This particular topic opens up a whole realm of interesting sub-topics, not least of which is where we draw the line between the so-called ‘normal drinker’ and the ‘problem drinker’. If you are drinking all day every day without being able to stop, then you clearly have a problem with alcohol, but what if you only drink on social occasions and not because you need it, but just because you find a night out with friends is more fun if you have a few drinks? That surely isn’t a warning signal is it? After all, if you do one of these largely nonsensical online tests designed to identify if you have a problem with your drinking, you never get asked ‘Do you find social occasions more fun if you have a drink?’ That isn’t an indicator of having a problem, is it? After all, everyone who drinks finds that social occasions are more fun with alcohol (or they wouldn’t bother drinking would they?).
But does this mean that having more fun when you’re drinking isn’t an indicator of being to some degree reliant on alcohol (psychologically if not physically)? Or does it just mean because the vast majority of people are in this position that it’s become normalised?
Let’s think about this comment, this phrase, this idea, that is so commonly bandied about that we accept it as normal:
‘A night out with friends is more fun if you’re drinking.’
How does this differ in any material way from the following:
‘I am no longer fully able to enjoy myself in certain situations without a drug.’
If you ask a group of people who agrees that ‘a night out is more fun when you have a few drinks, the majority of them will put their hands up. If, on the other hand, you ask them who is no longer fully able to enjoy themselves without a drug, you won’t see many hands going up. Yet these two statements mean exactly the same.
Some people will say that they do enjoy themselves without a drink, but they enjoy themselves more with one. But have you ever seen a children’s party? A group of 8, 9, or 10-year-olds going berserk together? Do you think if you gave them a small drink each they’d enjoy themselves more? Or do you think they’re enjoying themselves 100% as they are? There are approximately 8 billion people on the planet, and about half of them do not consume alcohol (incomprehensible though this may seem to us in the West) either for religious, cultural or financial reasons. Do you believe that these 4 billion people never quite enjoy themselves fully because they’ve never experienced drinking? After all, alcohol is a sedative, it just dulls us.
How can alcohol increase our enjoyment of anything?
Well in fact there are three ways.
Firstly social engagements are usually enjoyable, but we invariably feel a bit awkward and self-conscious at the start. It can take a bit of time to relax, to lose ourselves in a conversation, and to settle into the evening and to start enjoying it. Alcohol, in anesthetising that feeling of awkwardness can help us to settle into the evening a bit quicker. But there’s no actual net gain here, after all, we would have settled into the evening anyway without a drink, it would just have taken a bit longer. And in fact not only is there no net gain, there’s usually a loss bearing in mind the side effects (such as increased anxiety, disruption to our natural sleep cycle, and increased heart rate which makes us feel heavy and lethargic).
Secondly, alcohol is a sedative and the human brain reacts to it in a very specific way. The human brain creates and excretes its own array of chemicals, drugs and hormones and when things are working correctly these all balance one another and create a feeling of general positivity and well-being. When you consume a sedative like alcohol the brain reacts to it by releasing stimulants like adrenaline and cortisol (a stress hormone) to counter the sedating effect of the alcohol. So when the alcohol wears off these stimulants remain for a spell, leaving us feeling uptight, anxious and generally out of sorts. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There are two ways to get rid of this unpleasant feeling. The first is to wait a few days for your brain chemistry to get back on an even keel. The other, and far quickest way, is to have another drink. After all, you feel out of sorts because your brain is geared up to work under the sedating effect of the alcohol, but the alcohol has worn off. Take another drink and you immediately counter that chemical imbalance and feel way better (in fact you feel as good as if you’d never had a drink in the first place). That’s the great ‘benefit’ daily drinkers get from their daily tipple; that wonderful feeling of relaxation is no more than the removal of an unpleasant feeling that has been caused by the previous drinks wearing off. For more detail on this aspect take a look at the first 5 chapters section of the website, or the free taster of the online course also available on the website.
So how does this apply to having fun? Well, you’re not likely to be able to enjoy a night out with friends if you’re feeling uptight, anxious and out of sorts. So in this situation, you will need a drink in order to enjoy yourself, to relieve that unpleasant feeling. Of course, you will have more fun after a few drinks, but look at the overall picture; what is the actual net gain? NIL! Alcohol hasn’t given anything, it’s just partially restored what it itself had already taken.
The third and final way a drink can help you enjoy yourself is psychological. It is the craving process. Craving is the thought process whereby we obsess and fantasise about having a drink. When we talk about craving it often conjures up the thought of a very overwhelming urge (which it certainly can be), but like everything in life, there are matters of degree. Sometimes we may experience very intense cravings and be sat there obsessing, tense, sweating, in tears because of this thought process. However on other occasions, it may be far less intense; it may be like a cloud hanging over you, a vague feeling that things aren’t quite right, that there is something missing. Wherever you are on this scale, you’re not going to be really engaging and enjoying yourself while you are going through this unpleasant mental spiral. And what’s the most obvious way of ridding ourselves of this unpleasant thought process? Take a drink of course! After all, you won’t be obsessing about something, pining over it, fantasising about it, and thinking about how miserable you are without it if you are in the process of consuming it. Nor will you have that vague feeling of something missing, of the icing on the cake simply not being there. Wherever you are on the craving scale a drink will be essential if you want to fully enjoy yourself, but again the overall net gain from a drink is NIL. It’s given nothing, it has just prevented us from enjoying ourselves and then restored that ability.
The problem is that we are all busy people, we have jobs, relationships, careers, kids, parents, bills to pay, goals to achieve, we rarely have time to stop and really think about things, we just judge them from our immediate experience. We enjoy life fully before we ever pick up that first drink, but as soon as we start drinking, we very quickly find that we can’t fully enjoy ourselves without it; the idea that alcohol helps us enjoy ourselves is our experience, and many other people’s experience, and so it becomes our reality, an accepted fact, and one we never think to even question. But it also happens to be entirely false.
Enjoying yourself without alcohol is simply about relearning a skill we were instinctively able to do before we started drinking.
Quitting alcohol is all about changing your perception of it. To explore more myths about alcohol that prevent you from stopping quitting, you can find more information in the first five chapters, or blog posts, or try the free taster for the Alcohol Explained online course.