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.

How Alcocentric is our Society?

This chart Is from the Washington Post from 2014 relating to drinking habits in the US. I think it is extremely interesting and ties in with a couple of incidents that happened to me recently that has made me consider how ‘alcocentric’ western society actually is.

To give some background I stopped drinking in February 2014. In January 2015 (so just shy of 1 year not drinking) I had to go on a business trip to Cyprus. It was the usual boozy affair, out every night making the most of the company credit card. So I just tagged along, stuck to my soft drinks, and left for bed when things started to get a bit too messy. Anyway a few days ago I bumped into one of my colleagues who I was on the trip with. There was an issue with one of his customers in Cyprus so we ended up taking about the Cyprus trip. He went into the ‘do you remember how much we drunk this night’ and ‘do you remember how hammered we got that night’ conversation about how drunk we got. I just smiled and nodded; he’d totally forgotten that I hadn’t been drinking, he just assumed that I’d been right there drinking along with him.

Fast forward now to October last year, it was half term and myself, my wife and I went away to Tenerife during half term with three other families from my son’s school. We dined together each evening and needless to say I was on the soft drinks. Anyway on Saturday night just gone we were out for the evening and two of the couples we were on holiday with were there. I was driving and needless to say not drinking, and one of them asked me if I minded going out not drinking. I said was fine with it and explained I don’t drink anymore and hadn’t done for some time. She was surprised and said ‘But you were drinking in Tenerife?’.

What these two incidents highlighted to me was the difference in importance I attached to my not drinking, compared to other people. For me going on a business trip and an all-inclusive holiday without drinking was a big thing, but for others it clearly wasn’t, to such an extent that they either had forgotten about it or that it hadn’t really registered in the first place.

We tend to think that people push drinks on us because they are obsessed with drinking, and this may be the case for many people, but not necessarily for all. For some people it is just trying to be hospitable (however misguided this may be) in the same way if you went for dinner or canapés and didn’t eat anything they would keep asking you if you wanted anything to eat, or if there is a buffet no one likes to be the one to start on it so the host or hostess has to go round several times trying to get people to tuck in. Offering food to people isn’t considered to be rude or inconsiderate, but if the person being offered it had an eating disorder, or were struggling with a diet, then they might consider it so.

I think that the problem is, to get into difficulties with alcohol you have to drink heavily for some time, and people only drink heavily if they enjoy (or believe they enjoy) drinking. So it is a big part of their lives. It is also the case that when we are drinking heavily we tend to socialise with other people to drink heavily, so we are ‘alcocentric’, and our friends tend to be ‘alcocentric’, but that doesn’t mean everyone is. In fact alcohol isn’t necessarily a big part of other people’s lives. Look at the chart above. 80% of the US population in 2014 didn’t even average a drink a day, and 90% of the population were only just drinking on average a little over 2 drinks a day. The fact of the matter is that for the majority of the population drinking is a not a big part of their lives at all. They may push a drink on you but this is as likely to be through a misguided sense of hospitability as on obsession with drinking, and is likely to pass from their mind almost as soon as the conversation is over.

I then tried to think back over my life to how I have reacted to people who were not drinking in social situations. I can think of a few times when I was wasn’t drinking myself, as there was a sort of bond between the non-drinkers, particularly when the evening drew on and the alcohol started to take effect such that talking to the drinkers became more and more painful, so you usually end up talking to people who are not drinking. But I cannot remember a single time when I was drinking and a person’s non-drinking stuck out in my mind. I think in my earlier drinking years it wouldn’t have bothered me one way or another, in my mid-drinking years I wouldn’t have cared as long as I had enough to drink, and in my later years I probably would have envied them and / or wouldn’t have remembered the next day anyway.

We tend to feel very self-conscious about our not drinking but I think we need to bear in mind that it often takes on a far greater significance to us than it does for other people.

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.

Alcohol Explained for Non-Drinkers

Someone recently very kindly left a review on the US Amazon page for Alcohol Explained which I found particularly gratifying. Just to clarify I find every positive review intensely gratifying, as I have said more times that I care to remember I found Alcohol Explained very difficult to write and nearly didn’t bother. Every time I hear that it has helped someone I feel intensely gratified. It is a feeling that I find hard to put into words to know that people I have never met, from all over the world, have been through the same misery I have and found Alcohol Explained to be the key to release them from that misery; that my words have had such a positive impact on them. So why was this particular review so different? It was unique in one very simple way; it was left by a non-drinker.

 

When I wrote Alcohol Explained my main motivation was to put down what I knew in the hopes that it would help others. And it seems to be doing this. For many people it simply makes sense, it is like having an insolvable problem and suddenly being provided with a solution, or looking at an optical illusion and seeing it for what it is. But what I also hoped it would do, would provide an explanation to the non-drinker and non-alcoholic as to what the alcoholic is going through and why they continue to pick up that bottle despite the seeming insanity of so doing. Whilst I can see that the book makes sense to the problem drinker because they are able, from their own bitter experience, to see the inherent truth in what I write, I was never sure whether it would also make sense to a non-drinker, or whether they would think it was just a load of old rubbish (or at least be unable to judge the worth of the words because they have not experienced the state of alcoholism or problem drinking).

 

If the book does make sense to the non-drinker / non-alcoholic then it could have another very important function; it could be capable of reconciling those relationships that have been destroyed by alcoholism. If for example a marriage fails because of the alcoholism of one partner, it is never the case that the nondrinking partner ups and leaves at the first sign of trouble (and if they do then it is likely that the relationship was doomed to failure anyway). They try again and again to make it work and eventually give up because of the fruitlessness, the constant broken promises and irrational behaviour. There is no point in the alcoholic saying ‘this time it’s different, this time I’ve really stopped’ because they’ve said it a million times before and broken every promise they’ve previously made not to drink again. And if the offending partner does manage to stop for long enough that the other partner might actually entertain the possibility that maybe this time IS different, usually so much time has passed that there is no relationship left to redeem.

 

However if you can explain to the innocent party what has actually happened to the alcoholic, and how they now have the knowledge required to allow them to stop for good, you should be able to redeem that relationship before time ends what love is left.

 

In essence, if Alcohol Explained makes sense to non-drinkers then it has a far wider use than helping people to stop drinking. It can help others to understand the phenomenon too, to explain the seemingly irrational behaviour and, perhaps more importantly, convince the non-drinker that this time it IS different, that this time the drinker has finally given up for good, that the person they once fell in love with is still in there and this time they are shrugging off the shackles or alcohol for good.

The Problem With Accepting That You Have a Problem

You are probably expecting this article to be about the many and varied blocks people have when it comes to accepting that they have an alcohol problem; that they are alcoholic. It is not. In fact it is about the additional problems the individual encounters when they do finally admit they have a problem; that they are suffering from alcoholism. To explain:

The alcohol withdrawal can leave you feeling out of sorts (see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained), vulnerable and anxious. All in all it leaves us prone to depression and worry. The more we’ve drunk the more vulnerable and out of sorts we will feel, but the point is whilst it will make us more prone to be miserable, depressed and worried it won’t guarantee that we are miserable. Assume for the moment you’ve just woken up with a terrible hangover. You’ve had a huge row with your spouse / partner / children / parents (or whoever you usually row with when you’re drinking) but can’t remember the actual details of it, you’ve lost your phone / keys wallet / money, you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of your friends/ relatives / colleagues, you’ve woken up in hospital / a police cell / the gutter. I’ve no doubt you can all factor in your own individual worst case scenario but you get the idea. You’re already vulnerable to misery due to the chemical imbalance in your brain and are not mentally resilient enough to deal with even the smallest upset. The actual details of your situation are really enough to drive you over the edge. You really are going to be at absolutely low ebb.

Now assume you have drunk exactly the same amount of alcohol and are in exactly the same physical and mental state, only this time you didn’t leave the house. You wake up in bed, unadorned with bodily fluids. Not only did you not leave the house but you were home alone, made no phone calls, no social media posts, sent no text messages, your keys phone and wallet are exactly where they should be, you even have a vague recollection of taking all the empties out to a nearby local bin so you don’t even have them to deal with. You have the next week off work with no social engagements, the house is clean and tidy and you’ve just remembered you didn’t get round to checking that lottery ticket. When you do so you find out that you are the sole winner of the £160,000,000 jackpot. Again you can all factor in your own best case scenario but you get the picture. Even with the chronic hangover you are likely to be feeling fairly buoyant. I grant you, you won’t be feeling as happy as you would minus the hangover, but you will be feeling significantly better than in scenario one.

What I am trying to illustrate here is that the more perceived problems you have, and the more unhappy and dissatisfied you are with life generally, the more the alcohol withdrawal is going to drag you down. Everyone is going to have their own particular reasons to be happy and their own particular reasons to be miserable. These reasons will change, not only from individual to individual but will also change for each individual as time passes.

So let’s now take a hypothetical person, one who does not consider themselves to have an alcohol problem or to be suffering from alcoholism in any way, but they do have a range of other perceived problems. Let’s then mix in a moderately bad case of alcohol withdrawal. Just to highlight it with some figures let’s say the things that make them miserable generally amount to 60, the things that make them happy amount to 10, so overall they are 50 points miserable. Let’s then say the alcohol withdrawal exacerbates this miserable feeling by a factor of 10 so they are now 500 points miserable.

However let’s now take exactly the same person with exactly the same problems etc, but this time let’s pretend they have accepted that they have a problem with their drinking. So when they wake up they don’t just balance out at 50 points of misery, they have far more then this because of the worry about their drinking problem. This is made up of guilt that they are still drinking, shame that they are unable to control their drinking, worry about the problem and what they can do about it, etc. So this person is not starting with 50 points of miser, but at, say, 200. Then multiply up for the alcohol withdrawal and you end up with the misery of 2,000.

Of course it doesn’t just work this way for people that are unhappy. You may be a fairly happy person generally, but if you have admitted to yourself that you have an alcohol problem then you are going to be miserable because of this, particularly if you are waking up with a stinking hangover.

So if you haven’t accepted that you have a problem with drinking you wake up after drinking and just get on with things. If your life is generally fairly good then although you may be more inclined to be miserable you may not be miserable at all. But if you have accepted you have a problem then as soon as you wake up you not only have the withdrawal and whatever other problems you have, you also have the guilt because you ended up drinking last night, the fear that you are unable to stop, the worry about what is happening to you and why, and more importantly the feeling of self-disgust because you weren’t strong enough to resist yet another binge. So in admitting to yourself that you have a problem you actually create further problems for yourself if you don’t then stop. This in itself causes separate issues worthy of consideration.

Firstly it doesn’t take long for this misery the next day to permeate into the previous evening. If every time you drink you are faced with a real black depression afterwards then quite understandably you are going to start worry about this depression before you actually get to it, ie during the actually drinking session itself. So instead of drinking away and enjoying yourself you are going to be constantly thinking about the misery to come and worrying about it. And what do we do when we are worried about something? Why we take a drink of course.

So the first point to note is that when you accept you have a problem you are less likely to actually enjoy it when you are drinking, and the second point to note is that accepting you have a problem is going to cause you to drink more when you are actually drinking, which will exacerbate the misery the next day and the likelihood of doing something you deeply regret to add to your woes the following day.

This of course leads nicely to the third point which is that the more miserable you are the following day the more likely you are to take another drink to relieve the misery.

Finally people often do not just admit they have a problem to themselves, but to other people as well. In this case the chances are that there are going to be people relying on you not to drink who are going to be upset, disappointed, or angry that you have drunk. This is going to further exacerbate the misery during and after the drinking.

You may now be wondering what my point is here. Am I now going to advise everyone to pretend they don’t have an alcohol problem and just drink away? In fact this isn’t an option. Whilst deciding if you have an alcohol problem is a personal thing and can only be answered by the individual drinker, it is not within the power of the individual to simply come to the answer that suits them. If an individual accepts or even suspects that they have a problem with their drinking, it is impossible for them to convince themselves that they don’t. The factors covered here will apply regardless of whether you want them to or not. Although the question about whether any individual has an alcohol problem is subjective, the answer is not. Individuals may disagree over which particular set of behaviours count as alcoholism, but once they come within their own definition they cannot then escape from that. Of course their own definition may be vague, and their own position not entirely clear, but once they suspect or accept they have a problem they cannot then resile from that.

My point is that when we stop and are drawn back to drinking we look back on our drinking years with rose tinted spectacles (I deal with this in the Chapter on Fading Effect Bias). However what we also need to bear in mind is that the guilt free drinking we experienced in our early years is simply not something you can just return to. Drinking evolves over time and cannot turn back to what it was. Just as it becomes increasingly impossible to moderate, it also becomes increasingly unpleasant when we are actually drinking.

This may seem a depressing thought but as ever it is just a matter as perspective. There are many things in life we grow out of and discard as they cease to be of interest and / or use to us. I used to spend every spare moment on the Playstation, I have very fond memories of spending hour after hour playing Playstation games. I have still got a Playstation but I don’t play it as I just can’t get into the games anymore. For some reason I just don’t enjoy them. Maybe I no longer have the patience, or the mental agility, or the hand / eye coordination. But I don’t sit around bemoaning the fact that I don’t like playing Playstation games anymore. I just don’t play them and instead I fill what little spare time I have with other things, like reading, the increasingly occasional run, and getting beaten up by my 4 and 6 year old sons. In the same way when my wife and I first got married we had a very nice 2 bed house. Then we had our two boys now we’ve moved to a 3 bed. I have some very fond memories of our old house but there is no way I’d want to move back there. It is no longer right for us.

My point is that if you have stopped drinking don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can go back to how it was. Once it sours it sours. Once you see the defects you can never unsee them; like many things in life you cannot turn the clock back. But this isn’t a reason to be miserable, on the contrary like any change for the better it is something to enjoy and celebrate.