Rock Bottom

There a general accepted platitude about alcoholism that the addict has to hit rock bottom before they can start recovery. Like most of the platitudes and accepted ‘knowledge’ about drinking and alcoholism, it is not only incorrect it is also dangerous and contributes to the problem.

Firstly why should an addict have to hit rock bottom before looking to remedy the situation? If you had a bad cough that you weren’t shaking off and you went to the doctor, what would you think if he or she said;

“Yes, this is getting quite serious. But as yet it’s still just a cough. I suggest we wait for it to develop into pneumonia, then pleurisy, then respiratory failure, then I’ll give you some antibiotics.”

Or to put it another way, imagine if you were addicted a drug that you were taking one dose of everyday at a cost of £5 that left you feeling tired and irritable all day. You have a choice of curing this addiction today or in ten years’ time. If you cure yourself in ten years’ time you’ll be up to ten doses a day, and you will have lost your family, your friends, your job, your friends and your house, you’ll have long term serious health issues and, perhaps worse than all of these things, you’ll have been very very miserable for all of those ten years.

When would you choose to cure yourself?

In fact the reason why the idea of having to hit rock bottom has become so prevalent is that addicts who have hit rock bottom have the best chance of stopping. All recreational drugs starts off being apparently enjoyable with very little downside. Over time the enjoyment decreases and the downside increases. You end up needing the drug just to feel normal, and you feel anxious and miserable without it. The less apparently enjoyable the drug, and the more detrimental the ill-effects, the more likely the addict is to be able to stop long term. The more miserable their life with the drug, the more likely they are to be able to stick with a life without it.

With alcohol this aspect is exacerbated because drinking is so widespread and such a big part of so many people’s lives. People search desperately for any excuse not to stop, to convince themselves that they don’t have a problem, and generally speaking those who have suffered the most damage from their drinking are the ones who are least likely to be able to convince themselves that they don’t have a problem so pretend to themselves that they can safely drink again.

The other problem of course that this ‘rock bottom’ belief causes is that it makes quitting drinking shameful, because it leads to the assumption that the quitter has a serious problem with alcohol and is one of the tainted few, instead of just being someone who has taken a sensible and logical decision to cut something unpleasant out of their lives.

In fact rock bottom should have absolutely no impact on your decision to quit. I have said before and continue to say, the decision to stop drinking should not be;

‘Am I alcoholic? If so stop drinking, if not continue’.

It should be;

‘From a simple costs / benefit analysis, is drinking alcohol worth doing?’

To put is another way is the slightly dulled feeling you get from each drink worth the corresponding feeling of anxiety as the drink wears off, the insomnia, the lethargy, the weight gain, the arguments, the hangovers, the blackouts and the financial cost?

If the answer is no, it’s not worth it, then the only logical thing to do is quit. The more years down the line you are the more likely you are to come to the conclusion that it’s not worth carrying on, but if you fully understand the nature of alcohol even those just starting out will find it hard to justify continuing.

As I put in a response to a facebook post in the Alcohol Explained facebook group today, it helps to keep things in perspective. Some people see alcohol as a way of life, as a defining feature of their personality, a way of coping with life. It’s none of those things, it’s just a drug that makes you feel slightly dulled, that people just happen to put into their bloodstream by drinking it, instead of injecting it, or smoking it, or snorting it.

Why should you wait for it to utterly destroy you before cutting it out of your life entirely?

Redemption

So how do you redeem yourself for all the terrible things you did while you were drinking? Do you need to seek people out to apologise? Or do good deeds to make up for the bad? Or spend your life dragging around your guilt like Jacob Marley’s ghost?

Well here’s some things to think about. Imagine there’s a drug that drove people insane and caused them to kill people. Imagine if, unbeknownst to them, you put a dose of this drug in someone’s food, and they went berserk and killed someone. Would they be responsible for that death? My opinion is that they would be innocent. They would have no responsibility for that death, it was caused by something outside of their control.

But what if someone took the drug on purpose and then killed someone? What if they took it knowing full well they would end up killing someone? Well that is a very different situation and I would have no hesitation of holding them fully responsible for that death.

These two situations are fairly straightforward, but let’s consider a third situation. What if the person took the drug of their own free will, but had been fooled into thinking it wasn’t what it actually was. What if they were told this drug made them happy and jolly and friendly? What if they took it and then killed someone? Would you hold them responsible for that death, or not? In this situation, as in the first, I would say the person is not responsible for the death.

This third scenario is really the most analogous to doing something dreadful when you are drinking. Society doesn’t see alcohol as something that causes bad temper, anger, emotional instability, spite, thoughtlessness, and violence. It sees it as something that makes people happy and sociable and friendly. Sure we know there’s a link between drinking and violence, but that only applies to drunken thugs, it doesn’t apply to us.

Of course things aren’t quite this simple because when we drink we do get bad tempered and thoughtless and obnoxious and offensive. We know from experience that we do. So to go back to our analogy of the drug that makes us kill people, we may not hold the person responsible who has been conned into thinking the drug makes them friendly, as opposed to murderous. However if they took the drug 600 times and killed 600 people, we might begin to find their excuse that ‘I didn’t know it would make me kill someone, I thought it would just make me happy and friendly’ a bit hard to swallow.

So why do we keep drinking, knowing that it makes us do terrible things? One of the main reasons is that we don’t do horrible things after one or two drinks, only after we are fully intoxicated. Again we come back to society’s view of drinking. Society doesn’t believe there is any withdrawal when you drink. There is a widely held view that alcohol makes you feel relaxed and happy, and that pleasant feeling slowly dissipates with no negative effects. This being the case moderation should be easy. So we keep returning to the drink because logic dictates that we should be able to just have one or two, avoid compete intoxication, and therefore avoid all the obnoxious things we do when we drink.

The real reason people do awful things when they drink is not because they are awful people, nor because they drink in the full knowledge that it will make them do awful things, but because they don’t properly understand that nature of it. They keep returning to the drink, and they keep doing obnoxious things, because logic dictates that they should be able to drink and not do obnoxious things. This is because their logic is based on incorrect information.

Of course if you do fully understand the nature of alcohol and still drink then you have to hold your hand up to every transgression. Those sins are yours to own. But if you understand the nature of alcohol, and you have stopped drinking, then I would say two things.

Firstly you don’t need to beat yourself up about what you did when you were drinking. You didn’t do it through spite, or even do it deliberately. You did it because you believed societies image of drinking. This is the only thing you did ‘wrong’, and frankly it’s not much of a crime is it?

Secondly, in stopping drinking you have done everything you can to make sure the problem never occurs again. You have acted, learnt, and remedied your behaviour. That’s all anyone can expect of you.

You want redemption for all the terrible things you’ve done whilst drinking? Well as far as I’m concerned in stopping drinking you’ve done all you need to do to earn that redemption.

Alcohol Withdrawal

I’ve been thinking a bit recently about how and why alcohol withdrawal is so powerful. As I cover in Alcohol Explained the physical withdrawal from alcohol occurs because the brain seeks to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol by releasing its own supply of stimulants. The alcohol is then processed leaving only the stimulants. This is the period when we are restless, anxious, and out of sorts due to the excess stimulants. This is the period I refer to as the withdrawal period. If we take a drink during this period, the alcohol depresses the stimulants leaving us feeling far more relaxed; in essence it returns us to the feeling of peace and tranquility we would have experienced had we never drunk in the first place. In this way the primary benefit of alcohol is to relieve problems it has previously caused. More details on this can be found in Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which you can find in the ‘First 5 Chapters’ part of the website.

Some people who have never had problems with alcohol appreciate this concept but still struggle to understand the depth of power alcohol holds over people. They struggle to understand how this feeling of restlessness, anxiety and nervousness can cause people to sacrifice their jobs, their family, and even their very lives.

The fact is that the words ‘anxiety’ or ‘nervousness’ don’t really do it justice. What it really amounts to is the erosion of our confidence and resilience. Everyone has problems. The key to a happy life isn’t avoiding problems, that is impossible. The key is not letting them grind you down. Let’s say you have two people with the same problem, let’s say they have an electric bill they can’t pay. Person one can’t see how they can get round the problem. They can’t see how they can pay it, and they can’t see how they can continue if they don’t pay it. How can they exist without electricity? The result is utter despair, misery and panic. Person 2 is in exactly the same position but they have a huge amount of mental resilience. Their state of mind isn’t despair, misery and panic. Their state of mind is that they will find a way to pay it, and if they don’t they’ll learn to live without electricity. Which of these people is the happiest? The problem could be bigger or smaller than not being able to pay an electricity bill. But what alcohol withdrawal does is the same; it leaves us feeling unable to cope.

My wife (who is a one glass of wine a month drinker, if that) highlighted the problem perfectly. We were watching some rubbish on TV (Eastenders I think) and one of the characters was alcoholic. He’d woken up after a huge binge, with his wife threatening to walk out on him, and he was scrabbling around trying to find a drink. My wife said (aghast) ‘His wife’s threatening to leave him and all he cares about is having another drink. How selfish of him.’ My thoughts were different. He cannot even begin to cope with or resolve the situation he’s in until he’s had a drink. He simply doesn’t have the mental stamina, resilience, or capability to even start to address the problem until he’s relieved the withdrawal which is preventing him from functioning at all, let alone being able to deal with a problem of that magnitude.

The other point to bear in mind is that alcohol withdrawal isn’t all or nothing. You don’t go from no withdrawal to the overpowering and debilitating withdrawal of the chronic alcoholic. Everyone suffers with withdrawal but to a correspondingly reduced level.

I’m on holiday at the moment. It would be the easiest thing in the world to go to the bar and order a couple of drinks. After 4 and a half years not drinking the withdrawal from them would be minor. But the fact is it would be there. It would be an unpleasant, anxious feeling and suddenly I wouldn’t be enjoying the holiday, or enjoying playing with my sons, I’d be thinking about when I could have that next drink so I could get rid of that unpleasant feeling so I could then get on with enjoying my holiday. I wouldn’t be enjoying myself because the usual stresses and strains of everyday life, that are still there even when on holiday, would suddenly be worrying me more and more, and my ability to enjoy the holiday would drop away. I’d be having to keep drinking just to maintain the level of mental resilience I have all the time now that I’m not drinking.

That is what the alcohol withdrawal amounts to. It is an inability to cope with problems. That is why it is so powerful. No one believes that alcohol will solve their problems. But what they do end up believing, on either a conscious or subconscious level, is that alcohol will give them the mental resilience to cope with, face, and deal with their problems. One of the keys to understanding alcohol is that alcohol doesn’t do this. What it does do is to erode the  mental resilience you naturally have, and then partially restore it.

Taking the Bull by the Horns

Someone posted in the Alcohol Explained Facebook group recently to say he was on a weeks vacation in South Carolina right on the ocean. He’s been doing this for 12 years with a group of 20 friends. Every night they sit and the beach and drink away into the early hours. This year he went and didn’t drink. In terms of situations that are hard to go through without drinking, this has got to be right up there with the best of them.

Everyone has their own individual quintessential drinking experiences, the things we really can’t imagine doing without a drink, or can’t imagine enjoying without a drink. The usual way to go about stopping drinking is to avoid these situations (at least in the early days) to avoid being tempted to drink. On one hand this makes sense. Stop for a few weeks or months, get used to having stopped, build up your ability to resist temptation, then when your sobriety is more firmly established, then attempt these really difficult situations.

However this established wisdom on the best way to stop drinking disintegrates when you analyse it properly (as does much of societies ‘knowledge’ about alcohol and alcohol consumption generally).

Firstly stopping drinking is not a muscle that gets stronger as time goes on. In fact often our determination to stop wanes as time goes by. As I have dealt with in Alcohol Explained there are chemical and psychological reasons for this so I will not be covering them off again in this article. Suffice to say our determination to stop is usually at its strongest as we emerge, bleary eyed and wincing, from out most recent binge. As the days and weeks go by our determination to stop fades away.

Secondly what we need to consider is how we measure success. What is it we are actually trying to achieve when we stop drinking? That’s easy right? To never take another alcoholic drink again. But it that really what we are aiming for? Surely the holy grail that all problem drinkers are looking for is not just to never drink again, but to never drink again and be happy. To do everything they used to do drinking without drinking, and to enjoy it just as much, if not more, then they did when they were still drinking. In fact the two things do, to a certain extent, go hand in hand. After all, if you stop and are miserable because feel like you are missing out on situations you used to enjoy, you are far more likely to end up drinking again.

It helps I think to use an analogy. If you were a boxer and your goal was to be the best boxer of all time, would you achieve this by locking yourself away and refusing to fight anyone, and claim to be the world’s greatest boxer because you have never been beaten? Or if you were Commander-in Chief and fighting a war that you needed to win, would you achieve your objective by avoiding conflict, by constantly moving your forces around such that they never had to give battle? If you did so you wouldn’t be losing as such, but you certainly wouldn’t win. You’d be in some kind of limbo where you would be constantly putting off the deciding conflict. Taking this approach would be even more ridiculous if your army was growing progressively weaker over time, while your enemy was growing increasingly stronger.

Stopping drinking is essentially about learning to live your life without alcohol. That is the criteria for success. You don’t achieve that by avoiding parts of your life that you would have drunk in, but by going through them not drinking. You need to learn to cope with stress, anger, loss, anxiety, joy, celebration, everything, without drinking.

The key to achieving this is to firstly understand the nature of alcohol and recognise why its attraction is largely illusion. However you then need to apply this knowledge to you own experience, to accept it not only on an academic level, but also on a practical level.

You don’t do this by avoiding situations you used to drink in, but by facing them without a drink in your hand. When you have spent the last 20 years only ever going through a situation with a drink in your hand, you start to think it will be a huge deal going through it not drinking; you can scarcely imagine how you will manage it. You go in thinking it is going to be a huge event. It never is. It’s like opening a door to what you are convinced is a derelict and haunted house, only to find it perfectly normal inside. It’s almost an anti-climax. After all, no one can physically force you to take a drink. You get offered one, you say no. If you start getting harangued about it you just say you don’t fancy drinking tonight. You are in charge of your own body; you alone decide what goes in it, and you do not need to explain that decision to anyone unless you wish to do so. If someone starts pressuring you to have a drink you just look them in the eye and say thank you, but you don’t want one.

Just remember nothing terrible will happen to you if you never drink another drink. But if you are anything like me terrible things will happen to you if you do.

Our Heroes and Heroines, and Social Media

Two of the aspects of drinking that I have been mulling over recently is when people post pictures of themselves drinking (or even just their drinks) on social media. I’ve also been thinking about our drinking icons, our heroes and heroines (both real and fictional) whose appeal lies, to a significant degree, in their drinking.

People not only like to show themselves drinking, they also like to see people drinking. Think about Charlie Harper, Homer Simpson, Bertie Wooster, James Bond and WC Fields. Their drinking is a major part of their attraction. Think of the myriad of other people, both real and fictionalised (or often both) who we idolise, in no small part, because of their drinking.

Why do we like to see these heavy drinkers, both real and imagined, and why are we so keen to publicly display our own drinking?

One of the reasons is that we cannot see ourselves. Sure we get the odd glimpse in the mirror, but we can’t actually step outside ourselves and really look at ourselves and see ourselves as other people see us. We can’t meet up with ourselves and spend some time with ourselves and see what we are really like. So we do the next best thing, we interpret what we are like by looking at others that we think we are like, or even that we try to be like. We view ourselves in the same way we view others we think we are similar to, or have similar characteristics to.

This is why we love to sit down and watch Charlie Harper get up to his drunken shenanigans, or Homer Simpson, or WC Fields, and why we love to sit down and read about our personal idols and their drinking escapades. This explains the fascination for hard drinkers like Oliver Reed, George Best, and Richard Burton.

Someone emailed me recently and said the thing that triggered his stopping was he had been on holiday with his family, and in the taxi to the airport on their way home his son asked him about alcohol. He asked his son what effect he thought it had on him. His son answered ‘It makes you tired.’ One of the reasons something like this can have such a powerful effect on us is not so much that we suddenly realise what we are actually teaching our children, but because children (up to a certain age) have absolutely no concept of other people’s feelings, they have no concept of diplomacy; what they say is exactly how they perceive things. My eldest once once asked me why I had a face like Spiderman, and when I asked him what he meant he said because of all the lines on it. Another time he asked me why I had breasts. If an adult said the same thing I would think they were either joking or deliberately insulting me, either way I would assume these were the main motivators and would not necessarily think they genuinely perceived me in this way. But if a child says it you can be sure that this is simply how they see things. It is said without spite, malice or ulterior motive. If your partner said for example that drinking makes you look stupid you’d simply assume he or she was nagging you in yet another attempt to get you to cut down or stop, but if a child says it we believe them in a way we couldn’t believe an adult.

The comments of children are one of the least distorted ways we can glimpse ourselves as others see us.

The problem with our drinking is that it makes us look like idiots, it degrades us and lessens us. Many years ago I served in the 4th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. One of the many things it taught me was to stand straight, put my head up, my shoulders back, and my chest out, to stand proud and to tackle everything head on. It taught me pride. It taught me that the worst thing that can happen is pain and death, to both ourselves and our loved ones, but even that can be faced without being cowed. It taught me that even a painful and degrading death can be faced with dignity and courage. In fact there is only one thing that ever managed to truly humiliate me, to fully belittle me and to make me look weak and stupid and pathetic, and that was my drinking. In fact everyone knows that drinking makes them look pathetic, and we know it at a fairly deep level. The problem is of course that despite this we still want to drink because it makes us feel good, so we start looking at it from different angles to see if we can’t see our drinking selves in a more favourable light. Our drinking icons are a classic way of doing this; we see ourselves in their image. We see ourselves in the images portrayed by James Bond, Oliver Reed, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemmingway, Bad Moms, Sex in the City, Richard Burton, The Macc Lads, George Best, Sean Penn, Winston Churchill, Olivia Pope, the list goes on. It is not that we necessarily think we are these people, but we see our drinking as they portray it; as comical, rebellious, elegant, tough, cultured, dashing, cavalier, reckless, or amiable. As opposed to the reality; pointless and embarrassing.

We spend a long time building up this distorted and enhanced image but a significant part of us knows on quite a deep level that this image we build up is sheer nonsense, which is why the comments of a child can burst this bubble in an instant, as can someone taking a photo of us or videoing us when we are drunk (Annie Grace actually recommends videoing yourself drinking and watching it).

This process actually goes two ways. We not only deliberately look to see ourselves in this romanticised and distorted way, but we project ourselves in the same way. Hence our posting pictures of our drinking on social media. If you have a glass of wine all on your own at 10am then clearly you have problem, but stick a picture of it on facebook with the comment ‘it’s midday somewhere in the world right?’ or ‘it’s not too early or a glass of wine is it?’ or ‘grape juice for breakfast’ the all of a sudden it’s funny, laddish, roguish, or whatever. Having a vodka and orange for breakfast means you have a serious drinking problem, but when Charlie Harper does it, it’s comical, cavalier, even dashing. Getting up in the morning and immediately knocking back neat spirits is the very definition of alcoholism, but when James Bond does it, it’s tough, gritty, and masculine.

Essentially, the phenomenon of posting drinking images on social media and our obsession with our drinking heroes and heroines both serve the same purpose; it is a way of justifying what we are doing, or normalising it, essentially it is a way of portraying it in a far more positive light. What you have is the same action, but two very different ways of interpreting it. It’s not really surprising that we want to see it in the more positive light. After all, who would want to see themselves as a pathetic, helpless drug addict, when they can see themselves as a gritty, rebellious tough guy?

Fortunately this particular aspect of drinking is extremely easy to dismiss, you just have to look at the reality; it’s all but bursting though the seams of the utterly unrealistic dressing we try to force it into. The images we build up are frankly ridiculous and don’t stand up to even the most cursory of examinations. In respect of the fictional it’s not even remotely close to reality. The general portrayal in films and on television are of people who spend almost all their time with a drink in their hand but it may as well be grape juice for all the effect it has. They never slur, stagger, look tired, get fat, or show in any way shape or form the physical effect of drinking. Occasionally you get an ‘alcoholic’ who knocks back entire bottles of spirits and drinks perfume and mouthwash if they can’t lay their hands on alcohol. Finally you have the ‘normal’ characters who occasionally get fully drunk, usually because they are celebrating or have had something tragic happen. If you had never encountered alcohol and formed your view of drinking from TV, you’d assume alcohol had absolutely no physical effect for the first 4 or 5 drinks, then you suddenly went from stone cold sober to fully plastered with nothing in between. You’d also assume that unless you are compelled to drink 4 or 5 bottles of spirits a day you don’t have a drinking problem.

The ‘real’ drinking icons are just as easy to dispel, but far more tragic when we scrape the surface. WC Fields said when he was close to death ‘I wonder what it would have been like without alcohol?’ Oliver Reed’s legendary death in that bar in Malta was preceded by several months of sobriety (very much putting paid to the belief that he was a committed and unrepentant drinker), and the final weeks of George Best’s life leaves absolutely no doubt that the reality of his drinking was a far cry from the image of him we like to use to justify our own drinking. Vivian MacKerrell (the real-life inspiration for Withnail from the film Withnail and I) was eventually unable to eat or drink anything due to the throat cancer that killed him at the ripe old age of 50, and resorted to injecting alcohol directly into himself through a syringe that was attached to a stomach bag. Near the end of his life he said to his father ‘I never meant to be an alcoholic.’

Accepting That You Will Never Drink Again

One of the problems we encounter when stopping drinking for good is reconciling ourselves with the decision to never ever take a drink again. When we start drinking it all seems like sweetness and light. We have fun evenings out, hangovers are manageable and even the bad ones we take on the chin and see them as a right of passage, something to laugh about and be proud of.

Over the years we start to think that drinking takes far more than it gives, and this creates the desire to stop. However although it creates the desire to stop, for most of us it doesn’t give us the key to stopping. This is because our mind-set at this time is that although the bad outweighs the good, there is still good to it. The main problem is that we get the good, then the bad the following day. When our lives become a struggle we couldn’t care less about the following day, what we want is some relief from our problems NOW (be these substantial and very real problems, or just the stresses and strains of everyday life that sometimes just seem to build up and build up until we just want a few minutes relief from them, to feel carefree and happy, just like we did when we were younger).

These are the years we tend to yo-yo between drinking and not drinking. We want some relief, we want it now, we don’t care how we feel tomorrow we just want to feel carefree and happy and young again. So we have the drink. Then the next day we feel miserable and regret drinking. Because people keep jumping from one to the other they start to question their own sanity, they think there is something deeply wrong with them. How can you want to drink so badly one minute, then regret it so bitterly the next? In fact there is nothing incomprehensible or insane about it, we do something that is in principle identical to this virtually every day of our lives, sometimes several times a day. Indeed it is a central facet of our society. It is called CAPITALISM, or to use a term that most people are more familiar with, SHOPPING.

When we buy something we exchange money for goods. We swop something we want for something else we want. We don’t like parting with money, but we do it to get the thing we want. Most of the times when we buy something we pay upfront, we swop the money for what we want in a single transaction. Often when we buy something it is tangible and lasts for some time. We get it and keep it for a while. But this is not always the case. Think for example of paying for a holiday on a credit card or getting out a loan to pay for it. You go on holiday and have all the pleasure, then when the holiday is over you then have to go through the pain of paying for it.

This is essentially what we are doing during these years of stopping and starting. We are getting some relief from the stresses and strains of life, but then the next day we are having to pay for it. There is nothing insane about wanting the relief but then not enjoying paying for it, in the same way you wouldn’t consider yourself insane just because you enjoyed the holiday but didn’t enjoy receiving the credit card bill afterwards.

However the lucky few move on from this stage. They get away from ‘the good outweighs the bad’ which is the stage of drinking then regretting it, and move onto a stage where they understand that there is no ‘good’ at all. This is the main purpose of Alcohol Explained (and indeed many other books on the same subject). If you can get to the stage of understanding that alcohol provides no boost at all, then this is the key to actually allow you to stop. The desire to drink has gone, and so has the addiction.

However there is another element, another stage if you will. This is reconciling yourself to your decision to never ever drink again. Over the years we tend to use alcohol as our outlet, our pressure valve, it is the thing we use to relieve the stresses and strains of life. These can be huge, monumental and life changing calamities, or they may just be the constant minor stresses and strains that form the background noise to our lives; bills, kids, upkeep of the house and work. However as we get older we also face other things, things like contemplating our own mortality, contemplating our parents mortality, realising that our hopes and dreams are probably never going to come true, realising that the unrewarding life we have fallen into (usually more by accident than by design) is as good as it is going to get, accepting that we’ve had our best years and now all we have to look forward to is the downhill slog to the grave.

For years we’ve believed that alcohol relieved these fears, pressures and worries, and allowed us, for a few minutes, to feel like we (think we) did when we were young; carefree and happy. In our minds we link drinking to nothing less than being able to return to our youth, to accept our mortality, to accept our lives without resentment.

Understanding that alcohol has caused rather than relieved these fears provides the key to our freedom, but for some there is a feeling that in removing drinking we have removed our ability to feel carefree again. To shrug off the stresses and strains of life and to feel young and bold again. These are generally people who can see the benefits of stopping, who understand how alcohol fools us into believing that it is giving to us when in fact it is only taking and partially restoring, but who still struggle with the concept of never, ever drinking again. On one level they feel that they have given up their ability to shrug off the worries of the world and to feel young again. Stopping drinking feels like cutting off a link to their younger, happier, selves.

This is a subtle but a key point, and in essence is exactly the same mechanism as every other aspect of alcohol. Alcohol at the very least disturbs our sleep, prevents us from absorbing key nutrients, interferes with the delicate chemical balance of our minds, and for all these reasons leaves us far less mentally resilient than we would otherwise be. This causes us to worry about things we wouldn’t ordinarily worry about, and to worry far more about those things that would ordinarily worry us. It then partially anaesthetises those fears and thus provides the illusion of relieving worry, when in actuality it has either caused it, or has greatly exacerbated it in the first place. Alcohol doesn’t make you feel young, it makes you feel old, but then partially relieves that feeling. It doesn’t relieve fears and worries; it increases them and then partially relieves that increase.

The feeling of being young again, of being carefree, of facing your own mortality and accepting the course your life is running, and accepting all these things with a sense of humour and an appreciation of the ridiculous, comes from mental resilience, self-confidence and self-assurance. These are all things that alcohol robs you of and then partially restores. These are things you can only fully obtain from weeks of good quality sleep, of allowing your body to absorb all the key nutrients it needs, and above all by no longer interfering with your brains delicate chemical balance.

The Worst Drink You’ll Ever Drink

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.

The Monster Under the Bed

Is it odd that Alcohol Explained is such a practical and pragmatic book, and yet I will still read a book of pure fiction, maybe a horror story, with a part of me (and not a small part either) believing every single word of it. If not believing it in actuality, then at least totally accepting its potential to be true?

I don’t think so. I am a genuine believer that there is far more in heaven and earth then is dreamt of in the usual, scientific human philosophy as it currently stands. That’s not just faith either, it’s just common sense. The universe is far bigger than we can comprehend. Sure, people will tell you they can work out the dimensions of it, but can they really comprehend the vast distances involved? Can anyone really comprehend the millions of years it has taken for life to evolve on this planet? To think that we have a good basic understanding of how things work just isn’t a viable proposition.

But the thing is that I always want to understand everything. I look for practical solutions. I’m not alone in this, I don’t even think I’m unusual or rare in this. I think seeking understanding is a basic human trait.

If someone tells me a tale about a monster that hides under my bed a part of me believes it, or more accurately believes that it has the potential to be true. So if a wake up to hear rustling under my bed I want to check it out, I want to see what it is. And if I look under there and see a piece of tissue paper fluttering in the summer breeze from the open window, then I know there is no monster. But that doesn’t mean I no longer believe that there is the potential for there to be one.

When I first encountered addiction on a personal lever I didn’t understand it. I was prepared to believe a higher power could help me, I was open minded and looked to understand it, and if that meant a spiritual aspect then so be it. I looked under the bed if you like. What I saw wasn’t anything as simple as a tissue fluttering in the breeze, it was far more convoluted than that, but I still saw a practical reason for it. I saw a way to understand it, every aspect of it, without having to go outside our practical, pragmatic, human understanding of the world.

Isn’t constantly seeking to understand everything robbing the world of its wonder? I would say two things to this. Firstly even if it is there is nothing I can do about it. I can no more stop myself from seeking a practical understanding of something than I could stop myself blinking when dust gets blown into my face. I was at a ball before Christmas and there was a magician doing the rounds. I love magicians but when I watch them I am always trying to work out how they do their tricks.

Secondly there is no wonder in addiction, only misery. Addiction isn’t like enjoying the wonder of the magician, it is like the magician demonstrating his power and then using it to make you do terrible things out of fear. Imagine a magician that was real, who could kill or maim with a wave of his hand. Imagine he told you to leave your family without a word, never explaining who you left, or he would maim or kill them. Would you go, even though you knew it would hurt them desperately for you to go, that for the rest of their lives they would wonder why you left and believing you no longer loved them even though they were the most precious and wonderful things in your whole universe? Of course you would, you would have to.

But imagine if someone could explain to you that this magician was not magic at all, that all his tricks were just that, clever illusions, that he had no power or control over you at all? Well that would be very different wouldn’t it? You’d be free. You could ignore him and get on with your life, knowing he was just a pathetic old man with a few clever tricks up his sleeve, tricks that could no longer leave you in awe now you understood them.

Ambition

When I talk about ambition in this article I am talking about something far more than a simple desire to take the next step up whatever career ladder we’ve found ourselves trying to climb. I am talking about a very basic motivating factor in all living creatures; the desire to improve one’s life.

This concept, the desire to have an easier or happier or better time of it is not only perfectly understandable at a very basic level (after all who wants to be miserable when they could be happy?) it is also an integral part of evolution, or survival of the fittest. If a species finds there is lots of food and a safe habitat then things are fine, but then the population of that species will grow, suddenly there is a shortage of food and / or habitat, then there is a desire to move on, to find somewhere that isn’t so crowded or where food isn’t so scarce. The human species originated in Africa, but it now covers the whole earth, and it did so before modern modes of transport were even thought of.

Ambition is a feeling within us, like a hunger, to always be moving on to the next challenge, or the next improvement, to always be on the lookout for ways to improve or better ourselves.

I am convinced that this ‘ambition’ is a contributing factor to many people’s drinking, it certainly was for me. At one point I was living in a two-bedroom house with a wife and two young children. It was cramped and cluttered, but we couldn’t afford to move. I was doing a job that I found ridiculously easy, I knew I could do better but just couldn’t find an opportunity to move on. I had a constant feeling of thwarted ambition nagging away at me, and drinking was a way to anaesthetise this for a few moments.

Ambition is a feeling that is always with us. No matter how well things are going there is a perfectly natural desire to keep making improvements, to always be on the look out to make things better. If things are going well ambition is a very small and remote feeling, it is almost just an awareness to keep an eye open for ways to improve. But if things aren’t going well, if we are going through a tough time, then ambition becomes a stronger motivating factor. It becomes a strong desire, a constant feeling of restlessness, a living thing within us driving us to seek change.

Ambition is one of the reasons many addicts are constantly moving between taking the drug and abstaining. They are miserable when they are taking the drug, but because stopping means giving up something the believe they enjoy, they are miserable when they stop. So they are constantly looking to make a change between imbibing and abstaining. The problem is of course there is no third way, they either take the drug or they don’t. They are miserable either way, so they are constantly flitting between the two. Sure, they can try to moderate, but with drugs the natural tendency is to take more and more, so eventually the intake slides back to where it was and they have to stop again.

The thing about ambition is it is based entirely on our own position, it knows no perspective. I once served in the reserve battalion of the Parachute Regiment, and did a tour of Iraq back in 2005 / 2006. I’ve seen first hand how difficult and terrible some people’s lives actually are. We are aware on an academic level of the problems out in Syria, but it is a very different to witness these things first hand. Rationally I should never have felt that level of discomfort I felt when we were living in that two-bed house. I had no realistic expectation that we would run out of food, or that we could be killed at any moment, or that we could be robbed and lose everything we owned. Compared to that we were living the high life; a steady wage, a place to live, and readily available food. But I wasn’t happy. I was deeply unhappy and deeply unsatisfied, and no matter how much I told myself to be thankful for what I had it didn’t stop me wanting more. Ambition was there gnawing at me, and drink was a way to dull it. This is perfectly natural if you think about it. If an animal is living in one area where food is short, and it sees ample food in another area, should it remain where it is purely because there is a third area where food is even more scarce? Just because there is someone else worst off than you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t want to make changes to your own life to improve it.

There is a prayer you quite often hear at AA meetings about having the courage to change the things you can change, accepting the things you can’t, and having the wisdom to know the difference. It is good advice as far as it goes, but it ignores the fact that accepting the things we cannot change is not something we can just choose to do. It also I think ignores how much of a motivator desperation can be. How many things in a human being’s life are incapable of change, and by incapable I mean that there is literally nothing we can do to change it? I would say virtually nothing, unless you are physically chained to the wall of a prison. What we really mean when we say we cannot change something is that the available options to change something are either impracticable, or difficult, or more painful than suffering whatever it is that we are suffering. However the more desperate we become, the more consideration we give to these alternatives. It may be best not to accept something you cannot change, if that refusal to accept causes the desperation and / or courage finally required to make the change. Necessity is the mother of invention.

The problem of course with drinking to relieve thwarted ambition is that drinking weakens us mentally and physically (see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which can be read here), and therefore leaves us less able to make change. All change requires courage, and drinking robs us of courage. Plus why we would we want to take active and often risky steps to make a change and appease our ambition, when we can just as easily anaesthetise it with a bottle of something? It is no coincidence that since I stopped drinking I have had two new jobs (both a considerable step up from the previous) and we have managed, as a direct consequence, to move house. Both job changes have taken courage, they have both been a step into the unknown, the most recent one in particular took a huge leap of faith and it was touch and go as to whether I made the move or not. Had I still been drinking I genuinely doubt I would have had the courage and self-confidence to make the move. The additional problem is of course that we always convince ourselves that life has turned out for the best. Had I not taken this current job I could have sat there until the day I died telling myself it was for the best, that I was better off staying where I was. I would have believed it as well, and having never taken the step I could never be proved wrong, but the fact is that the move was better for me, and nothing can ever change that.

Drinking removes our courage, our metal resilience, and our confidence, which leads us to believe that some changes are out or our reach or ability or are not possible for other reasons, so we do not take them. We then convince ourselves we were right not to take that step, and of course it doesn’t really matter anyway because that thwarted ambition is easily relieved by drinking. Instead of making changes for the better, stretching ourselves, reaching higher and developing ourselves as we are supposed to, we just dull the ambition with drink.

What we need to bear in mind is that this constant desire to improve, to always be moving on to the next thing, is not something that we should try to resist, it is normal and natural and it is the way that we improve our lives and the lives of those who rely on us.

Meetings

Someone contacted me recently to ask about setting up meetings, to give her the chance, as she put it, ‘to chat with like minded people’. I think it is an excellent idea, human beings are social animals, socialising is both necessary and good for us. However because most of our socialising revolves around alcohol there is a tendency, when giving up drinking, to then avoid social situations.

It also felt like fate taking a hand when she told me she lives in Ealing, West London, which is where I live!

I think it is also very useful to discuss ideas and thoughts. There is a saying that to truly know a subject you must teach it. I found that my knowledge and ideas about alcohol developed as I wrote Alcohol Explained. Writing it down not only solidified it in my mind, it also caused me to develop and progress it. Talking about something is another way to understand it more fully.

What I was thinking was that if you are interested in meeting like minded people then please drop me a line through the ‘contact’ section of the website and let me know your geographical location. If and when I get 3 or 4 people from the same area who are interested in meeting I will contact you again to see if you are happy for me to release contact details to one another and whether you are still interested, and if so I will then put you in contact so you can arrange details, and provide some practical guidance around venue etc.

And if you are near Ealing then you’ve already got two other people willing to meet up!

Finally if anyone is interested I am giving a talk on the Club Soda Facebook group later, 8pm UK time. I’ll be talking about the physiological side of alcohol withdrawal and how it ties into other physical aspects of drinking, such as insomnia and tolerance. I’ll also be giving some practical tips on how to actually measure the severity of the withdrawal, so the intention is to cover the basics but also to develop some new ideas and themes so even those familiar with Alcohol Explained will find something new to interest them. I am also hoping to leave some time to deal with questions. Club Soda is a closed group but you can very easily join, and I understand the seminar will be posted to YouTube if you can’t watch it live.