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.

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.

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.

Self-Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you think they see themselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you think they see themselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can be a moderate drinker if you want to…

Someone recently contacted me saying that they have stopped drinking, but still think about being a moderate drinker. They asked me what the key was to remove every last desire for alcohol. My response (slightly reworded) is below. I thought it might be useful to share it.

I think the key is to remove every last vestige of seeing any pleasure in drinking. Remember, when you think about drinking you fantasise about it. It is literally that, a fantasy, not reality but some unrealistic fiction of what it ought to be like. The fact of the matter is if you want to be a moderate drinker you can be. Let’s say you want to drink two drinks, once a week, you can do it. After all no one forces you to drink apart from yourself, and no one can stop you drinking if you want to. So if you want two drinks once a week or whatever, you can do it. So why don’t you? Well, the simple fact of the matter is that you wouldn’t be happy having two drinks a week. If you are anything like me those two drinks would simply awaken the desire for more, so if you did have those two you would then be miserable because you couldn’t have more, or you’d have more and end up absolutely hammered again. So the reason you are not a moderate drinker is because you wouldn’t be happy doing it.

What you are probably fantasising about when you think about being a moderate drinker is having something that you can have every now and then, that will make you happier, relax you, make you feel good about life and give you some relief from your worries, but that you won’t then need to keep taking such that it leads to complete intoxication, hangovers, fatigue, self-loathing etc. Something that tastes nice, that you can do with friends, that will help you socialise and won’t ruin your sleep, and above all it is something that you can take or leave, that you aren’t compelled to keep taking even when it becomes apparent that it is destroying you and making you miserable. It sounds lovely, and if you ever find such a thing please do let me know, I’ll be the first to drink it with you! But the simple fact of the matter is that what you are thinking about isn’t alcohol. In fact alcohol does the complete opposite to all of the things I have described above; alcohol is the very antithesis of this. Alcohol never did provide any of those things, you were just fooled into thinking it did. The more you drink, the more you start to see the truth, and once known the truth cannot be unknown. Imagine a relationship where you were head over heels in love with your partner and believed they loved you. You were deliriously happy for many years. Then you found out they really couldn’t stand you, that they had never loved you and were cheating on you and mocking you behind your back, and in fact doing whatever they could to hurt you. Could you ever forget the truth and go back to them to get back to that period of happiness? Would you even want to knowing that it was all false? You might mourn the fact that you weren’t in a happy relationship and you might look for one. But in respect of that particular relationship I would think you’d only be too glad to see the back if it.

In fact giving up alcohol is so much easier because you can find that wonderful relationship elsewhere. There is something that will make you happier, relax you, make you feel good about life and give you some relief from your worries, but won’t lead to complete intoxication, hangovers, fatigue, self-loathing and won’t ruin your sleep. A healthy mind and body will give you all of these things, and it is something you cannot fail to get if you stop drinking.

Craving

Since I’ve stopped drinking I have found my appetite has changed considerably. I deal with this in Alcohol Explained in the Chapter on Drinking and Obesity so I won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say that the food I want to eat now is usually fairly healthy, whereas the food I used to want to eat when I was drinking was almost exclusively rubbish. However I still do get the occasional craving for a takeaway or fast food, and when I do I am usually inclined to indulge it; they are so occasional that indulging them hurts neither my health nor my pocket.

The interesting thing about craving for food though is that it works pretty much how you would expect it to work. You crave the food, you eat the food, the craving ends. Indeed if you overdo it it’s not just a case of the craving ending, but it turns completely around and turns into revulsion. If you are craving a certain type of food and eat too much of it, it can end up repulsing you.

However with alcohol (and indeed any other drug addiction) it doesn’t work like this. If you crave alcohol or any other drug and you take it, you don’t end the craving; as soon as the effect of it wears off the craving starts again, and usually the return to craving is almost immediate. This is because when we are craving a drug we are craving the feeling that the drug induces in us, and this feeling is transient and fleeting. It passes all too quickly and needs another dose to replace it.

So if you crave a drug, and take it, you’ll achieve nothing because you’ll still crave it after you’ve taken it – there is no number of doses than can end the craving. As the old AA adage goes, one drink is too many and a thousand is never enough. Indeed if you have been through a few days without your drug then you are over the physical withdrawal and taking the drug not only doesn’t remove the craving, it greatly exacerbates it as it adds they physical withdrawal to the mental craving.

Think of a craving for alcohol as a fire burning within you. And what happens if you throw alcohol on a fire? It doesn’t put it out, it just makes it flare brighter.