David Belenky shares his personal recovery story following the Sinclair Method (TSM)
How Switching from AA to TSM Cured My Drinking Problem
And Why It Was The Hardest Change I’ve Ever Made
By David Belenky
I’ve always been an anxious person. Never one to handle stress well, I get easily overwhelmed, and when someone tells me to “take a deep breath,” I immediately go into an arresting state of panic. I am also a desperate people-pleaser. I want so badly for people to tell me that I’m ‘good’ or ‘special’ enough to justify a spot on this planet. Coupled with some wicked genetics, there was no way that Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) wasn’t going to dig its claws into me.
Most people that share all these varying qualities find alcohol to be a great relief. I will never forget when I finally hit my first genuine buzz from a bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. It not only relaxed me and quieted my ADHD brain, it also gave me the courage I needed to navigate my way through the most challenging social situations. I truly believed that it was the answer to all my struggles.
My love affair with alcohol started innocently in my early twenties. Once I found it, I always knew that the best of adventures awaited me every time I cracked open the bottle. Once I got into early recovery in an abstinence program, I was shocked how much I had in common with other people with alcohol issues. The stories varied, but the common theme that seemed to run through us all like sweet bourbon was that we just didn’t feel comfortable in our skin. Or, as someone else put it, didn’t feel like we ever had skin at all.
A problem with being a people-pleaser is that we don’t want anyone to see us tumble. I made sure that I never dared do anything embarrassing or obvious enough to broadcast my struggles to the world. What would people say? So, though I knew I had a problem with alcohol, I just didn’t have the wreckage to back up the need to make a change. And, as a result, I didn’t—for almost twenty years.
The common theme that seemed to run through us all like sweet bourbon was that we just didn’t feel comfortable in our skin. Or, as someone else put it, didn’t feel like we ever had skin at all.
The problem for me was that, not only was my drinking becoming more interesting than my sober life, my sober days were becoming fewer and further between. Also, I learned the hard way that pouring copious amounts of wine on antidepressants not only makes you more depressed and anxious, but can also cause crippling panic attacks that send you to the hospital. It became clear to me that my body and spirit were staging an intervention.
So, being a genuinely terrified person, I threw myself into the most popular abstinence program in the world. My friends and family were shocked. I’d been quite successful in hiding most of my binge drinking, and most of them thought I was a pleasant drinker. They did not know that inside my head, I was just scared and desperate. I had reached a crossroads where my life was filled with too many hangovers, and I was worried nothing special would ever happen to me. I needed to make a change.
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My Time With the Program: Why It Worked, and Why It Didn’t
Though I was legitimately freaked out, I kept an open mind in this popular abstinence program. Not uncommon to those entering this new environment for the first time, however, I was overtaken by a sense of rage. It wasn’t that I didn’t identify with a lot of what I heard; it’s just that I couldn’t believe this was an issue I was going to have to battle one day at a time for the rest of my life. Sometimes I drank too much. But sometimes, I didn’t. I wasn’t always powerless. By the way, in the program and in life, that’s called denial. But it was also the truth.
I realized early on, despite the well-intentions of the curriculum and its fellowship, something was amiss. The admission I kept from my brethren was that I didn’t want a new program to replace the old program. Also, despite my penchant for binge drinking, I didn’t believe I had a shortage of spiritualism, or that I owed the world a massive apology for my behavior. As a Reformed Jew, I believe in self-reflection and the occasional atonement. I didn’t feel this was a major reason why I struggled with drinking. However, committed to making the program work, I tucked all these objections away. For two and a half years, I did what I was told.
When asked how I was doing in my new recovery, my most shameful secret was that, despite all the good intentions and support being offered me, this wasn’t working.
But although the chips and cakes came in abundance, there was never a ‘pink cloud’ for this once joyful person. Being the willful person I am, I stayed sober. Admittedly, I was scared. I didn’t want to die, and the little I knew about AUD led me to think this was the only option I had. But when asked how I was doing in my new recovery, my most shameful secret was that, despite all the good intentions and support being offered me, this wasn’t working. I was more miserable than I was before walking in the door.
I did have a fabulous sponsor who tried everything he could to convince me of this path. But deep down, I knew I needed more than ‘fellowship’ to be free of this affliction. I confessed to him that I felt I had no agency over my beliefs. Everything I said or did to question the program was my ‘alcoholic brain’ talking, trying to prevent me from giving myself over to this simple program. One member even suggested that more service to others would alleviate this ‘stinking thinking.’
More problematic, I still craved alcohol. No amount of prayers or meetings could take away the constant cloying need to drink and calm my mind. And worse, the longer I abstained, the worse my cravings got. Only later did I learn that what I was experiencing was a common part of recovery: It’s called the Alcohol Deprivation Effect. In layman’s terms, the longer you abstain from alcohol, the more you want it. I could understand why so many long-term ‘sober alcoholics’ find themselves in a full-blown binge after slipping up and having one drink, and I found the prospect frightening and exhausting.
Visiting my family, my mother inquired about my sobriety. I couldn’t lie to her. I told her that, although things seemed better on the surface, I just wished I wasn’t here on this planet anymore. I broke down and sobbed. In my first actual intervention, she put her arms around me and said, “We need to find another option for you. There must be another way.” She told me, “This is anguish. This isn’t living.”
Finding Another Solution
Around that same time, I came across Claudia Christian’s documentary, One Little Pill. In it, she describes how she overcame her alcohol addiction through something called the Sinclair Method (TSM). Rather than quitting immediately, she continued to drink while taking the medication naltrexone, gradually rewiring her brain to stop craving alcohol until reaching a state called “extinction”—a total lack of interest in drinking.
I was intrigued but highly skeptical. Who wouldn’t be? Engaging in a given behavior to undo that very same behavior seemed not only counterintuitive, but just plain bonkers. This recovery method was incongruous to everything I’d been taught about people’s relationship with alcohol. But I needed to find another approach. I discussed this with my parents, and though they weren’t sure either, they thought it would be helpful to consult an addiction specialist.
Engaging in a given behavior to undo that very same behavior seemed not only counterintuitive, but just plain bonkers … But I needed to find another approach.
Back in Los Angeles, fertile land of both vice and recovery, I made an appointment with the Solstice Clinic in Beverly Hills. I met with a very compassionate doctor, told him my history, and asked if what I’d seen regarding naltrexone and the Sinclair Method was valid, or if I’d just fallen into a river of snake oil. He asked me, “Do you think you’re an alcoholic or a problem drinker?”
I was stunned. “What’s the difference?” He sighed, “A lot.” He then began to explain the varying degrees of AUD, and the many different treatment options that were slowly but surely seeing the light of day. Most recovery programs have been operating on a “one-size-fits-all” model, he explained, but what works for some people fundamentally doesn’t work for everybody.
Considering my personal history, the doctor felt a lot of my problems with alcohol were behavior-based. With a combination of anti-craving medication and regular cognitive behavioral therapy, he was optimistic I could outdo the habit. As he handed me the naltrexone prescription, he warned me, “this isn’t a magic pill.” I needed to consider why I put so much stock in drinking, and what I wanted my relationship with alcohol to look like once I really had the choice. But, he concluded, the Sinclair Method was a fast-growing legitimate option, and I was a worthy candidate.
I left his office, freaked-out and confused. I realized I had some serious thinking—or un-thinking—to do. What if it didn’t work? What if I picked up a drink, spiraled into a full-blown binge, and died? It sounds dramatic, but come on, there are dead bodies surrounding this issue! Or, what if it did work? Would everything I learned the last few years have been for naught?
He warned me, “this isn’t a magic pill.” I needed to consider why I put so much stock in drinking, and what I wanted my relationship with alcohol to look like once I really had the choice.
For a month, the prescription collected dust. I knew I had to make a change, but I was paralyzed with fear. I even talked to my sponsor about it. With twenty years of sobriety in the program under his belt, I half expected him to tell me I was nuts for even considering TSM. But he surprised me. “Well, what if this does work?” he said sheepishly. “Our literature does proclaim, ‘science may one day find a cure…’.” He told me that, regardless of how things turned out, he wanted to be the first person I called if anything happened and I wanted to return.
So, I filled the prescription. I told my friends and my family about my new plan. You never unsee the sight of someone you care about looking back at you, eyes glazed over like you’ve lost your mind. But I had to go forward. One otherwise ordinary Tuesday evening, I popped the pill, waited an hour, and poured myself a glass of cheap Rosé.
Trying TSM: Drinking to Quit Drinking?
As I brought the wine glass to my lips, I was petrified. I took a few sips and after a couple of uneventful minutes, poured the rest down the drain. It just didn’t do what I needed it to do. But this was also the first time, and I’m sure my will to want TSM to succeed kept me out of the red zone that night.
I held off for a week and drank again. It felt like riding a bike—this time without air in the tires. But, I peddled on. And I got drunk. The following day, I had such a terrible hangover. I couldn’t believe I was back here again.
The next few months were probably the most challenging period in my life. Though my friends in my former program didn’t shun me, a feeling of failure, so profound, overcame my emotions. I was no longer on the “righteous path.” Death was waiting for me just around the corner. I had gone out. I had let go. The terms and phrases I had absorbed in the program were burned into my mind, and the mental gymnastics involved were daunting. I was scared, and I felt like a fool.
My addiction specialist encouraged me to stay the course. “Since it took you almost half your life to learn how to become a problem drinker,” he said, “it’s going to take you a bit of time to unlearn this behavior.” I thought he was nuts. I thought I was nuts. But although it certainly didn’t feel courageous at the time, I knew I had to see this through.
So I kept marching on. For months, as I continued drinking on naltrexone, I couldn’t really gauge if it was working. Yes, drinking felt different, but there were times where if I wanted to get drunk, I could push through and get drunk.
It wasn’t until the fifth month when I had my first TSM revelation: I suddenly realized that drinking didn’t give me what I needed anymore.
It wasn’t until the fifth month when I had my first TSM revelation: I suddenly realized that drinking didn’t give me what I needed anymore.
When people drink to excess, they’re often just looking to blot out or obliterate their consciousness. That’s the sweet spot. And for me, drinking on naltrexone, that “sweet spot” increasingly just wasn’t there. Instead, not drinking felt way more satisfying. And what was extraordinary about this revelation was that, given the option to drink, I actually just didn’t want to. The longing had disappeared.
I increasingly found myself able to pause, and think through whether or not I really wanted that drink. And more and more, I was finding it easy to justify not picking up that glass. After all of those years memorizing theory and repeating sayings, I had finally found a way to brainwash myself into not wanting alcohol.
Sticking With TSM, Long-Term
Three years later, in total compliance with TSM, I can say I’ve reached a new catharsis. Having fixed the chemical and biological aspects of my drinking in the first year, I spent the next two years uncovering the underlying issues behind why I used alcohol the way I did. I’ve explored cognitive behavioral therapy, yoga, and meditation to varying degrees of success. It isn’t always a walk in the park, but I’m finding that working through these issues is much easier now that my obsession with alcohol is off the table.
People want to know all the time, “how’s your drinking?” I tell them that on occasion I do still imbibe, but it no longer has the power it once had over me. A malaise of ambivalence to drinking and all that goes with it has settled in my mind, and I know this is the medication at work.
I’m often asked, “if you’re not getting what you want from alcohol, don’t you think you’ll eventually stop taking the pill?” Not take the pill? Not on your life. If I was diagnosed with diabetes and had to treat it with insulin, do you think I’d experiment with not taking it? I do not know if I will ever stop drinking completely, but I know I will never drink again without naltrexone. I know what that life looks like, and it’s just not a place I ever want to go back to.
Over time it’s become clearer how much the process was really about gaining control over my life … the ability to make choices and feel in charge of my own path has been crucial in moving forward, and feeling more comfortable in my skin.
Truthfully, when people have success on TSM, they get their lives back and then disappear—that’s the nature of the game. There’s no attending meetings for the rest of your life, or permanently identifying as an alcoholic, and for many of us that’s a great relief.
But I do want others to have some access to my experience. Because for me, it wasn’t just unlearning my drinking behavior through TSM that was a revelation. The process of transitioning from regular recovery to medication treatment was one of the most profoundly challenging things I’ve ever done. It was confusing, frightening, and I’ve never felt so alone in my life. I always wished I had someone who had gone through what I was going through to identify with.
What I want people to know is that moving from a traditional program to TSM was in no way easy for me. But over time it’s become clearer how much the process was really about gaining control over my life. Like anyone in or around recovery, I want to make myself better, healthier, and live a life that is fulfilling. While I’m still unpacking the whole thing, it really seems like the ability to make choices and feel in charge of my own path has been crucial in moving forward, and feeling more comfortable in my skin.
When I first left the program, I often felt like everyone was going to see me as weak or a failure. But, more and more, I’m open to the possibility that what I did was not weak at all. That finding another path was, in fact, courageous.