Self-Image

Self-image is a mental picture we have of ourselves. Is it very resistant to change and determines how we act and react, and how we deal with difficult and challenging situations. It is made up in part of a long lasting and stable set of memories. There are various studies to show that this self-image is self-perpetuating, in other words if we see ourselves in a certain way then we act in accordance with that and therefore reinforce our beliefs about ourselves.

If you are someone who has been drinking regularly for several years or decades, then being a drinker will be an integral part of your self-image. You will know on both a conscious and unconscious level that drinking will provide a boost in certain situations (for a full explanation of this see Chapters 2 and 3 of Alcohol Explained, which you can read here). Part of your self-image will be that you are someone who reaches for a drink in certain situations, good and bad. If you think for example about losing your partner, children, house, job etc. you will immediately see yourself taking a drink to deal with that situation.

The problem is of course that when many people try to stop drinking they just do it by cutting out the drink. But just deciding to quit drinking is not enough to stop us, because our self-image remains unchanged, and our self-image is that of a drinker, someone who reaches for a drink in good times and bad.

Stop for a moment now and think. Imagine a situation where you lose your whole family in a car crash, you are left alone in the world. You also lose your job at the same time, but also win the lottery. Do you see yourself dealing with this huge and integral change of circumstances without drinking? Or do you imagine taking a drink? If the latter then your self-image, to a certain degree, is still that of a drinker, whether you have stopped or not.

Some people, when they stop drinking, do manage to change their self-image and start to see them selves as a non-drinker, however many (even those who may have stopped for many years) haven’t changed this self-image. Self-image isn’t just made up of our view of ourselves based on our own experiences, it is also made up of those people that we look up to and aspire to be like. No just famous people like our heroes and heroines, but also our friends and family, even colleagues and acquaintances.

I grew up near Wimbledon in the 1980’s, legends of Oliver Reed’s antics were regularly told (and still are). I grew up reading Bulldog Drummond, James Bond, and Richard Sharpe. My close family all drank, so did my friends. My self-image was formed around this background, and in good times and bad drinks were poured and all the good and bad that life threw up was taken with a drink. Every time something happened, good or bad, I would think about dealing with it by taking a drink. Later in life I found great pleasure in watching WC Fields, Charlie Harper, and Homer Simpson. My self-image was self-perpetuating because I would be most interested in the hard drinkers and the drunks, I would seek them out and watch them, and they would become my role model, my justification if you like for my heavy drinking. I would see myself in their image, not in reality. I was not a pathetic, overweight, physically weak alcoholic, I was the loveable rogue, the tough hardened drinker.

Self-image not only causes us to act in a certain way, it also provides a way to justify how we act. Do you see members of ISIS who torture helpless prisoners to death as scum who need to be wiped off the face of the earth? Or brave and strong individuals taking a stand against an insane world that is spiralling into greater and greater degradation?

How do you think they see themselves?

Do you see yourself as a drinker? Or a non-drinker?

If you are still drinking do you see yourself as someone who is addicted to a drug that makes you fat and weak and lazy and as emotionally unstable as a spoilt toddler? Or do you still see yourself as the tough guy, or the sophisticated lady, as the life and soul of the party?

Changing your self-image is hard, and it isn’t just a case of realising that how you see yourself as a drinker is absolute nonsense, you also need to replace it with something else.

I was always someone who dismissed personal stories about people giving up drink. I always said if someone has managed to stop drinking why should that stop me? Their situation is different to mine, and if it wasn’t I’d have no reason to read their book anyway, as I’d already have lived it! But of course, why these books are so powerful is that they provide us with examples of people who have stopped drinking and deal with life without drink, they provide us with someone we can emulate or even look up to who deals with life on its own terms, without having to have a drink in their hand.

If you have stopped drinking but find you do have the odd thought about taking a drink in certain (often in particularly unusual or unlikely circumstances) then it may be that you still, to one degree or another, have the self-image of a drinker. If you do then you need to start working to change your self-image, you need to find people who you respect and wish to emulate, who do not drink. But you need to be careful. You need to modify your self-image into something positive. If is it something negative you will be miserable and the chances are you will end up drinking again. This is one of the problems with the traditional AA approach. Of all the people I met at AA only one of them was genuinely happy to have stopped drinking. Everyone else, without exception, was miserable to one degree or another, and had to constantly work at their recovery. Relapse was common and even expected. If you have spent years building the self-image of a drinker, then you go to AA meetings and your only experience of people who have stopped drinking are people who are miserable and have to slog through every day just to stay stopped (indeed chances are you sponsor will be exactly this sort of person) then this will form your new self-image. These people will be your new friends, companions, and brothers (or sisters) in arms. You may no longer see yourself as someone who reaches for a drink when something terrible happens, but you will most likely end up seeing yourself as someone who sits there miserable and afraid and fighting cravings and having to go to meetings 10 times a day every time something bad happens to you. This is no good.

Start seeing yourself as exactly what you are; someone who has stopped poisoning themselves with an addictive drug, a drug that has made you weaker (mentally and physically), fatter, unpleasant and unable to deal with even the most benign of upsets. As a consequence of stopping you are stronger (mentally and physically), fitter and better able to deal with whatever life throws at you. Start analysing your drinking role models. Are they pure fiction anyway (like James Bond)? Or even if they are real people do you really believe they were enjoying every minute of their drinking lives, or do you think they were going through the same nightmare you were when you were drinking? I read that just before he died WC Fields said ‘I wonder it would have been like without alcohol?’, and Oliver Reed’s infamous death in a Maltese bar came after several months sobriety, so he was clearly trying desperately to stop.

Self-Image

Self-image is a mental picture we have of ourselves. Is it very resistant to change and determines how we act and react, and how we deal with difficult and challenging situations. It is made up in part of a long lasting and stable set of memories. There are various studies to show that this self-image is self-perpetuating, in other words if we see ourselves in a certain way then we act in accordance with that and therefore reinforce our beliefs about ourselves.

If you are someone who has been drinking regularly for several years or decades, then being a drinker will be an integral part of your self-image. You will know on both a conscious and unconscious level that drinking will provide a boost in certain situations (for a full explanation of this see Chapters 2 and 3 of Alcohol Explained, which you can read here). Part of your self-image will be that you are someone who reaches for a drink in certain situations, good and bad. If you think for example about losing your partner, children, house, job etc. you will immediately see yourself taking a drink to deal with that situation.

The problem is of course that when many people try to stop drinking they just do it by cutting out the drink. But just deciding to quit drinking is not enough to stop us, because our self-image remains unchanged, and our self-image is that of a drinker, someone who reaches for a drink in good times and bad.

Stop for a moment now and think. Imagine a situation where you lose your whole family in a car crash, you are left alone in the world. You also lose your job at the same time, but also win the lottery. Do you see yourself dealing with this huge and integral change of circumstances without drinking? Or do you imagine taking a drink? If the latter then your self-image, to a certain degree, is still that of a drinker, whether you have stopped or not.

Some people, when they stop drinking, do manage to change their self-image and start to see them selves as a non-drinker, however many (even those who may have stopped for many years) haven’t changed this self-image. Self-image isn’t just made up of our view of ourselves based on our own experiences, it is also made up of those people that we look up to and aspire to be like. No just famous people like our heroes and heroines, but also our friends and family, even colleagues and acquaintances.

I grew up near Wimbledon in the 1980’s, legends of Oliver Reed’s antics were regularly told (and still are). I grew up reading Bulldog Drummond, James Bond, and Richard Sharpe. My close family all drank, so did my friends. My self-image was formed around this background, and in good times and bad drinks were poured and all the good and bad that life threw up was taken with a drink. Every time something happened, good or bad, I would think about dealing with it by taking a drink. Later in life I found great pleasure in watching WC Fields, Charlie Harper, and Homer Simpson. My self-image was self-perpetuating because I would be most interested in the hard drinkers and the drunks, I would seek them out and watch them, and they would become my role model, my justification if you like for my heavy drinking. I would see myself in their image, not in reality. I was not a pathetic, overweight, physically weak alcoholic, I was the loveable rogue, the tough hardened drinker.

Self-image not only causes us to act in a certain way, it also provides a way to justify how we act. Do you see members of ISIS who torture helpless prisoners to death as scum who need to be wiped off the face of the earth? Or brave and strong individuals taking a stand against an insane world that is spiralling into greater and greater degradation?

How do you think they see themselves?

Do you see yourself as a drinker? Or a non-drinker?

If you are still drinking do you see yourself as someone who is addicted to a drug that makes you fat and weak and lazy and as emotionally unstable as a spoilt toddler? Or do you still see yourself as the tough guy, or the sophisticated lady, as the life and soul of the party?

Changing your self-image is hard, and it isn’t just a case of realising that how you see yourself as a drinker is absolute nonsense, you also need to replace it with something else.

I was always someone who dismissed personal stories about people giving up drink. I always said if someone has managed to stop drinking why should that stop me? Their situation is different to mine, and if it wasn’t I’d have no reason to read their book anyway, as I’d already have lived it! But of course, why these books are so powerful is that they provide us with examples of people who have stopped drinking and deal with life without drink, they provide us with someone we can emulate or even look up to who deals with life on its own terms, without having to have a drink in their hand.

If you have stopped drinking but find you do have the odd thought about taking a drink in certain (often in particularly unusual or unlikely circumstances) then it may be that you still, to one degree or another, have the self-image of a drinker. If you do then you need to start working to change your self-image, you need to find people who you respect and wish to emulate, who do not drink. But you need to be careful. You need to modify your self-image into something positive. If is it something negative you will be miserable and the chances are you will end up drinking again. This is one of the problems with the traditional AA approach. Of all the people I met at AA only one of them was genuinely happy to have stopped drinking. Everyone else, without exception, was miserable to one degree or another, and had to constantly work at their recovery. Relapse was common and even expected. If you have spent years building the self-image of a drinker, then you go to AA meetings and your only experience of people who have stopped drinking are people who are miserable and have to slog through every day just to stay stopped (indeed chances are you sponsor will be exactly this sort of person) then this will form your new self-image. These people will be your new friends, companions, and brothers (or sisters) in arms. You may no longer see yourself as someone who reaches for a drink when something terrible happens, but you will most likely end up seeing yourself as someone who sits there miserable and afraid and fighting cravings and having to go to meetings 10 times a day every time something bad happens to you. This is no good.

Start seeing yourself as exactly what you are; someone who has stopped poisoning themselves with an addictive drug, a drug that has made you weaker (mentally and physically), fatter, unpleasant and unable to deal with even the most benign of upsets. As a consequence of stopping you are stronger (mentally and physically), fitter and better able to deal with whatever life throws at you. Start analysing your drinking role models. Are they pure fiction anyway (like James Bond)? Or even if they are real people do you really believe they were enjoying every minute of their drinking lives, or do you think they were going through the same nightmare you were when you were drinking? I read that just before he died WC Fields said ‘I wonder it would have been like without alcohol?’, and Oliver Reed’s infamous death in a Maltese bar came after several months sobriety, so he was clearly trying desperately to stop.

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.

Professor David Nutt and his Hangover Free Synthetic Alcohol

There are been a few articles in press recently about a synthetic ‘hangover free’ alcohol that Professor Nutt of Imperial College London is predicting will replace alcohol within a generation. The reason? It is alleged to be hangover free.

In fact very little is known about the compounds themselves insofar as they affect human beings; there is no published research on them so it is very difficult to provide any reasoned comment on this, as best as I can make out idea is that this synthetic alcohol will have much the same effect as alcohol except that when the human body processes it there will be no resulting build up of acetaldehyde as there is with alcohol. It is this acetaldehyde that causes the sickness and headache aspect of the hangover.

The press seems very interested in this and Professor Nutt is obviously a very intelligent and well respected public figure, and this is one of those situations when I am left wondering if it is me that is being particularly obtuse, or everyone else. There are some questions that seem so obvious that I can’t believe no one else has thought to raise them. Specifically:

  1. The hangover is the one things that stops many people drinking to excess. By removing it aren’t you simply encouraging people to drink more?
  2. The compounds in this ‘synthetic alcohol’ are still chemical depressants, so presumable the human brain will seek to counter them by releasing stimulants (for more detail on this point see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which can be found here). So wont this synthetic alcohol still be as addictive as alcohol, if not more so, as people will be able to drink more of it without becoming hungover?
  3. As we know the brain will still seek to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol with stimulants and when the depressive effects wear off the stimulants will still remain. This is what causes the disturbed sleep and tiredness the day after drinking. I very rarely got headaches and sickness when I drank, the main symptom of my hangover was tiredness and lethargy. So won’t this symptom still remain? If so synthetic alcohol isn’t really ‘hangover free’ is it?
  4. Following on from this another major hangover symptom is the feeling of anxiety and worry we have the day after drinking that is a result of the left over stimulants. Again presumably this aspect will remain?
  5. Presumably these synthetic compounds will have a similar affect on the limbic system as alcohol with the result that it will lead to emotional instability (more information of this aspect can be found here). Won’t allowing people to be able to drink more lead to more emotional instability, which is the cause of alcohol related violence, crime, domestic violence, child abuse, etc?
  6. The government guidelines recommend drinking no more than one or two drinks a day. The alcohol industry itself (on the face of it at least) supports this position and encourages ‘responsible drinking’ (whatever that may be). It you drink within these limits you don’t get utterly intoxicated and you don’t get hangovers. So presumably the whole point in synthetic alcohol is to allow people to ignore the ‘responsible drinking’ guidelines and get utterly intoxicated?

The whole point of this synthetic alcohol seems to be to allow people to drink irresponsibly, because if you are drinking responsibly you won’t be getting a hangover anyway. If you introduce something that allows people to drink to excess without having a hanger aren’t you just exacerbating all the ill effects of alcohol on individuals and society as a whole?

Please tell me, am I just missing something obvious here or is this just absolutely insane?!?

Audio Version of Alcohol Explained

 

I am pleased to announce that the audio version of Alcohol Explained is now available on Audible. You can find it here.

It should be available on Amazon and ITunes within the next couple of days.

Don’t worry about the high price (it is dictated by the retailer – I have no control over it) as you can do a free trial and get it for nothing.

Bargain!

Differentiating Between Food and Poison

Allen Carr pointed out that one of the key aspects of the survival of living creatures is the ability to differentiate between poison and food. We use smell and taste to do this. Poisons like nicotine and alcohol taste and smell bad and we have to work at them until we become immune to the foul smell and taste which then allows us to ‘enjoy’ the real pleasure of them, which is the effect. What actually happens is that as we become immune to the foul smell and taste we find it easier to ignore it when getting our fix. This is what we mean when we refer to ‘acquiring the taste’ of something.

I think this idea can be developed to give us a much fuller understanding of alcohol consumption and drug addiction generally.

Whilst living creatures do have an innate or pre-existing ability to differentiate between poison and food through smell and taste (ie one that is in their genes), I think they also have the ability to adapt it. There are two aspects to this to consider.

The first aspect is that when we are drained, tired, hungry, etc a healthy nutritious meal will make us feel better, both physically and mentally.

The second aspect is that most substances on the planet that are ‘poison’ are not immediately fatal. Most of them, in the amounts we are likely to consume, will leave us feeling ill rather than kill us outright.

So where do we get to if we consider both of these aspect together? Well, if we consume something that we wouldn’t necessarily think of as food, or something that tastes or smells offensive, and we feel immediately better after we consume it (or if it relieves hunger or tiredness), and providing it doesn’t make us immediately ill, on a subconscious level the brain will conclude that what we immediately identified as poison actually had some form of nutritional benefit, ie that it is ‘food’ rather than ‘poison’ and as it didn’t seem to harm us we can continue to consume it. As such, over time, we will cease to be repulsed by the smell and taste of it, instead we will start to find it appetising and will start to hunger for it. In this way if a living creature’s food source becomes scarce or disappears, they will be able to adapt to other food types through trial and error. This is a key element to survival. Not many living creatures on the planet have such a reliable food source that they never have the need to adapt to an alternative.

As a child I found the smell of Stilton (a very mature blue cheese) repugnant. I remember seeing my Father eat it and wondering how anyone could want to eat something so vile. However I used to have a very watered down version of it by having soup with a small amount of it crumbled in. I also kept trying it on the odd occasion. Now I eat it quite happily, in fact I ‘like’ the flavour of it. The smell and taste remain the same, they haven’t changed, it is just that on a subconscious level my body and brain has realised that it doesn’t make me physically ill and it also relieves hunger. Thus have I become able to eat it, and even, eventually, to enjoy it.

This is a great system but where it falls down is when we imbibe a drug. A drug can make us feel immediately better but not because it has nutritional benefit, but because it interferes with our chemical functioning such that we feel better even though the actual physical effect is a negative one.

This is one of the reasons that studies showing the supposed benefits of consuming alcohol are so readily accepted. On a deep level drinkers truly believe alcohol is good for them. This concept is really an extension of the effects of drinking on our subconscious (the Chapter dealing with this can be found in here: 1st 5) but I think this deepens our understanding of how the desire for alcohol can become so deep rooted.

It also I think this has some interesting implications for diet generally, and by that I mean the food that we as humans tend to eat. We in the Western world tend to have a diet very reliant on meat, dairy and processed foods. This is the food that people in the West tend to ‘enjoy’. But do they only really enjoy it because it is what they have been brought up to eat, rather than their being brought up to eat it because they enjoy it? Think about young children. They tend to be very unadventurous with their food. They find something they like and never want to eat anything else. Again I think this is a fairly natural tendency. After all as far as your survival mechanism is concerned if you have tried something and found it to be nutritional and not poisonous, why would you try something else, which may actually be poisonous? This is also why we tend to be put off food for some considerable time if it makes us ill. If you’ve ever had food poisoning from a particular type of food you will know that you will be completely put off that particular food for some considerable time.

Christmas

There are two types of drinking at Christmas. Firstly, there is the ‘mistletoe and wine’ drinking. The good side of drinking, the Dickensian side of drinking. Good friends coming in from the cold and snow into a warm room of dark oak with a roaring fire, flagons of frothing ale, sweet, spicy mulled wine, drinking, laughing. Spiced cider, red wine, carols, dark wood, the smell of exotic spices, remnants still of a festival more ancient that Christianity, the midwinter solstice, 12 days of feasting and drinking to ward off the cold and the fear that the days, instead of now becoming longer and warmer, would simply continue to get shorter and colder until the whole world was plunged into frozen darkness.

Then of course there is the reality of drinking. Office workers vomiting and unconscious under the glaring neon lights of Liverpool Street station because they’ve overdone it at their Christmas party, waking up at 4 in the morning with no memory of going to bed but a sure and certain knowledge that there was some kind of upset or anger or argument, a feeling that feels like a physical lump in your chest, a feeling of misery and despair that you are going to suffer from until that next drink. Feeling tired and irritable and out of shape and lethargic.

So am I saying that the mistletoe and wine drinking doesn’t exist? That is exactly what I am saying, most of it is out and out lies and illusion, other parts of it have some vague grounding in reality but are mainly lies. Imagine a young girl out with friends, who gets chatting to a man who she finds mildly interesting and slightly attractive, who lures her away from her friends and brutally rapes her. Describing that situation as a ‘young love’, is about as accurate as the mistletoe and wine portrayal of Christmas drinking. It misses the vast amount, and in fact the real essence, of what is going on. It misinterprets it entirely and then places an entirely disproportionate amount of emphasis on one minor aspect, and turns a brutal and vile reality into an insultingly inaccurate lie. It is an ugly analogy, but it is an accurate one.

Have you ever walked from the snow into a warm room of dark oak with a roaring fire to drink a flagon of frothing ale? I haven’t, in fact I’ve never had a flagon of frothing ale in my life. Clearly some of these ideas we have of Christmas drinking are sheer fiction that don’t exist now and probably never existed before.

Every single alcoholic drink that is drunk over Christmas will result in disturbed sleep, a corresponding feeling of anxiety, and the poisoning of a human body. And these are the effects experienced by the people having just one drink (and there are precious few of those). As the number of drinks an individual drinks on each occasion increases so do the ill effects, moving from disturbed sleep into full blown insomnia and the resulting exhaustion and lethargy over the following days, moving from anxiety into increasing worry and fear and eventually into full blown depression, and from almost imperceptible poisoning into full blown hangover, nausea, and headaches. And of course other effects then come into play, as our emotional wiring short circuits we end up with the arguments, tears, anger and, for many, physical violence. Money being spent that many cannot really afford. Health being eroded and seriously damaged. The mistletoe and wine Christmas doesn’t touch on any of these. Every child hit, or shouted out, or reduced to tears because their parents were either drunk or hungover, every argument that took place that wouldn’t otherwise have taken place and has been caused to tiredness and anxiety that exists only because of the previous drinking, every drunken fight, every drunken arrest. Every drunken argument that kicks off, all the domestic violence. Every person who unwittingly drinks too much and loses every shred of dignity. Where is all this in the Dickensian Christmas of mistletoe and wine?

My Christmas this year will be like all my Christmases since I have stopped drinking. It will be a happy time, a time to spend with my family, to see a little magic take place, to spend time in the warm with friends, a time to be as free from arguments and anger and tears as it is possible to get with a young family. A time to be as happy as it is possible to be, bearing mind the usual stresses and worries of everyday life. This is as close to the idea of the Dickensian Christmas as it is possible to get and it won’t be because of alcohol that I experience it, in fact it will only be possible because alcohol no longer factors in my life; if it did then this wouldn’t be what I could expect from Christmas, what I would be looking forward to would be more tiredness, arguments, hangovers and depression.

The thing that motivated me to stop drinking was all the downsides to drinking that became increasingly damaging the more I drank. But what has enabled me to stay stopped, and this is only something you can truly appreciate the effect of when you yourself stop, is that life is far, far more enjoyable without drinking. I have a feeling of confidence, calmness, and capability, that I simply didn’t have during my drinking years unless I was actually drinking. I had to spend money, to poison myself, to go through arguments and misery and exhaustion and the loss of all dignity to get, for a few small moments, a feeling of confidence and peace that I could have all the time if I only stopped. That is the feeling that will make Christmas fantastic for me. The only difference between me and drinkers is that I will have that feeling all the time, they will have to drink to get it, to poison themselves to ease the chemical imbalance and exhaustion caused by their previous drinking. This is the great secret of stopping drinking; the vastly increased quality of life. I feel like I can deal with whatever life throws at me and I don’t need a drink to get that feeling. Losing that feeling impacts your entire life. It is simply too big a price to pay.

Afraid of the Dark

As father of two young children I am reminded, almost nightly, of the concept of being afraid of the dark. Of course it’s not dark that children, or anyone else for that matter, is afraid of, it is what may be lurking within it. This is why it affects children more than adults. Adults know as an indisputable fact that when they wake up in the night there are no monsters lurking in the shadows. They know that monsters in the supernatural sense do not exist, and they know that human monsters won’t be lurking in the shadows because they understand their own homes and security systems. They may know for instance that no one could break in at all, or could break in without setting an alarm off, or break in silently. They know there is no space under the bed or in the wardrobe for someone, or something, to hide. Even though they cannot see what is in the dark, or under the bed, or in the wardrobe, they know from experience and logic that nothing threatening can lurk within. Adults do experience fear of the dark, but this is only when the possibility of a threat exists; either they are in an unfamiliar place, or are still half asleep and still partly within the dream they are fighting to leave. When they wake up properly, and their rational mind reasserts itself, the fear leaves. Children don’t have this. Whilst they understand on one level that monsters don’t exist, on another level, in their imagination, they are as real as any other part of their life.

Fear of the unknown isn’t irrational, on the contrary it is the safest, most rational response, and also a response that is very deeply instilled in us. Think about before humans emerged from the primeval forest, or about animals for that matter. If they hear a noise and cannot see the source of it, they can’t know if it is something that poses a threat to them or not. An animal that does not fear the unknown is an animal that will end up dead. The ones who are afraid and flee are the ones that survive. Animals and humans alike, when confronted with the unknown, fear the worst and act accordingly. They accord and apportion their fear and respect to the unknown phenomenon on the basis of a worst case scenario. This is a simple, straightforward, survival mechanism.

Alcohol addictions has always been an unknown force, and it is for that reason that it holds such power over us. All we know is that in direct opposition of all that is rational, we want, and indeed have to have, a drink. We don’t understand why and we feel absolutely helpless and afraid. These two feelings alone make us want a drink even more, but more important than that is the fact that we then accord to that irrational desire for a drink the status of absolute power, because we simply do not understand it. The other problem of course is that without a rational, scientific understanding of what is going on, the battle of sobriety seems too formidable. If you are absolutely desperate for a drink, and someone told you (and you believed) that that feeling would only last for 4 minutes, after which it would go, never to return, you would most likely mange to rally your determination and get through those 4 minutes. Conversely if you believe that feeling will never ever go, or that it will takes years to slowly dissipate, or worse of all that it will get progressively worse, then there is no point even trying to fight it. You will end up giving in at some point, so you may as well make it sooner rather than later.

This is why a definitive, complete and fully workable understanding of alcohol and addiction is needed to most effectively quit drinking, and why it is so important to understand each of the factors that causes you to want a drink, how they are triggered, and when they will end. Firstly and most importantly is removes the unknown. We are no longer up against something unknown, and therefore we no longer need to apportion to it an overly inflated amount of fear or respect. We know it for what it really is, we understand it, and therefore it no longer holds additional power over us because of the unknown element. In understanding something you diminish its power over you. Jason Vale used the example of the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy, the Tinman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion finally confront the Wizard of Oz. The are in awe of him, they are terrified, until they finally realise that he is nothing more than a rather pathetic old man with a rather complicated set of mechanical special effects.

I believe that this is the reason why many people, on reading Alcohol Explained, describe it as something akin to a switch being flipped in their mind, such that they no longer have any desire to drink. If you have spent years fearing an unknown force, and suddenly have it fully explained, the results can be dramatic.