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’?!

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.

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.

3 ways to kick start sober living!

When I stopped drinking, it was the first fortnight which was the hardest – and the first few days were downright horrible. I remember walking from my house to the bookshop, which was about a mile away, feeling grim – but determined to see if I could get hold of a book on going sober (which turned out to be a really good idea). I was about day 3 in to my alcohol free adventure, and it felt like more of an ordeal than an adventure at that point. I came home, lay on my bed, shed a few tears of self pity and then opened up the book.

When you’ve been drinking pretty much every day – even if it is just half a bottle or a bottle of wine – your mind and body craves it. It takes a while for the alcohol to leave your system, so even if you’ve not been a heavy drinker you feel a physical craving to top up those levels. You might feel exhausted and your sleep may be very disturbed. You might have aches and pains. The temptation to have a drink to alleviate all this is huge! Here are three tips to help you kick start things.

  1. Find a replacement habit (big clue, it doesn’t have to be a ridiculously healthy habit!). When you stop drinking alcohol, there’s a gap. For me, it was a huge, cavernous hole. Eventually you want to get to the point where you can sit with that gap, explore your life and be able to stay with the discomfort of your feelings but in the very early days, it’s useful to replace your drinking habits with another habit. The mistake some people make is thinking that this habit has to be super healthy. ‘I’m no longer going to drink every night at 6.00 – I’m now going to have a detox drink and go to the gym’. If that works for you, fine – but for many people this is too much of a leap, too soon. My replacement habit during my early sober days was mug collecting (exciting, I know!). I figured that I was saving at least £5 a night on wine so I would go to the supermarket and buy a mug. Sometimes I’d treat myself to something else – a scented candle, some flowers or some nice soap – and these little treats made me happier about stopping the wine. Some suggestions include having nice long baths, finding a good yoga class, going to the cinema one evening or getting out and having a coffee. It’s up to you to fid your things and – as long as it’s better for you than drinking booze – go for it. doesn’t matter if it seems silly or pointless (or if you end up with an awful lot of mugs) – use it as a means to replace one behaviour with another and reward yourself into the bargain.
  2. Be selfish. Sober living is a huge step – one which is going to allow you to live a life you didn’t even know was possible. You need to put yourself first while you make these changes. Being selfish has a whole load of negative connotations but think of it like this – you are looking after yourself and putting your own needs first. What could be wrong with that? You might feel empty and grumpy when you stop drinking. Make sure you look after yourself. You might hurt and offend other people with your decision to stop and they may be people who are close to you. Don’t let yourself be made to feel bad or be manipulated. This is your life. Other people are free to act in the way they want to. If you choose to stop drinking, that’s up to you. It is no one else’s business except yours. You need to stick to your ground and do what’s right for you. If that means avoiding certain social activities for a short while then that’s what you have to do. If it means offending someone, then feel free to offend. This is too important to ignore your own needs.
  3. Nurture yourself. Whilst your coming to terms with the physical and mental changes which are taking place, you might feel like giving up sober life – because it’s so much easier to keep drinking alcohol. Sleep deprivation is a very common problem for people who have stopped drinking. Although alcohol severely affects the quality of sleep you get, you’ll have been used to sleeping in a certain way for a long time. When you stop drinking, there’s a complete overhaul in your sleeping patterns. Many people find they’re hardly getting any sleep in the early days. If this is you – make sure you rest when you can. If you’re so tired you can’t cope with work, treat it like a sick day and have a day to catch up. Remove those responsibilities which drag you down. Curl up under the duvet with a good movie if you need to. Share with your family and friends what you’re going through. Read inspiring books. Find a tribe which will support you – there are some great Facebook groups out there such as Dry January and Beyond. Find a life coach or counsellor who specialises in working with alcohol addiction – reaching out for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength, bravery and commitment.

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.