Self-image is a mental picture we have of ourselves. Is it very resistant to change and determines how we act and react, and how we deal with difficult and challenging situations. It is made up in part of a long lasting and stable set of memories. There are various studies to show that this self-image is self-perpetuating, in other words if we see ourselves in a certain way then we act in accordance with that and therefore reinforce our beliefs about ourselves.
If you are someone who has been drinking regularly for several years or decades, then being a drinker will be an integral part of your self-image. You will know on both a conscious and unconscious level that drinking will provide a boost in certain situations (for a full explanation of this see Chapters 2 and 3 of Alcohol Explained, which you can read here). Part of your self-image will be that you are someone who reaches for a drink in certain situations, good and bad. If you think for example about losing your partner, children, house, job etc. you will immediately see yourself taking a drink to deal with that situation.
The problem is of course that when many people try to stop drinking they just do it by cutting out the drink. But just deciding to quit drinking is not enough to stop us, because our self-image remains unchanged, and our self-image is that of a drinker, someone who reaches for a drink in good times and bad.
Stop for a moment now and think. Imagine a situation where you lose your whole family in a car crash, you are left alone in the world. You also lose your job at the same time, but also win the lottery. Do you see yourself dealing with this huge and integral change of circumstances without drinking? Or do you imagine taking a drink? If the latter then your self-image, to a certain degree, is still that of a drinker, whether you have stopped or not.
Some people, when they stop drinking, do manage to change their self-image and start to see them selves as a non-drinker, however many (even those who may have stopped for many years) haven’t changed this self-image. Self-image isn’t just made up of our view of ourselves based on our own experiences, it is also made up of those people that we look up to and aspire to be like. No just famous people like our heroes and heroines, but also our friends and family, even colleagues and acquaintances.
I grew up near Wimbledon in the 1980’s, legends of Oliver Reed’s antics were regularly told (and still are). I grew up reading Bulldog Drummond, James Bond, and Richard Sharpe. My close family all drank, so did my friends. My self-image was formed around this background, and in good times and bad drinks were poured and all the good and bad that life threw up was taken with a drink. Every time something happened, good or bad, I would think about dealing with it by taking a drink. Later in life I found great pleasure in watching WC Fields, Charlie Harper, and Homer Simpson. My self-image was self-perpetuating because I would be most interested in the hard drinkers and the drunks, I would seek them out and watch them, and they would become my role model, my justification if you like for my heavy drinking. I would see myself in their image, not in reality. I was not a pathetic, overweight, physically weak alcoholic, I was the loveable rogue, the tough hardened drinker.
Self-image not only causes us to act in a certain way, it also provides a way to justify how we act. Do you see members of ISIS who torture helpless prisoners to death as scum who need to be wiped off the face of the earth? Or brave and strong individuals taking a stand against an insane world that is spiralling into greater and greater degradation?
How do you think they see themselves?
Do you see yourself as a drinker? Or a non-drinker?
If you are still drinking do you see yourself as someone who is addicted to a drug that makes you fat and weak and lazy and as emotionally unstable as a spoilt toddler? Or do you still see yourself as the tough guy, or the sophisticated lady, as the life and soul of the party?
Changing your self-image is hard, and it isn’t just a case of realising that how you see yourself as a drinker is absolute nonsense, you also need to replace it with something else.
I was always someone who dismissed personal stories about people giving up drink. I always said if someone has managed to stop drinking why should that stop me? Their situation is different to mine, and if it wasn’t I’d have no reason to read their book anyway, as I’d already have lived it! But of course, why these books are so powerful is that they provide us with examples of people who have stopped drinking and deal with life without drink, they provide us with someone we can emulate or even look up to who deals with life on its own terms, without having to have a drink in their hand.
If you have stopped drinking but find you do have the odd thought about taking a drink in certain (often in particularly unusual or unlikely circumstances) then it may be that you still, to one degree or another, have the self-image of a drinker. If you do then you need to start working to change your self-image, you need to find people who you respect and wish to emulate, who do not drink. But you need to be careful. You need to modify your self-image into something positive. If is it something negative you will be miserable and the chances are you will end up drinking again. This is one of the problems with the traditional AA approach. Of all the people I met at AA only one of them was genuinely happy to have stopped drinking. Everyone else, without exception, was miserable to one degree or another, and had to constantly work at their recovery. Relapse was common and even expected. If you have spent years building the self-image of a drinker, then you go to AA meetings and your only experience of people who have stopped drinking are people who are miserable and have to slog through every day just to stay stopped (indeed chances are you sponsor will be exactly this sort of person) then this will form your new self-image. These people will be your new friends, companions, and brothers (or sisters) in arms. You may no longer see yourself as someone who reaches for a drink when something terrible happens, but you will most likely end up seeing yourself as someone who sits there miserable and afraid and fighting cravings and having to go to meetings 10 times a day every time something bad happens to you. This is no good.
Start seeing yourself as exactly what you are; someone who has stopped poisoning themselves with an addictive drug, a drug that has made you weaker (mentally and physically), fatter, unpleasant and unable to deal with even the most benign of upsets. As a consequence of stopping you are stronger (mentally and physically), fitter and better able to deal with whatever life throws at you. Start analysing your drinking role models. Are they pure fiction anyway (like James Bond)? Or even if they are real people do you really believe they were enjoying every minute of their drinking lives, or do you think they were going through the same nightmare you were when you were drinking? I read that just before he died WC Fields said ‘I wonder it would have been like without alcohol?’, and Oliver Reed’s infamous death in a Maltese bar came after several months sobriety, so he was clearly trying desperately to stop.