We Admitted We Were Powerless Over Alcohol

Step 1 of the 12 steps of AA is admitting you are powerless over alcohol. Admitting powerlessness is very debasing, it is a form of surrender. It is giving up. Of course that is one of the main thrusts of AA, giving up and ceding control to your higher power. In this way it is a sensible first step. Not only for this reason, but also because whilst we have any suspicion at all that we can drink and stay in control, our object is usually to moderate rather than stop entirely. This first step is simple acceptance that we have a problem with drinking.

The problem is that low self esteem leads to problem drinking. There have been numerous studies marking this tendency but really it’s just common sense. Although we do drink during the good times, it’s drinking to get the through the bad times where the problems really kick it. Drinking to anaesthetise problems is the crux of problem drinking in many ways. If we feel weak, damaged, different and inferior to others, these are exactly the kinds of feelings that make us want to drink more.

One of the reasons many people have a problem with admitting powerlessness over alcohol is that they see quitting as regaining power; as taking their lives back. It is an empowering act. If you stop, and know you will never drink again because you have no more desire to drink, are you powerless over alcohol? Many people think not, they would say you’ve won the war and defeated your adversary. You are not powerless, you are in control. Yes, if you were to drink again you would lose that control, but while you abstain you are fully in control.

But the real problem isn’t this at all. The real problem isn’t whether you’ve won or lost your battle with the demon drink. The real problem is that you’ve thought of it in these terms. Addiction feels like you are battling the substance to which you are addicted, and indeed for some it can be helpful to see it in these terms. Seeing the drink as an enemy to be defeated can help you quit. But the problem is this isn’t inaccurate.

Alcohol isn’t a sentient being. It doesn’t have a mind and will of its own. It’s not a demon that possesses us (although at times that is exactly how it feels). It’s just a chemical. It holds no more power over you than a pebble or a lump of copper or pile of salt.

The reality is that when we are addicted to a chemical substance, our battle is not against that substance, but against ourselves. Addiction comes about because our brains are only partly conscious. We tend to forget this and think of ourselves as entirely rational creatures. However we are like every other creature on the planet in that much of what we do is automated. Drugs trick this subconscious, automated, part of our mind.

All life on this planet requires food. But food is not consistent in availability. A species that could not adapt its diet when its usual food source became scarce would not last long. So life has developed to be able to adapt to a shortage in its usual food source. So how does it do this?

When a creature is starving it will eat anything. Literally. It is one of nature’s fail safes to keep us alive. But it is a matter of degrees. The hungrier you are the further from your usual foodstuff you will stray. In this way, when you’re hungry you can experiment with other food types. And if something actually turns out to be nutritious then eventually you will learn to enjoy it. So how does this work?

If you eat something you don’t like the taste of, but that something makes you feel better, or doesn’t make you feel ill, then you will learn to like it. This is what is known as ‘developing a taste for something’.

Alcohol anaesthetises pain, tiredness, hunger, anger and misery. Our subconscious mind is therefore fooled into thinking that it is good for us. The problem is that all alcohol does is anaesthetises, it doesn’t actually remedy. But our subconscious doesn’t appreciate the difference.

In seeing addiction as a battle between us and a substance we think in terms of having to be strong enough to win a fight, we start to see it in terms of ‘will power’ and ‘strength’. If we fail to stop we think of ourselves as ‘weak’. But think of the reality. Alcohol is just an inanimate chemical. It cannot physically force you to do anything. There is one reason and one reason alone you keep drinking it. Because a part of you wants to keep drinking it. It may be that another part of you hates it, and wishes you didn’t want it, but part of you must still want to drink otherwise there would be no addiction. In seeing addiction as a battle between us and a substance we draw attention away from the real issues at stake, which is how our minds work and how they can become confused by the effects drugs have on them.

Giving up alcohol isn’t about power, or strength, or willpower. It is about understanding, knowledge and perception.


This is a talk I gave at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary Alcohol Liaison Unit.

You’ll have to forgive the rather dreary monologue, it was better live; talking in front of a live audience is far more engaging than than sitting alone at home late in the evening after a long day at work! You’ll have to forgive the few mistakes as well, I recorded and scrapped it so many times in the end I just had to leave it as it was.

Animation – What Happens to Your Body When You Drink Alcohol

A contact through the Alcohol Explained Facebook Group recently posted an animation of my last blog post. I thought it was incredibly effective so we’ve worked together to create the following which details the physiological effects of drinking.

Please let me know if you find it useful so I can give some thought to making more of them.


How Lifestyles Influence Drinking

Let’s look at the ways in which our lifestyle can influence our drinking. This article is primarily about the dynamics that come into play in regular, daily drinking, as opposed to binge drinking. To be clear I am not dealing with traumatic events that have been shown to increase the likelihood of problem drinking (I am working on a separate post dealing with this), this is to do only with our lifestyle. Consider the following situations.

Number one. Male in his 50s. He is a successful businessman running his own company. He works in a high-powered and stressful environment and is unmarried and has no children. He lives alone. He considers that his lifestyle contributes to his drinking because he has no children or family which would cause him to reduce his drinking. He considers his financial situation (he has an excess amount of money) also exacerbates his drinking because he can afford to drink as much as he likes. He also considers that his stressful job contributes to his drinking because when he gets home of an evening he just wants to drink to escape from the stressful day. He has to socialise with clients a few times each week and considers alcohol to be an integral part of this.

Number two. Female early 40s. She has two young children. She considers that her drinking is caused by the stress of having a young family. She finds her two young sons extremely hard work and feels that her life is no longer her own. She considers these elements of her life trigger her drinking.

Number three. Unemployed male early 20s. He considers that he drinks because he has no job, too much time on his hands, and feels worthless. He has very little money which causes additional stress and he feels that the relief provided by alcohol is the only pleasure he can get from life. He has no friends and no social life, and again he feels this is a trigger for his drinking because it relieves his loneliness.

Number four. Male, mid 30s. He is employed but finds his job boring. He considers that he drinks to relieve boredom at work and finds when he is at work with nothing to do the thing that gets in through the day is fantasising about, and planning, his evening drinking.

All of these are based on real people but I’m sure you can probably empathise with each of them and in all probability have experienced parts of each of their lifestyles and found yourself that it is increased, or discouraged your stopping, drinking. If one of these people sat down in front of you and told you about their lives and how it made them drink, I’m sure you would be nodding in sympathy.

But lets consider this in a bit more detail. We have people drinking because they have a job and people drinking because they don’t have a job. Of those with a job, we have people drinking because the job is stressful and people drinking because the job is boring. We have people drinking because they have money and people drinking because they have none. We have people drinking because they have a family and people drinking because they don’t. We have people drinking because they have too much time on their hands and people drinking because they don’t have enough. There are people drinking because they socialise and people drinking because they don’t.

Isn’t it funny how alcohol always seems to win, whichever way you slice and dice it? How it always holds the upper hand, pulls the strings, has the power? It’s easy to see how people start to think of it as sentient and evil being, how they see it as ‘the demon drink’. Of course it’s not that at all. It’s just an inanimate chemical substance. It has exactly the amount of power that you decide to give it. Like a physically weak, but psychologically abusive, partner. The second you decide you’ve had enough and walk away, its insidious hold is gone. The only way it can retake its hold on you is if you start wanting it back again.

So it is really their lifestyles that are causing these people to drink? Or is it the fact that for years they have regularly been imbibing an addictive drug? Withdrawal from alcohol causes us to feel nervous and out of sorts, weak and scared. The drink then partially relieves that feeling and so we become fooled into thinking it is an essential part of our lives. Whatever we are doing we need that drink to give us that little extra boost, to relieve that decidedly unpleasant feeling that can best be described as the loss of our mental resilience. It is essentially a feeling of not being able to cope with life, and of being too easily overwhelmed by the stresses and strains which, without the withdrawal, we are able to take in our stride.

Your lifestyle is not the reason you drink, or the reason you can’t stop, it is just an excuse. Whatever you change your lifestyle to, even if a change is possible, drinking will remain an integral and essential part of it. You’ll still be miserable if you don’t drink, and ‘happy’ if you do (of course that ‘happiness’ is simply the feeling of mental well being you get by relieving with withdrawal, and is a feeling you would have all the time if you simply stopped drinking for good). What lifestyle change could possibly alter that dynamic? If you are looking at your lifestyle for the reason you drink and find it hard to stop, you are looking in the wrong place. There’s only one thing to analyse to understand why you drink, and that’s the nature of the drug itself.

The Bad Days

Most people can understand how drinking upsets the delicate chemical balance in their brain, leaving them feeling anxious, out of sorts, and even out and out depressed. They therefore have a reasonable expectation when they stop drinking that they will be happier. This is indeed the case the majority of the time. The good times are better and more frequent, and the bad times are fewer and aren’t so bad. Things that caused the drinker significant concern when they were drinking suddenly no longer seem so overwhelming.

However everyone has bad days, either caused by something specific or just by the mood changes that all human beings are susceptible to on occasion. You need to accept that you will have bad times even when you’ve stopped drinking. However there is another mental trap you also need to be aware of.

Take a standard situation. You have a bad day at work, or you have an argument with your partner, or you have a bill you can’t pay. Whatever the reason, you are miserable. You start thinking about drinking. You start to thing that a drink will relieve your misery. Of course it won’t, it will just add to it considerably firstly by the sense of failure because you once again failed to stop drinking, and secondly because the physiological relief is so short lived and is replaced by a corresponding feeling of anxiety. However assuming you don’t take that drink you are miserable, only now you aren’t miserable and thinking about the argument / bill / work whatever, now you’re miserable and thinking about how you can’t drink. You start to blame the misery not on the argument / bill / work, but on the fact that you’ve stopped drinking.

Very soon our mindset changes from the correct position, which is ‘I am miserable because of work / finances / relationship issues’ to ‘I am miserable because I can’t drink’.

Just as drinking gets the credit for benefits that it doesn’t cause (such as the dopamine rush we get when we are socialising) so does not drinking often get the blame for any misery which is in fact caused by issues completely unrelated to the fact that we have stopped drinking.

When you stop drinking you need to accept that it’s not a ticket to paradise. It will result in a startlingly better quality of life, but there will still be bad times, albeit it they will be far fewer and far less overwhelming than when you were drinking. There can be many reasons for these bad time, many possible causes, but your stopping drinking will not be one of them. Don’t fall into the trap of blaming your unhappiness on the fact that you have stopped drinking.

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?


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.’