I was thinking recently about those first few drinks that you have after you have stopped for a while. Those times when you simply ‘give up giving up’. These are always, generally speaking, the worst drinks we will ever have. There are three specific reasons for this that I will be covering off.
Firstly, as we know, alcohol works best when it is relieving symptoms that it has previously caused. A more detailed explanation of this can be found in chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained page which can be found here. However to recap briefly the brain contains a huge store of naturally occurring hormones and drugs (like adrenaline) which it releases at exactly the right time and exactly the right quantities to keep us functioning to our optimal level. It is a very delicate balance and when it is working properly we feel resilient and positive. Alcohol is a chemical depressant (and by this I mean it is something that depresses or inhibits nerve activity). This upsets this delicate balance so the brain seeks to counter the depressant effects of the alcohol by releasing its own naturally occurring stimulants. The alcohol is then processed and removed from our bodies leaving just the stimulants behind. This leaves us feeling anxious, nervous and even out and out depressed (depending on the severity of the withdrawal). When we then drink more alcohol this depresses excess stimulants leaving us feeling more relaxed and feeling far more resilient than before we had a drink. However this feeling of relaxation and resilience is only the feeling of returning to how we would have felt had we never had the first drink in the first place. In this way whenever you have a drink after a period of abstinence it never gives the boost or high that you are actually fantasising about in the first place, because there are no excess stimulants for the alcohol to counter. A drink will leave you feeling slightly dulled, but it won’t give you that boost you were seeking.
The second aspect of this we need to also factor in is that when human beings are happy and relaxed and socialising their brain releases dopamine, which is the feel good, naturally occurring drug. When you have dopamine in you, you feel great. The key here however is that you have to feel relaxed and happy for the dopamine to be released. Because most of our drinking, particularly in the early years, is done in social situations, we are fooled into thinking that the dopamine high we are enjoying is actually an alcohol high. This is a point we need to be clear on. The good feeling you get in social situations is not from the alcohol it is from the dopamine. Alcohol gets the credit it does not deserve. The key point however is that you only get the dopamine high when you are happy and relaxed. If you have stopped drinking and are finally giving in, and giving up your attempt to stop drinking, you are unlikely to be happy and relaxed, you are more likely to be feeling miserable and defeated. So when you take that drink there will no dopamine buzz, you will just end up feeling (on the physical side) slightly dulled.
The third aspect of this is the craving cycle (for details on this see chapter 4 of Alcohol Explained which can be found here). If you are someone who considers that they have a problem with drinking then starting again is never pleasant. It is always preceded by an unpleasant internal mental battle, which is essentially a bout of lying to oneself. People don’t just pick up that first drink and drink it, they go through a mental process trying to justify their taking it. So they may tell themselves that they don’t have a problem, or that they will just have one or two, or that this time it will be different, whatever. Essentially we go through a process of justifying our decision to drink again. However we know on a very basic level that these are just lies and excuses. We may tell ourselves that this time it will be different, that this time will stay in control, but we know from personal experience over many years that this is nonsense.
Let’s take a fairly standard situation. Let’s say you are out at a party, out with friends, or at a wedding. You’re miserable because you can’t drink. You eventually give in and take a drink. Firstly the effect you are craving from having a drink isn’t there. As we’ve already covered the ‘pleasure’ of drinking comes either from relieving the withdrawal of the symptoms that alcohol has previously caused, or from a dopamine high that is in fact nothing to do with the alcohol. If you haven’t been drinking for a few days there are no such symptoms to relieve, and if you are miserable because you have been craving a drink and / or are now losing your battle to stop you won’t get any dopamine high. So the drink will do nothing for you, it certainly won’t give you the boost you were fantasising about. So at this stage you are even more miserable. You’ve’ given in, you’ve failed to stop, you are now right back to square one, and you’ve not even got the boost you wanted. So what do you do? You anaesthetise the misery by taking another drink. This is why so many people, when they start drinking again, refer to the processes hitting the ‘fuck it’ button. It usually dissolves into a complete mess.
The following morning things are different of course. We not only have the misery of knowing we have failed yet again, but we also have the physiological withdraw from alcohol making us feel even more anxious and depressed. So what do we do? Well, there’s only one thing to do, take another drink. This drink of course will give us a boost as we have the stimulants left over from last night’s drinking to relieve, so a drink the following morning will actually make us feel significantly better by relieving the anxiety caused, in large part, to the previous day’s drinking.
The key point to bear in mind is it if you have stopped drinking for anything over 3 to 5 days there is no physical withdrawal to relieve, and the dopamine high is unrelated to the alcohol. So if you do take a drink it will do nothing for you on the physiological side (other than leave you feeling slightly dulled), and on the mental side it will leave you feeling extremely miserable because you have once again failed to stop. You also need to bear in mind that the sole reason you reach for a drink to begin with is due to the mental craving spiral. This is a process it takes part in the conscious mind and is therefore within our power to control.