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.

Moderating

Karyn recently asked about my doing a blog post amplifying the concept of the ‘stimulant vs depressant’ side of alcohol consumption, and its impact on moderation. This coincided with someone sending me an email asking about moderation. Hence this post.

I am not going to go over the basics of the physiological effects of drinking in detail (you can find them in the ‘First 5 Chapters’ part of the website in Chapter 2 if you are not familiar with them) suffice to say the human brain seeks to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol by releasing stimulants. However the human brain only has a limited supply of these stimulants. In the normal course of events only a very small amount of them are needed, however to counter the alcohol (which is a powerful chemical depressant) it needs far more of them. Over time therefore the brain creates more and more of them, and even becomes proficient enough to release them in response to expected, rather than actual, drinks drunk. For example if every time you drink you drink 8 drinks, as soon as that first drink hits your bloodstream your brain will release stimulants to counter the alcohol in the full 8 drinks, not just the one you have already drunk. This is why, for many, the first drink will actually ‘pick them up’ even though alcohol is a chemical depressant (along with the fact that alcohol anaesthetises feelings of tiredness).

I can think of a couple of occasions (literally 2 during 25 years of drinking) when I had 2 drinks and tried to have no more. On both occasions I couldn’t sleep. I realise now that I was so used to drinking more, that my brain would release stimulants to counter the dozen or so drinks I would usually drink, rather than the two I had actually taken. On one occasion I just lay there tossing and turning all night, on the other I made it to the off licence just before it closed and picked up a substantial amount more to drink.
For this reason I conclude that moderation isn’t an option. But just as the brain gets used to heavy drinking, cannot it not re adjust to lighter drinking? What if, for example, I took just two drinks and suffered the stimulant onslaught (if I can call it that) and kept doing this say, every three days? Would my system readjust to the smaller amount of alcohol? I don’t know for definite but logic would dictate it must do. How long would it take? Again I can only guess but it would be days or weeks, rather than months or years, judging from how long it takes the brain to read adjust from other drugs. So isn’t this a way to moderate?
I think the first question must be would it be worth the effort? It would be a fairly unpleasant process. For me the answer is simple; absolutely not. This is because I no longer see any pleasure in drinking at all, indeed I see it as detracting from my personal happiness and mental resilience, so even if could guarantee it would work I have no interest in drinking again.
The next question to address is would it work long term? We already know the answer to this because we’ve experienced it before. We’d go through the same process as when we drank the first time, which is to slowly (or quickly) increase our intake as our ’tolerence’ (which is the name we use to describe the brain’s ability to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol) increased. So even if you were to go through the painful process of reducing your tolerance, the natural tendency would be for it to keep increasing. You would, I think, have to keep going through the ‘stimulant onslaught’ process every few weeks (or even days) to keep bringing the tolerance down.
However there is another factor to consider and this is not physiological but mental. The fact is that long term heavy drinking leads to your learning, on both a conscious and subconscious level, that the withdrawal from alcohol (no matter how slight) can be relieved by another drink. Even if you could return your ‘tolerence’ to its original pre-drinking level, the mental associations would remain. I cannot think of a way of reversing this aspect so the unpleasant physiological process would ultimately be for nothing. Even the very mild alcohol withdrawal of the first time drinker is enough to cause the desire for another drink in anyone who associates the relief of this withdrawal with another drink.
The final overriding point to make is that a person would only want to moderate if they retain some belief that there is some genuine pleasure in drinking. Although I always say that Alcohol Explained is information and ideas, rather than doctrine and instruction, and it is up to the individual to accept or reject it as they see fit, and to put anything they find useful to whatever use they see fit, I can’t help but think that if a person wants to moderate they have somehow missed one or more points somewhere along the line.

Professor David Nutt and his Hangover Free Synthetic Alcohol

There are been a few articles in press recently about a synthetic ‘hangover free’ alcohol that Professor Nutt of Imperial College London is predicting will replace alcohol within a generation. The reason? It is alleged to be hangover free.

In fact very little is known about the compounds themselves insofar as they affect human beings; there is no published research on them so it is very difficult to provide any reasoned comment on this, as best as I can make out idea is that this synthetic alcohol will have much the same effect as alcohol except that when the human body processes it there will be no resulting build up of acetaldehyde as there is with alcohol. It is this acetaldehyde that causes the sickness and headache aspect of the hangover.

The press seems very interested in this and Professor Nutt is obviously a very intelligent and well respected public figure, and this is one of those situations when I am left wondering if it is me that is being particularly obtuse, or everyone else. There are some questions that seem so obvious that I can’t believe no one else has thought to raise them. Specifically:

  1. The hangover is the one things that stops many people drinking to excess. By removing it aren’t you simply encouraging people to drink more?
  2. The compounds in this ‘synthetic alcohol’ are still chemical depressants, so presumable the human brain will seek to counter them by releasing stimulants (for more detail on this point see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which can be found here). So wont this synthetic alcohol still be as addictive as alcohol, if not more so, as people will be able to drink more of it without becoming hungover?
  3. As we know the brain will still seek to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol with stimulants and when the depressive effects wear off the stimulants will still remain. This is what causes the disturbed sleep and tiredness the day after drinking. I very rarely got headaches and sickness when I drank, the main symptom of my hangover was tiredness and lethargy. So won’t this symptom still remain? If so synthetic alcohol isn’t really ‘hangover free’ is it?
  4. Following on from this another major hangover symptom is the feeling of anxiety and worry we have the day after drinking that is a result of the left over stimulants. Again presumably this aspect will remain?
  5. Presumably these synthetic compounds will have a similar affect on the limbic system as alcohol with the result that it will lead to emotional instability (more information of this aspect can be found here). Won’t allowing people to be able to drink more lead to more emotional instability, which is the cause of alcohol related violence, crime, domestic violence, child abuse, etc?
  6. The government guidelines recommend drinking no more than one or two drinks a day. The alcohol industry itself (on the face of it at least) supports this position and encourages ‘responsible drinking’ (whatever that may be). It you drink within these limits you don’t get utterly intoxicated and you don’t get hangovers. So presumably the whole point in synthetic alcohol is to allow people to ignore the ‘responsible drinking’ guidelines and get utterly intoxicated?

The whole point of this synthetic alcohol seems to be to allow people to drink irresponsibly, because if you are drinking responsibly you won’t be getting a hangover anyway. If you introduce something that allows people to drink to excess without having a hanger aren’t you just exacerbating all the ill effects of alcohol on individuals and society as a whole?

Please tell me, am I just missing something obvious here or is this just absolutely insane?!?

Audio Version of Alcohol Explained

 

I am pleased to announce that the audio version of Alcohol Explained is now available on Audible. You can find it here.

It should be available on Amazon and ITunes within the next couple of days.

Don’t worry about the high price (it is dictated by the retailer – I have no control over it) as you can do a free trial and get it for nothing.

Bargain!

Afraid of the Dark

As father of two young children I am reminded, almost nightly, of the concept of being afraid of the dark. Of course it’s not dark that children, or anyone else for that matter, is afraid of, it is what may be lurking within it. This is why it affects children more than adults. Adults know as an indisputable fact that when they wake up in the night there are no monsters lurking in the shadows. They know that monsters in the supernatural sense do not exist, and they know that human monsters won’t be lurking in the shadows because they understand their own homes and security systems. They may know for instance that no one could break in at all, or could break in without setting an alarm off, or break in silently. They know there is no space under the bed or in the wardrobe for someone, or something, to hide. Even though they cannot see what is in the dark, or under the bed, or in the wardrobe, they know from experience and logic that nothing threatening can lurk within. Adults do experience fear of the dark, but this is only when the possibility of a threat exists; either they are in an unfamiliar place, or are still half asleep and still partly within the dream they are fighting to leave. When they wake up properly, and their rational mind reasserts itself, the fear leaves. Children don’t have this. Whilst they understand on one level that monsters don’t exist, on another level, in their imagination, they are as real as any other part of their life.

Fear of the unknown isn’t irrational, on the contrary it is the safest, most rational response, and also a response that is very deeply instilled in us. Think about before humans emerged from the primeval forest, or about animals for that matter. If they hear a noise and cannot see the source of it, they can’t know if it is something that poses a threat to them or not. An animal that does not fear the unknown is an animal that will end up dead. The ones who are afraid and flee are the ones that survive. Animals and humans alike, when confronted with the unknown, fear the worst and act accordingly. They accord and apportion their fear and respect to the unknown phenomenon on the basis of a worst case scenario. This is a simple, straightforward, survival mechanism.

Alcohol addictions has always been an unknown force, and it is for that reason that it holds such power over us. All we know is that in direct opposition of all that is rational, we want, and indeed have to have, a drink. We don’t understand why and we feel absolutely helpless and afraid. These two feelings alone make us want a drink even more, but more important than that is the fact that we then accord to that irrational desire for a drink the status of absolute power, because we simply do not understand it. The other problem of course is that without a rational, scientific understanding of what is going on, the battle of sobriety seems too formidable. If you are absolutely desperate for a drink, and someone told you (and you believed) that that feeling would only last for 4 minutes, after which it would go, never to return, you would most likely mange to rally your determination and get through those 4 minutes. Conversely if you believe that feeling will never ever go, or that it will takes years to slowly dissipate, or worse of all that it will get progressively worse, then there is no point even trying to fight it. You will end up giving in at some point, so you may as well make it sooner rather than later.

This is why a definitive, complete and fully workable understanding of alcohol and addiction is needed to most effectively quit drinking, and why it is so important to understand each of the factors that causes you to want a drink, how they are triggered, and when they will end. Firstly and most importantly is removes the unknown. We are no longer up against something unknown, and therefore we no longer need to apportion to it an overly inflated amount of fear or respect. We know it for what it really is, we understand it, and therefore it no longer holds additional power over us because of the unknown element. In understanding something you diminish its power over you. Jason Vale used the example of the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy, the Tinman, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion finally confront the Wizard of Oz. The are in awe of him, they are terrified, until they finally realise that he is nothing more than a rather pathetic old man with a rather complicated set of mechanical special effects.

I believe that this is the reason why many people, on reading Alcohol Explained, describe it as something akin to a switch being flipped in their mind, such that they no longer have any desire to drink. If you have spent years fearing an unknown force, and suddenly have it fully explained, the results can be dramatic.

Alcohol Explained – 2nd Edition

Firstly apologies for being fairly inactive recently. I started a new job a month ago and what little free time I did have almost entirely evaporated, and what I have had I have spent rewriting and updating Alcohol Explained.

I am pleased to announce this this task is now complete and the 2nd Edition of Alcohol Explained is now ready for release.

For those who have already bought the book, let me assure you that virtually everything new to the 2nd Edition is on the website so there is no need to buy another copy. It is not an entirely different book, it is just updated with some additional information and Chapters. However for those who would rather have everything in one book I have reduced the price down as far as Amazon will allow, to give you a chance to get the updated copy for as cheaply as I can provide it (Amazon requires certain minimal pricing on books).

I have literally put the changes through now and they can take up to 24 hours to take effect, so if you do want the new edition it might be worth checking later today or tomorrow. You will know when the changes have taken effect as the price will be £0.99 / $0.99 for the Kindle Edition and something in the region of $/£ 5/6 for the hard copy. I won’t be able to maintain this reduction for long (perhaps a week, maybe two) as I am also in the process of producing an audio version of the book and I need to finance this.

Finally if anyone can provide advice, assistance or ideas for promoting Alcohol Explained please do get into contact. In particular if there are any journalists, or if you know any journalists, who might be interested in writing an article please let me know.

 

This Naked Mind

I recently read This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. There are many points in there that work very well with Alcohol Explained and some in particular that I think are worth specifically mentioning.

Firstly is the question of why it is difficult to limit our intake during any particular drinking session. In Alcohol Explained I explain how the relaxing effect of the alcohol does not dissipate leaving you feeling as you did before, but leaves behind it a corresponding feeling of anxiety that needs another drink to replace it. So the tendency, when you take a drink, is to keep drinking. I also explain that due to the discrepancy between the time it takes for the relaxing effect to wear off as opposed to the intoxicating effect, the tendency is to become increasingly drunk (the Chapters 2 and 5 that deal with these points can be found here).

This Naked Mind adds an additional layer to this. It points out the alcohol also affects our ability to make well thought out, rational decisions, specifically:

“The final change in your brain occurs within your prefrontal cortex. This is the part of your brain responsible for decision-making. It allows you to make well-thought-out decisions, exhibits self-control and prevent the more reptilian parts of your brain from running the show.”

So, to put it colloquially, when we are drinking we are far more likely to say “sod moderation I am just going to drink and ‘enjoy’ myself” as we are simply less able to make a decision based on rationality rather than base instinct. It is also the case that alcohol dulls our fear of the following day and our fear of the adverse effects of our drinking generally.

Secondly in Alcohol Explained I deal with why the concept of drinking to relieve stress is based on a fallacy. Essentially although the alcohol may dull down the stress in the short term, the effect of the drink very quickly wears off and so you end up not only back to where you were before you took the drink, but in fact worse off as you then have the alcohol withdrawal to contend with in addition to the original stress, so you then need another drink, and another, and another to keep relieving both the withdrawal and the original stress. So the net result is the original stress, alcohol withdrawal, a ruined night’s sleep, and most likely an actual hangover.

Again This Naked Mind adds an additional layer by pointing out that addiction overall is a much bigger stressor that the stressors you drank to remove. Addiction causes a mental divide in your mind (where part of you wants to drink and part of you wants to stop). This internal divide is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’ and is a major and ongoing cause of frustration and agitation.

Thirdly, in Alcohol Explained I deal with why the disease theory of alcoholism is harmful. By suggesting that if you are not ‘alcoholic’ you can drink with impunity and never have a problem, it gives free licence to partake in irresponsible drinking which then accelerates the process of addiction. This Naked Mind again adds another layer to this by pointing out that this concept also stigmatises ‘alcoholism’. No one wants to admit that there is something inherently wrong with them, such that they are incapable of controlling themselves when others can, so the natural tendency is for people to resist admitting they have a problem for as long as they possibly can. We, as a society, should not be in a position of saying ‘drink unless you admit you are one of the poor benighted few who are different to everyone else and have no self-control where alcohol is conerned’ but rather ‘you are on a road that becomes increasingly unpleasant as the illusions of pleasure are one by one exploded, feel free to do the wise thing and get off it as soon as you come to your senses’.