We don’t stop drinking because we want to; we stop because we have to. If we could carry on drinking without bad things happening then we would, but this isn’t the case. If we could drink and keep how much we drank to within reasonable limits then we wouldn’t need to stop either, but this too isn’t the case. Perhaps there was a time when this was possible but that is a long way in the past. We have learned through bitter experience that no matter how hard we try we cannot manage our drinking. The proof of this is the simplest and most obvious observation of ourselves. We have tried to control our drinking countless times and in every conceivable way but it cannot be done. If we could control our drinking then we would have done so a long time ago. But not only can we not control how much or how often we drink there is another alarming factor: it is getting worse. Our ability to control how much we drink was taken from us imperceptibly slowly. It happened so slowly that we didn’t notice it but one of the fundamental truths about addiction is that it is progressive. It always gets worse, never better. Beyond that is an even more disturbing truth: we will never recover control of our drinking. Nobody that has drunk alcoholically has ever gone on to be able to drink normally… nobody! Of all the millions and millions that have tried there has not been a single case of an alcoholic going on to become a normal drinker. Once the demand to drink outstrips our control it is never recovered. There are no exceptions to this and you will not be the first. While this is extremely unwelcome news it also helps us because it simplifies our possible courses of action. Whereas we once thought that there were three options; carry on drinking as we are, drink sensibly, or (heaven forbid!) stop drinking altogether, we now see that the middle path is unavailable to us because drinking sensibly cannot happen. This leaves us only two options; we either carry on drinking and our lives get worse and worse, or, and this is the unthinkable thought, we stop drinking altogether.
While it is obvious to ourselves that our drinking has slowly increased over time there are other changes that have happened that we don’t necessarily notice or we misattribute the cause. What we don’t recognise until it is pointed out to us is that we have changed emotionally. If we drink regularly and heavily then our brain’s performance becomes routinely impaired, and it changes the way it operates to try and offset this impairment. The principal action of alcohol on the brain is that it slows it down, and when this happens regularly then our brain responds by speeding everything up. The other major change is that alcohol makes us artificially happy and socially confident. Our brain recognises that it is getting more fun and sociability than it ordered and it slows down release of the chemicals responsible for that. These changes compensate for what happens to us when we drink but they are applied constantly and this has bad consequences for the times of day that we are sober: we become anxious, restless, irritable, unhappy, and socially shy when we are not drinking. Allof these symptoms are themselves relieved by alcohol, and once we take a drink to escape these emotional consequences then our brain recognises this and actively encourages us to drink whenever we experience them. Once our brain has adjusted how it works to defend itself against the slowing effect of alcohol then we experience these adverse emotions whenever we are sober. We end up being urged to drink when we are sober because when we are sober we are less happy, more irritable, more restless, and less social… and all of these trigger an urge to drink. We are then motivated to drink to relieve these symptoms but the very act of drinking more makes our brain adapt its defensive measures even more strongly, and when this happens we become locked into a self-reinforcing loop whereby drinking eases the symptoms that are caused by drinking. But drinking more only intensifies these symptoms further. Alcohol appears to be the solution to our problems, but in reality it only makes them worse.
We might identify for ourselves that our drinking has increased over the years, and that so too has the trouble that it brings, but we do not necessarily link our lowered emotional state with alcohol. In fact the tendency is to assume the very opposite, that we are drinking because of our stress, anxiety, fear and alone-ness. But regardless of whether alcohol is the cause of our distress, or has amplified some existing distress, the result is that our brain adjusts even further to offset the depressive effects of alcohol for as long as we continue to drink. This further accelerates the roaring and racing of our mind and it increases all the feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, and aloneness. Drinking to gain relief from these forms into a vicious cycle that propels us into hopelessness and despair.
We can readily recognise that our drinking has increased over the years and that the trouble this causes has also increased. This may be what has motivated us to try and change things but it shouldn’t be the only motivator. Alcoholism is progressive and it is progressive in all respects. Yes, the problems it causes in our daily lives become more severe but so too do the emotional consequences. We not only feel the shame and guilt associated with all the things we have done we also suffer an intensifying descent into despair. If we do nothing to arrest this decline then it will kill us. This may seem like an overdramatic statement but it is not: unchecked alcoholism is fatal. Alcoholics mostly die from; organ failure (liver, kidney, heart, and brain), traumatic injury (vehicle accidents, homicide, accidental injury, or drowning), or, and this is far more common than is acknowledged, suicide.
Stopping drinking isn’t just something that is desirable; it is essential. But knowing that stopping drinking is necessary isn’t enough in itself to motivate us to stop; we also need to also believe that it is possible and that it is worthwhile… and neither of these is immediately obvious to us. We may reach the realisation that stopping drinking is necessary from our self-observations but the evidence proving that it is both possible and worthwhile is harder to find.
One of the great barriers to stopping drinking is that we can’t imagine our lives without alcohol. Our experience is that it is the highlight of our day, it is the fun part, the time that we escape from our burdens. As our condition progresses further then alcohol becomes the only fun we can see in our lives and the times that we don’t drink are filled with stress, fear, and anxiety. From this position it appears that stopping drinking means forgoing all fun in our lives and only being left with its hardships… and that is a big call, who would willingly choose this? But this perception is incorrect and it is false in two significant ways. The first is that our drinking has caused a lowered emotional state and when we stop drinking then all those changes correct themselves. Stopping drinking doesn’t leave us in a permanently miserable state because when we stop drinking then our mood lifts and our anxiety fades. The second falsehood is that our memory is not faithful when it comes to alcohol. If we think of drinking then our first memory is always a good one and never a bad one. Our memory links alcohol to fun overly strongly and it links the bad things that come with drinking overly weakly. This means that we have a recall of drinking that is absurdly positive. It appears that if we stop drinking then we will be losing all the fun in our life, but in reality that drinking wasn’t as much fun as we remember, and if we stop drinking then all the bad stuff stops too, but our mind doesn’t rush to point this out. It isn’t at all obvious to us at the time, in fact we anticipate the opposite, but stopping drinking is enormously beneficial to how we feel within ourselves and about our place in the world. When we stop drinking then our life improves and this is what must happen, because if we go through all the effort and struggle of stopping drinking but are still miserable then there is no point; we might as well drink again.
For us to be able to stop drinking we have to believe that it is necessary and that it is worthwhile, but there is also a third requirement; we have to believe that it is possible. But our experience in this regard is not promising. If you have taken the trouble to pick up this book then this will not be the first time you have tried to do something about your drinking. You have already tried numerous times and those attempts have failed time after time. We all experience this. Whether these were attempts to limit the amount we drank, how often we drank or when, where or what we permitted ourselves to drink, they all failed. We tried to limit our drinking to certain days and occasions, and we tried to stop for specific periods, but we couldn’t stay the course and always ended up drinking exactly like we did before. Our experience of stopping drinking is not promising, in fact our experience is that it is not possible, and if it is not possible to stop drinking then why even bother to try. If it is impossible to stop then we are only delaying the day that we will drink again so we might as well drink now. Just like our memory creates the illusion that stopping drinking is not worthwhile it also supports the illusion that it is not possible, but it is possible. It isn’t easy but we don’t need some extraordinary super-power to be able to stop. Every year millions of people do it and these people are not super-high-achievers, they are ordinary, normal folk. Despite our own experience it is possible to stop drinking, we just haven’t been able to do so yet. But alcoholism is progressive. The longer we drink then the more serious the consequences become and eventually the need to stop exceeds the pain of doing so. Only then do we have the urgency needed to succeed, but even then we misjudge the challenge. We expect that our fight is with the bottle, but it is not, it is with our own mind.
Imagine this scene: –
I am sitting in a plain room and a plain table. I am not thirsty or hungry or in any way distressed, I am perfectly at ease. Some researchers have connected sensors to me that detect brain activity and they are testing my response to alcohol.
First they bring in a glass of orange juice and put it in front of me and go and check their instruments… nothing. Next they bring in an unopened bottle of wine and set it in front of me, but now when they look at their equipment they see that my brain is going off! It is tempting to think that the alcohol has somehow had this effect on me, but this can’t be true because the bottle is still sealed. The activity in my head is entirely created by me in response to seeing alcohol. In fact they would find exactly the same result if that bottle didn’t even contain wine. If, for example, the bottle contained apple juice but still looked like wine, then my brain would produce exactly the same excited response. Alcohol itself does not cause the increased excitement in my brain; I manufacture it myself.
Alcohol does not exert some magical power over me that makes me want to drink it, that urge to drink is created entirely within my own mind. I don’t mean to do it, it just happens and I can’t prevent it from coming; it happens whether I want it to or not. It is an entirely automatic function of my mind and it is totally beyond my direct control; I can’t turn it off, I can’t ignore it, and damn! it is insistent.
But here is the odd thing. If the experiment is repeated on a person that isn’t an alcoholic then the result is quite different. When the wine bottle is put in front of then then their brain still becomes excited, but far, far less excited than mine. In them the urge to drink is present, but it is not insistent, and they can choose to ignore it if they want to. But for us the demand is so intense that it’s like standing next to a screaming baby… it cannot be ignored. When our brain recognises that alcohol is nearby and available then we are very strongly urged to take it and drink. That is what the elevated brain activity is and it is entirely measureable. A normal drinker in the same circumstances only gets a mild motivation to pick up the bottle but in us the response is massive and it is un-chosen. We do not get this enormous impulse to drink because we are weak or make poor choices, our brain creates it entirely automatically, and we have no way to turn it off or ignore it. We didn’t choose it to be this way, and we can’t choose it to be different. It is what it is, and we have to learn to work around it if we are to survive, because if we don’t then this mental mis-wiring will end up killing us.
Our problem isn’t overcoming alcohol, our problem is overcoming ourselves. We are the only possible solution to this problem and we are also the only barrier to success. Our challenge is not the bottle, it is our own mind, and our mind conspires against us mercilessly. Not only is the challenge a powerful one it is also relentless. Our mind has a limitless capacity to urge us to drink but our ability to fend that off is finite, so we need to put our effort into where it is effective and we need to work to sustain and replenish our resolve. Our determination to overcome addiction stands on three pillars: that it is necessary, that it is possible and that it is worthwhile. If any one of these three fails then so too will our attempt to stop. There are many things we can do that will sustain these three fundamentals and these are presented in the pages of this book. The nature of the challenge is not mysterious. Millions of people around the world struggle with this problem and most will overcome it. We don’t have to guess what the challenges are; they have been exposed by the experience of millions of people and detailed in countless studies and research papers. We know exactly what the challenges are, they are; cravings, distorted emotions, biased memory, and self-sabotaging ideas that our mind creates to make us drink again. We can learn from other people that these can be overcome and we can learn how they managed it. How to meet and overcome the many challenges we face in stopping drinking and staying stopped is the express purpose of this book. It isn’t written to inspire you to stop drinking, there are many other books that do that, it is written show you the practical things we can do to help ourselves win through.
Getting sober doesn’t just happen, we have to make it happen, and nobody can do that except ourselves. We can’t simply wish things were different, we have to act. It takes effort and persistence to stop drinking and just like any other task there are some ways to achieve it that are more successful than others. This book identifies what will help so that you don’t need to waste time and effort on things that won’t bring a result. There is a lot to learn and many new skills and disciplines to acquire and there really should be a word for such a specific expertise, but there isn’t, so I have invented one; I call it “Sobrietry”: The skill and practise of stopping drinking and staying stopped. There is nothing to be gained by delay. So start now, where you are, with what you have, and build from there.