The big lie in our alcoholic minds

When we try to stop drinking we are confronted by many challenges. We have to overcome incredibly powerful cravings of course, but there is far more. Our daily routines have to change, people we associate with have to change, and the things we do that occupy our free time have to change. But even if we manage to overcome the cravings, and completely reorganise our lives then the challenges still keep coming, and they don’t come from outside us, the biggest ones come from within.

We know about the cravings, and we can get medication to help us fight them off, but there is no similar defense against the enemy within. For this we have nothing but our own intellect and willpower. When we first set out to stop drinking we all underestimate just how difficult the task is, and in particular we completely misunderstand the extent to which our own minds will try to sabotage our efforts. Normal drinkers looking on have absolutely no comprehension of this, and it is virtually impossible for them to grasp it fully, but there are parts of our brain that want us to carry on drinking.

The root of our addiction lies in our brain in what’s known as the “reward system”. This isn’t something unique to humans; all animals that have a brain that’s separated into two hemispheres have it. The reward system is responsible for encouraging us to do things that aid our survival and discourage us from doing things that are harmful to it. It remembers good and bad occurrences and it motivates us to repeat, or avoid them when they next occur. In us alcohol gets remembered as something to do again. Every time we encounter a circumstance that yielded alcohol a new “trigger” is formed, and the next time we meet that circumstance then we will get an urge to drink; that’s how the reward system works. But there is another level of sophistication in it. Some triggers yield alcohol more often than others, and the importance of those triggers gets raised.

There are two things that we notice when a trigger is activated. We feel the urge to drink, and then if we take a drink in response to it we get an immediate wave of ease and contentment wash through us. Alcohol causes neither of these; they are both manufactured entirely within our own brains. The craving comes before we have alcohol in our bodies, and the wave of cosy pleasure happens immediately! (there hasn’t been enough time for the alcohol to be digested and carried to the brain). But there are a two other things happening that we are not aware of. The first is that the trigger we acted on gets strengthened. This means that the next time we meet that triggering circumstance we will get a stronger craving, and we will also get a stronger “aaaaahhhhh!” of relaxation when we drink. We don’t know this strengthening has happened, and we also don’t know that something else has occurred… our memory has been altered.

Dopamine is the chemical in our brain that causes the craving. A large dose of dopamine is also released on actually securing drink, and it is that dopamine that gives us the instant feel-good experience. But that same large jolt of dopamine does something else…. it stimulates memory formation, and the memory laid down is “That was good! Do it again”. THIS will become one of the biggest obstacles we have to overcome in recovery.

Every time we drink in response to a drinking trigger we get the relieving “aaaahhhh!” caused by a dopamine surge. The more often we do this then the stronger the triggers become and the more powerful are cravings and sense of relief on taking a drink. But at the same time as the relieving surge of dopamine is getting more powerful, so is the imprinting on our memory of “That was good! Do it again”.

Over time our brain remembers very firmly indeed that “drinking is good” and that “drinking is fun”. Once we enter the phase that we are drinking to relieve our distress then a third is memory added: “a drink will make me feel better”.

These ideas are so heavily enforced by the accompanying dopamine that we come to know them more confidently than anything else. And THIS is why the suggestion that we should stop drinking is so horrifying…. The three pieces of information we know more confidently than any other are that “drinking is good”, “drinking is fun” and “a drink will make me feel better”. So the suggestion that we should stop drinking permanently therefore implies that; we will stop having fun, we will stop having good in our life, and that we will never feel “better” again… we will remain distressed and miserable forever.

But there are problems with these memories. The problems are that two of them aren’t true at all, and the third only remains true while we continue to drink.

Dopamine causes memory to be fixed more firmly, and when we are happy then we also have a lot of dopamine in our brain… which is why we remember good times, and that is how the early ideas that “drinking is good” and “drinking is fun” got laid down. But once our drinking triggers have strengthened then the surge of dopamine we get on taking a drink becomes very large, and it chemically enforces the memories “drinking is good”, “drinking is fun”… but it does this regardless of whether or not we are  actually enjoying ourselves. It is the chemical enforcement of memory that makes “drinking is good” and  “drinking is fun” the most memorable things we know, not that drinking is actually good or fun… because by the time our drinking has become problematic they are not. “Drinking is fun” and “drinking is good” are powerful and real seeming memories, but they are both completely false. They exist as powerful memories only because of the dopamine rush we get on taking a drink.

The other memory “drinking make me feel better” is slightly more complex to explain. One of the things that happens when we drink significantly over an extended period is that our mood changes. Extended and regular exposure to alcohol lowers our feeling of well-being and social confidence, but a drink fixes this; we become happier and more socially engaged when drunk. But as we continue to drink our mood lowers further so that we are distressed, anxious and unhappy, and when we drink now it only raises us to feel “normal”. Alcohol stops working for us; we can’t drink enough to get happy any more. But we still get the relieving rush of dopamine on taking a drink. Alcohol becomes the medicine that relieves the very suffering that it causes! This makes the memory “drinking will make me feel better” completely true! BUT it is only true while we continue to drink. When we stop drinking then our brain settles back to its former state of contentment, at which point alcohol is no longer needed to make us feel OK again.

These three lies form the basis of our self-sabotage, and we need to understand them to be able to see them and confront them. When we experience a craving then this comes from a part of the brain we can’t see into. We experience a sudden yearning for a drink (often with no obvious cause) and the rational part of our mind moves to justify it. The three big memories that support the craving are “drinking is good”, “drinking is fun” and “a drink will make me feel better”… and up they pop. But a thought’s intensity has no relationship to its accuracy and when these ideas come we need to recognise them, and push them back as false.

  • “Drinking is good” is not true. It is a chemically imprinted lie.
  • “Drinking is fun” is not true. It is a chemically imprinted lie.
  • “Drinking will make me feel better”. Is a chemically imprinted memory that is only true while we continue to drink.

We have to learn to see the lies as they come, or we will talk ourselves back into drinking. When we realise that these potent memories are actually incorrect, then the argument collapses. We stop sabotaging our own effort when we challenge the lies and call them out. So stick this one in your toolbox but keep it handy.

When we show the facts to be false then the intellectual argument that supports having a drink fails. Call out the lies when they come.