I used to wonder how in the heck people became addicted to alcohol.
I mean, the substance itself is powerless, no? It just sits there in a bottle on the shelf. It’s not like it jumps out and forces itself down your throat, right?
So when I was young I briefly wondered how a person could possibly succumb to this sort of addiction. It made no sense to me.
But then everything changed. Without giving my permission, I suddenly became alcoholic myself.
In fact there was almost no question at all about it. Right from the first drink I knew that I was hooked. I was off to the races.
So what was it about the stuff that seduced me? And how does it seduce others?
The seductive trap of alcoholism
The biggest reason that alcohol becomes this powerfully addictive substance has to do with mood.
This is how it worked for me anyway.
When I took a drink I could change my mood in an instant.
Having a bad day? You can magically erase that bad day simply by taking a drink! Take a big enough drink and it can happen within minutes, maybe even seconds. Your bad day can be erased instantly.
This worked so well at first that I was giddy with excitement about it.
I had discovered a secret.
Not just any secret, but the secret to instant happiness. I now knew how to change the universe and command it at will. For a 5 dollar bottle of liquor I could instantly erase whatever negative feelings I may be having at the time.
I did not realize in the beginning that I was medicating my feelings. In fact it took several years of pain and chaos before I would come to this realization. In fact I went to three different therapists and counselors and three different rehabs before I finally figured this out.
The third rehab that I was at was a long term rehab. I lived there. And the therapist in charge decided to quit. So they brought in a new therapist to run the place. Then they brought in a female therapist.
The female therapist was not in recovery. But she was the mother of an addict. And she had been a therapist all of her life.
At first I had a bad attitude about this woman. How could she help me if she was not even alcoholic? But at this time I already had about a year sober in the long term rehab so I went along with it to see what I could learn.
This woman challenged me. She challenged all of us. It was a mistake to believe that she could not help us because she was not an alcoholic herself. In fact she was probably more effective than all of the male counselors and therapists that I had up to this point.
Why was she so effective? Because she wanted to talk about “feelings.” Every single day.
None of us wanted this. I was living with eleven other guys in this rehab and none of us wanted to look at our feelings. We just wanted to be sober and get on with our lives.
But this woman would not let us fall into complacency (which is easy to do while living in a rehab center, believe it or not!). She pushed us to examine our feelings.
How did she do this?
In therapy she taught us a technique. In every situation we had to look at our feelings and decide what our root fear was. Usually it was either “fear” or “hurt.” And it was almost always underneath a blanket of anger or frustration. Anger was on top and there was another feeling underneath that we had to identify.
Then when we learned how to figure that out, we had to communicate it. Without yelling or hurling insults, we simply had to tell the person (that we were frustrated with) what our real feeling was. That we were scared, or hurt.
This is tough for guys in rehab to do! But you would be amazed at the results.
This was powerful stuff. And it was working. It was healing people and setting them free.
Because in the end we all realized that this is why we drank.
We did not drink because we were lonely, or because we were bored, or because we wanted to have fun and “party.”
We drank because it medicated our feelings.
No doubt you have heard the term “self medicate,” right?
Well, what exactly is the alcoholic medicating?
Are they medicating physical ailments? No, of course not.
Are they medicating social anxiety? Possibly. This is a good reason to start drinking anyway. But it never ends there. Because what happens is that you start to medicate every day, or on a more consistent basis, and eventually you are simply medicating your mood every day. Maybe you used to only drink when you were anxious, but eventually you drink every day and the anxiety just becomes an excuse.
In the end, we are all self medicating our feelings.
Of course we all have good feelings and bad feelings, right? Both positive and negative emotions. Sometimes we are happy and other times we are a jumbled up ball of fear, hurt, resentment, anger, frustration, and so on.
What happens with alcoholism is that you will medicate all of those negative feelings and emotions.
This happens whether you want it to or not. It is not like the alcoholic has to say “Oh, I feel sad today so I am going to drink!” Or they wake up one day and say “Oh, I am scared today about such and such, I will drink that fear away!”
That is not how it works at all. It doesn’t matter if you deliberately try to medicate your emotions or not. Simply by the act of drinking on a regular basis is going to self medicate all of your emotions anyway. It comes along with the package. You are drinking every day so naturally your emotions get washed away in the alcoholism. Whether you want it or not. Whether you planned on it or not.
So you cannot argue that “Oh, I never drank to try to medicate my emotions.” It doesn’t matter! You medicated them anyway! Because you drank all the time, you trained yourself to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Bad day at work? Drink it away! Get in a fight with the spouse? Drink it away! Have anxiety about something at school or at work? Drink it away!
We got into the habit of drinking away our emotions, whether we knew it or not. Whether you realized it or not. Whether you planned on it or not. None of that matters, because the fact is that the alcoholic is drinking away their emotions on a consistent basis.
We unlearn how to feel.
That is what the alcoholic becomes. They avoid having to feel negative emotions in their life because they are so used to medicating them away.
This is why alcoholic is so addictive.
“If you had my problems, you would drink too!” What that excuse really means is that the person no longer knows how to deal with their problems without drinking them away. Everyone has problems. Both alcoholics and “normies” all have problems. But the alcoholic no longer knows how to deal with reality without drinking away their emotions.
The most uncomfortable thing in the world for me was to feel fear. I hated being afraid. And so I drank to eliminate that fear. It worked for a while. I could actually drink enough booze in one night that I could become completely oblivious to all fear. At that point I was oblivious to everything. And so I could pass out in peace.
And the terrible thing is that eventually it stops working. Eventually you reach a point (due to tolerance) where you can’t really drink enough to medicate the fear. You go from being totally sober and scared to blacked out. There is no “drunk time” in between anymore. That time has been squeezed out entirely due to your increasing tolerance. It is no longer fun because your tolerance has ruined it. And eventually it gets even worse than that and you can’t even really medicate your fears and anxiety anymore. You are either sober or you are in a blackout. Not much fun. And not very effective.
So the key is to realize at some point that you are really just drinking in order to control your emotions. If you doubt this to be the truth then do this experiment:
The next time you really want a drink, ask yourself why that is? It’s always because there is some sort of crisis in your life that is stirring up emotions and feelings. And so your natural reaction is to instantly medicate those feelings away. Heaven forbid that you would have to actually feel those feelings and deal with the emotions like a normal person does!
Allow yourself to drink, but then when there is a crisis or your emotions are stirred up, force yourself to remain sober. Can you even do it? The point is that the true alcoholic will find an excuse to ignore this experiment and drink anyway through the tough times. Because that is the whole point of alcoholism; that is why you are addicted. Because when your emotions are challenged or you have fear or frustration present, that is when you need to medicate the most.
Alcohol is addictive because we become addicted to avoiding negative feelings. We seek an escape from uncomfortable feelings.
When a drinking problem is no longer just a drinking problem
From the moment I took my first drink I had a drinking problem. I am not just saying that to be funny or dramatic. While I was still on my very first drink of my entire life, I was wondering how I could buy more of the stuff for tomorrow. I was planning ahead right from the start. During my first drunk I was planning out my second drunk.
At first I did not drink every single day. This was due to a number of reasons. One was that I was not yet 21 and so it was slightly inconvenient to acquire more alcohol.
I have been told that there are alcoholics who do not drink every day. They call these people “binge drinkers.” My theory is that such people will eventually drink every day if they continue to progress in their disease. That is just my theory though and I have no proof of that.
Me, I had to drink every day. After my drinking problem escalated into full blown alcoholism I lose the choice in the matter. I had to drink. I was physically addicted to alcohol at that point and if I did not drink for a day then I would not be able to sleep that night. My adrenaline would be through the roof and I would be wired wide awake. No sleep was even possible unless I had sufficient alcohol.
Because of the “binge” phenomenon I am not really sure what the dividing line is between a “serious drinking problem” and “full blown alcoholism.” I believe that if you take the alcohol away from the problem drinker that you will basically solve the problem. On the other hand if you take the alcohol away from the alcoholic then you will not solve anything and the alcoholic will find another way to self medicate (or go back to alcohol). The alcoholic needs a solution whereas the problem drinker just needs to abstain. The alcoholic must go deeper than mere abstinence and find an entirely new way to live.
The alcoholic needs to find a way to process negative emotions. The problem drinker does not have a problem with their feelings and emotions.
But can’t they see that it is ruining their lives?
Before I was alcoholic I used to wonder why alcoholics did not just wake up and realize that they were fighting a losing battle. Why not realize that alcohol is ruining your life and then simply avoid it? How hard is that?
I wondered this before I had ever taken a drink or a drug. Funny that I later became alcoholic and had to deal with this question first hand.
So my answer is this:
You can’t just avoid alcoholism because it is ruining your life, in the same way that someone who is overweight can’t just start running marathons because they want to slim down.
When you are alcoholic you are stuck. You are trapped. That is the whole point. You don’t know another way. And you can’t believe in another way.
For example, someone told me once that I could get sober, go to AA meetings, and start having fun again in my life without alcohol.
I got a lot of hope from that person, but ultimately I did not believe him. I flat out refused to believe it was possible for me.
I weighed it carefully. I was in rehab at the time. I was sober as he was telling me that this possibility existed, that a sober life of happiness was possible for me.
But in the end I did not believe it. I said to myself “What he is saying is nice, and I am sure that it could possibly work for some alcoholics, but I am unique and I have social anxiety and the AA meetings terrify me and so therefore it will never work for me and I should probably just drink. Because the only way that I can be happy is if I drink.”
This is how we trap ourselves. We see the solution but we cannot make the leap to it. We know that it is possible but we cannot bring ourselves to believe it, to walk the path.
This is how it was for me anyway. I went to 3 counselors and 3 rehabs over the course of several years. They all tried to convince me that there was this better way of life, that I could be happy while I was sober, but I would not believe it. I refused to believe it. Because I thought I was different, I thought I was unique.
So yes, I could clearly see that alcohol was ruining my life. I was drinking myself to death. I could tell that I was on a destructive road.
But I was trapped. I did not know any other way. I thought if I was sober that I would be so unhappy that I would kill myself. I thought I would be so sad in recovery that I would just lay down and die. I had no hope for sobriety.
This is how alcohol is addicting to people. It seduces you by allowing you to avoid negative feelings, and then it traps you because you can not imagine yourself being happy without it.
Reaching the turning point and seeking help
It took me several years of misery before I became willing to face my fear.
Really I had to face my misery. That is what I had to do.
I had to get to a point of being so sick and tired that I said “OK fine! I don’t care how miserable I am in recovery, it has to be better than the misery of drinking.”
I had to have the courage to be miserable. I was already miserable due to my drinking, but I honestly thought that I would be miserable if I became sober as well.
This was my turning point. It had to do with being unhappy.
I had to realize that I was unhappy with my life. I had to realize that alcohol used to fix this, but that it no longer worked.
I had to admit that alcohol had become ineffective at creating happiness for me.
And I had to admit that it no longer medicated the negative emotions away. This was really closer to the truth. Not that alcohol failed to make me happy any longer, but that alcohol no longer swept away the negative feelings.
This was the real problem. I was being forced to deal with my emotions, and I did not like that.
All this time I was able to medicate those emotions away using alcohol, but my tolerance had shifted so much that it was no longer working. I was being forced to feel those feelings anyway.
I got a brief glimpse into the future. I could clearly see that things were not going to suddenly change for the better if I kept drinking. At the very least I may have a few moments of very brief happiness in the future followed by lots and lots of miserable drinking. But for the first time I could clearly see that alcoholism was making me miserable. And that there was no way to go back to that “happy drunk place” that I used to be in.
So I had to move forward instead. I decided to give sobriety another try.
The path to a restored life
The path to real recovery starts out slow.
That is OK. Plan for it. Take your time. Don’t rush.
Enjoy the journey. When you get stressed out in recovery, remind yourself to slow down and just enjoy the journey. Enjoy this day. Go get some ice cream or something. But don’t drink.
My path to recovery could be outlined like this:
1) Surrender. Realize that drinking is no longer fun. Realize that it no longer medicates my emotions.
2) Ask for help. Take advice.
3) Get professional help. Detox safely in a medical setting.
4) Rehab. Groups. Therapy. Meetings. Peers. Sponsorship. Keep an open mind. Be willing to take action.
5) Growth. Personal growth. Challenge yourself to improve your life. Push yourself to make positive changes. Find out how to self motivate.
6) Freedom. Fitness. Health. Abundance. Friendships, family, relationships. Gratitude. Be grateful for all of it, or lose it to a relapse.