How “Playing the Tape Forward” Helped Me Stay Sober
Why this visualization technique is one of the most powerful recovery tools that I know.
I got sober two-and-a-half years ago, ending a nasty drinking habit that had lasted throughout my twenties.
It wasn’t my first attempt to quit drinking, but it was the one that finally stuck.
I’ve been asked before what made this time different from all the others. One of the things that helped was a new visualization tool I learned, called “playing the tape forward.”
“Playing the tape forward” is a technique used to help cope with drinking cravings and urges. When a craving appears, I pictured what would happen if I gave in. I imagined buying that first drink, and asked myself what I would do next. Then I’d ask myself what would happen after that.
When I continued on in this way, “playing the tape forward” in my mind, it eventually showed me exactly how that first drink would inevitably lead me straight back into the depths of my addiction.
The goal of the exercise is to be as honest with ourselves as possible. We try to stay objective as we play through the “tape” of our possible future.
As addicts, we often tell ourselves lies like “I’ll just have one drink.” By imagining where that one drink will lead, we can understand it’s true consequences. As a result, it’s easier to resist.
Getting Through Withdrawal
I used this technique the most during my first few days of abstinence, while I was still going through physical and mental alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
During those days, there was a little voice in my head constantly trying to talk myself into having “just one beer.” That part of me was still craving alcohol so badly that I’d come up with all kinds of irrational excuses to justify it.
I told myself that the withdrawal symptoms were just too much and that if I had a beer or two, it would be just enough to take the edge off.
I tried to convince myself that I could take a break from sobriety for the night, and pick up where I left off the next morning.
As irrational as this thinking is, it can be very hard to resist while in the middle of withdrawing from a decade long addiction.
That’s where “playing the tape forward” came in.
I’d imagine going to the store to buy a beer. Right away I’d realize that I wouldn’t actually be buying one beer, I’d end up buying a six-pack.
From there, I’d go back home, and drink a beer, telling myself it would just be the one. As I keep playing the tape forward, I can see how I’d talk myself into beer after beer, until the six-pack was gone.
After the first beer, I’d tell myself that I needed another, to at least feel some kind of buzz. After the second beer, I would decide that since I’d broken my sobriety, I might as well go all out for the night.
And what would happen the morning after that? I might go back to trying to get sober. More likely, I’d wake up feeling embarrassed and full of regret. I’d beat myself up over the failed attempt to quit drinking, and I’d decide that I wasn’t ready for sobriety yet.
From there, it would likely be a week or even a month before I tried again.
How could I picture this all so clearly? Because it had happened to me countless times before. “Playing the tape forward” allowed me to learn from my previous failures.
Instead of giving into my cravings for “just one beer,” I pictured exactly how that beer would turn into weeks of heavy drinking.
Understanding the full consequences of the beer helped me to resist the cravings. I wasn’t deciding between one night of drinking vs. one night of sobriety — I was deciding between sobriety and relapse.
“Playing the tape forward” was an instrumental tool for getting through the first few days without alcohol, and it continued to be important for me long after the withdrawal symptoms had passed.
For months after quitting drinking, I still had occasional cravings for alcohol.
I often had thoughts about moderation. I thought that since I had lasted a few months without alcohol, maybe I could go back to drinking, this time limiting it to just a day or two a week.
“Playing the tape forward” helped me resist this type of thinking as well.
I’d imagine what would really happen if I started drinking on the weekends. It might last a few weeks, but soon I’d start finding excuses to drink during the week too — a birthday party or a happy hour at work.
From there, it wouldn’t take long until I started drinking for no reason at all. Within a month or two, I’d be right back to drinking every day.
I knew this was the case because just like with the withdrawal cravings, I had been through it all before. I had tried to moderate my drinking in the past, and I had always failed.
“Playing the tape forward” forced me to really reflect on my past failures, and visualize exactly how they would play out again if I made those same mistakes.
I’ve been sober now for over two and a half years. These days, I thankfully don’t need to rely on the trick anymore. I’ve finally reached a place where I don’t want that first drink at all, so there’s no longer anything to talk myself out of.
I never would have made it here though, if it wasn’t for “playing the tape forward.”
For anyone in recovery who still gets those cravings and thoughts of moderation, I’d recommend giving the technique a try. The addicted brain will talk you into all kinds of irrational decisions. “Playing the tape forward” helps you fight back.