We have a desperate need to understand why we drink the way we do. This need isn’t simply an urgent quest for knowledge it is driven by something far more powerful: shame, or rather, the need to avoid it. We evolved to live in groups and groups gain a survival advantage when they operate cooperatively i.e. when they all behave the same way. Shame is the way that we evolved to correct behaviour that does not conform to that of the group. That is the express purpose of shame, to change our behaviour, and that’s why it hurts; the emotional pain of shame is the mechanism by which we are encouraged to modify our behaviour. We attract shame when we behave in ways that do not conform to the standards of the society that we live in, and our drinking definitely does not conform to that standard. Normally the pain caused by shame would make us modify our behaviour so that it becomes aligned to that of the group, but when it comes to drinking we cannot do what is required. We can’t stop drinking so we try to find other ways to avoid the shame. This is why for example we favour the company of other people that drink like us because in THAT group our behaviour is ‘normal’… and therefore attracts no shame. Shame is also the motivator of many of our other irregular behaviours. We attract shame if we regularly drink immoderately; and we definitely do that. But we only attract this shame if we are SEEN to drink immoderately. If no one person ever sees the whole extent of our drinking then they don’t see that our drinking is excessive. This is why we buy drink from different places on different days, this is why we drink in one place then move onto another to drink more, this is why we dispose of our empties discretely, this is why we hide alcohol, and this is why we drink secretly. None of this behaviour is motivated by alcohol, it is motivated by shame, but there is a way to avoid all this shame completely. Shame is only attributable to actions that are freely chosen. If we are COMPELLED to take these actions rather than freely CHOOSING to do them then no shame is attributable. THIS is the source of our urgent need to find a reason why we drink the way we do: it is to avoid the pain of the shame we get from non-conformity:- if we can identify a cause for our drinking then we can avoid the shame of it. This is why we are so eager to find a way to say “I drank because…” However in our need to remove the pain of shame we typically misinterpret the evidence, and here is the major culprit… we assume that we are the same as everyone else, but we are not. People drink to relieve distress; all types of distress. But they do this occasionally and/or they do this moderately whereas we drink compulsively and we routinely drink excessively. People drink for many reasons but not for the reason that we do: we drink because our mind compels us to. What causes us to drink is two crucial mental characteristics: we strongly favour the benefits of something over its disadvantages, and we strongly prefer something now over something later. In us this results in a runaway condition whereby the urge to drink grows and grows in strength and the motivation to slow down drinking or avoid it rarely if ever occurs: we lack an “off” switch. This isn’t simply an anecdotal observation, it is completely real. Normal drinkers acquire drink related triggers that both encourage and discourage drinking, but we never develop the ones that encourage us to slow down, stop, or avoid alcohol altogether. This lack of motivation away from alcohol removes from us of the means to spontaneously correct our drinking. We are never encouraged to NOT drink; we are only ever encouraged to drink, drink more, and drink now. The absence of formation of these alcohol-avoiding triggers comes from the two characteristics mentioned above and we are born with them. Whether we inherited these from our parents or whether they occurred through the random variability of nature makes no difference, we have these traits and they are as unchangeable as our height. But being born with these mental characteristics does not mean that we WILL become alcoholic, there is another step required. We have a susceptibility to addiction (all addiction) but that susceptibility is dormant unless we engage it. If we never drink heavily then we will never engage that susceptibility. But if we begin to drink regularly and heavily then two distinct things happen to us. The first is that we strengthen all the triggers to drink but unlike normal drinkers DO NOT strengthen any alcohol-avoiding triggers. The second change is that when we drink regularly and heavily then our mood changes. We become less socially confident, less happy and more anxious. But these conditions are relieved by drinking, so we develop drinking triggers for each of these emotional states. We are now prompted to drink to relieve the alone-ness, fear, unhappiness and anxiety that are themselves caused by drinking and this in turn makes us drink more and this makes them all even worse. This is the CAUSE of our drinking and finding other things to blame takes our attention off the actual problem. The problem to be fixed is me. The problem is not my job, my friends, my circumstances, my upbringing, other people, the media or anything else, it is me. If I stopped watching any media, changed jobs, changed where I lived, changed my friends, got counselling for distress, would this stop the problem? Does changing any or all of these remove the cause of my drinking? No it does not. If I change any or all these then to my disappointment I find that my addiction continues. These are all things that make normal people drink on occasion but they are not why we drink. Addressing them does not alter my addiction and I do not become able to drink normally. This NEVER happens because these are not the actual causes of our problem; they are only apparent causes which we latch onto to try to avoid shame.
If we examine the idea that our addiction is caused by the media then we can quickly demolish the proposition. Alcoholism existed long before mass media. The prohibition movements preceded the movies, television or internet, but rather more obviously, heroin, meth’, cocaine and so on are not advertised AT ALL, but they all have large addicted communities. We do not become alcoholics because the media makes us drink; we drink excessively because we are alcoholics… we have the mental characteristics that favour addiction. But holding up the idea that we drink because the media causes us to doesn’t just falsely offset the shame it has another particularly unwanted consequence; it alienates support. If we present the idea that we drink because the media is awash with prompts to do so then this turns away the support of normal drinkers. This is because they also see exactly the same alcohol-normalising media that we do, but they don’t drink uncontrollably as a consequence. When we offer this defence we inadvertently reinforce their presumption that we drink because are weak and making poor choices.
The suggestion that we drink because of our circumstances is equally flawed. If my excessive drinking was caused by the company I kept then it would spontaneously correct itself if I changed who I spent my time with. But it never did. The same applies to where I lived, or the job I had. If these CAUSED addiction then I should spontaneously recover and drink normally if I moved, got a new job or got a new set of friends… but it didn’t happen, my addiction went with me wherever I moved or whatever I changed. Our circumstances do not cause us to drink excessively otherwise we would find that we drank moderately if we changed those circumstances… but that’s not what happens.
It has taken a lot of explanation to get to the point, but here it is. Just like our alcoholism isn’t caused by the media or our circumstances neither is it caused by our past. Some people will drink heavily in response to some persistent distress in their lives and if that distress is removed through therapy then they will recover and drink normally. However, this is not the case for us. We do not become alcoholics because we drink too much, this is never the case. We drink too much because we are always motivated to drink and never motivated to avoid it. So drinking heavily to gain relief from some issue in our past does not CAUSE alcoholism: we drink compulsively because our brains work differently. We are susceptible to addiction because of characteristics we are born with, and we become alcoholic when engage that susceptibility. While it is true that people with traumatic pasts are more likely than the average population to become alcoholics this is not because past trauma CAUSES addiction it is because people with past trauma are more likely to drink heavily, so if the susceptibility to addiction is present in them then it WILL be engaged. Past trauma does not CAUSE addiction so its resolution will not remove addiction. The problem is us. WE are the problem and we are the only ones that can fix it. We are also the only obstacles to our own recovery. Looking for ghosts in our past does not help fix our problem with alcoholism. We may gain relief from some other issues by confronting our past but our alcoholism will be entirely unaffected by this. And while holding up some issue from our past and saying “see!” that’s why I drink” may apparently provide a means of avoiding some shame it is a false premise. We are not drinking beyond what is socially acceptable because of something in our past; we are drinking compulsively because of our condition: alcoholism. If we want relief from THAT shame then THAT is what we must address, not our past, but our alcoholism.