Morning Drinking

There are a few fairly nonsensical indicators when it comes to problem drinking. Things like drinking alone and experiencing memory loss. I doubt there is a serious drinker on the planet who hasn’t had drinking induced memory loss to one degree or another, unless they are one of the temperate few who never drank more then they intended. As for drinking alone, surely someone who has a glass of two in front of the telly one or two days a week has far less of an issue than someone who drinks to oblivion every night with friends (or acquaintances) in the local pub or bar.

Morning drinking is another one, it is often cited as a symptom of problem drinking, but that means that everyone who has had a morning drink at a wedding, or at Christmas, or at the airport before going on holiday, had a drinking problem.

As you can see all of these so called symptoms of problem drinking are very subjective, but I think that morning drinking, if not a symptom of having a drinking problem per se, can be a significant stepping stone on the journey to chronic alcoholism.

My ‘morning drinks’ were actually middle of the night drinks. Whenever I drank I would always wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning, anxious and utterly unable to get back to sleep despite being absolutely shattered. I would lie there unable to sleep for the rest of the night and get out of bed even more shattered in the morning than before I went to bed. I now know that the reason for this was simply that my brain had released naturally occurring stimulants to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol, and after a few hours as the alcohol was processed and removed from my body the stimulants would remain, leaving me nervous and unable to sleep (for more detail on this see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which you can read here). However all I knew at the time was that I would have dreadful insomnia when I drank.

Anyway one day I was reading a book (I think it was ‘It’ by Stephen King) and in it one of the characters would keep a can of beer back to drink in the night when they woke up with a hangover so they could get back to sleep. So one night I tried it. The effect was astounding.

One drink removed the nervous, anxious feeling, replaced it with a feeling of calmness and contentment and, above, all, sleepiness. I went to bed and got straight back to sleep.

The problem of course is the same problem every drinker has throughout their drinking career; specifically that you need an ever increasing amount to get the same effect. The first time I had a night drink I needed one drink to feel calm and content and able to go back to sleep, but soon I needed two then three then four. And so it went on.

The physiological reason is fairly simple. If you drink a substantial amount every night, the brain has the stimulants ready to go later in the day. Take a drink in the morning (or in the night) and the brain isn’t ready for it, it has no stimulants ready to counter the alcohol, so one drink and you’re off and away. But the brain learns quickly, and very quickly starts to create ever more stimulants, and has them ready morning, noon or night, whenever you regularly have a drink.

So if you do take a morning drink just to get rid of the worst of the hangover, it may well do that, but in no time at all that one drink will become 2 then 3 then 4, and soon you’ll just be embarking on another drinking session in the morning, just to get going.

That is exactly what happened to me as my night drinking turned from one to two to three to four and so on. The problem is it is not just the amount of drinks that increases, but also the amount of time it takes to drink them. The increase happens incrementally (as our drinking does) and as ever it’s a sudden wake up call that makes us realise how badly things are deteriorating. We all have our low points, or rock bottoms. If you are anything like me you have several, but one of my lowest points was waking up at night nervous, anxious and unable to sleep, getting up and sitting on the sofa and drinking away, and just as I was feeling sleepy enough to get back to sleep, hearing the morning alarm go off and then realising I was absolutely staggering drunk, so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open, and having a full day at work ahead of me.

And today I was talking to someone and said I didn’t drink, and they asked if I missed it. Miss it? I still cannot get over the joy of being free from it. I just thank my lucky stars I got out when I did, and had the knowledge I had to allow me to escape.

Moderating

Karyn recently asked about my doing a blog post amplifying the concept of the ‘stimulant vs depressant’ side of alcohol consumption, and its impact on moderation. This coincided with someone sending me an email asking about moderation. Hence this post.

I am not going to go over the basics of the physiological effects of drinking in detail (you can find them in the ‘First 5 Chapters’ part of the website in Chapter 2 if you are not familiar with them) suffice to say the human brain seeks to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol by releasing stimulants. However the human brain only has a limited supply of these stimulants. In the normal course of events only a very small amount of them are needed, however to counter the alcohol (which is a powerful chemical depressant) it needs far more of them. Over time therefore the brain creates more and more of them, and even becomes proficient enough to release them in response to expected, rather than actual, drinks drunk. For example if every time you drink you drink 8 drinks, as soon as that first drink hits your bloodstream your brain will release stimulants to counter the alcohol in the full 8 drinks, not just the one you have already drunk. This is why, for many, the first drink will actually ‘pick them up’ even though alcohol is a chemical depressant (along with the fact that alcohol anaesthetises feelings of tiredness).

I can think of a couple of occasions (literally 2 during 25 years of drinking) when I had 2 drinks and tried to have no more. On both occasions I couldn’t sleep. I realise now that I was so used to drinking more, that my brain would release stimulants to counter the dozen or so drinks I would usually drink, rather than the two I had actually taken. On one occasion I just lay there tossing and turning all night, on the other I made it to the off licence just before it closed and picked up a substantial amount more to drink.
For this reason I conclude that moderation isn’t an option. But just as the brain gets used to heavy drinking, cannot it not re adjust to lighter drinking? What if, for example, I took just two drinks and suffered the stimulant onslaught (if I can call it that) and kept doing this say, every three days? Would my system readjust to the smaller amount of alcohol? I don’t know for definite but logic would dictate it must do. How long would it take? Again I can only guess but it would be days or weeks, rather than months or years, judging from how long it takes the brain to read adjust from other drugs. So isn’t this a way to moderate?
I think the first question must be would it be worth the effort? It would be a fairly unpleasant process. For me the answer is simple; absolutely not. This is because I no longer see any pleasure in drinking at all, indeed I see it as detracting from my personal happiness and mental resilience, so even if could guarantee it would work I have no interest in drinking again.
The next question to address is would it work long term? We already know the answer to this because we’ve experienced it before. We’d go through the same process as when we drank the first time, which is to slowly (or quickly) increase our intake as our ’tolerence’ (which is the name we use to describe the brain’s ability to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol) increased. So even if you were to go through the painful process of reducing your tolerance, the natural tendency would be for it to keep increasing. You would, I think, have to keep going through the ‘stimulant onslaught’ process every few weeks (or even days) to keep bringing the tolerance down.
However there is another factor to consider and this is not physiological but mental. The fact is that long term heavy drinking leads to your learning, on both a conscious and subconscious level, that the withdrawal from alcohol (no matter how slight) can be relieved by another drink. Even if you could return your ‘tolerence’ to its original pre-drinking level, the mental associations would remain. I cannot think of a way of reversing this aspect so the unpleasant physiological process would ultimately be for nothing. Even the very mild alcohol withdrawal of the first time drinker is enough to cause the desire for another drink in anyone who associates the relief of this withdrawal with another drink.
The final overriding point to make is that a person would only want to moderate if they retain some belief that there is some genuine pleasure in drinking. Although I always say that Alcohol Explained is information and ideas, rather than doctrine and instruction, and it is up to the individual to accept or reject it as they see fit, and to put anything they find useful to whatever use they see fit, I can’t help but think that if a person wants to moderate they have somehow missed one or more points somewhere along the line.