Have you thought about your relationship with alcohol recently? How does it feel these days? Given all the turbulent world events happening lately, has it changed at all? How does it feel to check in with ourselves about this topic?
If you feel immediately defensive, dismissive, and ready to judge, I urge you to read on. And if you do, may I suggest engaging in a gentle, non-judgmental interrogation of your upset feelings—that is, why does this defensiveness come up? This piece won’t resonate with everyone. I’m not here to convince us to stop drinking, moderate our consumption, or even to change folks’ relationship with alcohol. No one can convince us to make changes we aren’t ready and willing to make. The only one with both the perspective and decision-making power to truly assess your behavior—and, if necessary, to change it—is yourself.
That said, examining what comes up when we engage in these prompts about our relationships with alcohol can illuminate significant challenges, truths, and/or beliefs we may be confronting in life. These feelings, thoughts, and realizations might change the way we relate to and use alcohol. This can empower us to make different day-to-day choices if we begin noticing aspects that do not feel good and/or do not support our core intentions and life goals.
So while you read, take note of what thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations arise. Consider what comes up and how it might contribute to your relationship with drinking. Think through the impact of alcohol on your relationships with others, yourself, your family, your work, your emotions, and your everyday functioning.
Very briefly here, I’ll mention the detrimental aspects of drinking. I won’t spend time expounding on these topics, primarily because fear, guilt, and shame tend to beget more fear, guilt, and shame—and these feelings can be a substantial part of what makes us reach for a drink in the first place. While fear or shame might motivate us and/or cause harsh realizations that we need to change (or, at least, begin the process of assessing our relationship to alcohol), I don’t believe the fear tactics, cold statistics, nor the shame and blame strategies will help us stick to the process of bettering ourselves. Guilt, shame, and fear won’t lead to exploration and genuine self-acceptance—and those are the healing salves that can help us change our lives for the better.
Here’s a brief list of alcohol’s potential effects on us: decreased liver function; increased cancer risks; negative effects on the brain, sleep, appearance, relationships, and our emotional and memory formation; etc. I won’t further elucidate these arguments, because we’re all familiar with these aspects to some degree if we’re already questioning our relationship with alcohol. And belaboring these details won’t magically solve the root issue.
Using alcohol is just a symptom of a bigger feeling, worry, and/or problem. We use alcohol in an attempt to alter the way we feel about something, so the root cause of why we drink usually lies somewhere deep inside of us, clouded by our own narratives and self-perceptions.
(Aside: if you’re looking for some more data and context, one great and persuasive resource with an interesting thesis about choosing sobriety is This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. She takes a behavioral look at why we drink and how it affects us, using her insights as a former marketer to provide an in-depth exploration of all of the subliminal tactics that advertisements and media bombard us with in order to convince us—both overtly and covertly—that we should and must drink.)
Rather than driving change via fear and coercion, I’ll posit a few questions to help us interrogate ourselves on a more nuanced psychological plane. My hope is to promote a deep look into what beliefs we hold about ourselves—and how we’ve been using alcohol to enhance (or avoid) certain aspects of our life experiences.
Why did I first start drinking?
- For fun?
- For excitement?
- To loosen up?
- To fit in?
- To distract from negative feelings or life experiences?
- To overcome fears, worries, doubts, or anxieties?
How do I want to feel when I drink? Am I seeking …
Do I actually feel this way? What changes about myself and/or the way I see the world through drinking? Do I feel …
- Sad or angry?
- Out of control?
What do I ultimately feel when drinking? About myself? Others?
How do I feel in the aftermath of drinking?
Going deeper, why do I feel the need to perceive myself and/or my reality differently in the first place? Is it because …
- It’s just more fun.
- It’s an easier way to be “myself.”
- It temporarily takes painful feelings away.
Do I feel this need to escape in the presence of others? While alone? All the time?
Who taught me about alcohol, and what messages did they give me about drinking? Who did I first drink with, and what was that experience like?
Has it felt impossible to experience “fun,” “happiness,” or experience “release” without alcohol? Has this always been the case? When’s the last time I remember feeling relaxed, upbeat, and/or simply able to feel genuine emotions without using alcohol to enhance, alter, subdue, or evoke them?
Of course, these answers will be highly individual and personal. But reflecting on them can help us realize that we’re not alone.
Alcohol makes us physically and emotionally uninhibited. We might take more risks, feel emboldened to try things we wouldn’t normally do, or talk to people we wouldn’t ordinarily approach. Alcohol can enhance our egos; we may lose sight of things outside of ourselves. Alcohol can also lead us to engage in very impulsive or egocentric behaviors. Often, alcohol use can continue and/or reinforce toxic patterns or traits we’ve been trying to work past or reduce engagement with.
This disinhibition is a double-edged sword. It might feel great to get outside of our comfort zone and not feel as concerned about social judgment, unafraid of embarrassment, or just to feel a general confidence boost. But there are also numerous downsides of having an uninhibited mind on alcohol.
A few more questions: Do you find yourself waking up wanting to make changes, promising yourself “never to do that again?” Do you have that dreaded hangover anxiety, those terrible feelings of “what did I do,” “what did I say,” or “why did I say that, why did I overshare, why did I text or call them again?”
Feelings of embarrassment, anxiety, self-doubt, shame, and melancholy are common, especially when our bodies get depleted physically and emotionally—like they often are after drinking. You are not alone.
We also have choices. Is there something or someone in our lives that could make us want to change our drinking habits? How would we know, if and when, would we be ready to change, reduce, or cease drinking?
A word to those who aren’t ready to change: it’s okay if you aren’t ready. Only you can make these decisions—and it must come from you, not others’ wishes or desires for you. The next time you drink, though, consider this: what’s the intention? Is it to separate from parts of yourself, your entire self, and/or your reality? Alcohol is an effective anesthetic for life that enables us to cleave off our innermost selves and feelings. However, what does that mean for the life we’re currently living?
Shame won’t bring anyone peace. In fact, shame can often make it difficult for us to look inward to realize our truths (and how we might be distorting them). It can stymie the process of building self-acceptance and coping with our imperfections and/or fears.
So there’s no need to be ashamed of your drinking—or of the parts of you that you’re attempting to alter through imbibing. If you’re struggling, you are not alone. Humans struggle in countless ways, and using alcohol to cope with the difficulties of life has been an effective coping strategy for millennia. It may have been helpful at a certain time, but we’re at a point in life where it’s not only not helping, but actively causing harm.
With this said, what would your life be like without alcohol? Now, repeat those same questions above with this thought in mind. How different or similar would it be? How would you feel? About yourself? About others?
Changing our state of mind or physically changing our state of being is one way in which we, as humans, tend to avoid processing our emotions. Therefore, though alcohol may make us feel emotional at times, it doesn’t necessarily help us fully work through and experience these feelings in a helpful and/or productive manner when we aren’t sober. If this resonates with you, it would be helpful to continue looking at these thoughts and feelings in a safe space—for instance with friends, loved ones, in therapy (individual or group), or in a community setting such as 12-step programs.
I hope this non-judgmental exploration can serve as a potential foundation for those of us that desire to change, to find better alignment with the truest and most honest version of ourselves. That is, a version that can defeat the self-defeating lies, placations, and alterations of reality around us to make us feel safe and comfortable with ourselves.
When we are spending huge swaths of our lives and resources seeking a different state of being (and then recovering from the said state), what does that mean for who we are and how we feel in our present? We can take steps toward a life that doesn’t make us want to escape from reality and our present self. In fact, we can make lifestyle changes that make us want to exist in the present. Our lives can feel joyous, meaningful, and revelatory all on their own—without requiring alcohol to dull the edges.