The buzz of alcohol helps us forget and takes us out of our routine cares. We use it to relax at the end of a long day, or a long week. But the relief is only temporary. The same drink that relaxes us drains our energy and contributes to depression. Alcohol adds empty calories that satisfy none of our nutritional needs. Reflexes slow down after the first drink so when we drink and drive we increase our risk of hurting ourselves and others.
We go to bars hoping to relieve our loneliness, and often end up drowning our loneliness in drink. Since alcohol lowers inhibition, we drink to loosen up at parties, which can be fun. But by reducing inhibition we are more likely to engage in brief or even promiscuous sexual encounters that keep us in a cycle of loneliness. And by reducing inhibition, it gives us permission to express rage that hurts kids and relationships.
Our society has a complex and intimate relationship to alcohol. It is legal and socially acceptable, while at the same time deadly and addictive. Despite its well known effects we tolerate it in our midst as it destroys brain cells, liver function, careers and family. It is often involved in fatal car accidents, gun violence and other crimes. Drinking during pregnancy increases the risk of damaging the fetus, and parenting while under the influence of alcohol hurts children.
And alcohol takes the place of wisdom. Instead of learning deep, lasting strategies to cope with emotional issues, we cover up our feelings with a quick fix. Despite our best efforts the quick fix itself becomes a problem, while our underlying emotional issues remain. Alcohol becomes a crutch in an increasingly handicapped life.
As our children grow up, they see us “chilling out” with a beer. Children learn by watching and soon they are drinking themselves. Children who drink disrupt their academic and social skills as well as their brain cells.
Alcohol works by triggering powerful pleasure centers in the brain. The brain reacts to this over-stimulation by growing new receptors. Because of these new receptors, we have the more we need to drink to get the same effect. As we drink more, the brain grows even more receptors, so if we want to get a buzz we must drink ever-increasing quantities. While we may start out needing one drink to relax, later we need two and then three. These higher doses damage our liver, and even though we don’t think we’re drunk, alcohol impairs our reaction time.
Each drink raises the level of alcohol in our blood, while each hour the liver of a healthy man removes that drink, whether it’s a twelve ounce beer, four ounces of wine or one and half ounces of liquor. When we drink more than one drink an hour we’re drinking faster than we’re excreting it so alcohol builds up in the blood. Drinking too much too fast floods our bloodstream with this poisonous substance resulting in blackouts and even death.
While some people may drink for years without losing control over their lives, others find their lives become engulfed by alcohol, leading to progressively destructive problems, such as accidents, acting out aggressively or sexually, blacking out, and breaking promises to loved ones.
Alcohol abuse and addiction runs in families partly because genes determine the way our body metabolizes alcohol. For people with certain inherited body chemistry, it may be much harder to know when to stop drinking. If our brain doesn’t tell us when we’ve had enough, we more easily get caught up in the cycle of drinking more and more. When we can drink everyone else “under the table” we are at high risk for alcohol abuse and addiction.
When loved ones or coworkers complain about our drinking, we find ways to appear in control. We impose rules on ourselves such as allowing only one kind of drink, or only drinking after noon, or only drinking with people. We protest that others are exaggerating and we explain to our own satisfaction that we’re having normal social fun. We ignore drunken driving citations, accidents under the influence, terrified and disgusted family members, and diminished capacity at work finding a thousand reasons for our problems other than our drinking.
By the time we’re bothered by these problems we have become so accustomed to leaning on alcohol to help us face life’s problems we don’t know how to get along without it. Without the substance, how do we unwind, or forget our frustrations, or let go of childhood issues that haunt us under the surface? We must travel a difficult road to return from reliance on alcohol. The habit doesn’t want to let go, and we don’t want to let go of it.
There’s a lot of work to do, and it’s even more difficult to do alone. Alcoholics Anonymous provides a healing formula: trust in a power higher than ourselves, a supportive community, rules for examining our own behavior, and coaching to help us get back into the human family. Giving compassionate care to other people is one of the most powerful forces on earth, and Alcoholics Anonymous shows us how to harness that force. Giving to others helps them and helps us pull out of our self-involved behavior.
While drinking seems to offer escape from the pressures of life, over time it makes the pressures even worse. To loosen its grip, we need to learn how to face our inner challenges without it. And that means becoming smarter about our own emotional world. By increasing our awareness of our inner world, and by learning techniques to reduce bad feelings, we can get our feet on the ground, and learn to walk without this crutch. Facing the challenges of our emotional growth, we build deeper poise to face the ups and downs of life. This double challenge of giving up the familiar substance and learning to replace it with strength and insight may be the hardest, and most productive task of our lives.
See also: Addiction, Beliefs, Soothing, Twelve Steps
Buzzed, the straight facts about the most used and abused drugs from alcohol to ecstasy by Cynthia Kuhn, Scott Swartzwelder and Wilkie Wilson
Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book
The heart of addiction by Lance Dodes, M.D.