Undermining the Addiction

When we are gearing up to stop drinking, or when we are finding sobriety a struggle and are trying to come to terms with it a bit better, we tend to concentrate on two things; the bad part of drinking and the good part of sobriety. The tendency is to take a carrot and stick approach, the stick is the misery of drinking and the carrot is the rewards of sobriety.

The stick, or misery of drinking, is the part we tend to concentrate on first, particularly if we are still drinking at the time. For the alcoholic, problem drinker or heavy drinker, life is fairly grim. Hangovers, arguments, blackouts, misery, despair and panic. The misery is right there in our face, impossible to ignore, so it is the main motivator in our wanting to stop. Although we still look at the misery of drinking when we are sober but trying to re-motivate ourselves, it tends to have less impact. This isn’t just a case of memory fading, but is explained by an actual, fully documented psychological phenomenon called ‘Fading Effect Bias’ (FAB).

FAB essentially describes the process whereby good memories persist longer than bad ones, or more accurately, where we tend to view events in the past in a more positive light as time passes. It is not that we totally forget anything bad that has happened to us and remember only the good things. What FAB refers to is the process by which, over time, our memory of any situation becomes warped, specifically as the memory of the good parts remains and the memory of the bad parts fade, leaving us with a more positive view of the past than was actually the case when we experienced it. The generally accepted theory is that FAB helps us to deal with unpleasant situations and retain a positive outlook on life. It also allows us to maintain a positive self-image as it allows us to see the best of ourselves in past situations. This is why there is this tendency to view our drinking years with fondness and nostalgia the longer we have stopped for.

So the current drinker is likely to derive more motivation from ‘the stick’ or misery of drinking, than the sober wobbler, but this still tends to be the mental starting point for both.

So much for the stick, now we move on to the more positive motivator, the carrot, also known as ‘how much better off I am not drinking’. I’m not even going to bother listing all these reasons as  there are too many of them and everyone will have their personal favourites; self-respect, dignity, health, money, energy, improvements in personal relationships, fitness, diet, etc.

So between the carrot and the stick we force ourselves along, either into a life of sobriety or further along the path of sobriety, and along we plod.

But there’s a glaring omission here isn’t there? Some huge thing that we are not even addressing? The elephant in the room? If we go back to the donkey with its carrot and stick analogy, either looking to join, or to plod further along, the path of sobriety, it’s like finding a huge, impassable, locked door blocking our way, forcing us off the straight and narrow path and back into the bleak wilderness of our drinking. If the stick is the misery of drinking, and the carrot is the benefits of stopping, then the impassable locked door which makes both the carrot and stick into irrelevancies, is the pleasure of drinking.

On one hand it is odd that, when thinking about stopping drinking or staying sober, the supposed pleasure of drinking isn’t our first stop in our list of issues to address. After all, we don’t drink because drinking makes us miserable, and we don’t drink because we are better off not drinking, we drink for the supposed pleasure of it, so this should be the logical first step. However on the other hand it isn’t so odd; firstly we take the pleasure of drinking at face value. We all have some very fond memories of drinking. It’s a given, so we don’t bother questioning it. Secondly we view stopping as a balancing act on a pair of scales, on the one hand the misery of drinking and the benefits of stopping which tips the scales towards our stopping, on the other hand the pleasures of drinking which tip the scales towards our drinking again. We are trying to tip the scales in favour of stopping, so why add weight to the other side of the scales, the side that keeps us drinking?

However just suppose we could address this issue, the supposed pleasure of drinking? After all, that is the only motivator keeping us drinking. To go back to the scales analogy, doing this would mean there would be nothing on the side of the scales keeping us drinking, the carrot and stick would become largely irrelevant, with nothing on the side of the scales keeping us drinking there would be no way the scales could tip that way. To go back to the road of sobriety analogy it would be like unlocking the door and opening it, it would cease to factor as an obstacle. Again the carrot and stick would become largely irrelevant. Why would you need encouragement to come off a road to travel through the wilderness? When is the last time you drove off a perfectly good road to travel through the scrubland? You might conceivably do this is the road was blocked, but if there was no block there is no way in the world you’d do that!

So let’s now turn our minds to this block, to the supposed pleasure of drinking. Let’s make it really difficult for ourselves and take an absolutely top of the range drinking occasion. I can’t tell you what yours are, but I can tell you a few of what mine were up until a few years ago. It would be the end of a day, the end of a difficult working day. A difficult day where I got things done and got results, where I left the office with everything that needed doing done. I would be tired but pleased. It would also be a day where there was a lot of running around, so I would be physically tired as well. It would be an early evening, an early Friday evening, at the start of a long weekend or even a holiday. In fact it would be a long hard day at work, then travelling on holiday with all the physical exertion of lugging the whole family’s suitcases around, unpacking, then finally sitting down, in the warm evening, sitting out on a balcony overlooking the sea, freshly showered and dressed in my nice holiday clothes, first evening of the holiday, drinking an ice cold bottle of beer.

Or it would be Christmas, coming into a warm house from the freezing cold and having a nice hot glass of mulled wine, heavily laced with brandy.

Or going to a fine restaurant, with a view of the City of London stretching out below me, and sipping that dark, rich glass of red wine.

Thoughts like these can be compelling, they can scupper an attempt to stop before it even gets started. We can be months away from our next holiday, Christmas, meal out, in fact these are almost exclusively situations which are so idyllic that they will never exist anyway. But their power lies in the fact that they show to us that our lives will never be the same without a drink, that this one life we have been granted is now tinged forever due to the absence of alcohol.

So is it possible to rob these compelling, overpowering thoughts of their power? The answer, you will be pleased to hear, is yes. I cannot do it for you, you have to do it for yourselves, but I can show you how I robbed my own compelling thoughts of their power.

Let’s start with the holiday example. It can be broken down into the following:

  1. The end of a difficult working day
  2. Satisfaction of a hard day’s work well done.
  3. Rest when physically and mentally tired.
  4. An early Friday evening at the start of a long weekend or even a holiday.
  5. Starting a holiday when all the physical exertion of lugging the whole family’s suitcases around and unpacking them is done.
  6. Sitting down on a warm evening on a balcony overlooking the sea.
  7. Freshly showered.
  8. Dressed in nice holiday clothes.
  9. Drinking an ice cold bottle of beer.

I suppose you could break it down even further, but let’s keep it to these nine for now.

The key point here is that 8 of those 9 are enjoyable in and of themselves. They are not reliant on alcohol to be enjoyable. Even the ninth one is only partially reliant on alcohol. Drinking an ice cold drink when you are thirsty is an immense pleasure, but it could be water, juice, soda or an alcohol free beer. So the only thing you get from the alcohol would be a slightly dulled feeling. When you analyse it you can see that alcohol gets the credit for this perfect evening, but actually it has contributed nothing to it at all. In fact it has detracted from it. At the very best case that one drink will disturb your sleep so that you are tired and out of sorts for the first day of your holiday. In fact it is much more realistic that you won’t just stop at one drink, and the more drinks you have the more chance you have of marring that otherwise idyllic situation with a drunken argument, an actual hangover, and a feeling of self-loathing the next day.

With the Christmas example, coming into a warm place when you are cold is always a pleasure, as is a hot drink, the smell of Christmas, a decorated house, the great day ahead. Again what would alcohol add, other than a slightly dulled feeling and a risk (if not a certainty) of much greater misery. The same goes for the meal in the restaurant.

Alcohol takes too much credit. It takes credit for situations that it has contributed nothing to, or has even actually detracted from.

As I say I cannot rob your compelling thoughts of their power, but you can, by going through the process that I have just gone through above. You have to go through this process with all your drinking situations, not just the really idyllic ones, but all of them. Think of every time you might be tempted to drink and go through the process. Think of the barbeque, the holiday, coming home after a day at work, passing the bar or supermarket, having a meal, meeting friends, having an argument with your spouse or partner, losing a loved one, going on a business trip or having a meal out. Don’t wait until you get to these situations and just hope that you won’t drink, and don’t avoid them altogether. Prepare yourself before you even get there. See now how you will cope with, or enjoy them, without a drink. In fact, see and understand how you will cope with them that much better, and enjoy them that much more, without alcohol. As a human being you have the benefit of imagination. Imagine yourself in these various situations, imagine yourself enjoying them all the more without alcohol, without the intoxication and all the downsides associated with it, enjoying them safe in the knowledge that you will not lose control, will not have a drunken argument, that you will not have a broken and restless night, that you will not wake up full of self-loathing and worry and exhaustion and misery.

It takes time. And it takes effort. But it is achievable. And with nothing on the ‘start drinking’ side of the scales there is no way it can tip that way ever again. After all, why would you leave a perfectly serviceable road to battle through the scrubland if all the roadblocks have been removed?