Breaking Up With Alcohol
Now and then you hear people debating the best time to give children their first drink of alcohol. One person will say they think an early introduction to alcohol prevented them from developing an alcohol problem later in life, and they want the same for their child.
Then other people start chiming in.
Someone had a beer at 8 and they’ve never had a problem. Someone else tried wine at their sibling’s wedding when they were 11 and they never had a problem. Then someone else says their aunt’s brother grew up in a home where alcohol was banned and he still turned into a raging alcoholic. John’s ex-wife was given a spritzer at 10, and she ended up destroying her life with an addiction to alcohol.
These debates always end on a note of dissatisfaction, no one can work out the right age and drink combination to prevent alcohol addiction.
What they could better ask each other is which of the people they use as examples, themselves included, had a dysfunctional childhood or an addict in the home. Certainly children from happy homes sometimes develop addictions. However, those from dysfunctional homes nearly always do. This is because for them trying a drink actually means forging a relationship with alcohol.
Dysfunctional environments cause a lot of damage. When someone grows up in a household where there is an alcoholic they learn some things that are very hard to unlearn. They learn that everything revolves around drinking. They watch the alcoholic prioritize drinking and they probably see everyone else in the family get pulled into the sway of this lifestyle as well. Whether it’s walking on eggshells around the addicted person or blow out arguments because of them, the message ends up being that alcohol is the center of the world.
Another thing children in this kind of environment learn is that alcohol is a way to manage their emotions. Drinking can be used as a crutch. If you feel sad, lonely, happy, excited, anxious, angry or anything else you can react to that emotion by drinking. The child in a dysfunctional home watches the alcoholic parent use alcohol to manage their moods and emotions; it’s not surprising that they end up doing the same thing.
Children are not born knowing how to react to emotions, especially negative ones. The child who wants to stay in the playground won’t react well when they’re told they have to go home. They might cry, shout or throw themselves on the floor. They feel emotion and have no idea how to manage that. If we saw an adult tantrum like this it would be shocking, but we expect it from children now and then. Parents teach their children about emotions and how to respond when they feel sad, angry or disappointed.
It’s not the exact age they are or the type of drink they try first that makes an impression on a child. What makes the difference is how they see other people around them use or abuse alcohol. If their parents argue and then drink to calm down, they absorb that behavior. If every time the family gets good news there is a drink fueled party, they absorb that behavior. If they know they have to act differently depending on how much a family member has had to drink, they absorb that lesson.
If you use alcohol to respond to your emotions then, whatever amounts you drink, it’s worth thinking about your relationship with alcohol. Because a relationship is what you have.
Although it’s nothing to condone, plenty of people abuse alcohol at some point in their lives without ever coming close to developing an alcohol problem. Most young people do so at university. A huge amount of people do so every year at Christmas or on their birthday. Getting completely smashed on New Year’s Eve is a big joke to a lot of people, even those who would be horrified to see someone do this just because they felt like it, whatever day it was.
Brideshead Revisited depicts this disconnect very strikingly. The character Charles Ryder abuses alcohol in the company of his fellow Oxford University student Sebastian Flyte. However, Charles is never addicted and Sebastian is. As he matures Charles stops abusing drinking but the once handsome and debonair Sebastian descends into the murky depths of alcoholism.
Now, I’m not trying to be some big, bad killjoy here. I get that some people enjoy a drink now and then or getting tipsy now and then. Nor am I the type of person to whack that lovely pizza slice out of your hand and start shouting about organic quinoa. That said, the sad truth is when it comes to that glass of wine or that beer or that party, some people are never going to be able to indulge or over indulge safely.
If you say things like:
“Why can’t they just stop, or stick to 2 glasses, like I do?”
..then you are not addicted. You’re also unlikely to become addicted. That’s why it makes no sense to you that someone would consistently abuse alcohol.
Comments like the one above always remind me of weight loss articles which point out that cake has more calories than carrots. So…avoid cake, eat carrots! I am pretty sure that most people who need to lose weight (and I mean need to as in their own decision for health reasons not societal expectations) know this already. If they don’t know that then they probably have much more serious issues going on.
Addiction is like a bad relationship that you can’t leave. One that will last and intensify over years. If you’re addicted to alcohol then of course intellectually you know you need to stop. It turns out, availability and a long history actually count for a whole lot. If living life was straightforward no one would ever stay in a less than ideal relationship.
You might be at risk of becoming addicted if:
You drink much more than the recommended limit and don’t feel able to give up. You may have already tried to quit drinking and failed.
You avoid social situations or activities where you won’t be able to drink.
Once you start drinking, you can’t stop. You may leave a night out or party and carry on drinking when you get home.
You feel very anxious when you haven’t had a drink for a while.
You’ve started altering your behaviour to hide how much you drink from people. You may hide alcohol or order a sneaky shot for yourself at the bar hoping no one will see. It’s not even about the amount of alcohol involved here, the fact that your behaviour has adjusted to accommodate it is the warning sign. It means you are Sebastian, not Charles.
It’s important to bear in mind that there are more warning signs which relate to alcohol abuse. If you got tanked up at your Xmas office party, snogged your boss, fell over and can’t remember past 8pm then you were obviously abusing alcohol. This is something an alcoholic might also do. The difference is the person abusing alcohol might be mortified and not drink for a month and remember this party with shame forever. For the alcohol addicted person this would just be a Tuesday.
Signs that someone close to you is addicted to alcohol include:
Lying to you about their drinking or defending it.
Isn’t keen to see you unless alcohol is involved.
When they do see you in a situation where drinking alcohol is involved their behaviour is worrying. They may seem to get drunk very quickly compared to everyone else; this is because they have been drinking before they arrived. Or if you’re pushing the boat out and getting tipsy you notice they don’t seem to be affected by what they’ve consumed. This is a sign of a having built up a huge tolerance.
You notice a sudden decline in the person. We’ve all heard the term “functioning alcoholic”. When someone fits this description their friends and family may have no idea that they have a problem. If they do know they won’t be aware of the extent of the problem. The functioning alcoholic may outwardly look like they aren’t letting things slip but behind the scenes they will be. When what they show to the outside world starts slipping, the chances are in private a lot of stuff already has.
People don’t just get addicted to drinking alcohol, they fall in love with it. Recovery is a lot like a bad break-up.
Alcohol will always be there for you without judgement, but at the same time it has no concern for your health or well being. Alcohol will celebrate with you when you feel good and soothe your negative emotions when you feel bad. Alcohol will never erase itself as your crutch by saying that you are strong enough to do things by yourself.
Alcohol is like that terrible ex who slowly changes you until they have a version they can control. A version that fears life without them. Even if you break up with alcohol, every time you’re at a loose end you think of it. Just like that ex’s phone number is so easy to bring up when life on your own seems too tough. You can live without your ex, you can live without alcohol.
You may always miss them, you may always get a kick of nostalgia for the nice times and the innocent appreciation of what seemed good at the time. Despite all of that, you can be great going forward on your own. You can deal with the fear and anxiety of living better than by opting out of feeling and living. You can break up with alcohol.