Alcohol addiction - crossing the invisible line
Alcohol can have a powerful influence on many of us. It quietens the mind and relaxes us after the stress of a long, hard day’s work. It can make time with friends or family more fun, and make social gatherings much easier, but when does someone’s use of alcohol become a problem?
Maybe you notice that you use more alcohol than other people do, or you start spending more money on alcohol than you used to. You may notice that you start to feel uncomfortable or uneasy about how much alcohol you are using, but you try to hide it or even dismiss it. You may only intend to “have a couple”, but end up getting very drunk. You tell yourself that this “won’t happen again next time” but it does, and this becomes more frequent. You may ask yourself - why does this keep happening? You don’t really know why, and you may even start to experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as sweating when not drinking, or through decreased use. You might be thinking about alcohol more often, even when you are not using it. You may even start to isolate yourself more, and your relationships or employment may start to suffer because of your use of alcohol.
Do you recognise a voice within you that tells you and convinces you that there is nothing to worry about? That voice may tell you that just one drink will be okay and then you’ll be good. This can be a sign that you are starting to lose control of your use of alcohol, and addiction is present. If alcohol is starting to affect your daily living and quality of life, then this can also be a signal that you need to act and ask for help. But remember, that voice will tell you that you don’t need to worry, that you don't need help, and that everything is fine.
Over the years, addiction has been described in a variety of different ways - a lack of willpower, being morally weak, having difficulty living in the real world, a physical illness, and a spiritual disease. If you’ve had the experience of being confronted with active addiction, then you may have many more ways of defining this destructive force. However, addiction can also be described in the following way:
“Virtually all human beings have a deep need to feel happy, whole, and to have peace of mind. At times in our lives, most of us find this wholeness, peace and happiness, but then it floats away, only to return at another time. When it subsides, we feel sadness and even a slight sense of grief. This is one of the normal cycles of life, and it’s not a cycle we can control” (Nakken, 1996, P.1)
We can try and help these cycles along, but mostly they are uncontrollable, and all of us need to go through them. We can either accept these cycles and learn from them, or fight against them, searching instead for elusive contentment and happiness.
Addiction can be seen as an attempt to control these cycles. When addicts use a particular chemical or behaviour to produce a desired mood change, they believe they can control these cycles, and to begin with they can. Addiction, at its most basic level, is an attempt to control and satisfy this desire for contentment and happiness, but addiction is cunning, insidious, and subtle, and seduces its victims into a place that can progress into an illness which is slowly and unconsciously in constant development. The pathway of addiction has a beginning, a middle and an end. There is perhaps a more fun beginning, but at some point there is an invisible line that is crossed, and someone will move from recreational or social use to addictive use. This is the middle part which can go on for years, where someone will try to control their drinking or quit without success and will end up using more as tolerance builds and the stress of addiction increases. Negative consequences will become more frequent, and you can become more and more deceptive and dishonest with yourself and others. Addiction then moves towards an endpoint of total loss of control, pain and misery, and even death.
The later stages of addiction is where life just breaks down, the addict has lost total control, and is in utter denial. The addict’s life will literally start to collapse under the tremendous stress caused by ever-increasing pain, fear, shame, guilt, and anger that has built up over time from constant abuse. What brought relief and pleasure in the beginning has now gone, but the obsession and compulsion to keep using alcohol has not. There is a point where a person emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and finally physically, breaks down under the stress and pain produced by addiction. This is a terrifying place to be, and it is not living but merely existing. It is a dark, despairing and lonely place, and often death feels appealing just to end the misery. The user will often just be drinking to feel more stable and normal, and to keep intolerable and severe life-threatening withdrawal symptoms at bay. The addict just doesn’t care about themselves or others anymore. Jobs are lost, people are in debt or have legal issues, marriages and relationships are gone, or strained to the point of dysfunction, homelessness may occur – addiction destroys lives and the consequences are endless!
Our society sees alcohol use as a normal and socially acceptable thing to do. This for many people is okay, but not for someone who is addicted, because this encourages a minimising and normalising of their alcohol use and can prevent or delay someone from seeking the help that they need. Some people see addiction as a lifestyle choice and a pleasurable experience, but it is really not. It is relentless, repetitive, painful and utterly life-changing in only negative ways.
However, recovery is possible, and there is light to be found amongst the darkness.
Sinking to the lowest point, or what’s known as “rock bottom”, is often where we are given the “gift of desperation” and we are faced with making a decision - “do I want to live?” or “do I want to die?”.
If you are reading this and in that dark place, or even just noticing that there might be signs of a problem with alcohol, then I hope you now choose to live! For me, addicts are usually wounded or unhappy people but have used alcohol to numb or suppress their unhappiness. You haven’t done anything wrong - you’ve just learned a way to survive life - but unfortunately it can only last for so long.
Recovery from addiction is about reconnecting with reality, relationships and the world around you. It is also looking at it as a re-birth, a second chance, and definitely an opportunity to create a brand new life. Recovery is about re-discovering and understanding yourself better. To recover means “to get back, to find or identify again” and “retrieve our true nature” - to become the person you always wanted to be.
Starting to work through what may be troubling you beneath the surface begins a journey of transformation and healing. What interests me when engaging with someone is - has this person lost control? What is fuelling that person’s addiction? Addiction needs fuel to keep it going, so what is that fuel? Alcohol use can be seen as an avoidance strategy to hide from the pain or truth of something. The addiction is communicating something that the person themselves feels unable to express, or is not in their conscious awareness. So what is their pain and suffering?
This is not an easy pathway and takes honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, dedication and a commitment to change. It is also not just about abstaining from alcohol. It requires a total lifestyle change. I would encourage anyone out there who is battling with an addiction to seek help, because there is a way out, and you’re not alone. Taking a risk in seeking some counselling/therapy is a way of starting that journey, and acts as a safe vessel for change. There is a life beyond alcohol, and you can get it with belief, determination and the right support.
Nakken, C. (1996) ‘The Addictive Personality: Understanding the Addictive Process and Compulsive Behaviour’, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing
The Disease of Addiction: Symptoms & Phases (1999) Bruce Larson: Hazelden Foundation
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