Can I like myself and drink?

I’ve worked with so many clients over the years who have had problems with alcohol. We spend some time searching for the reasons for why they drink in a way which damages their health, relationships and finances. There are a whole host of seemingly rational reasons as to why people drink – to alleviate stress, because they started as social drinkers and things got out of hand, or because they simply feel they are addicted to a highly addictive substance.

All these reasons make sense on a superficial level, but through my exploration of my own reasons for drinking, and after working with so many other people, I’ve discovered a pretty universal underlying reason. If you drink in a way which is damaging, you don’t really like yourself.

Let’s backtrack for a minute. Drinking, along with drug addiction and other damaging behaviours, are often called ‘self-destructive’ behaviours. If you truly loved and respected yourself why the hell would you want to self-destruct? For me, drinking was chronic and long term. I’d long since passed the point where I would get completely inebriated but I drank steadily, every single night. I drank so far over the recommended limit the idea of 14 units a week was laughable (I was necking back somewhere between 70 and 100 units on a weekly basis). And, for many years in fact before I chose to stop, I considered my drinking as a slow death. A slow way of ruining my body, limiting my chances and keeping myself down.

Why was I doing all this? Because I didn’t really like myself. Although I appeared successful to the outside world, drink kept me from reaching those wonderful mountains by dragging me down and keeping me heavy. Deep down, I didn’t love myself enough to think that I should be reaching the heights, and my self-destructive behaviour confirmed that I wasn’t worth the effort.

If you love yourself, the last thing you want to do is purposefully damage yourself or hold yourself back. If you love yourself, you refuse to put the needs of others first. You look after yourself. You give yourself the opportunities you deserve. You do what is needed to put your health first. Drinking in a damaging way is the opposite of all that.

Loving yourself isn’t an easy call, especially if you’ve grown up with criticism, neglect or abuse, but it can be done. The first thing you can do is stop damaging yourself. Whoever you are and however long or hard you’ve been drinking, you deserve to give yourself a fighting chance at a better life. You can learn to like and respect yourself again – and if it takes a while, that’s fine. This is a journey.

Here’s a lovely affirmation to help you start to love yourself again.

“I am a precious human being and I deserve to be looked after, as much as anyone else does.”

Breaking the destructive drinking cycle

Whenever we engage in any self-destructive and addictive behaviour – such as drinking – there’s a sense of being out of control. The other day, I was on a roundabout. It was one of these roundabouts with tons of lanes – and I was in the wrong lane. I ended up having to go round the roundabout twice before I got into the right lane (side note – I get confused driving sometimes, especially if I’m stressed – getting treatment for a driving phobia is what originally encouraged me to seek hypnotherapy treatment!). Anyway, back to the roundabout with all the lanes, and while I was on it, in the wrong lane, I felt like I couldn’t get off it. It felt like I was being controlled by the roundabout.

When we engage in self-destructive behaviour, such as drinking, it can feel like we’re on a roundabout and that we’ve lost some control. Imagine that somebody says or does something hurtful to you, just as you’re pulling onto the roundabout. Despite knowing which exit you want to leave at, you’re suddenly confused – you’ve forgotten which exit you need to take for your own good. You’re on the roundabout and you’re being pulled to the wrong exit – a route which is taking you away from where you wanted to be. Being on the roundabout feels scary and out of control.

Let’s retrack to the beginning. You knew which exit you wanted to take but something happened on the roundabout which affected you, so instead of taking that exit you went round a couple of times and then went off the wrong exit.

Let’s imagine that your drinking cycle is like being on a roundabout. You wake up in the morning and resolve that you will stay sober today, no matter what comes your way. You’re resolved – no matter what anyone might say or do to you, and no matter how hard your day is – to take the roundabout exit that says ‘sober’. But, at some point between leaving your destination and taking the ‘sober’ exit, something happens so that you choose not to take the ‘sober’ exit. You stay on the roundabout. You figure you’ll either get back to the sober exit or take another exit, which will probably take you back to the sober destination…or maybe it won’t…eventually you take the exit which leads to ‘alcohol’. Let’s face it, as soon as you dithered about taking the ‘sober’ exit, even though you had some vague idea you’d end up at the sober place, there was a likelihood you would end up taking the ‘alcohol’ exit.

It’s very easy to get thrown off track while you’re on the roundabout, just as it’s very easy for your resolve to stay sober to get thrown off track because of the events of the day. It’s easy to let your emotions take over from your logical brain. So how do you stop it happening and make sure you take the exit that you need to?

  1. Resolve which exit you’re going to take – which exit will enable you to follow your desire to stay sober?
  2. Identify the point at which you might get led away from taking that exit. Is it early on in your day, or later. What specific situations will make it more likely that you don’t take the sober exit? Will it be something that a particular person says or does? Will it be a particular time of day? Identify these circumstances which are bound to crop up and which may easily mislead you BEFORE they happen.
  3. Be aware that taking that exit might be hard – but you can do it. You’ve identified it’s the exit you want to take. It might take some effort to stick to that exit, but you need to resolve to do it, no matter how hard.
  4. Be aware of what happens if you don’t take the correct exit. Take a moment or two to think about the consequences. What happens if you let yourself lose control, be misled and end up on a route you really don’t want to take?
  5. Remember – humans are creatures of habit. It’s far easier to take the old exit that you’re used to taking, but it’s also very possible to take a new exit – it just requires effort and resolve.
  6. Finally, once you’ve taken that new exit, see how good it feels to have reached your desired destination for the day. How much better does it feel to have chosen to be in ‘place sober’ than to have been dragged to ‘alcohol junction’?!

5 affirmations for quitting drinking!

Stopping drinking takes a huge amount of effort and control. Here are five powerful affirmations to help you remember your true self worth and stay on track.:

NOBODY else has the power to make me drink – it is always my choice

I choose to deal with difficult situations and people by taking care of myself instead of damaging myself with alcohol

My feelings are manageable and I am strong enough to sit with them

I am, and have always been, good enough – I do not need alcohol to make me acceptable

Alcohol is the easy option – I love myself enough to put in the work

I need a drink! How to break the response

The other day, my mum made a comment which I found greatly upsetting. And, guess what? I wanted a drink more than anything in the whole world (and yes, I would have quite happily sold my mother for it). Since about the age of 17, whenever my mum upset me, my response was to drink. My mother doesn’t like conflict – if you pull her up for her behaviour things go about as far as they can (she once didn’t speak to me for two weeks when I was 20 because I did confront her). Because I grew up unable to express myself around her and because I was scared of her reaction if I did confront her about anything, I learned to drink in response. The diluted my feelings of rage and hurt and disappointment. Reaching for the bottle became a knee jerk response which, in the short term, successfully took care of my emotions.

So, when this hurtful comment hit me like a blow to my stomach the other day, my first thought was, ‘I need a drink!’. But, instead of finding the nearest corner shop, I went and cried, I went to the gym and pounded out my anger, and I discussed how hurt and upset I was with my partner. In short, I acknowledged my feelings. I allowed myself to feel them. And I dealt with them in a non-self-destructive way.

And I think that’s the key point here. Nobody else MAKES you drink. Yes, you might, like me, have used it as a solution when you’re around certain people who treat you badly on occasion but the choice to drink is entirely yours. You don’t NEED a drink – you just want one because it’s the easier option. Sorry if that sounds harsh – I know that choosing not to drink is so damn difficult at times – but it is true. It’s easier to wash away your feelings in a haze of alcohol than it is to sit with your feelings and experience them in all their rawness. Drinking, in the short term, is always the easier thing to do but once you’ve fallen into that trap of self-destructive behaviour, yet again, the aftermath is so much harder to deal with than if you choose to experience the emotional rawness in all its honesty.

If other people trigger your ‘I need a drink’ button, and they have done for a long time, how do you respond in a different way? First off, you need to have a rule which is:

Nobody else can make me have a drink. Try saying it out loud! This goes for those people who try and force you to have ‘just one’ at the pub too! Absolutely nobody can make you drink. You drink, its your choice. It has nothing to do with anyone else.

Secondly, we all face horrible situations and, unless you want to keep hurting yourself by drinking, you need to find other ways of dealing with these situations. Do you want to react in a way which is damaging to your health and self-esteem? Or do you want to reach in a way which honours you as a precious adult who needs to take care of him or herself? Again, you choose. If you feel hurt are you going to hurt yourself more by drinking, or are you going to look after yourself?

Thirdly, you need strategies in place. If you’re not going to drink in these situations, what are you going to do? Do you have someone to talk to? Does going to the gym or having a walk help? Would a nice bath, movie, or book give you the nurturing you need? Identify alternative responses to these situations which, unfortunately, are always going to crop up from time to time.

It takes a lot of effort, but no matter how old they are, patterns of self-destruction can be replaced by patterns of self-respect – you don’t need a drink, you need to give yourself a hug and support and to validate your feelings.

Why am I addicted to alcohol?

Many therapeutic interventions to help people stop or cut down their drinking focus on behavioural issues, such as setting clear goals around drinking, finding replacement behaviours to drinking and focusing on a future without drinking. Whilst all this is very helpful, I also think it’s important to ask the question, ‘Why am I addicted to alcohol?’. Because if you don’t ask this question – and work through getting to an honest answer – you’re going to still have the same underlying drives which caused you to drink to excess in the first place. No matter how good your strategies to stop or cut down your alcohol consumption are.

The simple answer is, alcohol is an addictive substance. And, of course, this is true. Alcohol tricks the brain, leaves the body craving and fools the mind into wanting more and more. Anyone can, in theory, become addicted to alcohol. But not everyone does. So what else is going on in terms of addiction?

When I first went for therapy, I didn’t specifically go about my drinking and, in fact, I was in denial about the level I was drinking and the impact it was having on me. I went about my anxiety, the fact that I was holding myself back in life and my poor coping mechanisms. What emerged from my wonderful life coaching and counselling sessions was that…I didn’t really like myself, and I didn’t know how to cope with life. Drinking allowed me to be more sociable, to keep going when I felt like dropping and to hide the pain and hurt I felt around certain people and situations instead of being able to assert my needs.

Why was I addicted to alcohol? Certainly there was the physical addiction – when you’re hung over, groggy, fatigued, aching muscles and everything else that accompanies drinking, the one thing you want more than anything else is a drink to (temporarily) sort you out. But I was addicted to it as a coping mechanism. I was psychologically addicted as it quickly and effectively solved my problems for a few hours.

With my life coaching clients, I spend some time looking at why they became addicted in the first place and why they continue to be addicted and I make sure we move away from simply focusing on alcohol as an addictive substance. Addiction of all kinds, including alcohol, is strongly associated with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) (see here https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/ace-questionnaire for ACE questionnaire). Having a higher ACE score is clearly linked with higher incidences of alcoholism. If you experienced adverse effects in your childhood, you are significantly more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol later in life.

So what to do with that knowledge? The past is past…Except that it’s not really – not if its still informing how you act in the present. Not if your coping mechanisms and choices are guided by things which happened in your childhood. By examining what happened in your past, you are able to make the links, to discover that you’re not a bad or weak person, and to realise that your actions today have been influenced by what happened to you much earlier in life. It doesn’t mean you’re apportioning blame or saying, ‘’Well, I had a crap childhood – no wonder I drink these days!”. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about taking control, identifying the factors which contributed to your drinking addiction, working through any issues which may have started in your past and which continue to drive your drinking.

Do I have a problem with alcohol part 2 – self medication

One question which isn’t included in either the CAGE or AUDIT alcohol questionnaires is, ‘Do you ever use alcohol to self-medicate?’ – and I think it is one of the most important questions I ask my clients.

Have a think about this for a moment…alcohol is, supposedly, there to help us enjoy ourselves, to experience the rush of booze and to create a sense of social cohesion when we’re at a party or gathering (or so the theory goes). But the number of people using alcohol as medication is huge. Do you ever come home from work after a stressful day and feel you ‘need’ a large glass of wine to help you relax? Do you ‘need’ that gin after you’ve finally got the yelling kids to bed? Do a few glasses ‘help you get to sleep’? When you’ve had a truly awful week and your depression is at it’s worst, do you reach for some of the strong stuff to help you keep going? Break that down a bit and you’re using alcohol to help you relax, destress, get to sleep and cope with anxiety and depression. Isn’t that what medication does?! Perhaps you pride yourself on rarely going to the doctor, taking few medications and not requiring therapy – but what you’re doing is medicating yourself with alcohol.

This is a bit of a tricky concept to get your head around (I know – I’ve been there!). I spent many years coping with my crippling anxiety by drinking, blocking out the day and numbing the worst of my symptoms. When I was sad, overwhelmed and stressed that bottle of wine at the end of the day would cure me, allowing me to take a deep breath for perhaps the first time that day. Bliss! Of course, the booze was making my anxiety far worse and affecting my health in all sorts of other ways, but in the short term it seemed like the best medication out there (and it didn’t involve going to a doctor). I guess I KNEW that I was self-medicating, but I thought it was better than putting up with the symptoms.

If you are using alcohol to destress, sleep or deal with anxiety or depression, you are using it in an unhealthy manner and you’ll find it hard maintaining control over your drinking. IF there were no side effects, then self-medicating wouldn’t be so harmful. But there are HUGE side effects when you choose booze as your medication of choice.

Firstly, you’re creating a very powerful association between a certain state or condition (such as feeling stressed or depressed) and a ‘cure’ (alcohol). Addiction isn’t just physical. If you medicate with alcohol every time you feel a certain way or experience a certain symptom, you will become dependent on alcohol to solve that particular issue EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU EXPERIENCE IT. Every time you feel bad, anxious or whatever it is, you will feel a very strong desire to reach for the cure. No matter whether you have a good job and get up every day, if you use alcohol as medication, you are dependent on it – and this goes for everyone who has a glass of wine to ‘destress’ every night to the person who opens a bottle of vodka in the morning because they cannot live with their severe depression.

Secondly, it’s a really harmful medication! Most medications tend to have side effects and, if you can find a healthier, more natural way of dealing with a condition you’re best to do so. Using alcohol as a medication is, in the minds of many, less harmful than taking a prescribed medication. But we categorically KNOW that alcohol is associated with a whole host of health problems and diseases, including cancers, liver disease, high blood pressure and thinning bones. Don’t kid yourself that self-medicating with alcohol is ‘natural’ or preferable to taking prescribed medications – it’s not.

Thirdly, when you continually rely on alcohol to deal with your problems, you are avoiding finding the strength and resources which will allow you to overcome your issues and have a better life without the need for any interventions. If your life isn’t satisfactory you need to find solutions to improve the situation. Alcohol will stop you doing that. Finding ways of dealing with problems in life involves going through them – looking at them, sitting with them and working with them. Alcohol just allows you to take a detour round the difficulties. This is really tempting! But you’re never going to move forwards in a positive way if you continue to use alcohol in this way.

Finally, alcohol makes most of these issues – including stress, anxiety and depression – far, far worse. Alcohol is a depressant. Alcohol also creates a whole lot of anxieties around how, when and how much to drink. Instead of being able to enjoy yourself when you’re out and about you’re always thinking about getting home and drinking You’re planning your days and your outings around booze. It creates anxieties and makes existing anxieties worse. Add to this the negative situations it creates with loved ones, colleagues and family and you can see how the ‘medication’ is actually responsible for making you ill.

If you need help in finding alternative ways of dealing with your issues, perhaps you should consider life coaching, counselling or visiting a GP in the first instance to see what support is available.

Do I have an alcohol problem?

If you’re worried about whether or not you might have a problem with drinking, there are various tests which are commonly applied by therapists and other health care professionals. Two screening measures which are commonly used are the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) and the CAGE questionnaire. The AUDIT asks ten questions, concerning questions around the amount you drink as well as the impacts of your drinking behaviours, whereas the CAGE questionnaire focuses more on your subjective understanding of the impact of your drinking on yourself and those around you.

I prefer the CAGE questionnaire as, when I was a drinker, I found tests like the AUDIT test quite overwhelming. Simply answering the questions made me realise that, yes, I did have a problem! It didn’t necessarily make me want to do anything about it though. I remember the first time I took a test along those lines – it was when I was about 20 and it was featured in a newspaper article – and at the end, my score was as high as it could be for ‘Do you have an alcohol addiction?’. At that age, I found it quite amusing that I’d scored so high – I was a full on drinker! As I got older, and the addiction was less fun, I took similar tests over the years – always aceing the ‘heavy drinker’ score. They made me feel bad, but that was about all. Is that to say that the AUDIT test is bad? No – but I can see it’s limitations for some people.

Instead of bomarding you with yet another questionnaire, I’m going to go through some of the questions on these forms, one by one. Instead of skimming over a list of questions and feeling overwhelmed in the process, perhaps you can take a few moments to consider the question I’m posing. The question isn’t designed to judge you or categorise you – it’s just something to have a ponder over for the rest of the day.

The question – taken from the CAGE questionnaire – is, ‘Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?’. Instead of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, let’s really look at this question (if you’ve got a pen and paper, you could write a list – or take some notes on your phone!). I’m going to expand this question out a bit.

What incidents have contributed to your feeling you should cut down your alcohol intake?

What feelings have contributed to your feeling that you should cut down your alcohol intake?

How do you feel you would benefit by cutting down your alcohol?

When you think about cutting down your drinking, what is happening in your body (if you can, take a moment or two to close your eyes and just focus in or how you’re feeling RIGHT AT THIS MOMENT).

This one question, ‘Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?’ is a huge question which demands way more than a yes or no. Don’t rush the question. Let it sit with you. Note what comes up for you. Not the positives and the negative feelings which you experience as you ponder this question. I’ll be looking at the other questions in both the CAGE and AUDIT questionnaires in future blogs and I’d encourage you to go through, one by one, to address the question, ‘Do I have an alcohol problem?’. fff