I started drinking when I was just eleven years old, and continued until I was forty seven. I doubt that anyone would have ever called me a heavy drinker. I liked a cocktail and wine with dinner—sometimes a lot, but I wasn’t putting away fifths of booze and gallons of jug wine. Nobody ever suggested that I had a problem. My life was mostly in order—I had a solid first career in software, and a second starting, building, running, and eventually selling a company that I started myself. I had many friends and relationships, and traveled a lot. The cracks are already starting to show in my story though. I had too many relationships—I wanted a things to be steadier, and they kept falling apart. I had been all over the world—and I had been lonely, sad, and doing a lot of drinking alone in hotel bars. I felt like most of my friends didn’t know me that well, and I didn’t feel at home in my home city. I had suffered from let’s-call-it moderate depression since at least my thirties, and, in therapy, had uncovered roots of disconnection, anxiety, depression, and serious drinking and drug use going back to my early teens.
As I got into my forties, I was less depressed, but it still lingered. I was drinking less too, but it rarely occurred to me to consider how my use of alcohol had anything to do with how my life was going, because I had always thought that the question was whether alcohol had anything to do with how my life was going, and the way that I understood it, I had a problem with depression, not with alcohol. As so many of us do, I thought of these as either-or problems, and also as separate things.
I’ve always said that I never “hit bottom,” in part because I don’t agree with the idea that we have to crash the car to realize there’s an issue. Another way to look at it is that my bottom was long and slow, and it didn’t involve only alcohol. Mine was a long, slow, subtle, and very expensive suffering instead of one big crash. The funny thing is that I also did actually crash the car, and more than once!
As I got into my forties I did start to realize—in the form of intuitive messages—that I might live better if I was drinking less. My drinking did naturally begin to decrease, and I was also getting healthier in many other ways. As I began to drink less, be more active, and focus on connection and community, my intuition began to speak up more strongly, and it began to suggest to me that might not need to drink at all. That I might live better without it entirely. That I might well just be done with that chapter. That whether or not I had a ‘serious problem,’ as someone else defined it, I had a problem for myself. Finally, another intuitive insight led me to investigate the connection between alcohol and depression, and that, along with a couple of new-years-related parties where I reminded myself what it felt like to “enjoy” a few drinks—and that I enjoyed the feeling of practicing my habit more than the actual feelings brought on by drinking—was the end for me. Finally, I got the message loud and clear: alcohol is obsolete. From that moment forwards, my relationship with alcohol changed. I saw clearly how it was getting in the way of me being myself, and I didn’t want it in the picture any longer.
Making a Change
The idea that changing our relationship with alcohol is supremely difficult has become such popular mythology that most of us assume it to be true, partly out of respect for those for whom it truly is difficult. The problem with this assumption is that it’s more false than true, and encourages us to give more power to the habit and the substance than they deserve. Change is certainly hard for some people, but for most people who drink less than terminally to begin with (and that is most people), drinking is a habit, and habits can be changed. In fact, many people experience—as I did—what is often called spontaneous sobriety once they become clear on their relationship with alcohol and their desire to make a change.
For moderate drinkers, the issue is usually not how much you drink, but that clarity about why you may have started drinking (or drinking habitually), about how it actually makes you feel, and about how that truth aligns with who you are now. You don’t necessarily have to drink a lot to feel like making a change. The only reason you need to make a change is that you feel like making a change, and, if you feel like you might want to make a change, chances are, that’s as much of a feeling as you may get, and also as much as you need. Almost always, this clarity or lack of clarity has to do with how well your intuition is working, and how well you are listening to it. One of the most insidious negative effects of drinking is that alcohol dulls the senses—all the senses, including and especially intuition—and so, drinking gets in the way of thinking and feeling clearly about drinking. This is part of the reason that drinking less often leads to drinking less.
If you’ve begun to get the message that you might want to change your relationship with alcohol, that’s all the reason you need to pursue that idea further. Let me say it again, simply and clearly: you’re right. There is no rational way to conclude that alcohol is in any way good for you. Said another way: drinking less is, unequivocally, better for you. Does less mean not at all? Not necessarily, but it does follow that if less is good, then none at all is even better, but my experience and my methods are about changing your relationship with alcohol, not about prohibiting you from ever drinking again. What’s more, what we now know from modern neuroscience and holistic wellness confirms that changing a habit, even a chemically amplified habit, doesn’t depend on willpower or on a declaration of “never again.”
Habits are repeated behaviors that get wired into our neural pathways by the simple act of repetition itself. Our neurology grows connections around the things that we do most often, and it becomes easier and easier to repeat something that we have done. Behavior creates habit—and in the case of drinking alcohol, the neurological effect of the activity (drinking) is amplified by the chemical (alcohol), causing the physiochemical response to be even stronger. The habit is stronger because the feeling is amplified.
Amplified or not, we change habits the same way we form them—by changing behavior. The psychology of the ego makes the view from the inside of our current self seem normal, and habits help to reinforce this. Habits make it much easier to continue with the current normal than to change what’s normal. And yet—we all know the feeling of coming out the other side of some change in life, looking back to the past and thinking, “was that me?” When we change behavior, habits change too, and as we change, the new normal becomes just as normal—the future you will be just as much “you” as the past you seemed to be you.
Perhaps you’ve been thinking about making a change to your relationship with alcohol, or you’re curious about whether drinking less—or not at all—might be good for you. Maybe you already know with some clarity that you want to make a change, but you’re not sure how. Maybe you’ve tried to change your relationship with alcohol using willpower or other methods.
What we know about alcohol, behavior, intuition and addiction has changed a lot in the last twenty years. The old ideas that alcohol “ism” is a disease that some people have and that some people don’t, and that you have to join a program and commit to abstinence forever to make a change to this particular habit—those ideas work for some people, but there are many more people that those ideas have not proved helpful for. Most people who drink alcohol do so moderately, and those methods and ideas apply more to the far end of the bell curve. Thankfully, there is new thinking and new, proven methods—as taught and written about by Annie Grace in This Naked Mind, Marc Lewis in The Biology of Desire, William Porter in Alcohol Explained, Johann Hari in Lost Connections, and Caroline Knapp in Drinking, A Love Story—based in modern neuroscience, holistic wellness, and in our understanding of intuition that have helped many people who want to drink less or not at all, or simply to understand better how alcohol effects our minds, bodies and emotions.
Contact me if you’d like to learn more about changing your own relationship with alcohol.