Sober tools: what helps, and what doesn’t

originally published on Medium

Sober tools: what helps, and what doesn’t

(Stop fucking around with houses built out of straw)

M (day 1 sober) writes: Belle, I keep trying all these things to help me be sober and nothing works. I just spent $100 on vitamins. I’ve been to the one-day, quit-drinking workshop. I signed up for a French class. You see, I’ve always wanted to go to Paris and with all the money I’m not spending on booze, I could buy a plane ticket.

You can hear M’s thinking, you can totally see what she’s saying, and it seems logical, doesn’t it. And my reply would be: “If you are continuously sober, then yes, whatever you’re doing is working. Keep doing it.”

But if you are not continuously sober — and I mean if you reset after 2 days, or 20 days, or 200 days — then what you’re doing isn’t quite enough to keep you sober. So you add in more sober tools.

Argh, I’m on Day 1 again. I’m enrolled in French class. Why isn’t that enough?

French class is something you can hang in the space that booze used to occupy. But taking a French class is not a sober tool.

Sober tools are things that help you to be sober.

Imagine this. You’re one of the three little piggies who is building a sober house, and wolfie comes to blow your sober house down.

You build your sober house out of straw or sticks or tarps or wood, and wolfie blows it over. Maybe not right away, maybe not tomorrow, but as soon as there’s a strong wind, as soon as there’s a death or a celebration or a runaway teenager or Sheila in accounting pulls her shit again and refuses to do the cheque run before end of day on Friday.

Doesn’t take much, then wolfie is at the door. Blowing. Sober house falls down.

But let’s be real, wolfie only has to knock on the door of your house made of straw to knock it over. To the house of wood, he’ll knock, and when that doesn’t work, he’ll add in lung full of hot air and a bit of whining. Doesn’t take long.

(And really, you built a sober house out of straw? You were wishi. You’re were hoping you could do the minimum. You knew it wasn’t going to be enough.)

To the house of stone, though, the house built out of sober stones set careful on a sober cement foundation — yeah, that house — well, wolfie will knock on your door. And when that doesn’t work, he’ll try to blow you over with convincing arguments as to why you need to Drink Right Now. You’ll add in a bit more cement and wave to him through the window. He’ll look for cracks, but you’ve got double-paned glass and a bug screen.

Now this sober stone house, this is your life.

Your life is worth more than the minimum. It’s worth more than straw and tarps.

The soul of you, the essence of you, the real you that isn’t anesthetized, the real you that is empathetic and helpful and has good boundaries — that you gets deserves to be guarded in a solid stone structure.

What helps to build a wolfie-proof, stone sober house?

Advice from an architect. Talking to the girl at Home Depot about the length of the nails and what’s worked on similar projects.

Pouring a cement foundation. Going as slowly as required to not have to pour the foundation, dig it up, pour it again, and dig it up again. What a waste of time that is. Do the sober foundation, yes, but if you do it too quickly, do it too rashly, try to do it with inadequate cement, or do it while doing too many other things at the same time — well, you know what happens.

You can see this example clearly when we’re talking about cement.

The colour of the paint, and the carefully selected tri-season-blooming flowers, the stony garden walks, and the breeding fruit trees do not build a strong house.

The French classes and spin classes and yoga classes and pottery classes and vitamins don’t help you change your behaviour. They’re wonderful (and necessary and lovely) things to add to your life. They are.

But they’re not sober tools.

A sober tool is something that helps you to be sober. Not paint colour.

You want to paint the room, but you haven’t built the room. You want to choose the light fixture, but the wiring isn’t in yet. You want to focus on the details all around THE THING.

The thing you want is to be sober. And so you’re online spending hours choosing the right French class?

You just spent $100 on multivitamins because that should help you be sober?

What if you’d spent that time and that $100 on actual sober supports. You don’t though, because wolfie is a sly fucker, taunting perfectly nice people with bullshit logic like vitamins and French classes.

OK. So sober tools. They’re things that help you be sober. That would include anything that directly makes it more likely that you (a) remember that being sober is a good idea, (b) soothes irritation, (c) helps you be accountable, (d) checks in on you, (e) reminds you what you’re doing when you forget, (f) reinforces the idea of the sober foundation and why you need it because you forgot again, (g) makes it possible for you to not drink.

A French class isn’t a sober tool. Just like your drinking husband isn’t a sober support.

What works?

Treats and rewards work for being sober. Accountability works. Actual sober support works. Planning replacement drinks works. Listening to sober audios works. Reaching out works.

(Do you think you can read books about pouring cement foundations and have the book be enough? Is a one-day workshop enough? How about a forum of other people on day 1 of cement pouring? Why are you walking around outside THIS THING acting like you don’t know what to do? You know what to do. You know that if you ask for support from people who can actually support you, you can get this done. You know that if you turn and face the resources and education and accountability that sober support provides, that you’ll learn from people who’ve done it 2,593 times that you’ll save time, feel better, and have your cement poured sooner.)

And don’t get me wrong.

If you’ve built a house out of straw AND IT’S WORKING FOR YOU then keep doing what you’re doing.

But if the wind keeps blowing you over, you’ve gotta look at having some new tools.

And paint isn’t a tool.

Neither is a French class.


I want to put this online, to hold myself accountable. I want to document the noise in my head. I'm tired of thinking about drinking. date of last drink: june 30, 2012

  • Responding a little late. I liked the article. I find your writing spot on and direct. Case in point this great paragraph that clearly defines what a sober tool should do for me.
    “OK. So sober tools. They’re things that help you be sober. That would include anything that directly makes it more likely that you (a) remember that being sober is a good idea, (b) soothes irritation, (c) helps you be accountable, (d) checks in on you, (e) reminds you what you’re doing when you forget, (f) reinforces the idea of the sober foundation and why you need it because you forgot again, (g) makes it possible for you to not drink.”
    Love this. I’m making lists on my own for what I can use and what is not the truth. This paragraph is my litmus test.
    Thank you

  • This post was great, and it did sting a bit to read it through the first time. Why? Because even with all of the support, the personalized pen-pal interactions, the citron tea-bag pinned to my cubicle at work that I received from my sobriety coach in France, the stories of success that I have read…I have still tried and failed the 100 day challenge 4 or 5 times since last August. And that is after trying and failing about 100 times on my own for the last 15 years. But since I found Belle’s website, my resolve has gotten stronger – it truly has.

    After finally actually internalizing the audio about ‘Blankets of Support’, and then reading an e-mail post in which a pen-pal noted that the last time she had been able to put a significant number of sober days together she had been pregnant – I had a light bulb moment. I needed to have my option to drink removed. The last time I had a sober stretch I was pregnant, I had no option to drink. I needed a tool like that! Once I realized this, it took two Doctor’s visits where I had to be completely honest with the Doctor regarding the amount of alcohol I was consuming (difficult for this extremely secretive long term problem drinker) but I got a prescription for Disufiram and my option to drink is now gone. For me, this is a necessary tool. It is one of many I have put in my tool kit since last July.

    I guess I am trying to say that I now realize that there is no ‘magic bullet’, there is no quick fix and there is no way to send Wolfie packing without doing some hard work and without pushing through some uncomfortable emotional barriers. But Belle and the members of this online community make it a whole lot easier to keep my eyes on the prize: Sobriety. And THAT is powerful stuff!

  • I loved this post. Oh how I promised myself I was gonna get it under control. I was gonna be better. If only I had the right answers, if I held my mouth just right, if I knew my number, if, if,if….. I remember my husband telling this counselor we went to—nice lady— that “alcohol had really gotten hold of me and I was getting worse and worse and i seemed to go dark overnight and stay there.” I was pissed. I knew someone could just fix me. I could just keep searching and searching. What I really needed was to just do it. Keep my focus. Realize that the world didn’t care if I drank or not that stopping wasn’t weakness it was strength. I found that here. The goal of 100 days and now I just passed 6 months! Over there DOES include madness! Lisa is correct!

    The daily check in or reading on here the having a place of accountability that’s been the only thing that’s helped me. If not for the wisdom and Belle way I’d still be trying to figure it out. Truely you have to reach inside and want to fix it. Because no amount of anything can do it for you but this community and Belle can do it WITH you.

  • Thanks all , its so helpful to hear from those who like me have tried and failed before to come out on top. After two attempts at the 100 day challenge I hope this third will be my final. I am trying different. More tools , more reaching out , more focus on what I need to feel good. If that means taking a step back from family then so be it !
    Day 2 yup here we go again.
    I know I want this badly and so I will try different. Love the mantra ” this way madness lies ” ha ha so true.
    It helps so much to know I am not alone.
    I am not crazy.
    I have a wolf on my back and I need to shake this bastard off and then run him over with a truck.

  • I really loved this. No blog could be comprehensive, but offering things that you’ve seen work is helpful. So far, sleep and a hot bath help me most because I want to use most when I’m depleted, rundown, and overcommitted. Thanks for sharing this!

  • There are more tools that Belle has discussed over the years…sleep when you just need to escape the call of the bottle…early on avoid situations that involve alcohol…for me…a mantra helped that I use to do this day (3yrs 6 months sober):
    And, it is as true as my name is Lisa (which it is). You’ve gotta want sobriety more than anything; you’ve gotta shut that Wolf down…starve it…kill it. Honor your true, beautiful self…fall in love with you.

  • I agree with prior comments. There are 100 tools in the back of her book. I’m sure they are available on this blog as well … Just not
    In one place maybe. I’m in day 14 today. Went 87 days into the 100 day challenge a couple of years ago. Two take aways for me: 1) I need to remind myself I really want this 2) I need to read the emails/blogs/one minute messages DAILY. I’m also find some the techniques from “30-Day Sobriety Solution” helpful. I’m also trying to avoid “overwhelm” because my old coping mechanism was to check-out with a bottle or 2 of wine. I also got some medication to help with cravings and sleep. Bottom line: there are lots of tools, but they need to be customized for each person.

  • I tried every distraction and quick fix under the sun to avoid actual accountability and asking for help. Yoga, vitamins, therapy, reading dozens of recovery books, etc etc. For me, the only thing that has really been helpful are the things I never wanted to do (my addiction didn’t want me to do). and that includes support from sober people, going to meetings, being accountable, doing what was suggested… and most importantly, not letting any other aspect of my life take priority over sobriety. I relapsed a lot because I let a relationship, a job, etc crowd out my recovery. This is just my experience, though. Good topic.

  • You have to really want it to get it. I’m in my 60’s, way beyond when I should have quit. I was a 2 bottle a night white wine girl, stumbling to bed, tripping while trying to get my pj’s on. Simply pathetic. Slowly killing my self with alcohol.I tried unsuccessfully to quit drinking for about 15 years, so much time wasted. Ajl is right, the key to getting sober is inside us but we have to really want it, need it and see it as a life saver. Being accountable to myself never worked, being accountable to this pen pal in FRANCE helped me stay on track and the treats were a little incentive. I could have bought things for myself all along but saying they were for staying sober gave me a little boost. You have to do what works for you, but there’s no magic potion, Belle just offers a hand to help pull you out. You have to reach deep, really fucking deep and decide you don’t want to be [doing it alone] anymore.
    I’m sober 3 yrs.7 months,I don’t believe I would be at this point without her.

  • Absolutely so right on the money.
    For me, accountability and commitment were the game changers as well as eating on a regular basis. This is an unsolicited plug for Belle’s program…..I signed up for the Sober Jump Start Program and because I had made a commitment, both personal and monetary, and because I DID all the things that Belle suggested to pack into my sober suitcase, I am having a smooth riding time without my red wine. Ah, that rhymed! I am not signing up for karate classes, trying to write my book, remodeling my greenhouse, going on a detox diet or any other diversion. The diversions work for about a day or two and then you are back to “Thinking about Drinking” again. I must say that after my Day 3, I don’t even think about wine or drinking anymore. Very surprising to me. I was the girl who couldn’t and wouldn’t eat at a restaurant unless they served good red wine. I am saving a shit load of money. (Belle said it is OK to use profanity)
    To sum it up, when I tried to quit drinking many other times, I didn’t have any sober tools (never enough thought about it) and I was not successful at getting past day three before I just said screw it, “I’ll have just one”. We know how that works!

  • belle, I’m a long time follower. But this response is simply not enough. Those of us who continue to follow you despite our repeated failures are dutifully, painfully searching for answers. And perhaps it is not right for us to rely on you for those. But this message doesn’t offer any alternatives. It just states that if what we are trying doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

    I’m pretty sure we are keyed into that.

    “Treats and rewards work for being sober works. Accountability works. Actual sober support works. Planning replacement drinks works. Listening to sober audios works. Reaching out works.”

    No, it doesn’t work for everyone. It works for a lot of people whom I am also proud of for being able to pull up and out of this quagmire, but no, it doesn’t work for everyone.

    It sounds like you are blaming people for their desperation in trying anything and everything to try to escape this and then not offering any actual concrete solutions.

    More empathy… If you cannot offer more actual alternatives, then please, just offer more empathy. And I implore your more successful followers to suggest other rewards, treats, replacement drinks, whatever, that have worked for them.

    I think you have done great work. But cutting corners here has lasting effects.

    Thank you.

    • Yikes. A harsh response.

      I do not agree. I think she is spot on. Her message is to find what works for you. Keep looking until you find it. Last I looked, that means what works for one does not work for the next one. I am fairly confident that if belle had the precise recipe for ways to not get drunk she would publish it in the Washington Post. Well…maybe not the Post. ?

      Empathy? She has been where all of us are. The best kind of empathy there is.

      No blaming involved, either. She is stating the obvious: the sonsabitch demons we have tried to drown learned to swim. That’s a fact. Do whatever is necessary to find what works to stay sober and keep trying until it sticks. If reading belle pisses you off…then read something else until you can get the empathy and solutions you search for.

      Hint: everything you are searching for is inside of you. Ya gotta do the work to find it.

    • I agree with you. I have tried so many things. I did the jumpstart class, I’ve build the toolbox. I make it to day 50 because I committed and then boom it’s all back down hll again. I really feel like it’s just me. Everyone else can do this with belle advise and tricks guess I’m just ptppthe loser who will never end up sober . Starting to feel hopeless

    • I felt exactly the same after reading this blog for the first time. I was looking for ideas for sober tools. I’m doing ok but I want to ensure I’m solid if or when I’m tempted. I’m going to read on now and hopefully will get some actual ideas. Thank you ? for this site; it’s one tool ❤️

    • The book UNEXPECTED JOY OF BEING SOBER has been good for me. Good on audio too. Also ALCOHOL EXPLAINED by William Porter and Habits of a happy brain. 3 different angles which together are really working. Good luck ?Kelly. X