You are probably expecting this article to be about the many and varied blocks people have when it comes to accepting that they have an alcohol problem; that they are alcoholic. It is not. In fact it is about the additional problems the individual encounters when they do finally admit they have a problem; that they are suffering from alcoholism. To explain:
The alcohol withdrawal can leave you feeling out of sorts (see Chapter 2 of Alcohol Explained which you can read here), vulnerable and anxious. All in all it leaves us prone to depression and worry. The more we’ve drunk the more vulnerable and out of sorts we will feel, but the point is whilst it will make us more prone to be miserable, depressed and worried it won’t guarantee that we are miserable. Assume for the moment you’ve just woken up with a terrible hangover. You’ve had a huge row with your spouse / partner / children / parents (or whoever you usually row with when you’re drinking) but can’t remember the actual details of it, you’ve lost your phone / keys wallet / money, you’ve embarrassed yourself in front of your friends/ relatives / colleagues, you’ve woken up in hospital / a police cell / the gutter. I’ve no doubt you can all factor in your own individual worst case scenario but you get the idea. You’re already vulnerable to misery due to the chemical imbalance in your brain and are not mentally resilient enough to deal with even the smallest upset. The actual details of your situation are really enough to drive you over the edge. You really are going to be at absolutely low ebb.
Now assume you have drunk exactly the same amount of alcohol and are in exactly the same physical and mental state, only this time you didn’t leave the house. You wake up in bed, unadorned with bodily fluids. Not only did you not leave the house but you were home alone, made no phone calls, no social media posts, sent no text messages, your keys phone and wallet are exactly where they should be, you even have a vague recollection of taking all the empties out to a nearby local bin so you don’t even have them to deal with. You have the next week off work with no social engagements, the house is clean and tidy and you’ve just remembered you didn’t get round to checking that lottery ticket. When you do so you find out that you are the sole winner of the £160,000,000 jackpot. Again you can all factor in your own best case scenario but you get the picture. Even with the chronic hangover you are likely to be feeling fairly buoyant. I grant you, you won’t be feeling as happy as you would minus the hangover, but you will be feeling significantly better than in scenario one.
What I am trying to illustrate here is that the more perceived problems you have, and the more unhappy and dissatisfied you are with life generally, the more the alcohol withdrawal is going to drag you down. Everyone is going to have their own particular reasons to be happy and their own particular reasons to be miserable. These reasons will change, not only from individual to individual but will also change for each individual as time passes.
So let’s now take a hypothetical person, one who does not consider themselves to have an alcohol problem or to be suffering from alcoholism in any way, but they do have a range of other perceived problems. Let’s then mix in a moderately bad case of alcohol withdrawal. Just to highlight it with some figures let’s say the things that make them miserable generally amount to 60, the things that make them happy amount to 10, so overall they are 50 points miserable. Let’s then say the alcohol withdrawal exacerbates this miserable feeling by a factor of 10 so they are now 500 points miserable.
However let’s now take exactly the same person with exactly the same problems etc, but this time let’s pretend they have accepted that they have a problem with their drinking. So when they wake up they don’t just balance out at 50 points of misery, they have far more then this because of the worry about their drinking problem. This is made up of guilt that they are still drinking, shame that they are unable to control their drinking, worry about the problem and what they can do about it, etc. So this person is not starting with 50 points of miser, but at, say, 200. Then multiply up for the alcohol withdrawal and you end up with the misery of 2,000.
Of course it doesn’t just work this way for people that are unhappy. You may be a fairly happy person generally, but if you have admitted to yourself that you have an alcohol problem then you are going to be miserable because of this, particularly if you are waking up with a stinking hangover.
So if you haven’t accepted that you have a problem with drinking you wake up after drinking and just get on with things. If your life is generally fairly good then although you may be more inclined to be miserable you may not be miserable at all. But if you have accepted you have a problem then as soon as you wake up you not only have the withdrawal and whatever other problems you have, you also have the guilt because you ended up drinking last night, the fear that you are unable to stop, the worry about what is happening to you and why, and more importantly the feeling of self-disgust because you weren’t strong enough to resist yet another binge. So in admitting to yourself that you have a problem you actually create further problems for yourself if you don’t then stop. This in itself causes separate issues worthy of consideration.
Firstly it doesn’t take long for this misery the next day to permeate into the previous evening. If every time you drink you are faced with a real black depression afterwards then quite understandably you are going to start worry about this depression before you actually get to it, ie during the actually drinking session itself. So instead of drinking away and enjoying yourself you are going to be constantly thinking about the misery to come and worrying about it. And what do we do when we are worried about something? Why we take a drink of course.
So the first point to note is that when you accept you have a problem you are less likely to actually enjoy it when you are drinking, and the second point to note is that accepting you have a problem is going to cause you to drink more when you are actually drinking, which will exacerbate the misery the next day and the likelihood of doing something you deeply regret to add to your woes the following day.
This of course leads nicely to the third point which is that the more miserable you are the following day the more likely you are to take another drink to relieve the misery.
Finally people often do not just admit they have a problem to themselves, but to other people as well. In this case the chances are that there are going to be people relying on you not to drink who are going to be upset, disappointed, or angry that you have drunk. This is going to further exacerbate the misery during and after the drinking.
You may now be wondering what my point is here. Am I now going to advise everyone to pretend they don’t have an alcohol problem and just drink away? In fact this isn’t an option. Whilst deciding if you have an alcohol problem is a personal thing and can only be answered by the individual drinker, it is not within the power of the individual to simply come to the answer that suits them. If an individual accepts or even suspects that they have a problem with their drinking, it is impossible for them to convince themselves that they don’t. The factors covered here will apply regardless of whether you want them to or not. Although the question about whether any individual has an alcohol problem is subjective, the answer is not. Individuals may disagree over which particular set of behaviours count as alcoholism, but once they come within their own definition they cannot then escape from that. Of course their own definition may be vague, and their own position not entirely clear, but once they suspect or accept they have a problem they cannot then resile from that.
My point is that when we stop and are drawn back to drinking we look back on our drinking years with rose tinted spectacles (I deal with this in the Chapter on Fading Effect Bias). However what we also need to bear in mind is that the guilt free drinking we experienced in our early years is simply not something you can just return to. Drinking evolves over time and cannot turn back to what it was. Just as it becomes increasingly impossible to moderate, it also becomes increasingly unpleasant when we are actually drinking.
This may seem a depressing thought but as ever it is just a matter as perspective. There are many things in life we grow out of and discard as they cease to be of interest and / or use to us. I used to spend every spare moment on the Playstation, I have very fond memories of spending hour after hour playing Playstation games. I have still got a Playstation but I don’t play it as I just can’t get into the games anymore. For some reason I just don’t enjoy them. Maybe I no longer have the patience, or the mental agility, or the hand / eye coordination. But I don’t sit around bemoaning the fact that I don’t like playing Playstation games anymore. I just don’t play them and instead I fill what little spare time I have with other things, like reading, the increasingly occasional run, and getting beaten up by my 4 and 6 year old sons. In the same way when my wife and I first got married we had a very nice 2 bed house. Then we had our two boys now we’ve moved to a 3 bed. I have some very fond memories of our old house but there is no way I’d want to move back there. It is no longer right for us.
My point is that if you have stopped drinking don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can go back to how it was. Once it sours it sours. Once you see the defects you can never unsee them; like many things in life you cannot turn the clock back. But this isn’t a reason to be miserable, on the contrary like any change for the better it is something to enjoy and