On finding the first domino: passivity, drinking and habits

On sobriety and habit building

Words by Madeleine Dore

For a long while, I’ve had a list of habits I’d like to cultivate – regular exercise, reading before bed, journaling, avoiding sugar, keeping screens out of the bedroom.

I’ve made various attempts to introduce these seemingly small tweaks to my day  – from an ambitious experiment to introduce a new habit every day for a month, to indulging in one last carb binge on a Sunday evening before seizing the clean slate that comes with a new week to adopt all the “good” habits at once. ‘I’ll start tomorrow,’ is such a sweet promise.

Whatever the approach, the habits never stuck – until I stopped drinking alcohol.

Three months ago, with a hangover that had me bedridden for almost the entire day, I decided to stop drinking for a while.

My drinking, like my habits, has always been ad-hoc. I could go a week or two without it, but when I did have a glass of wine or a pint of beer, I usually found it difficult to stop at just one. More often than not, casually pouring a glass at dinner or ordering just one would lead to a night of binge drinking, resulting in the next day being a complete write-off as I nursed an unexpected hangover.

It's the interruption of these ‘surprise’ hangovers that I could no longer tolerate. In this particular moment of exasperation, I saw the link between my ad-hoc drinking and the ad-hoc nature of my habits. Plans for the next day – be it a visit to the gym or an entire freelance assignment – could be knocked over with a hangover. Even just a few glasses of wine could leave me feeling fuzzy the next morning, foggy, willing to let things slide. Unable to grasp my best intentions, I’d reach for feelings of guilt and let a lingering hangxiety taint the day.

Finding the domino habit

I didn’t want to feel this way – I didn’t want my background mood to be an alcohol-fuelled dread and anxiety.  

So if drinking could have a negative domino effect on my days, I wondered if stopping could do the reverse.

If we look at bedtime – when I’ve had a few wines I’m more tempted to endlessly scroll Instagram or be transfixed by a screen. Now, it’s easier to put my phone or device away at night and pick up a book. I have the clarity and focus to read, but without the dulling of alcohol, I’m more attuned to when when I’m tired, so I’m more likely to fall asleep at a decent hour. Keeping screens out of the bedroom and reading, that’s two dominos in one swoop.  

Eliminating alcohol has also meant that my sleep quality is better, giving me more energy the next morning. Because I have a clear head in the morning, I have developed a journaling habit that I’ve stuck to for 60 consecutive days – this is no small feat for someone who has picked up and neglected doing morning pages countless times over the last five years. I’m also making healthier food choices and I’ve been trialling intermittent fasting because the discipline of not drinking has brought a thirst for discipline in other areas of my wellbeing. Feeling healthier, I exercise with more gusto. Journaling, avoiding sugar, and regular exercise, that’s another three dominos all thanks to not drinking.

Be it reading before bed or running for that extra five minutes might sound like small, insignificant habits, but given the difficulty I’ve in the past with incorporating them into my daily life, this slow and steady accumulation of habits feels sort of remarkable. Previously, I thought I needed more self-control, when really I just needed to find the starting piece to create an almost effortless knock-on effect.

Not everyone’s knock-on habit will be abstaining from alcohol – for many, alcohol doesn’t present a problem. But for me, on reflection, alcohol not only kept me stuck by ruining my plans for a given morning, but I was also drawn to it because I was stuck.

In Drinking: A Love Story, writer Carline Knapp describes two types of choices we face again and again in our daily lives: the alcoholic choice and the healthy choice:

“The alcoholic choice is the self-sabotaging one, the one that makes you feel self-pitying or resentful or somehow defeated. The healthy choice is the one that reinforces your vision of yourself as a better person, more in charge of your life, equipped with options.”

Reading that description, I recognised that alcoholic choices don’t have to involve alcohol – I’m someone who is drawn to self-sabotage, with or without alcohol, but I’ve got a better chance of making the healthy choice without it as a trigger.

Knapp also explains that the little things like going for a walk or a jog might sound insignificant, until you uncover the true struggle behind doing them each day:

“These can sound silly and beside the point until you realise that the struggle is really with passivity and self-loathing, with the mundane activities and daily decisions that can determine how you see yourself form moment to moment. Do you sit there entrenched in inertia? Do you yield to the fear of motion, yield to the vision of yourself as lazy and unworthy and bad? Or do you get up off the damn porch and do something? Do you show yourself that you’re competent and capable and decent? Passivity is corrosive to the soul; it feeds on feelings of integrity and pride, and it can be as tempting as a drug.” 

Alcohol wasn’t my drug – passivity was. And it still is. Now that I don’t have a hangover to cloud my view or numb my feelings, I have to confront my inner critic who regularly tells me I’m lazy and unworthy and bad. This critic wants me to indulge in passivity, because then I stay safe and small. That’s difficult to admit – and mixed with ambitious tendencies it’s even harder to reconcile – but finally recognising this pattern allows me to do something, to start putting the domino pieces in a row and allow the winding, meandering path to come into view.

The antidote to passivity  

The vision we have of ourselves is everything – especially when it comes to picking ourselves up repeatedly to do creative work. It requires courage and discipline and belief in ourselves and reinforcement of that belief.  

It’s fine to not do something – to not write a book, to not go to the gym first thing in the morning, to not create every day.  But what can be corrosive to the soul is saying you’re going to do something and then not doing it. This pattern of setting expectations and then creating disappointment reinforces to yourself that you’re the kind of person who doesn’t follow through, who breaks promises, who procrastinations, who disappoints themselves. It creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that can lead to shame. It keeps you passive.

This pattern could be avoided by either not placing the expectation in the first instance, or following through with what you say you’re going to do.

For me, not drinking has made the follow through easier.

This doesn’t mean that I’m following through in every part of my life with no stumbles – dominos inevitably fall out of line. Three months without alcohol and I feel better but also worse. I can see even more habits to cultivate and more areas to grow.

But what I’ve learned as I slowly step out of passivity is that I don’t need to focus on the gap or what I still need to improving because the process of change isn’t linear.

I’m reminded of how Anais Nin describes growth:

“We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow sometimes in one dimension, and not in another; unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are mature in one realm, childish in another. The past, present, and future mingle and pull us backward, forward, or fix us in the present. We are made up of layers, cells, constellations.”

Sometimes when we are changing it can also feel like we are falling flat – we judge that, without realising falling flat is exactly what we need in order to push into the next thing and to find the next domino.

Change is often two steps forward, one step back. In the words of Julia Cameron, “You are capable of great things on Tuesday, but on Wednesday you may slide backward.”

The important thing is that I’ve found what helps me to get things moving – and movement is key. When we sit in any one position for too long we make it harder to move – for me, procrastination can propel the procrastination. 

Find your starting piece, the first domino, and begin with that. Be it not drinking, be it going to an exercise class as soon as the day breaks, be it going to the grocery store on a Sunday night to provide a sense of preparation and control over the week, find the thing that helps give you clarity. Find the thing that helps you take the first, often difficult step of setting things in motion and stepping into your life.

The other pieces will inevitably fall into view. As Knapp puts it:

“Better. The word seems thin, even a little deceptive. Sobriety is less about ‘getting better’ in a clear, linear sense than it is about subjecting yourself to change, to the inevitable ups and downs, fears and feelings, victories and failures, that accompany growth. You do get better – or at least you can – but that happens almost by default, by the simple fact of being present in your own life, of being aware and able, finally, to act on the connections you make.”


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Madeleine Dore