The part that keeps you drinking

Over the years – before finally being able to take control – I wanted to stop or reduce my drinking more often that I can remember. A night out which resulted in an argument with my partner, waking up with a furry tongue or being too tired to go to work often made me seriously question the amount I was drinking. And I would resolve to do something about it. And then…

I wouldn’t. Despite waking up that morning feeling full of the joys and motivated enough to take action, by the time the sun was going down (or well before, depending on the time of year), I’d cave and get the wine in. Why?

Psychologically, it’s called ‘cognitive dissonance’ – an internal conflict which kicks in strongly when a person’s beliefs contradict with the situation and evidence which is in front of them. Cognitive dissonance is stressful and it’s often easier to go with the old ways and beliefs than to go for a full on challenge. When you add the addictive nature of alcohol to the mix, and the strong psychological and physiological drive to continue with drinking, you can understand why it’s very difficult to resolve this conflict by simply going with the ‘positive’ or sensible decision.

With the help of my therapist, I managed to have a good look at the part which kept me drinking – despite how many alcohol free options I had in my fridge. This drinking part believed that life was difficult and that I found it difficult to cope. It believed that alcohol was a magical fuel, which could allow me to work harder and faster than other people – whether I used it to help me paint a room, get through the really boring task of preparing the family meal or access my creative side when I wanted to write something. Alcohol also acted as my red medicine, numbing me to the depression and anxiety which crept up on me on a daily basis. This drinking part not only believed that I couldn’t get through the day without booze, it also believed that I wasn’t really good enough to get through life without booze. I would look at other people and feel ‘different’. Despite having a great mix of experience, qualifications and good feedback from people, I had an underlying belief that I couldn’t really have THAT great a life – and I used alcohol to keep me down, where I belonged.

So despite my logical voice telling me that I could achieve more if I didn’t drink, that I would be healthier and have more opportunities and that I had loads of good reasons to stop, I kept drinking because I believed I didn’t REALLY deserve that amazing life and I couldn’t cope with what life repeatedly threw up at me.

During the early days of stopping it was very hard to override that part. It needed a lot of reassurance that it would be ok, that I would look after it and that I didn’t hate it. I appreciated that it had tried to help me overcome earlier difficulties from my childhood by identifying a substance which it thought helped me cope. There were days when I was exhausted from the effort of communicating with this part instead of using alcohol to feed it or shut it up.

Eventually, I learned that it was possible to get through the day without alcohol. That it was ok to be upset or anxious without having to drown these feelings. I learned to communicate and comfort that part of myself, to listen to it and to look after it in ways which were healthy and nurturing. By increasing my awareness, the self-destructive drinking part slowly transformed into a part which could express when it was sad or stressed, and which was responded to with kindness and attention.

Alcohol and transactional analysis

There are loads of reasons why I used to drink too much. Every interaction between myself and another is a transaction. And alcohol can be part of these transactions. A couple of years ago I was meeting up with an old friend (and my first drinking buddy ever) for the start of a weekend together. I got a text, “I’m on the plane. Are you getting a drink on the train? I’m only going to if you do!”. At the time, I didn’t fancy a drink, but here’s what I did. I texted straight back with, “Of course! Can’t have a journey sober. Enjoy your wine!”.

This happened at a time when I was trying to moderate, and I genuinely didn’t want to start drinking at 3.00 on a train…but I did. So what was going on? I opened that mini bottle of wine because I wanted to create a positive social transaction between myself and my friend. I guess I felt that I was showing her I was that same, fun old person she’d always known. That I hadn’t changed. And I was showing her that I would join in with her desire to drink on the plane in order to make her feel happy.

We get so used to acting in certain ways that we don’t stop to think, what the hell am I doing here? These ingrained social behaviours can have a major impact on our drinking. It may be that we have heavy drinking friends who we feel might shun us, or feel disconnected from us if we refuse a drink. It might be that we’ve been programmed to think that we can only be a fun person to be around if we’re drunk. We use alcohol in social ‘transactions’ all the time – to make other people feel happy, to create social cohesion and to retain the status quo, amongst other things. Without even wanting to, we find ourselves engaging in drinking behaviours simply because drinking is so entwined with these transactions.

I was aware over the course of that weekend with my friend that I wasn’t enjoying drinking. I’d been managing to cut down quite a bit, and found it a chore to drink so much. I knew I’d have a raging hangover. I’d moved on from that type of binge drinking. But I hadn’t been prepared and I couldn’t think of another solution to do anything other than what I’d always done – which is drink.

Within transactional analysis, changing your transactions with other people can have a major effect. Sometimes the people accept your changed behaviour and sometimes you lose that person as a result of those changed transactions. One of the most difficult things about stopping drinking is the fear of the effect it could have on those near and dear to you, whether it’s boozing every Friday night in a group or snuggling up with your partner over a couple of bottles of wine and a box set. If alcohol is an intrinsic part of your relationships, it’s difficult to focus in on what YOU need while you still want to have the same positive transactions you’ve experienced before.

If stopping drinking is important to you – whether for health reasons, self esteem, or simply because it’s preventing you from living your fullest life – you need to start focusing on you, and not how your drinking may effect some social relationships. I can’t guarantee that some relationships won’t fall by the wayside. But I can guarantee that you’ll learn about what you want and how to look after yourself instead of putting other people’s needs above yours.

Becoming whole again – after alcohol dependency

“You are SO funny!”, ‘”I didn’t know you could be so outgoing!” and (my favourite) “You always seemed really boring and quiet before” were just a few of the compliments that I received, as a 17 year old, after falling down drunk and ripping my vomit covered skirt at my older brother’s wedding. Finally! I had a magical elixir which could make quiet old me interesting and entertaining.

Fast forward 25 years and alcohol had become my constant companion. A quick mini bottle of wine gave me the courage to turn up to family events. A whole bottle – or two – of wine kept me company every evening. I effortlessly self-medicated away my anxiety and depression. My days were planned around cooking the dinner and cracking open the bottle of red. The fact that I was trapped in the house from about 5pm onwards seemed like a fair trade. Racing heartbeat and alcohol induced insomnia? It was worth it, surely! I loved drinking…

Except, I didn’t. Every year I’d begun to feel that my drinking wasn’t right. I knew I was exhausted. I knew the amount I was drinking would lead to an early grave. I didn’t like being that mum who spent the evening in a haze, but I couldn’t stop. Every time I decided to ‘moderate’, the longest I could last was an evening or so. I was never drunk, never abusive, I got up every day and went to work and cared for my family – I just felt shockingly tired, upset and bad about myself whilst doing it. I took the anti-depressants, saw a therapist, and still kept undoing any good work with my drinking.

So what happened? Well, nothing dramatic. I didn’t wake up on a park bench. I didn’t have a terrible fight. I just got REALLY FED UP. I didn’t want to drink any more. And so I stopped. I set myself a target of 100 days alcohol free and – with a lot of difficulty – I got through it. As the 100 days went on, a whole new world opened up. I slept properly! I didn’t know what that was like! I enjoyed social events without a drink – even getting up and dancing. I had more energy. I had more confidence. And I began to like and value and respect myself. The deep whole of self dislike just seemed to disappear.

Stopping drinking was really hard at first and I’d expected that. What I hadn’t expected was for it to be so much fun. When you’ve spent your entire adult life as a heavy drinker, you can’t imagine sobriety being the amazing experience it is.

After the 100 days I kept on. I didn’t miss booze. These days, I have a drink now and again on special occasions – if I want to. I CHOOSE if and when to drink and that’s something I had no control over before. My way isn’t for everyone. For some people staying completely sober is the right (and sometimes only) choice.

Life is simply better now. I can’t put it much simpler than that. I didn’t know how good it could be. After a lifetime of being broken, I became whole again.