I quit alcohol cold turkey, but many drinkers do not know how to do this. Many drinkers fear going cold turkey. The immediate cessation of alcohol is not for the faint-hearted. Especially if the drinker is a regular imbiber and the body has come to rely on that daily tipple.
I recently read a letter to our Tribe Sober doctor, Dr Judy, this month from a woman who wanted to quit her litre of wine a night habit. “I have been drinking about a litre of wine every night for the past year… I acknowledge that I have an addiction. I have read that stopping suddenly is not advisable as withdrawal symptoms can be severe, and so I am looking for a tapering programme or guidelines for creating my own. Would you be able to point me towards some resources or otherwise suggest how I can go about this?”
Well, Dr Judy advised her to go cold turkey. Not to drag out it out. She said,” It’s extremely difficult if not impossible to stop drinking on your own…Unfortunately, it is also almost impossible to wean oneself off the booze. Alcohol stimulates certain brain receptors. If you try weaning yourself, the brain demands you drink more and you are back at square one. So cold turkey is the only option.”
Is Cold Turkey for the Birds?
Like most things in life, going cold turkey suits some people and not others. And, yes, it can be dangerous. So how can you be sensible when going cold turkey and is this method for you? There are risks and benefits associated with quitting alcohol cold turkey.
A sudden stop to a daily habit may cause shock to body and mind. I know that when my father was admitted to hospital in his final days of struggling a heart issue, the doctors said he must have whiskey daily as he was reliant on alcohol. In addition, I always worry about my mother during the lockdown alcohol bans here South Africa because, as an alcoholic in her late 70s, the sudden stopping of her litre of wine a night could kill her.
Many people in today’s world are addicted to alcohol or cigarettes or other drugs. When they decide to stop, they can either do it cold turkey or they can wean themselves off the substance gradually. Often, the weaning approach suits severe addicts as it is gentler on the body.
What Does it Really Mean to Go Cold Turkey?
It simply means completely stopping the habit, right now, no ifs or buts. This approach is often taken when an addict hits rock bottom and realises that their habit could kill them in the long term. It is stop now or never, and find peace from substance abuse. The problem for many alcoholics who want to stop drinking is the severe withdrawal symptoms that they could suffer.
For other people, however, cold turkey is a good option. It means quitting and getting on with living. This often turns into a daunting task and the new sober drinker goes through many emotions. These include regret, shame, guilt, anger, fear and immense sadness. There is a kind of mourning period for losing this good friend, alcohol. The way we write our “Goodbye Letters to Alcohol” brings out all kinds of emotions regarding a lost love or best friend!
The origins of going cold turkey apparently go way back when to 1877, when a man called John Humes Esquire wrote a fictional diary entry about his Christmas holiday. He was very put out that his cousin, Clara, served him cold turkey for several days over Christmas. He felt completely maltreated and removes her from his will! The cold lonely slices of turkey on his place every day were a poor replacement for the real thing, an entire fat turkey dressed in all the indulgent fats and side dishes expected over the festive season!
Did YOU Ever get the DTs?
Today going cold turkey can be an unpleasant experience. Sudden withdrawal from an alcohol addiction for addicts can cause the rapid onset of confusion known as the DTs (delirium tremens). It usually starts three days into the withdrawal symptoms and can last for another 3 days.
Side effects include shivering and shaking, rapid heartbeat, sweating and sometimes hallucinations. The very worst scenario is an extremely high body temperature followed by seizures and even death. Alcohol is considered a dangerous drug from which to withdraw.
Going cold turkey works for some drinkers, and not for others. It all depends on the degree of alcoholism or reliance on alcohol, and the physical and mental health of the drinker. The other approach involves the gradual reduction of the substance, allowing the drinker to finally stop drinking after a few weeks of having less and less.
Going back to what Dr Judy said, however, is the very real risk of the brain then demanding more drink, and the brain needing that dopamine hit more than ever. Many drinkers who want to stop drinking, yet are fully addicted to their substance, will find the gradual approach devastating. I know a few drinkers who talk about the “wine witch” influencing their will to stop drinking. “Why, oh why, am I back at day one again?”, they flail and wail.
Ghastly Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal
According to Medical News Today, some symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include vomiting and nausea, cravings, headaches, shaking, feeling irritable, anxiety and depression, insomnia, memory loss, battling to focus and changes in eating habits. Going cold turkey is like living through a hellish illness. When you get out the other side, however, you feel light, clear and new. Ready to tackle a fresh healthy life!
Ask me, I know. I tried to quit alcohol several times. Sometimes for a week, sometimes for a month, six weeks – then one period of eight months. I felt so good during these dry times, my detox weeks, that I felt that I deserved a good wine at the end of it all! I sure was not ready to quit…
When I finally quit, I had worked out that the way we consume alcohol never gets any less. We just keep topping up – we top up from that day we stopped for a few weeks. We damage our bodies forever! I quit alcohol cold turkey as I was a healthy woman in my late 40s. I could do it. I did not suffer physical withdrawal symptoms, but I did suffer immense mental suffering: depression, anxiety, huge loss, irritation and anger and fear.
To this day, I still suffer deep sadness, based on that fear and anger. It is always good to remember, however, that these kinds of symptoms can be remedied!
If you want to choose to quit alcohol cold turkey, make sure you have lots of support. I had me. I had a husband who tried to fix me and a sister who tried to fix me but I chose me. I did it. Other people need medical help or a loving partner who will do it with them. Just make sure you are not alone.
The huge benefit of quitting cold turkey is the innate knowledge that this is IT forever. The gradual cessation of an addictive substance is safer for many addicts, but it can trick the brain into thinking that this is NOT IT forever. The drinker must be mentally ready! “I want to quit!”
Extreme addicts, alcoholics, must be careful of choosing the cold turkey option. Their extreme dependence on alcohol can cause terrible DTs which can kill. Some DTs start after 2 days of cessation of alcohol, then continue for 5 long days and include extreme hyperactivity, anger, confusion and then … loss of consciousness. Dehydration is also a big issue. Be careful and do not try this alone!
What is Medical Advice for Quitting Alcohol?
Quitting alcohol cold turkey is not everyone’s cup of tea (ahem). The best bet is to get advice from your doctor. When you quit, make sure you have sedating medications that stop the consumption of alcohol first. Then other medical interventions will enable the controlled detoxification from the reliance on the booze.
Get a good recovery coach or a counselor who can lead you through the dark patches into wellness. Maybe also consider alternative therapies such as reiki, craniosacral healing, TRE, yoga and meditation. The world is your oyster once you stop drinking. Suddenly, the lights come on and you realise the world is aglow with possibility! The first few weeks are the hardest. It is NOT plain sailing.
Amber Leventry sums it up in her article on The Tempest: “I was miserable, that’s for sure. I’m fortunate that I didn’t experience some of the more severe side effects of alcohol withdrawal, which can have very serious consequences, including death. Without seeking medical advice, I didn’t know if I was acting in an unsafe way, and that can be dangerous for someone dependent on alcohol. Symptoms of withdrawal differ in severity from one person to the next, and many factors are at play, which is why it’s best to seek medical guidance if you want to quit alcohol.”
She quotes a doctor who points out that “the longer we chronically abuse alcohol, the more our bodies both deteriorate and adjust. Alcohol is a depressant so our nervous system slows down and performs at lower levels than without alcohol. When we remove the alcohol suddenly and don’t replace it within the amount of time our body is accustomed to, our nervous system overreacts and becomes hypersympathetic. In short, we become more irritable or anxious than normal, and we can even experience symptoms of burnout. Our bodies come to rely on alcohol to function properly.”
Read what Janet says about quitting alcohol here. Read what I say about quitting alcohol here.