Abstinence violation effect

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while and thought it was about time I wrote a blog about it.  With just a week to go until I hit one year sober I’ve been thinking about what would be the impact of having a drink.  Now don’t get me wrong I am not thinking about having a drink I’m just interested in the whole counting days thing and how it differs to when I gave up smoking.

When I gave up smoking if I lapsed I would think of it as a slip and get back to not smoking.  I didn’t consider it going back to day 1 – I saw my quit attempt and stop date intact with a small blip.  But in the world of giving up booze it is very different and I don’t know where that comes from.  If anyone can share what the source is of this much more ‘all or nothing’ view I’d love to know.  This difference in view between a lapse and relapse has consequences for how we see ourselves and our actions about further drinking moving forward.  If I lapsed and had a drink now it would feel like the whole year had been wasted as I would have to go back to day 1 and that would probably lead to me thinking “well  I’ll keep drinking then”.

It is recognised and called the ‘abstinence violation effect’ (AVE) which is defined as “what happens when a person attempting to abstain from alcohol use ingests alcohol and then endures conflict and guilt by making an internal attribution to explain why he or she drank, thereby making him or her more likely to continue drinking in order to cope with the self-blame and guilt”

The problem with this way of thinking is that a lapse has the potential to become a relapse and then a collapse.  That moment of yielding fully to addiction is what Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington, describes as “a form of black-and-white thinking,” says Marlatt. “You blame [your failure] on internal factors that you consider beyond your control.”

Those factors, such as a belief that addiction is a disease that robs you of free will are what derail thousands of quitters and abstainers. You could also call it the “f___ it” effect, the idea that once you cheat, you’ve blown it, so you might as well binge. In traditional 12-step programs for addiction, that line of thinking is encapsulated in the slogan “A drink equals a drunk.” But understanding and overcoming AVE, says Marlatt, is crucial to conquering a problem behavior or dependency in the long term. You have to know what to do when you fall off the wagon to learn how to stay on it.

And this is where my ponderings and Marlatt’s article in Time magazine come together:

While studying cigarette smokers who were trying to quit in the 1970s, Marlatt discovered that people who considered the act of smoking a single cigarette after their quit date to be a complete defeat and evidence of an innate and permanent lack of willpower were much more likely to let a momentary lapse become a full-blown relapse.

Most people who try to change problem behaviors will slip at least once. Whether that slip provokes a return to full-blown addiction depends in large part on how the person regards the misstep. “People with a strong abstinence-violation effect relapse much more quickly,” says Marlatt. A single slip solidifies their sense that they are a failure and cannot quit, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So I guess the question becomes is counting days helpful?  If I was to consider a one off return to drinking as a slip rather than a relapse would it help me get back in the saddle quicker after the event?  This will remain a hypothetical question of course but do we need to change our perspective on counting days and moments of lapse?

7 days to go

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22 thoughts on “Abstinence violation effect

  1. Tricky question. I sometimes wonder the same thing, BUT, if I hadn’t started counting days I don’t think I would have stopped drinking. I needed the daily reinforcement to keep going. But as time passes I don’t even think about the number of days. I check my phone every once in a while to see where I am. Husband counted the first 100 days and was successful, now he doesn’t count or report to Belle and he’s “lapsed” a few times. He and I both know in our hearts where it’s headed. So I guess I vote count and stay away from those day 1’s!

    1. Hi Sharon and thanks for sharing 🙂 When you said you ‘both know in our hearts where it’s headed’ can you explain? Do you feel he’s losing sober momentum or that he’ll reach a place of no lapses?

  2. This is exactly the conversation I have been dying to have for quite some time. All this counting days and new day 1s is very new to me. I didn’t even know about this or think like this until I got involved with the sober online community. I think after many days or months, years of staying sober, the thinking that we have to return to day 1 IS a trigger in and of itself. It forces a sense of shame and failure that is exactly what we need to stay away from. To me, I have to try to begin to have pride in everyday I remain sober, because there is something I learn from each of those days- something important I might be able to share with others. Good topic! I look forward to the conversation, thanks Lucy!

    1. It’s a difficult one Mallards and I know what you mean. It can be a double edged sword as now the thought of going back to day 1 is too hard to even contemplate. I agree that taking pride in every day you remain sober is very important and that should be the bigger message 🙂

  3. It’s an interesting effect, and I guess it’s one of there reasons why some people advise against total abstinence, that when you lose it, you totally lose it. But I think all that sober time is valuable, whether or not you’re counting days and “resetting your clock”. But I do think that day counting is perhaps unhelpful past a certain point, because it becomes all about the count, not about the sober life you’re living, and the changes you’re making inside. Six months sober doesn’t vanish if you have one drink. My issue personally is that I still never in any sense have a desire for “one drink”. If had a drink I would have lots, I know that. Which is why I’m not planning on it 🙂 Thought provoking post. xx

    1. Thanks MTM and I agree with all that you said. I heard someone say at the Recovery Walk that it becomes more about what you would lose than what you would gain. I have to say I’m looking forward to getting beyond 1 year and to stopping counting. This is just how life is now and it’s so great I wouldn’t do anything to jeopardise it:) xx

  4. It’s getting more and more difficult for him to abstain. Can’t have anything in the house. We talk of wolfie creeping back in. At over a year, because of some tense things in life right now I’ve had some pretty strong cravings but it’s that fear of day 1 that keeps me going. I guess I just need that kind of thinking. Those first weeks were awful and like MTM I know I wouldn’t have just one.

    1. Thanks for coming back to me Sharon. This must be so hard for you right now and I admire you for sticking with it when you’ve got tough shit going on. I don’t ever want to go back to day 1 either and like you I would swan dive into the deep end not paddle at the shallow end!

  5. After I quit smoking, there were a couple of times I bummed a cigarette from a friend, and I couldn’t get past a few drags before I had to put it out. It tasted awful and I got dizzy and queasy. I’m afraid I wouldn’t have the same physical aversion to alcohol. I think it would be more like, “Hello old friend, welcome back.” And I know I’d have more than one, not because I felt so bad about breaking my sobriety, but because I’d want the warm, buzzed feeling to last. And soon I’d be finding excuses to have “just a couple” and I’d be right back where I was. I agree that making life changes is so much more important than counting days. But I also think that for me, the fear of having to relive those hellish first 30 days is a strong motivator not to experiment with having one drink.

    1. Hi Julie I know what you mean about the physical repulsion of smoking but I wonder if we would develop the same repulsion for alcohol too? I don’t want to have to do those first 3 months again either!

  6. I’ve done some thinking and feeling on the subject because I noticed that I find it scary that ‘everybody’ in the sober blog world is counting their days. It is like counting the days that you have come out of prison and are free. Would you? No. Nobody would. Certainly not for years. To me, counting days strongly supports the thought of lapse to relapse to collapse. And counting backwards, like you do, immediately makes me think; ‘My gods, is she going to drink after a year?’

    I strongly felt, and am happy that your quote confirms it, that the ‘a drink equals a drunk’ thought is very destructive to the process because what it does is first implant a thought of ‘drink’ in the mind and then follow with ‘disaster’ and ‘no way back’. It’s either swim constantly or drown. Who’s gonna be relaxed enough to do their thing, repair? If you want to ban drinking, don’t focus on the negative, focus on the being free and happy.

    Also, I haven’t been out here for long but the constant hammering on ‘I am an addict’… I just dislike it very much. What about: I am x and I have been addict to alcohol, during that time my humanity and the organic processes of transformation have been disturbed and now I try to repair the damage that has been done.’ Yes I know that takes too long in a sharing but…. Why the ‘I am an addict?’ You are not, you are free! The worst thing about addiction is the THOUGHT that one can not be free, the thought that one has no power over alcohol. I do, I did, I gave my Initiative away, and alcohol WILL take it because it is VERY addictive. But I got it back. And I am happy.

    To me, handing out coins for days not drinking is not free of guilt either. It is a system that intentionally or unintentionally carries along with it the shame of loosing a chip. Repair is an organic process, it is about transformation. Counting it in days takes away the meaning of process and turns transformation into something that could be measured. It can’t. Also, shaming people is counter effective when it comes to learning, specifically if you want people to be truthful.

    As a rooky (and renegade?) I am going to put the thought out here that these principles have been set up by the AA. AA has been The Institute when it comes to coping with addiction and everybody seems to take AA as a starting point and they are ‘quoted everywhere’. I have doubts because some of their believes and rituals do not feel good to me. With whatever I read and hear from the 12 steps I filter what comes in. I keep in mind that the founders men were addicted big time on several levels for a long, long time. Without a doubt they had their own fears and processes and to me it seems that a part of these fears leaked into their ‘rules’, like the whole lapse, relapse, collapse thought that has proven to be very counter effective.

    And now for the disclaimer: I’ve only been out her for 3 weeks so quite possibly it is easy for me to say all kinds of stuff. Don’t know. Future will tell. But hey, I’m not in the future. 😉

    I quit and I am happy.

    1. Feeling I agree with a great deal of what you wrote, and no I am not counting down to when I can drink again, more like counting down to the day when I can stop counting! 😉 I think you are right that it comes from the 12 step fellowship as does so much of what is accepted as wisdom. I also agree that being defined as an addict or alcoholic is limiting and tomorrow’s post expands on that and presents a new way of expressing the joy that is recovery as shown to me at the UK Recovery Walk. AA was founded in a different time when much less was known about the disease (and yes I believe it is a disease which is also part of the 12 step model). I think there is a move away from these messages as the recovery movement gains momentum and thanks to films like The Anonymous People. And imo however long you have been here you are entitled to your opinion! 🙂

      1. Thank you for your reply and for the tip on the movie. Gonna check that out. Might actually beat reading 😉

        I keep on apologising for my opinions because I feel that they only carry meaning if you have been sober for say a year or so. But that, in itself is a addicty thought aswell because it keeps an opening for this looming disaster of relapse to pop in. And fear for looming disasters strengthens the addict inside.

      2. No need to apologise as your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s irrespective of the amount of time you’ve been sober. Enjoy the film 🙂

  7. I have bee trying to stay away from alcohol for a few years now. I can go for a few weeks and then something happens where I will have a few drinks. Like last night and now I feel like I blew it, I had 5 beers. Now I never think about alcohol. I am a fit healthy person and It really dose not fit my life style. I know in an evening I can’t have just one but about 3 to 5. Not sure how to stop completely. I have never drank during the week. Mostly just a night on the weekend. I feel great when I don;t have any. actually now that I have been trying to stop I find I am really bored with drinking.

    1. Hey Stew Thank you for reading and commenting on my blog. Many would say stopping completely requires making a decision not to drink when the urge arises under any circumstances and if you are getting bored with drinking that sounds like a good sign that you are getting to that place. You didn’t blow it – you decided to have a few beers. Now next time something happens you need to decide not to have a few drinks or maybe try an alcohol free beer instead 🙂

  8. Thanks! I often read your blog for encouragement. another thing is I take medication for anxiety. A few beers in the past helped temporary for that. But the next day It would be worse. I think I am there. I drink Kombucha tea, I think it even has .05 percent alcohol in it. I can go a long time with out beer it is when the hot summer comes that it is hard or I feel bored. I am in the gym 7 days a week so that helps and do long distnat cycling I want alchol out of my life. I will keep reading your blog

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