Alcohol addiction is when you can’t stop drinking against your own will.
In other words, you want to stop at some point….and you realize that you cannot. You have lost the power of choice in quitting.
Some people become chronic alcoholics and drink every single day. Other people are binge drinkers and they can actually go for certain periods of time without drinking anything at all (but then when they do drink, they go absolutely crazy with it and cannot stop).
Both types of people are real alcoholics. Given enough time and drinking, my belief is that all binge drinkers will eventually become chronic, daily drinkers. But ultimately this does not matter much in the end. What matters is the loss of control over alcohol and how this ruins our lives. Whether you drink daily or whether you binge is really just a side detail. Alcohol can destroy your life either way.
There is also such a thing as alcohol abuse. This is not as serious a condition as full blown alcohol addiction, though the consequences could be just as severe in some cases (for example, someone who is merely abusing alcohol could accidentally overdose and die from it, just as a “real” alcoholic could).
For example, take someone who is just starting to experiment with drugs and alcohol, who is not yet a serious addict. They may be young and crazy and trying to “party” hard but they are not necessarily addicted to anything yet. They may just be abusing alcohol in order to have fun, cure boredom, give in to peer pressure, and so on.
Addiction is defined by two things really:
1) The inability to say “no” to the first drink.
2) The inability to stop once you have started drinking. You must drink to full drunk. You can’t just say “oh, I’m buzzing decent here, I think I will take it easy the rest of the night.”
Now of course we can fool ourselves all the time with this stuff.
The real alcoholic who is in serious denial will try to fool themselves by playing all sorts of games. They will say to themselves “OK, I have to be able to turn down a drink of alcohol so that I can prove that I am not a true alcoholic. I can do that. Tonight, I will not drink no matter what, and that will prove it.”
So they don’t drink for a night. Whoopy dink. So they grit their teeth and make it through a night sober.
Or they decide that they have to prove to themselves and to the world that they can control their drinking. So they say to themselves “tonight I will only take two drinks and then I will stop for the rest of the night.” So they do exactly that and they grit their teeth and they manage to only take those two drinks all night. Success, right?
Not so fast. The true alcoholic can do both of these things in the short run. They can both refuse alcohol altogether, and they can control their drinking. But they can only do this for a brief period of time.
For example, let’s say that they try to do either of these things every day for 30 days straight. No alcohol for 30 days. Then after that, do 30 days where your max drinks per day is two drinks. Do you think a real alcoholic could make it through both of those experiments without getting plastered?
My opinion is that they cannot. I know this to be true because at different times in my journey I tried to do both of those things. In one case I tried to simply abstain from alcohol altogether and only made it for a week or so before I lost it. I did not have a program or any outside help or support. I could not conquer sobriety on my own, no matter how hard I was gritting my teeth.
Second of all I tried to control my drinking by limiting how much I consumed each day. This failed miserably as well. It worked on the first day of the experiment, I remember that much. I also remember that I was not having any fun whatsoever on that first day of the “controlled drinking experiment.” Shortly after that first day I was back to buying half gallons of liquor again.
That brings up another really good point about how alcoholics cannot control their drinking. Actually they CAN control it, they will just be miserable while doing so. And that misery will wear them down very, very quickly. At some point the misery becomes so overwhelming that you no longer care about your new resolve to either eliminate or reduce your drinking.
Think about that carefully for a moment. You are an alcoholic and you decide that you either want to reduce or eliminate drinking from your life. So you cut back or abstain entirely. Then all of a sudden your life gets really crappy and you are super unhappy. To the point that you almost want to kill yourself. So what do you do? I can tell you what happens. You drink. And I don’t blame you one bit. Because that is exactly what happened to me. I tried to stop drinking and my life was so terrible that I did not care about relapse, or about failing to quit drinking. I didn’t care about anyone or anything. Least of all about myself. So I drank. What can you do against someone who just doesn’t care because they are so miserable? There is no defense against that. You cannot convince someone to care. You cannot just inject someone with joy and hope and love if they are miserable and no longer care about life. It’s a tough situation to deal with.
So how do we deal with it? How do people overcome alcoholism?
How the body becomes dependent on alcohol
Just for the record here, alcohol addiction is more than just mental. If you keep pouring alcohol into your body every single day (or simply in very large quantities during binge drinking) then your body will eventually become physically dependent on it.
This is more than just a mental or psychological addiction. It is both of those things and more. Alcohol becomes physically dependent.
The basic idea behind alcohol dependency is that:
1) Alcohol is a drug.
2) Alcohol is a depressant drug.
3) Alcohol depresses your nervous system when you drink it every day.
4) Your body gets used to the depressant and so it has to manufacture more adrenaline in order to compensate for the alcohol that is constantly in the system.
5) When you remove the alcohol suddenly your body has a ton of extra adrenaline produced and no good outlet for it.
6) This is why people shake and have seizures when they quit drinking cold turkey.
Alcohol withdrawal is nothing to mess around with, as it can kill you. Not drinking can be fatal. You can die from lack of alcohol. Pretty twisted, right? It is nothing to take lightly.
This is why I highly recommend that alcoholics seek professional help if they want to stop drinking.
Because I worked in a detox unit for 5+ years I have watched many alcoholics go through some horrible stuff. Some of it was too much to really handle even with direct medical supervision. If some of those people had not been in medical care I am sure they would have died. I watched many people get rushed over to the ER even though they were already detoxing under medical supervision and the care of a doctor. Alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous so a medical detox or rehab is definitely recommended.
Having said that, there are other reasons as well to seek out rehab and/or professional help.
How to seek help from square one: Ask for help from others and find disruption
Now that we have defined the problem (alcohol addiction) let’s talk about solutions.
First and foremost is the idea of disruption.
Alcoholism is a pattern. In order to heal your life you need to break the pattern (disrupt it).
Now keep in mind that disruption is not a cure. This is evidenced by the fact that many people disrupt the pattern by going to rehab, then they get out and before they even know what hit them, they have relapsed. Or maybe they make it a month or two. Or even a whole year. But then they might relapse and be right back at it again.
Disruption is not a cure. It is just the tip of the iceberg. It is the beginning of a new path in life.
But just because disruption is not a full cure does not mean that you should avoid it. Indeed, I still believe that disruption is a fundamental aspect of recovery. Without it, you cannot get sober at all, period.
The best way to disrupt your life is to go to a full residential rehab. A treatment center that has both detox and residential treatment. This is the ideal situation for disruption.
There are lessor ways to disrupt the pattern of addiction, but none are as powerful or as thorough as inpatient rehab.
My suggestion to the alcoholic is to try this simple three step process:
1) Surrender to your disease. Realize that you cannot beat it.
2) Ask for help.
3) Go to rehab.
Really, that is it. That is the starting process.
Everything in recovery is a process. Even after you have ten years in sobriety and you are working to improve your life in recovery even further, everything is still a process.
Surrender is a process. Breaking through denial is a process. Asking for help is a process. You must be willing to do these things, to take action. You must be willing to embrace a new process in life.
Doing what people tell you to do: a lesson in humility
So perhaps you take my advice.
You surrender to your disease. You ask for help. Then you go to rehab.
Now you must put it all into action. You can’t just go through these motions and pay lip service to everyone pretend like you are going to heal your life. You have to actually do it and follow through with it.
Do what? you might ask.
You have to do all of it. You have to dive into recovery and grab it by the horns and get serious about it. You have to listen to what other people tell you to do.
This is the really hard part. In order to heal you have to trust in other people. In order to build a new life you have to take direction from others.
I did not want to do this. For a long time I resisted this idea.
But finally I got miserable enough. I became so miserable in my addiction that I was willing to listen to other people tell me how to live.
And I became willing to follow their directions. This is real humility.
And the amazing thing is that it started working for me. I had to admit to myself–even though I did not really want to–that my life was getting better and better. Not only that, but I was getting happier and happier. I had to admit that this was the truth even though I had been secretly hoping to prove everyone wrong. Prove them wrong because I thought that I was the only one who knew what was best for me in my own life. Turns out that taking advice from others brought me more happiness than my own advice. This took a great deal of humility to really accept. To admit that other people knew better about how to make me happy.
So you have to reach that breaking point first, where you will give yourself permission to get out of the driver’s seat and let other people tell you how to live for a while.
I actually did this.
I told myself to “just chill” for a while, and follow other people’s advice rather than my own ideas. This was totally foreign to me. I thought that it would be a complete disaster. Because these other people (family, counselors, therapists, people in AA and NA) could not possibly know what would really make me happy. Only I could know what would make me happy, right?
Turns out we are all generally lousy predictors of what will make us truly happy. So we have to experiment. We have to allow ourselves to listen to others and take their advice. I had to admit that after a few months in early recovery, this was turning out to be true for me, even though I had thought that I was so smart (and able to know what made me happy). The truth was that I was happier living my life according to other people’s advice, rather than my own.
This is what real humility in early recovery is all about. Getting out of your own way.
Following through with your new lifestyle and positive actions
So you surrender, ask for help, and go to rehab.
Are you cured of alcoholism?
Not quite yet. (Of course, you are never fully cured).
Before you can “arrive” in recovery you have to start living the positive stuff that you learn about in early recovery.
You have to start applying the recovery principles that they are teaching you.
Sometimes in early recovery you may feel like you have it “all figured out.” And you may feel like things are going great and that they will never be bad for you again. Sometimes they call this “pink cloud syndrome” because you feel like you are living on a pink cloud and everything is grand in your life now.
Of course, everything moves in cycles. If you are really happy then eventually that will probably come to an end. But not to worry, you will be happy again some day. It all moves in cycles, right? The key is not to let yourself be so devastated when your life (or good fortune) takes a turn. You can do this by maintaining some sort of daily practice in your life, a practice whereby your take care of yourself in every way that you can: physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, and socially.
Establishing your daily practice in long term sobriety
I have met many people in recovery who keep screwing up, over and over again.
The length of the cycle varies greatly. For example, I know one alcoholic who stays sober for a year or two at a time, but eventually he always seems to relapse. Then there are countless others who never get more than 30 days or so in recovery.
And some of these people seem to do so well before they relapse. They are making lots of growth in one area of their life, but then it all somehow falls apart and they find themselves drinking again.
What is it that the chronic relapser is missing?
I have learned what they are missing. They are missing out on the holistic aspect of recovery. They are not employing the daily practice.
What this means is that the person who relapses over and over again has not learned how to take care of themselves in every dimension.
For example, I had one close peer in recovery who was very spiritual. In fact this person was much more spiritual than I was, and I found this to be a little bit unnerving. I wanted to make sure that I was “spiritual enough” so that I did not relapse at the time. And so I was comparing myself to this peer, who I considered to be “more spiritual” than I was.
Long story short, this peer of mine eventually relapsed. He relapsed not because he lacked spirituality, or because his spiritual basis was false (although many would accuse him of that). Instead, he relapsed because he was not working a holistic program of recovery. He was neglecting his health in other areas. He was not taking care of himself physically, emotionally, and socially.
Now some people would point out that this means that he was not truly being “spiritual.” I would tend to agree, though we may be arguing about the definitions of words at some point rather than exploring helpful recovery concepts.
So let me summarize it for you like this so that you get the important concept here:
* Recovery is NOT spiritual. It is holistic. That INCLUDES spirituality.
Read that carefully so that you do not fall victim to the same fate as my peer in recovery who was actually very spiritual.
Overcoming alcoholism is not only about finding a higher power. It is much more than that.
If you focus on spirituality but ignore the other aspects of your health (physical, mental, emotional, social) then you are still in danger of relapse.
And you may be wondering at this point how anyone can go about addressing such a problem? How can we take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, and spiritually?
The answer is a bit cliche but that does not make it untrue:
We take care of ourselves one day at a time.
And that means you need to find your daily practice.
Much as I would like to avoid this truth, it keeps coming back to correct me and teach me new lessons:
* We become what we do every day.
You want to live a better life in recovery? You better get some positive habits.
Find out what the daily practice means to you.