Hi, this is Leonard Carr, in-house psychologist of Infusion Radio. I’m answering an email from Jane. Jane, thanks so much for sending me this email and for giving me that opportunity to answer this really interesting question.
You say that your drinking behaviour disturbs you and it has been a difficulty since your late 20s and you’re finding it more challenging now that you’re trying to actually deal with the problem. If your drinking behaviour causes you any distress or impairment in your relationship, personal or work functioning, then you have to regard it as a significant problem and a difficulty that has to be dealt with in a serious manner. You tell me that you have a cultural, family and personal history with problematic drinking behaviour. Unfortunately, all these three factors compound your risk of succumbing to alcohol abuse. You also say that you’re an intelligent, personable and successful person. Unfortunately, alcohol, like any other substance, does not discriminate and all of us are vulnerable to getting into the clutches of alcohol or substance abuse.
I’d like to share with you an idea. I believe that addiction is, in reality, a fundamental part of human nature. People tend to think of addiction as an aberration but I think that the difficulty in trying to work with an addiction or overcome an addiction is that so much part of who we are that when you’re trying to overcome addiction, you’re, in a sense, wrestling with your own nature, with your own natural inclinations and thinking patterns.
How I came to this idea that addiction is part of human nature is that in looking in the story of Adam and Eve, what we see is that Adam and Eve, who were, in a sense, the prototypes of human beings that were going to be created after them, were also the first edicts. Now this might sound very strange to you so let me explain what I mean.
If you look at Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, what you see is two people who, number one, had direct access to truth because they spoke to God directly and, secondly, had all their needs met. Everything they could possibly want was supplied to them like a baby in the womb who doesn’t have to work in any way to appropriate food or clothing or shelter or any of its needs and comforts. Everything they could possibly have wanted was there. So just like a baby in the womb, they lived, in a sense, in a state of pure being, a state of being complete, lacking nothing, needing nothing and, as I said, they had full access to the truth.
They had only one restriction or prohibition and one responsibility. The responsibility was to tend the garden. Now tending the garden really meant protecting the state that they were in, protecting their state of innocence, protecting this pure world that they were in where they were complete and all their needs were met. The fact that they were told to protect the space mean that they knew that there was an alternative if they transgressed. The one restriction or prohibition that they were given was that there was only one tree in the garden, called the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, from which they were not allowed to partake. In reality, they had no need to partake of this tree because all their needs were met; they lacked nothing.
Then the serpent enters into the story and tells Adam and Even that in fact they are lacking. So here we see the serpent recruiting Adam and Eve, firstly, into self deception because they knew they had all their needs met and that they lacked nothing but the serpent managed to convince them that they lacked something. Secondly, the serpent induced in them the sense that they were in fact lacking a sense of deficiency and the serpent went on to tell them that the only reason that God was withholding this fruit from them was that if they ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, then they would have as much power as God. In other words, the serpent was telling them that they were lacking a certain power that they needed to be complete and we could say that being complete also means being worthy, being loveable, feeling that you’re okay, good enough, worthwhile just the way you are and that you don’t need something out there to fill you, to complete you, to make you loveable or worthwhile. So as soon as Adam and Eve believed the snake and acted on what the snake was telling them, they internalised that self deception and sense of lacking became part of human nature.
From then on, Adam and Eve went into a kind of adversarial relationship with the world. From the world being like a womb that just supplied all their needs, the world now became an opposition to them, an alien environment from which they had to appropriate what they needed in order to survive. So in a sense, they had to leave the Garden of Eden because they had lost that innocence. They had stopped having faith and trust in the world. They had stopped seeing the world as a trustworthy source of all their nourishment and started to see the world as an adversary that they had to, in a sense, do battle with in order to complete themselves.
So here we see the dynamics of addiction. We see that addiction is, in essence, a form of self-deception and the self-deception goes along the lines that some substance out there is going to give me the power that I need to complete myself, to feel worthwhile, to feel loveable. Even though you know the truth that the substance is actually only going to cause you grief, the hold of a substance is that, on some level, it offers that power and that is the self-deception that is inherent in any kind of addiction.
The first thing you need to know is that, just like Adam and Eve, you have inside you everything you need in order to fell complete. You have the potential inside you to lead a fulfilled, rich and satisfying life. It’s very important to realise that in order to start to dismantle the self-deception that tells you that something out there is going to make you feel better.
So you need to embrace the paradox of understanding that the completeness is inside you and the more you don’t act out on the things that you think you need to do in order to feel complete, the more you trust that the completeness is inside you, the more complete you’ll feel. The more you act out in trying to fill what you believe is an emptiness inside you, the more empty and isolated and alone you’re going to feel.
The reality of trying to deal with an addiction to substances is that your approach has to be all or nothing. There’s no such thing as cutting down because really what you’re trying to do is break a whole dynamic. You’re trying to end a relationship that in fact a very intimate relationship and something that’s become very much part of your life. Just like you can’t end a relationship by only making contact with the person sometimes, but not seeing them all the time, you can’t end a relationship with alcohol by cutting down or trying to minimize your intake because while you’re in the clutches of alcohol, it’s always going to creep back and the self-deception is always going to cause you to rationalise full blown alcohol abuse back into your life.
So you have to know that if you’re serious about ending this problem, you have to cut it out of your life altogether and that’s often very difficult because, as I said, it’s such an intimate relationship and what people always do is try and bargain and say “well, I’ll just drink in these circumstances” or “I’ll just drink this amount”. But unfortunately, you also need to recognise that alcohol itself breaks your resolve. It is disinhibiting. It actually anesthetises the part of your brain that give you self-control. So as soon as you start drinking, however strong your resolve was to drink only a limited amount, because your inhibition centre has been suppressed, you’re highly vulnerable and likely to drink more than what you originally planned.
Another aspect that you need to take into account is that alcohol is anesthetising. In a sense, while you’re using alcohol for the periods that you’re using it, you’re kind of unconscious and so you’re actually losing time. You’re not noticing time slipping away, number one, and number two, you’re not really noticing the real effects and implications of alcohol in your life. You might notice them when it wears off but in the time that you’re actually under the influence, you’re losing time, you’re out of touch, you’re in a sense asleep.
In order to begin dealing with this problem, you have to ask yourself, number one, how badly do you really want to give up and, number two, how honest are you prepared to be with yourself? To what extent are you prepared to honestly face up to what you’re doing to yourself? And by extension, to what extent are you prepared to face up to what you are doing to your life? The key here is being honest with yourself.
The next step in being honest with yourself is looking seriously at what your life will be like when you’re sober. By honestly looking at what your life will be like when you are sober, you need to feel the pain fully of what not being sober is causing in your life, what the discomfort is of being addicted and, by facing this pain squarely and fully, you will start to get the leverage on yourself to break the hold that that past has on you.
The other aspect of looking at how your life will be when you’re sober is creating a compelling, attractive, alterative picture of your life in the future that draws you to it. In other words, you need to feel the pain of how things have been up to now and you need to feel the excitement and the compulsion and the attraction of this wonderful picture of the future pulling you towards it. And the answer to these questions will give you the leverage that you need to get on yourself in order to get motivated and to still to the program. This is the most important place to start. You have to stay connected to the depth of your intention and your willingness and your desire to be sober.
You also need to be honest about how alcohol serves you. Now most people would say at this point, “it doesn’t serve me”, “it’s causing me pain and distress” and “I don’t want it anymore, “I stopped enjoying it a long time ago”. In reality, your relationship with alcohol is actually a very intimate relationship. It’s a relationship that you put a lot of energy, time and effort into. While you think that alcohol serves you in some way, the truth is that you are serving alcohol. It is a relationship for which you are sacrificing big parts of your life, for which you are sacrificing yourself, your potential and self-esteem. Now how many relationships would you do that for? So you need to recognise that this is a very powerful relationship and you are very, very committed to this relationship.
In looking at how this relationship serves you, you need to look at the ways in which alcohol actually provides you with an alibi for not fully engaging with your life, for not fully taking responsibility for your potential and for not fully living your potential, for not giving yourself the things that you need or contributing your power, your energy, your resources to the world in a full and wholehearted manner.
When you start to face up to what the benefits are of alcohol, you will notice that the benefits are actually costs and that part of the self-deception is to believe that the cost is actually a benefit. In fact, costs and benefits are really opposite sides of the same coin, the one side of the coin being the honest side and the other side of the coin being the self deceptive side.
In dealing with what you call the clutches of alcohol, you have to know that willpower does not work. When you try to engage willpower, all you’re really doing is setting yourself up in a fight between the honest part of yourself and the sneaky, conniving, self-deceptive part of yourself. Unfortunately, the outcome is obvious because when those two parts of yourself go into battle, the sneaky, conniving, self-deceptive part will always find a way to sneak its way back into control through rationalisation, through basically telling you why you need the substance, how it’s going to give you power, how it’s going to improve your life. You might say something like, “Oh, I deserve a drink at the end of the day. It’s been such a stressful day. It will help me to unwind.” – those kinds of rationalisations – “It helps me to loosen up and then I interact better with people”. Whatever your rationalisation is, you have to know that any voice that seems to proclaim the benefits or advantages or necessity of using the substance are actually the voices of your sneaky, conniving, self-deceptive parts. So don’t even bother to try and get into this fight with yourself to try and overcome the problem.
What you need to do is to take on the discipline of not entering into any context that will bring you close to wanting to drink one day or one hour at a time. You need to take it in very short manageable steps. So one of the ways to get around that self-deceptive part is instead of saying to yourself, “I’m never going to drink again”, at which the self-deceptive is going to shriek with laughter, you need to say, “I’m not going to drink for the next hour or for the next day”. That way, you’re not going to go into a kind of inner panic or sense of deprivation at the prospect of not being able to ever have alcohol again. Eventually, those hours and days or whatever period you choose – but I suggest you don’t make it longer than a day – start to accumulate and eventually find days, weeks, months and eventually years will go by and you haven’t actually found the necessity to drink.
Obviously when you start to deprive yourself of this relationship, you’re going to feel discomfort and the discomfort is going to be the manifestation of all the feelings, of all the issues that you manage to avoid or suppress or anesthetise through drinking. So you need to start facing up to and dealing with whatever feelings or discomfort come up for you. You need to start resolving those issues. You need to start getting in touch with who you really are and, unfortunately, what pain you’re holding inside you.
If it’s possible, it’s really important to get support in trying to give up an addiction. The advantage of support is that, number one, you can have someone to give you encouragement and reassurance when you feel that your resolve is wavering. If it’s someone who themselves has overcome an addiction, they can help you to understand your rationalisation and your self-deception and thereby your resolve through that guidance.
The other important aspect of getting support is that by telling people what your difficulty is, you start to become accountable because when you start being accountable to others, you have to start becoming accountable to yourself. So if you go and announce to all the people that you normally drink with that you’re not going to drink anymore, then when you do start drinking, you’re going to make a fool of yourself and it’s the discomfort in the potential of making a fool of yourself that helps you to get additional leverage in overcoming the problem.
Of course, if you’re surrounded by people who encourage you to drink or make fun or make light of your resolve to give up, you need to distance yourself from those people because as strong as your resolve is, their rationalisations and social pressure will start wearing you down.
The next thing you need to understand in overcoming an addiction is that there are certain triggers that lead you to wanting the substance and you need to identify exactly what are those triggers. The triggers might be boredom, loneliness, frustration, depression, anxiety. It might be a fear of taking responsibility for your life, a fear of what success would entail. It could be a fear that becoming capable and successful will make you self-sufficient and therefore cause you to end up alone. In other words, if you start being really strong and empowered, maybe you’re scared that you’d have to give up the fantasy of someone coming to rescue you or save you. It can be many triggers and you need to identify exactly what they are. Even certain conversations or certain contexts can be a trigger. “I like to have wine with this”, “I enjoy drinking at this time”, “I like to drink with these people” – all of these triggers and rationalisations have to be acknowledged so that you can start managing your life in a way that will insulate you from these triggers.
Because addiction is so sneaky, the secret is to never ever tempt yourself. Don’t even start to go there. In other words, if you walk into a bar with the resolve not to drink, as soon as you’ve crossed the threshold of the bar, as soon as you’ve decided to go to the bar, you’re as good as drinking. So you have to create fences that protect you from the problem. As soon as you start to entertain any of the triggers, then you’ll notice that there’s a natural progression, a natural pattern of slowly rationalising and becoming weaker and weaker in your resolve until you’ve got that drink in your hand. So you need to keep as far away from it as possible.
Then you have to create a constructive relationship with yourself. Everything that you’ve invested in your relationship with alcohol, you have to start investing in yourself. You have to start taking yourself seriously. You have to start loving yourself, nurturing yourself, protecting yourself, reassuring yourself and becoming your own best friend, a real friend, a friend that can accept you for your failings, can support you when you need support, can give you encouragement in the areas where you need encouragement. In making friends with yourself in an accepting, loving and compassionate way, you also need to start looking at the parts of yourself that you’ve avoided looking at because of your fear that these parts make you unworthy, they make you less than. By looking at these parts through loving and compassionate eyes, you can start to embrace them and start to heal them and start to embrace all the facets that make up who you are.
When you start to embrace the hidden parts of yourself in loving ways, what you’ll discover is that what seemed like negative attributes actually transform and start to become resources. Becoming friends with yourself and getting into a more loving relationship with yourself will also lead you to start creating more loving relationships in the world and seeking real closeness, real comfort, real support, real intimacy – intimacy, comfort and support from real people rather than pretending to yourself that you can get that from a substance.
As you start to live your truth, as you start to be honest with yourself and make your life a reflection of your most deeply held desires and values, what you’ll find is that your self-esteem will start to grow. As your self-esteem grows, you’ll find that your resolve to be kinder to yourself, to protect yourself from things that undermine you, start to grow as well. You’ll get out of the cycle of despair and self-loathing, which in itself can be a trigger for alcohol abuse, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you about the vicious circle of letting yourself down and then punishing yourself by drinking even more. By loving yourself, by building up your self-esteem, you break that cycle.
Lastly, I would say that if it’s possible, try to contact Alcoholics Anonymous because the 12-step program of AA is, in my opinion, the best program that exists to date. Part of that program is a program of sponsorship where people actually support you 24 hours a day and also people who understand the dynamics of addiction and can counsel you and guide you in your quest to overcome this difficulty.
Lastly, Jane, I would ask you to please stay in touch and email me with any more questions or just tell me about your progress and I look forward …