Self-Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you think they see themselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you think they see themselves?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Drinking

There are a few fairly nonsensical indicators when it comes to problem drinking. Things like drinking alone and experiencing memory loss. I doubt there is a serious drinker on the planet who hasn’t had drinking induced memory loss to one degree or another, unless they are one of the temperate few who never drank more then they intended. As for drinking alone, surely someone who has a glass of two in front of the telly one or two days a week has far less of an issue than someone who drinks to oblivion every night with friends (or acquaintances) in the local pub or bar.

Morning drinking is another one, it is often cited as a symptom of problem drinking, but that means that everyone who has had a morning drink at a wedding, or at Christmas, or at the airport before going on holiday, had a drinking problem.

As you can see all of these so called symptoms of problem drinking are very subjective, but I think that morning drinking, if not a symptom of having a drinking problem per se, can be a significant stepping stone on the journey to chronic alcoholism.

My ‘morning drinks’ were actually middle of the night drinks. Whenever I drank I would always wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning, anxious and utterly unable to get back to sleep despite being absolutely shattered. I would lie there unable to sleep for the rest of the night and get out of bed even more shattered in the morning than before I went to bed. I now know that the reason for this was simply that my brain had released naturally occurring stimulants to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol, and after a few hours as the alcohol was processed and removed from my body the stimulants would remain, leaving me nervous and unable to sleep (for more detail on this see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which you can read here). However all I knew at the time was that I would have dreadful insomnia when I drank.

Anyway one day I was reading a book (I think it was ‘It’ by Stephen King) and in it one of the characters would keep a can of beer back to drink in the night when they woke up with a hangover so they could get back to sleep. So one night I tried it. The effect was astounding.

One drink removed the nervous, anxious feeling, replaced it with a feeling of calmness and contentment and, above, all, sleepiness. I went to bed and got straight back to sleep.

The problem of course is the same problem every drinker has throughout their drinking career; specifically that you need an ever increasing amount to get the same effect. The first time I had a night drink I needed one drink to feel calm and content and able to go back to sleep, but soon I needed two then three then four. And so it went on.

The physiological reason is fairly simple. If you drink a substantial amount every night, the brain has the stimulants ready to go later in the day. Take a drink in the morning (or in the night) and the brain isn’t ready for it, it has no stimulants ready to counter the alcohol, so one drink and you’re off and away. But the brain learns quickly, and very quickly starts to create ever more stimulants, and has them ready morning, noon or night, whenever you regularly have a drink.

So if you do take a morning drink just to get rid of the worst of the hangover, it may well do that, but in no time at all that one drink will become 2 then 3 then 4, and soon you’ll just be embarking on another drinking session in the morning, just to get going.

That is exactly what happened to me as my night drinking turned from one to two to three to four and so on. The problem is it is not just the amount of drinks that increases, but also the amount of time it takes to drink them. The increase happens incrementally (as our drinking does) and as ever it’s a sudden wake up call that makes us realise how badly things are deteriorating. We all have our low points, or rock bottoms. If you are anything like me you have several, but one of my lowest points was waking up at night nervous, anxious and unable to sleep, getting up and sitting on the sofa and drinking away, and just as I was feeling sleepy enough to get back to sleep, hearing the morning alarm go off and then realising I was absolutely staggering drunk, so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open, and having a full day at work ahead of me.

And today I was talking to someone and said I didn’t drink, and they asked if I missed it. Miss it? I still cannot get over the joy of being free from it. I just thank my lucky stars I got out when I did, and had the knowledge I had to allow me to escape.

Alcohol and Emotional Resiliance

There was a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology on 13th July 2017 that analysed the relationship between the acceptance of negative emotion and psychological health in 1,300 adults.

What the study found was that people who regularly accept their negative emotions experience fewer negative emotions and as a consequence experienced better psychological health. The study found that feelings of disappointment, sadness or resentment inflicted more damage upon people who avoided them.

The advice was simple. When you are experiencing negative emotions you should let your feelings happen and allow yourself to experience them without trying to control or change them.

If you think about it this does make sense. Take me for an example, I don’t particularly enjoy conflict, and neither to I enjoy speaking in front of people. However despite this I seem to have ended up in a job which is made up of equal parts arguing (although these days it is known as ‘dispute resolution’) and talking in front of people. When I started out I was terrified and got very nervous before every meeting that I knew was going to be difficult and / or attended by a large number of people. However I have done it so many times now that I am used to it, to such an extent that I don’t really get nervous even if I am going into very difficult meetings with a lot of people present. If I’d never faced up to it and just got on with it however, I would never have got used to it and would still be terrified of it. If you face an unpleasant and difficult situation and get through it, you find it that much easier to get through it the next time. If you experience it regularly then it ceases to worry you and becomes the norm.

As humans our perception of what is good and bad is linked to our own experiences. For people in war zones a bad day is having their family killed, or loosing limbs, or facing the actual prospect of freezing or starving to death. A good day would be a decent meal and somewhere safe to sleep for a few hours. However for most people in the western world a bad day would be something going wrong at work, an argument at home, being unable to pay bills, etc. I am not say that these things aren’t stressful but they are clearly preferable to having your legs blown off, or watching your children freeze to death. For the majority of us starvation is simply not a realistic prospect, and a meal and somewhere safe to sleep is something we just take for granted. They don’t cause us to be particularly happy because they are the norm.

When I served in Iraq one of the high points for me was having a shower, putting on clean clothes, and going to sleep in an actual bed for a few hours. I was absolutely ecstatic if I could do that. However now, over ten years down the line, whilst I might enjoy doing that it wouldn’t exactly be the highlight of my week.

My point is that ‘good’ is better than what we are used to, and ‘bad’ is worse than what we are used to. If you are anaesthetising the bad then you can never properly appreciate the good, which after all if just an improvement on the bad. If you are in an unpleasant situation for any length of time, such as being in prison on being in the military on active service, you eventually get used to it and very small things can make you happy. Of course it doesn’t have to be anything as drastic as prison or being in a war zone, you might just be going thought a bad patch with work or a relationship, or have health or housing issues, but if you are constantly anesthetising with alcohol you are never actually experiencing these negative emotions, you are never facing them and learning to deal with them and becoming more resilient to them. This is what happens when we are constantly taking a drink to take the edge off our feelings whenever we experience anything negative. We are anesthetising feelings rather than facing them with the result that we never learn to deal with them.

When a person stops drinking they don’t stop living, they continue to live life, with all the good and the bad. There is a very pronounced tendency in the western world to expect to be happy all the time. We see it as our basic right and if we are unhappy, even for a moment, we immediately look to remedy it, often by taking some kind of external drug like alcohol. Just bear in mind that you can be unhappy for a bit and if you are, it is not all negative. If you are unhappy or experiencing any kind of negative emotion, you are becoming more resilient and emotionally stronger because of it.

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.

At what stage do we become ‘Alcohol Reliant’?

You hear some extraordinary things in an open plan office. I’ve just overheard a holiday conversation between three of my colleagues. One of the ladies has two children, aged 18 and 20 (clearly not ‘children’ but I shall use the word because ‘issue’ or ‘offspring’ sounds a bit odd). Both children are still living at home but as you would expect they are starting to spread their wings, ready to fly the nest, and are becoming more and more independent.

Anyway what her and her husband have said to their children now they are growing (grown) up is that they are more than welcome to go on holiday with them (which they will pay for) but equally if they no longer want to go on holiday with their Mum and Dad then they don’t have to go along. I thought that was all very nice and sensible; no point forcing your children to go on holiday with you if they don’t want to, but equally it is very nice (if you can afford it) to keep inviting them along.

Anyway this year they are off on a cruise, so really pushing the boat out (ha ha). However neither of the two children are going along. Why? Because it is an American cruise ship, and they apply the American age restriction on serving alcohol, which is 21. So neither of them would be able to drink on board.

The conversation then centred about their decision not to go along as they wouldn’t be able to drink, with everyone agreeing that it is understandable, and the mother herself taking this position. I resisted making any comment.

To get things into perspective though this is a possible once in a lifetime holiday, fully paid for, and the reasons they wanted to stay at home was not to have the house to themselves, or arrange parties, but simply because they couldn’t drink on the holiday. And these weren’t two grizzled, three bottles of spirits a day drinkers, these are two young, up and coming students. There of course may have been other influencing factors in their decision not to go (such as having the house to themselves or having a party) but the point is that it was considered perfectly reasonable for them to refuse to go on the basis that they wouldn’t be able to drink.

Now I am assuming that these two ‘children’ do not have a problem with alcohol (or the conversation would have taken a very different turn) but it highlights the role alcohol plays in our society. It also, I think, demonstrates the age at which we become dependent on alcohol. They may not be dependent on alcohol to get out of bed in the morning or to deal with every aspect of their lives, but they are clearly dependant on alcohol to get them through certain situations, to such an extent that what should be very enjoyable once in a lifetime experience is missed out on because the drug they need to enjoy that situation is missing.

I remember doing a similar thing when I was younger. I can’t remember exactly how old I was but it was between 14 (because I had started drinking and smoking) and 16 (as I was still at school) and our parents took myself and my sisters to Disney World. I absolutely loved it. In fact there was only one occasion when I was miserable. We went to one of the few places you could drink alcohol (I doubt it exists anymore, it seems alcohol is now virtually unobtainable in Disneyland, but this was 25 odd years ago). It was an amazing place. It was done up like an old colonial gentleman’s club but many of the exhibits moved or did odd things if you watched them long enough. My Mum and Dad had a drink but I was too young, so I sat there miserable all evening. What an obnoxious little brat I was.

Societies’ view is that it takes several years to become addicted to drinking, however this is not how we should be looking at it. It is not a question of not-addicted / addicted, with a grey area in between. Rather it is a case of becoming addicted from the start, but only in respect of a very limited number of situations (like socialising) with the later stages being addicted to a far wider array of situations (like every weekend, evening, lunchtime, morning, second of consciousness, argument, setback, meal, etc). The earlier stage drinker is simply addicted or reliant on alcohol on far fewer situations, whereas the later stage drinker is reliant on alcohol on a far greater number of situations.

Alcohol and Our Emotions

Whilst I have tried to keep Alcohol Explained as short as concise as I can, sometimes I think I have dealt with some important points too quickly, and perhaps I ought perhaps have dwelled on them a bit longer to emphasise them. In particular the there is a key part of the Chapter on ‘Alcohol’s Effects on Emotions’ which I think could do with some amplification.

To summarise briefly alcohol is a chemical depressant, which means that it depresses or inhibits nerve activity. So if we are upset, angry, or sad, then a drink will depress these feelings with the result that, after a drink, we will feel slightly better.

However the depressant effect also acts on the limbic system which is a set of six inner structures in the human brain which is believed to be the emotional centre of the brain. It is believed that the function of the limbic system is to control our emotions and behaviour (and interestingly also believed to be responsible for forming long-term memories). When alcohol depresses the function of the limbic system its ability to regulate our emotions decreases, with the result that our emotions tend to run unchecked. This is why drunks tend to be overly emotional, be it angry, aggressive, sad, self-pitying, argumentative or regretful.

So let’s now leave the science behind and look at a practical example. You have an argument with your partner and feel angry. You take a drink and feel better. The initial ‘boost’ (ie the deadening of the negative feeling of anger) is quickly countered by the brain which releases stimulants and stress hormones to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol. So you very quickly end up just as angry as before and need another drink to dampen the anger. And so the drinking continues.

You can probably already see the problem with taking a drink to relieve anger, stress, misery etc. The drinking has to continue for the relief to continue. However there are three additional problems that we need to factor in.

Firstly, due to the brain releasing a stimulant to counter the depressive effect of the alcohol, when the mental relaxation caused by the alcohol wears off we are not back to where we started. The stimulant’s remain with the effect that we are more uptight and stressed than before we started.

Secondly the mental deadening effect which provides relief from the anger dissipates far quicker than the physical intoxication. This is dealt with in the Chapter on ‘The Relaxing Effects of Alcohol’ which can be found in the 1st 5 Chapters (here) but suffice to say that we become increasingly intoxicated as we chase the fleeting feeling of mental relaxation.

The third problem is that the physical intoxication affects the limbic system, with the result that as we continue to drink our brains become increasingly unable to regulate our emotions (in this case anger).

The overall result of this is that we end up far angrier than we ever would have had we not drunk, which is a key point given that we only started drinking to alleviate the anger in the first place.

It helps to think about it with figures. Let’s say that your anger ranges from zero to one hundred, with zero being no anger and a hundred being as angry as you could possibly be. Let’s say your argument result in you being 10 points angry. One drink relieves 7 of those points so now you are only 3 points angry. However that drink also has an effect on the limbic system which prevents any anger being properly regulated, so although it removes 7 anger points due to it depressing the actual emotion, it adds 2 anger points as the limbic system is affected. So the net gain is that you are actually 5 points less angry than you were. At this stage you have gone from 10 anger points to 5.

Of course the mental relaxation effect of the drink (which has the immediate effect of dampening down the anger) all too soon wears off, so you quickly regain the 7 points of anger you have lost, however the physical intoxication effect on the limbic system does not wear off. So you are now 12 points angry (the original 10 plus the 2 you have gained as a result of the decline in the effect of the limbic system). So you take another drink and the same process occurs; you get a short terms relief of the 7 but a long term gain of the 2, so the short term effect of the second drink is to take you from 12 (the start) to 5, with the long term effect of you ending up at 14 points of anger. It is easier to see on the graph below. The height measurement is how angry we are, with it being the higher the angrier. The horizontal line is time passing. The even numbers are our taking a drink and obtaining some relief, with the relaxing effect of that drinking wearing off at the odd number, so the dips are when we have a drink and the peaks are the mental relaxation effect of the drink wearing off.

Each drink does provide us with an actual boost, but this is outweighed entirely by the effect on the limbic system with the effect that very soon we are far angrier then we were to begin with, even while we are actually ‘enjoying’ the ‘relief’ provided by the drink.

This actually makes perfect sense if you think about it, if you think that alcohol relieves anger, misery, frustration, etc, then alcoholics (who drink the most) would surely be the happiest people on the planet. Drunks would be the most calm and happy people, and those least likely to get into a fight. This is clearly not the case.

There is a very big difference between people drinking to relieve negative emotions (which they clearly do) and alcohol actually relieving negative emotions (which is clearly does not, in fact it does completely the opposite by greatly exaggerating them).

If you want to consider further the very important implications of this then you should re-read Chapter 3 (The Subconscious) which can be found here and consider it in relation to the workings of the subconscious. In particular consider the implications of the following:

Your subconscious mind will recognise that an alcoholic drink will relieve the feelings of anxiety and depression because the drink and the relief will be close together chronologically. You will take a drink and very shortly after this you will experience the relief. However, it will not associate the alcoholic drink with the cause of the anxiety and depression in the first place as it takes far longer for the anxiety and depression to accumulate after the final alcoholic drink has been drunk.

Exactly the same applies to alcohol’s effects on our emotions. The subconscious will only recognise the effect of alcohol relieving our anger, stress, upset etc and will not recognise the overall increase in these emotions accumulates far more slowly. This is how we can end up in this very strange situation where we all know that alcohol makes people far more emotionally unstable, yet we still all ‘instinctively’ reach for a drink to relieve our anger, stress, upset, etc.

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.

Holiday

Firstly apologies for the lack of blog posts recently. I am actually on holiday at the moment, and those of you with young children will appreciate that ‘holiday’ does give rather the wrong impression. In fact it is one of the more hectic two weeks of the year.

We’re staying in an all inclusive resort. Last night I was queuing at the bar for two glasses of milk and a glass of red wine (none of which were for me needless to say) and the chap in front of me in the queue was showing the typical restlessness of the drinker who had been waiting just a little bit too long for his next drink than he is comfortable with. Nothing most people would notice, just constantly looking around, shuffling his feet, taking out his phone to look at, putting it away. Just generally restless. I was watching him out of interest and while he was being served I contunued to watch him.

His kids got the usual slush puppies, he ordered a fairly standard round of drinks, then asked for a glass of neat vodka, specifying a glass, or not just a shot or two but a full glass.

I sympathised with him. I’ve been there. You’ve had dinner so the drinks are taking too long to take effect, also the queue for the bar can be agony and also probably your spouse is keeping a close eye on what you’re drinking and is probably fairly vocal about it as well. So you add a little extra something while you’re at the bar to keep you jogging along.

But when I say I sympathised with him I mean he really did have my sympathy. I felt truly sorry for him. I mean, can you imagine the quality of spirit being served in an all inclusive resort in Bulgaria? Can you imagine drinking it warm and neat? It was making me feel sick just thinking about it. Can you imagine how he felt when he woke up and 4 in the morning to lie there awake and scared? Can you imagine the too long wait for him until he could start drinking again the following day, when he could once again anaesthese all that anxiety left over from the previous drinking and feel ‘good’ again (and that ‘good’ feeling just being the feeling I experience now all the time that I no longer drink)?

For me this summed up the reality of holiday drinking.

Using Alcohol To Deal With Your Problems.

I was thinking recently about the alcohol withdrawal and why it is so overpowering. Everyone faces problems in their life. Some big. Some small. Some in between. We tend to have more of the smaller ones, and less of the larger ones. Smaller ones might be paying a bill, querying a charge on a credit card bill, completing a tax return. Large ones might be relationship problems, redundancy, financial problems, serious illness, the loss of a loved one. The smaller ones are almost just irritants, annoying little things that have to be done. The larger ones are more overpowering, and by overpowering I mean they can require more energy to deal with, sometimes more energy than we feel we can muster. They tend to be things that we often we feel we can do nothing about.

So we have these problems, ranging from minor, to very serious. Let’s, for the purpose of this article, them give them a scale of 1 – 10, with one being the least serious and 10 being the most serious.

Let’s also assume that a normal mentally and physically healthy person will be able to deal with all the problems up to, say, 8 or 9, with their being unable to cope with only the most serious of problems (which we hope are relatively few and far between).

What the alcohol withdrawal actually does is to prevent us from being able to cope or deal with problems we would otherwise tackle with little or no consternation. The very serious withdrawal of the late stage alcoholic will leave them unable to cope with any problem, right down to severity 1. A more medium withdrawal will leave you unable to cope with say any problem exceeding a 7. All this is arbitrary and for illustrative purposes only but hopefully you are getting the idea.

This was certainly the case for me. When I was drinking I would go into work at the beginning of the week on a Monday or Tuesday (or even a Wednesday after a particularly bad weekend) and I would be incapable of doing anything but the most basic of tasks. For the vast majority of things I had to do I would be like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car. I was absolutely frozen, I just didn’t feel able to deal with them. However after a few days when the withdrawal had worn off I would be dealing with these tasks without batting an eyelid.

This is why the withdrawal is so powerful; it leaves us feeling unable to cope with life. It is a horrible feeling. But if you then take a drink you negate the withdrawal and again feel like you can deal with all but the most serious of problems. And that is why people with put the drink before family, friends, work, even their very lives. I think it is also worth mentioning here that what alcohol does is make you feel like you COULD deal with your problems, however when you are actually drinking you rarely do actually deal with any of them. It essentially just anaesthetises you to them. You tend to go through alternating states of being so worried by your problems that you feel unable to deal with them, to being ambivalent towards them, but you scarcely ever actually do anything about them, with the result that they tend to accumulate and become even more overpowering; after all even the 1s, 2s and 3s can be overpowering when we are not drinking if we are overwhelmed by the sheer number of them.

Essentially you tend to be either actually drinking in which case you have no interest whatsoever in dealing with any of your problems as the drink has negated your fear of them and hence negated your desire to do anything about them. Alternatively you are hungover in which case you simply don’t feel mentally able to deal with them.

It is also why many people drink heavily on a regular basis seem to have no physical withdrawal; it is not that they don’t have the withdrawal but their lives are such they don’t really have any problems, or to be more accurate all their problems are ones, twos and threes, so even with a severe withdrawal leaving them incapable of dealing with any problem over a 4, there is no practical difference. These tend to be people who are comfortable in their career in that they can do their job standing on their head, it presents them no real challenges (either because it is not challenging or because they have been doing it for so long that there is nothing new for them). They also tend to be fairly happy in both their family and financial situation.

This is also why finally realising and admitting to yourself that you have a problem actually exacerbates the situation. Alcoholism, problem drinking, whatever you call it is a problem 9 or 10 for the vast majority of people. It is bad enough dealing with it when you are at the top of your game but throw in a bout of alcohol withdrawal and it really can be overpowering.