What is the key to defining and understanding the problem of alcoholism? If you are anything like I was in my active addiction then you will attempt to rationalize your way out of alcoholism by claiming that “you just really like to drink.”
Or perhaps you will have another excuse for why alcohol is constantly getting you into trouble. “If you had my problems then you would drink too.” Or maybe you try to argue that this is how everyone copes and deals with life, by self medicating.
Either way, the problem is really defined by what alcohol does to you when you use it, and how it ruins your life. Alcoholism is driven by consequences. No consequences, no real problem, right? That is at least true unless it suddenly becomes true for the individual, in which case they were probably in steep denial.
And perhaps this leads us to the biggest problem in terms of defining alcoholism at the level of the individual: denial.
How the alcoholic becomes trapped in denial
“I could stop if I wanted to, but I just don’t want to quit drinking right now.”
I actually used to believe that. I told myself that it was true. I really believed that I had the power to stop drinking, but only if I truly wanted to stop for myself. And of course at the time I just did not want to stop. Therefore what was the problem? If things got “really bad” then surely I would want to stop drinking, and thus be able to do so, right? Right?
That was how I thought when I was in denial. But you will notice that a curious thing starts to happen when you playing that little game. When things get “really bad” you simply start to adjust to them. So now if you get thrown in jail for a weekend then that becomes par for the course. Everyone is out to get you anyway, right? The world has something against you and all you are trying to do is to just get drunk and be happy, but people keep screwing you up and getting you into trouble. Trouble that you don’t even deserve! But it’s not the alcohol’s fault, right? Because everyone drinks, or because anyone else would surely drink if they had your problems, and so instead of blaming the alcohol or the drugs you simply point the finger at whoever you can in life. Point the finger at the police, at your rough childhood, at your peer influences, at anyone but yourself and your alcoholism. This is how denial works in real life.
There are many levels of denial and you may already be past the level that I describe up above. In fact, it is possible to get past one level of denial but to still be stuck in another level. For example, I reached a point in my own addiction where I realized that I was most definitely a very screwed up alcoholic. There was simply no denying it any more, I had come to grips with the fact that I was hopelessly addicted to alcohol. I did not try to deny this. However, I was still denying the solution.
Any solution. At the time, many people were trying to convince me to seek recovery in some form or another, usually through going to treatment or AA (or both). And of course I was having none of it, because I was still technically stuck in denial.
So I would argue with these people (who were only trying to help me). I would tell them that I was NOT in denial, because I knew full well that I was alcoholic. I admitted it freely, to anyone and everyone. And I admitted it to myself. Or so I thought.
So why wasn’t I willing to go to treatment? If you admit to your alcoholism, then surely you are ready to embrace the solution, right?
Not so. I was still in denial. I was denying the solution. AA meetings? They can’t help me. I am not made for AA. I am terrified of the meetings, I told them. I can’t go. Find me a solution that does not rely on groups and AA meetings and speaking in front of others. This is what I told the therapists and the counselors. They told me that this was impossible, that I pretty much had to go to rehab, to AA meetings, and learn to deal with my fear and anxiety. I was too scared to act on this though so I stayed stuck in my alcoholism for many more years.
Because I was in denial. Not in denial of my problem, but I was in denial that AA (or any other solution) could possibly work for me. So I stayed stuck and people tried to convince me to take action and I would not do it.
My life finally changed one day when I was able to break through my denial and surrender “for real.” I am not sure if this was divinely inspired or not. Because it did not seem to be anything that I did directly. Perhaps it was built up after years of slowly getting more honest with myself.
Once I finally surrendered I was able to change my whole life for the better.
How to break free from denial and surrender
In order to break free from denial you have to see the truth.
You must get honest with yourself. Painfully honest. It is not going to be a comfortable and pleasant experience to get to this level of honesty with yourself. If it were easy then every alcoholic would do it, right?
And the way to get honest and break through your denial is to realize just how happy you are in your life. Take a good long look at your drinking habits and realize that this is what is creating your current level of happiness.
This is what I had to do in order to get real with myself. I suddenly realized one day that my tolerance had me beat. I was sick and tired of chasing that next drunk or high in my life, and I finally got a clear glimpse of the treadmill that I was on.
It was never going to get any easier. It was never going to get any better.
And I suddenly saw that so clearly, all of a sudden one day. I realized that I would still be able to get drunk and have fun maybe one day out of 30 or so. And that all of the rest of those days would be miserable. I realized that if I wanted to take a week off from all drugs and alcohol then I could get smashed for one day following that and I would be completely hammered. But I also realized that on that big party day I would be miserable before the end of the day even came, because my tolerance shifted so quickly. I would start drinking and my tolerance would start to change even as I drank those first few drinks. My buzz was so short lived compared to when I had first discovered alcohol. Tolerance had robbed me of the magic of “fun” when it came to drinking. And I realized that I could never really get those fun times back. They were gone forever. I could never drink enough or use enough drugs to really make myself be “happy” for a full month straight, or even for a full week straight. Shoot I was lucky to have a full single day where I was not miserable at some point.
And yet this is what I had been denying all along. I really believed that alcohol and other drugs could make me happy, instantly, any time that I wanted. Like magic. Because when I first discovered alcohol and other drugs, this is what they did for me. They made me happy instantly. And it really worked. If it had not worked at first then I would not have become an alcoholic.
Well, the tragedy (or gift?) is that it stopped working. Alcohol stopped doing what I wanted it to do for me. It was supposed to get me lit up and happy as a clam, just like that, with the first drink or two of the night. Then I was supposed to be able to keep drinking steadily all night long and be just as happy as can be. That was the promise that alcohol made to me, originally. That was what I experienced the first few times I did drugs and alcohol. And so that is what my big stubborn brain clings to when I have memories of drinking. My stupid brain remembers the good times. It remembers when alcohol was fun and when everything worked out nice. There were a few days like that, probably even several days like that. Maybe even months or years of that “happiness.”
But eventually it faded. The good times went away, because alcohol played a cruel trick on me and my tolerance shifted. So I got to the point where eventually I could no longer get to that “happy” place with drinking, I could only be miserable and then keep drinking and drinking until suddenly I blacked out. And then crazy things happened and I could not even remember them and I had to take other people’s word for it when the told me the crazy stuff I did.
It started out so well. I could take a drink and instantly be happy. And I could keep slowly drinking all night and I could stay happy. But eventually this changed and I was miserable all the time. Denial is telling yourself that you are still happy when in fact you are miserable. It is not a good way to live.
If you are still stuck in addiction of any kind then you must learn how to break through denial.
The way to break through denial is to get really, really honest with yourself.
You have to realize that what once made you happy is no longer working. And you must admit that on a really deep level.
Then you have to ask for help.
It’s hard to do.
The difference between a problem drinker and an alcoholic
There is a nice little saying that cuts right to the heart of the matter when it comes to problem drinkers:
“A problem drinker is someone who has a problem when you give them alcohol.”
“An alcoholic is someone who has a problem when you take the alcohol away.”
Cute, right? But there is some truth in it too. If you simply take the alcohol away from a problem drinker then there is no problem. They go back to normal. They get on with their life.
This happens many times when legal consequences pop up in the life of someone who is really not an alcoholic, but they were drinking “hard” at the wrong time. They were partying, and they got unlucky. So maybe they cross paths with the law, and they face some consequences.
If this is an alcoholic, guess what? They will keep on drinking. The consequences will not stop them from their drug of choice.
If it is a problem drinker who gets unlucky and gets “popped?” They will seriously back off the alcohol and not take any more chances for a long, long time. And they will not have to struggle at all in order to do this.
You can judge a problem drinker versus an alcoholic by what they do in the face of serious consequences.
The alcoholic has no choice but to return to the bottle eventually (usually sooner rather than later). On the other hand, the problem drinker can take it or leave it.
If you think that you may be a problem drinker or an alcohol, then you should probably take at least a year off of alcohol altogether. If that sounds like a truly crazy commitment then that should tell you something right there in itself. Going alcohol-free for a full year should not be a huge deal. If you struggle to take that suggestion then it might be hinting at a deeper problem.
Total abstinence for long periods of time are not generally a big problem for “normies” or problem drinkers. But it does pose a serious challenge to the alcoholic. So if you want to “test” yourself then I suggest you try a full year of abstinence to see how you do. You may find it very enlightening. And you may also find it impossible, in which case you will most certainly have learned something important about yourself.
Consequences of addiction and the downward spiral
One of the defining characteristics of alcoholism (and drug addiction) is the fact that things get progressively worse over time.
If you are wondering about your status as a potential alcoholic or a problem drinker, then simply watch your consequences very closely over time.
“Normal” people who drink do not have consequences at all from doing so. If they do happen to get unlucky, they quickly back off so that they do not have any further problems.
With real alcoholism or drug addiction, the downward spiral continues even though the alcoholic may want for things to get better. They don’t know how to stop their life from becoming a train wreck because they don’t know how to function with their drug of choice.
This is really why recovery becomes necessary at all–because the alcoholic does not know how to live a normal life without it any more. If they did then why would they need a recovery program? They could just stop drinking and then go on about their way. But obviously this does not work, and alcoholics need serious help to get back on their feet.
Luckily, there is a solution. Recovery is based on personal growth, and nearly any alcoholic can get started on the right path simply by attending a treatment center.
There is hope for a solution
In order to get sober you must build a new life for yourself.
As mentioned above it is not enough to merely stop drinking alcohol. Every alcoholic on the planet has tried that more than once and failed miserably at it. Somehow life keeps dragging them back down and they end up relapsing.
Hence the need for a recovery “program.”
Every alcoholic needs at least some help to get started. If they did not need any help then they would avoid the label of “alcoholic” entirely, because they would simply stop drinking on their own and go on about their business. The very fact that they need professional help is what identifies their problem (and the full scope of their problem).
My recommendation for any struggling alcoholic is to do the following:
1) Focus on your denial and get honest with yourself. Really start measuring how happy you are in life. Realize that your drug of choice no longer works as well as it used to. The fun times are long gone. When are you going to realize it though?
2) Ask for help. Find people you trust and ask them for help. Tell them you want to stop drinking and you want professional help to do it. See if the people you trust can help to find you professional treatment services. Tell them you need rehab.
3) Go to rehab. Listen. Get out of your own way. Stop trying to control things, starting right now. You got yourself to rehab, now it is time to let someone else take charge for a while. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by simply listening to others and getting out of your own way. I promise you will not die or become even more miserably by taking this advice!
4) Leave rehab and follow through with suggestions. The day that you leave you should plan to go to an AA meeting if you can. Even if you don’t particularly like AA (I didn’t). But you need support and you need people in recovery who can help you early on. Find these people however you can. Ask for help. Ask for advice and guidance and direction. And actually follow through on the advice when people tell you what to do.
5) Get a strategy of personal growth. Figure out what you want to change in your life and start prioritizing. Use other people to help you do this by taking their suggestions. Figure out what your biggest hang ups are in life. Figure out how to fix them. Prioritize them and make the biggest impact changes first. Do one thing at a time. Make one big change at a time. Focus on the big changes in early recovery.
In order to overcome alcoholism you must have a proactive approach to recovery. You cannot be passive. Being passive would be like saying “OK, I will move into a new town and then I will just stop drinking alcohol.” That approach is completely passive and it will not get good results. It is a passive approach because you are only changing two things: Where you live and whether or not you buy alcohol every day. So what, you stop drinking and relocate, like that is going to solve all of your problems? Alcoholism is much deeper than that.
This is why you must put in work and effort. This is why you must adopt a strategy of personal growth. Your task never ends in recovery because if you stop reinventing yourself then you become vulnerable to relapse.