I’ve been thinking a bit recently about how and why alcohol withdrawal is so powerful. As I cover in Alcohol Explained the physical withdrawal from alcohol occurs because the brain seeks to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol by releasing its own supply of stimulants. The alcohol is then processed leaving only the stimulants. This is the period when we are restless, anxious, and out of sorts due to the excess stimulants. This is the period I refer to as the withdrawal period. If we take a drink during this period, the alcohol depresses the stimulants leaving us feeling far more relaxed; in essence it returns us to the feeling of peace and tranquility we would have experienced had we never drunk in the first place. In this way the primary benefit of alcohol is to relieve problems it has previously caused. More details on this can be found in Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which you can find in the ‘First 5 Chapters’ part of the website.
Some people who have never had problems with alcohol appreciate this concept but still struggle to understand the depth of power alcohol holds over people. They struggle to understand how this feeling of restlessness, anxiety and nervousness can cause people to sacrifice their jobs, their family, and even their very lives.
The fact is that the words ‘anxiety’ or ‘nervousness’ don’t really do it justice. What it really amounts to is the erosion of our confidence and resilience. Everyone has problems. The key to a happy life isn’t avoiding problems, that is impossible. The key is not letting them grind you down. Let’s say you have two people with the same problem, let’s say they have an electric bill they can’t pay. Person one can’t see how they can get round the problem. They can’t see how they can pay it, and they can’t see how they can continue if they don’t pay it. How can they exist without electricity? The result is utter despair, misery and panic. Person 2 is in exactly the same position but they have a huge amount of mental resilience. Their state of mind isn’t despair, misery and panic. Their state of mind is that they will find a way to pay it, and if they don’t they’ll learn to live without electricity. Which of these people is the happiest? The problem could be bigger or smaller than not being able to pay an electricity bill. But what alcohol withdrawal does is the same; it leaves us feeling unable to cope.
My wife (who is a one glass of wine a month drinker, if that) highlighted the problem perfectly. We were watching some rubbish on TV (Eastenders I think) and one of the characters was alcoholic. He’d woken up after a huge binge, with his wife threatening to walk out on him, and he was scrabbling around trying to find a drink. My wife said (aghast) ‘His wife’s threatening to leave him and all he cares about is having another drink. How selfish of him.’ My thoughts were different. He cannot even begin to cope with or resolve the situation he’s in until he’s had a drink. He simply doesn’t have the mental stamina, resilience, or capability to even start to address the problem until he’s relieved the withdrawal which is preventing him from functioning at all, let alone being able to deal with a problem of that magnitude.
The other point to bear in mind is that alcohol withdrawal isn’t all or nothing. You don’t go from no withdrawal to the overpowering and debilitating withdrawal of the chronic alcoholic. Everyone suffers with withdrawal but to a correspondingly reduced level.
I’m on holiday at the moment. It would be the easiest thing in the world to go to the bar and order a couple of drinks. After 4 and a half years not drinking the withdrawal from them would be minor. But the fact is it would be there. It would be an unpleasant, anxious feeling and suddenly I wouldn’t be enjoying the holiday, or enjoying playing with my sons, I’d be thinking about when I could have that next drink so I could get rid of that unpleasant feeling so I could then get on with enjoying my holiday. I wouldn’t be enjoying myself because the usual stresses and strains of everyday life, that are still there even when on holiday, would suddenly be worrying me more and more, and my ability to enjoy the holiday would drop away. I’d be having to keep drinking just to maintain the level of mental resilience I have all the time now that I’m not drinking.
That is what the alcohol withdrawal amounts to. It is an inability to cope with problems. That is why it is so powerful. No one believes that alcohol will solve their problems. But what they do end up believing, on either a conscious or subconscious level, is that alcohol will give them the mental resilience to cope with, face, and deal with their problems. One of the keys to understanding alcohol is that alcohol doesn’t do this. What it does do is to erode the mental resilience you naturally have, and then partially restore it.