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.