Alcoholism is fundamentally based on self-deception – the alcoholic might profess that he will try not to drink, but will at the same time unconsciously keep finding ways to self-sabotage this goal.
Rationalisations keep being made to have a drink, one way or another. Often these rationalisations are bizarre and long-winded. For example, a person might get into frequent arguments with family, only to use the stress from these arguments as a reason to drink, which causes more family arguments – creating a vicious cycle.
The alcoholic convinces himself that he has no choice but to drink, and/or that he can get away with just 1 more drink without causing further harm, despite it having already caused harm in the past. He finds it hard to accept that he will never really have another drink again. Without firm resolution, he eventually slips and relapses.
Typically alcoholism doesn’t just come and go once – the individual experiences rollercoaster-like phases spanning months and years where he sobers up for some time, only to fall into a bad habit again, until it gets really bad and then he sobers up, but then after some more months goes through it all again. Statistically few bring the rollercoaster to a stop completely – only around 10% of individuals can go 18 months without relapse.
There’s often a Jekyll/Hyde effect at play where after drinking, the individual turns into a different person with his own set of memories, goals, etc. This is why it’s very important not to take that first drink as the “alter ego” can take over and all other previous commitments/promises at that point can go out of the window (and return again only the next morning once sober).
What can also make it difficult for an alcoholic to quit is a lifestyle centred in a large part around drinking. This can make it feel to them as if by attacking alcohol you are attacking them, and they then do whatever it takes, including lying, to defend it.
The wound is the place where the Light enters you.Rumi
Alcoholics who make a recovery tend to do it only after first admitting they have a problem. This often comes when one experiences a personal crisis deemed intolerable. What’s considered intolerable varies depending on the individual – for example they might not care if their own health is being destroyed but be woken up when someone else, such their child, gets seriously hurt due to their drinking.
Channeling the energy that would be spent acquiring alcohol, or even the energy that would be spent fighting the urge to drink alcohol (which reminds one of the alcohol) can be better spent on other activities which are instead creative, productive and build up to something – such as a side business, making products, gardening, or training for a sports event. This is win-win – you not only shake-off the urge to drink but also add value and/or make yourself and others happy where you otherwise wouldn’t have.
Another technique is to imagine you’ve had the drinks already and are already feeling the drunkenness or misery you might feel after drinking, putting you off actually then acting out the drinking.
Any situation in which an alcoholic relaxes his guard and considers it not all-important that alcohol must be avoided, invites a mini-relapse which inevitably cascades into bigger relapses. The solution here is to commit oneself to not drinking at all, so that the alcohol is automatically avoided to begin with.
Taking that first drink can kick off a chain of events that is difficult to regain control over. Therefore not taking that first drink, and avoiding circumstances where that first drink is made possible is important.
Small victories such as refusing to buy a pack of beer when at the supermarket no matter what, can turn into bigger victories later such as skipping a beer even when under social pressure at a gathering. With practise and repetition, as one’s attitude stabilises, saying “no” becomes increasingly effortless and automatic, and one begins to feel more secure in their ability to cope. One’s worldview gradually shifts to one that values sobriety over intoxication.
A helpful analogy is “defensive driving”, in which the alcoholic can better respond to situations where alcohol may present itself, by already anticipating such temptations and actively avoiding them rather than being passive and more prone to being caught off guard. This is especially helpful in emotional situations (to extend the analogy: when the road is icy), where one is vulnerable to slipping into rationalising having “just 1 more drink”.
Humility is central to recovery. The recurring theme with an alcoholic is that he thinks he doesn’t have a problem, or does but can in himself manage it, when he never really can. Despite repeat failures he remains in denial about the existence of the problem or his inability to manage it by his own strength.
It’s only when he admits that he is an alcoholic and he needs help beyond himself that the real healing begins.
This is not dissimilar to the kind of “ego death” that sometimes occurs in the life of even non-alcoholics, in response to adverse life events, such as a break-up or loss.
If an alcoholic’s answer to the question “are you an alcoholic?” is yes, that is a good sign. Getting him there however can be challenging.
These are common traps:
- Escape – e.g. don’t want to think about a break-up or confront reality.
- Relaxation – often in response to stressful circumstances.
- Socialisation – in attempt to feel more at ease, overcome excessive self-consciousness, worries about what others think of them, or simply make up for boredom.
- Improved self-image – to feel good about oneself when nothing else seems to be working, often as a shortcut to what might otherwise feel unattainable.
- Romance – alcohol can make it easier to indulge in fantasies, in one’s head if not in real life, to alleviate boredom and instigate excitement and feel alive again.
- Sensual Pleasure – simply wanting the taste of a cool delicious alcoholic beverage.
- To-hell-with-it – borne out of frustration with one’s (often self-created) circumstances.
- Self-control – thinking you’ll be able to control it this time, even though you can’t once started.
- No-control – believing you can’t control it so why even bother fighting the urge?
An alcoholic is more likely to crave alcohol in a circumstances that allow him to believe it’s acceptable.
- For example, when Bill is at the bar, he may be more willing to give in to a drink, rather than if he is at home.
- This means he can reduce the chances of relapsing by not putting himself in a bar to begin with.
- Conversely, if Bill puts himself in circumstances where it’s definitely not acceptable to drink, such as at work or a church gathering, he reinforces the habit of not drinking.
- A small amount of alcohol at the beginning is counter-productive as it only whets the appetite for more, which is why “avoid the first drink”, as often recommended at AA meetings, is so effective.
- Alcohol related cues – such as an ad for beer, can induce an unpleasant state in drinkers or ex-drinkers, which they then feel like they can only relieve by consuming alcohol again.
- Or more broadly speaking, rather than see alcohol as something putting them into an abnormal state, they feel they need alcohol to be in that normal state to begin with – especially in heavy drinkers.
- Having hobbies that can be relied upon instead of situations involving alcohol is helpful.
- Such hobbies can that mitigate boredom and anxiety among other negative factors, and reduce the need for alcohol as an escape.
- Inner tension (including nervousness, shakiness, irritability) is the most common trigger for drinking.
- One who is strongly craving alcohol may see the alcohol more as a source of relief from an existing condition rather than as adding additional value to their life.
- Like other cravings, such as food, the craving for alcohol can gradually be weakened or strengthened over time based on how one decides to deal with it on a case by case basis.
- The existence of craving doesn’t necessitate alcohol consumption – the individual can still crave yet still choose not to give into that craving. Even a strong persistent craving can be kept at bay, as many times as needed, with a well exercised “no” that breaks the cycle and weaken its grip.
Carl Jung on Alcoholism
I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouses so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.
You see, “alcohol” in Latin is spiritus, and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.
This can be helpful for those trying to become sober:
(God) grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things 1 can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Such an orientation towards life leapfrogs the appeal or need for intoxication.
There are a few metrics of interest when it comes to tracking alcohol metrics:
- Alcohol consumption – whether in terms of real units (e.g. 1 beer a day) or units of alcohol.
- Alcohol breath test device readings – which are surprisingly under-used, even though the devices are cheaply and easily available.
- More technical markers such as
- Understanding the Alcoholic’s Mind (many of the above findings are from this book).
- About Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Carl Jung’s letter in full.
- On End Stage Alcoholism
Be sure to first get a doctor’s approval for these:
- Selincro – an extended family member has had success with this drug, to be taken before one has the urge to drink. He adds :”It works on the GABA receptors in the brain and eliminates the reward receptors associated with drinking.”