Accepting That You Will Never Drink Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Worst Drink You’ll Ever Drink

I was thinking recently about those first few drinks that you have after you have stopped for a while. Those times when you simply ‘give up giving up’. These are always, generally speaking, the worst drinks we will ever have. There are three specific reasons for this that I will be covering off.

Firstly, as we know, alcohol works best when it is relieving symptoms that it has previously caused. A more detailed explanation of this can be found in chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained page which can be found here. However to recap briefly the brain contains a huge store of naturally occurring hormones and drugs (like adrenaline) which it releases at exactly the right time and exactly the right quantities to keep us functioning to our optimal level. It is a very delicate balance and when it is working properly we feel resilient and positive. Alcohol is a chemical depressant (and by this I mean it is something that depresses or inhibits nerve activity). This upsets this delicate balance so the brain seeks to counter the depressant effects of the alcohol by releasing its own naturally occurring stimulants. The alcohol is then processed and removed from our bodies leaving just the stimulants behind. This leaves us feeling anxious, nervous and even out and out depressed (depending on the severity of the withdrawal). When we then drink more alcohol this depresses excess stimulants leaving us feeling more relaxed and feeling far more resilient than before we had a drink. However this feeling of relaxation and resilience is only the feeling of returning to how we would have felt had we never had the first drink in the first place. In this way whenever you have a drink after a period of abstinence it never gives the boost or high that you are actually fantasising about in the first place, because there are no excess stimulants for the alcohol to counter. A drink will leave you feeling slightly dulled, but it won’t give you that boost you were seeking.

The second aspect of this we need to also factor in is that when human beings are happy and relaxed and socialising their brain releases dopamine, which is the feel good, naturally occurring drug. When you have dopamine in you, you feel great. The key here however is that you have to feel relaxed and happy for the dopamine to be released. Because most of our drinking, particularly in the early years, is done in social situations, we are fooled into thinking that the dopamine high we are enjoying is actually an alcohol high. This is a point we need to be clear on. The good feeling you get in social situations is not from the alcohol it is from the dopamine. Alcohol gets the credit it does not deserve. The key point however is that you only get the dopamine high when you are happy and relaxed. If you have stopped drinking and are finally giving in, and giving up your attempt to stop drinking, you are unlikely to be happy and relaxed, you are more likely to be feeling miserable and defeated. So when you take that drink there will no dopamine buzz, you will just end up feeling (on the physical side) slightly dulled.

The third aspect of this is the craving cycle (for details on this see chapter 4 of Alcohol Explained which can be found here). If you are someone who considers that they have a problem with drinking then starting again is never pleasant. It is always preceded by an unpleasant internal mental battle, which is essentially a bout of lying to oneself. People don’t just pick up that first drink and drink it, they go through a mental process trying to justify their taking it. So they may tell themselves that they don’t have a problem, or that they will just have one or two, or that this time it will be different, whatever. Essentially we go through a process of justifying our decision to drink again. However we know on a very basic level that these are just lies and excuses. We may tell ourselves that this time it will be different, that this time will stay in control, but we know from personal experience over many years that this is nonsense.

Let’s take a fairly standard situation. Let’s say you are out at a party, out with friends, or at a wedding. You’re miserable because you can’t drink. You eventually give in and take a drink. Firstly the effect you are craving from having a drink isn’t there. As we’ve already covered the ‘pleasure’ of drinking comes either from relieving the withdrawal of the symptoms that alcohol has previously caused, or from a dopamine high that is in fact nothing to do with the alcohol. If you haven’t been drinking for a few days there are no such symptoms to relieve, and if you are miserable because you have been craving a drink and / or are now losing your battle to stop you won’t get any dopamine high. So the drink will do nothing for you, it certainly won’t give you the boost you were fantasising about. So at this stage you are even more miserable. You’ve’ given in, you’ve failed to stop, you are now right back to square one, and you’ve not even got the boost you wanted. So what do you do? You anaesthetise the misery by taking another drink. This is why so many people, when they start drinking again, refer to the processes hitting the ‘fuck it’ button. It usually dissolves into a complete mess.

The following morning things are different of course. We not only have the misery of knowing we have failed yet again, but we also have the physiological withdraw from alcohol making us feel even more anxious and depressed. So what do we do? Well, there’s only one thing to do, take another drink. This drink of course will give us a boost as we have the stimulants left over from last night’s drinking to relieve, so a drink the following morning will actually make us feel significantly better by relieving the anxiety caused, in large part, to the previous day’s drinking.

The key point to bear in mind is it if you have stopped drinking for anything over 3 to 5 days there is no physical withdrawal to relieve, and the dopamine high is unrelated to the alcohol. So if you do take a drink it will do nothing for you on the physiological side (other than leave you feeling slightly dulled), and on the mental side it will leave you feeling extremely miserable because you have once again failed to stop. You also need to bear in mind that the sole reason you reach for a drink to begin with is due to the mental craving spiral. This is a process it takes part in the conscious mind and is therefore within our power to control.

The Monster Under the Bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.