffles me that I ever thought it was normal or fun to get drunk or even get a buzz. The desire, at least in this moment in time, is gone.
This is the timeline of my personal experience, and it is probably different for each individual. If you’re at the start of your sober journey or are still curious about whether you want to quit drinking, I hope my timeline provides some insight into what the sober journey will be like for you. I have experienced so many gifts as a result of giving up alcohol. Perhaps the greatest of all is the power I have over my health, mind and spirit.