Why We Drink and Why It’s So Hard to Stop

I have a master’s degree in health coaching with a concentration in applied nutrition. And I had no idea that I was addicted to alcohol until after I stopped drinking. My addiction hid behind 1) my ability to function (things to do, places to go and people to see) and 2) the multitude of health-hacks (exercise and supplements) that I used to offset my consumption. The only clear warning light on the proverbial dashboard was that I was drinking more than seven drinks per week, which put me in the “heavy drinker” category. But that felt arbitrary. We were in the middle of a pandemic–the world was on lockdown. I was more concerned with staying sane than I was my alcohol consumption. Acting like I was okay and pretending to care was getting harder every day. Alcohol was a life-preserver that beaconed me to happy hour every night.

But then one day–as I purchased 2 bottles of Grey Goose vodka at a COVID-safe curbside liquor store/tent–my reality cracked. I had just “stocked up” last week. This wasn’t for a party. I wasn’t buying two because of a sale. The vodka would be hidden in my closet–in my secret stash. I’d drink it all. Alone.

That realization briefly tipped the scales toward common sense. I was motivated to change my trajectory. On impulse, I called AA and asked for a temporary sponsor. I bought “quit-lit” books, subscribed to podcasts, followed support groups on social media and immersed myself in the topic of sobriety. I was all-in. The withdrawal symptoms lingered for ten days. They weren’t bad. I could have pretended they weren’t there. Or that my hormones were to blame. Instead, I allowed the evidence of addiction to both mortify and motivate. As I lay awake each night, drenched in a puddle of sweat, I felt grateful that the poison was leaving my body. I wasn’t giving up alcohol, I was throwing it out. Managing the discomfort felt like an accomplishment. Sobriety is an upward spiral–you going somewhere new and fun and happy. Drinking is a downward spiral. You’re sinking and stuck and it will only get worse.

After nearly a year of sobriety, I’ve challenged most if not all of my underlying beliefs that alcohol is somehow necessary and/or beneficial. I now understand why we drink and why it is so hard to stop. It’s because we believe things about alcohol that aren’t true and ignore experiences to the contrary.

Here’s a list of my top delusions:

Lie #1: Alcohol makes you happy. Actually, just the opposite is true. The more we drink (in both a single sitting and over time), the less we are able to feel pleasure. It’s true there is an intial high. In fact, that first drink can stimulate two to ten times more dopamine than natural activities such as eating, social connection and even sex. The problem occurs over time when everyday activities feel less fulfilling by comparison. What’s more, artificially inflated levels of dopamine threaten our well-being (think: “let’s get married right now!” “take this job and shove it” or “I believe I can fly”). The brain compensates by releasing a neurotransmitter called dynorphin, which anesthetizes our perception of not only pleasure, but any emotion. As we build a tolerance to alcohol, we’re also building a tolerance to feelings of happiness, satisfaction and empathy. Research shows that our mood is lower after a drinking session than before we started. Next time you drink, see for yourself. It’s easy to observe.

Lie #2: Alcohol helps you sleep. Not really. It can help us fall asleep—but not for long. The brain releases stimulants to counter the sedative effects of the alcohol. Once the buzz/sedation wears off, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol linger. We often wake up once the alcohol is metabolized, unable to return to deep sleep due to agitation. Even if we stay in bed, we sleep fitfully and restlessly. Our mind races. Worse, the sleep after we “passed out” was altered—too deep. Alcohol inhibits the natural REM cycles, which are critical for mental health and overall well-being. Chronic exhaustion was one of the symptoms that motivated me to give up alcohol. I was so tired and apathetic I didn’t even want to drink anymore! Sad. Also helpful.

Lie #3: A high tolerance is a sign of a healthy liver and/or a genetic advantage. Sadly, for those of us who can drink like “professional rockstars,” tolerance is simply a sign of dependence. It’s a function of compromised brain chemistry, not superior liver function. Tolerance occurs when the brain releases dynorphin before we drink (basic Pavlovian conditioning) to ensure that we don’t get swept away in the currents of incoming alcohol-induced euphoria. We subsequently consume more alcohol because the first drink didn’t get the job done. The more we drink, the more our brain must fight the sedative effects of alcohol with cortisol and adrenaline. So, yes, thanks to high levels of stimulants coursing through the bloodstream, tolerant drinkers can walk without tripping and talk without slurring while less seasoned drinkers fall asleep under the proverbial table (they won’t fool a breathalizer though). But once the buzz wears off, feelings of agitation and anxiety are evidence of the lingering chemical warfare. FYI: periods of abstinence do not reset tolerance for long. The brain’s ability to manage alcohol consumption is learned through repetition. It’s like riding a bike. We don’t forget.

Lie #4: I’ll just have one. Maybe two. Why is moderation so hard for people who are otherwise disciplined? Because brain chemistry is stronger than willpower, especially if you are don’t know there’s a fight. The first drink of alcohol feels relaxing and even a bit euphoric as high levels of dopamine flood our system. Pleasant feelings last for about 20-30 minutes—while our blood alcohol level is rising. However, what goes up must come down. Once our BAC starts to fall and the buzz wears off, we feel agitated from the neurochemicals released to counteract the alcohol. Our subconscious does the math: that half hour of pleasure costs us 60-90 minutes of discomfort. That’s not what we deserve after the day we’ve had (awesome, awful or average—any story works). Our resolve to “just have one” waivers. We keep drinking to avoid the comedown. This explains why I tended to drink until it was time for bed. It was much easier to sleep through the discomfort. This is the crux of addiction. Once dependency is established, we don’t drink (or take any drug) to get “high.” We drink to feel normal (stop the withdrawal). Telling someone to drink less is like telling a sick person to cough less. They might be able to control it for a while. But it’s uncomfortable. It requires a lot of effort and focus. The difficulty of stopping after one is why many people (like me) find it easier to abstain from alcohol than to moderate. An intense battle of competing wills is not the definition of relaxation and/or reward for anyone.

Lie #5: Not having a reason to not drink is a sufficient reason to drink. This dangerous assumption is the double negative that put me into a downward spiral once quarantine hit. Self-imposed limits felt like a joke. I promised myself I wouldn’t drink on weeknights. But Wednesday and wine both start with “w.” That’s a sign from God. I made gin and tonics to cut back on vodka because I don’t like gin. Problem solved. Kids, dogs and Facetime meant I was never drinking alone. Legit loophole. And the suggested two-drink limit drowned in my 36-ounce Yeti. RIP moderation. I felt like a snowball rolling down a hill. WTF happened? I used to be able to have a drink and stop, and/or abstain without issue. How did a headstrong, intelligent and health-conscious person find herself unable (and unwilling) to follow the basic rules?

I now understand that regular alcohol consumption keeps the body flooded with stress hormones (to counteract alcohol’s depressive effects). There are two ways to get rid of these stress hormones: 1) feel uncomfortable as you wait for them to metabolize (which can take a week or more for heavy drinkers) or 2) have another drink. The quickest solution (to have another drink) seems logical because we don’t associate feelings of discomfort with alcohol withdrawal. We’re distracted by the belief that alcohol is relaxing so we attribute our need for another to soemthing (anything) else.

Anyone who’s drank their way through a wedding weekend has experienced the chemistry. You drink your face off on Friday night and ease into Saturday with a hair of the dog. You promise yourself to take it easy, but it’s an open bar and you don’t want to be rude. The hangover is worse on Sunday, so you swear to never drink again after a mimosa or bloody Mary. Because alcohol relieves the pain caused by alcohol. The same process is in play with even moderate drinking. Everyone who drinks on a regular basis will experience withdrawal (mild discomfort and vague uneasiness) when they abstain. This is how “I need a drink” becomes a true story.

Lie #6: There are two types of drinkers: normal and alcoholic. Anyone can become dependent on alcohol, just like anyone can become addicted to nicotine, opiates, cocaine—and caffeine and sugar. Alcohol is an addictive drug. The more you use it, the more dependent you become. While a small percentage of alcoholics end up drinking mouthwash out of a paper bag, many are high functioning. They suffer behind closed doors. I didn’t get DUIs, abuse or neglect my kids, or fail to show up for commitments. The belief (perpetuated by AA) that there’s a difference between “normies” and alcoholics prevents all of us “normal” drinkers from recognizing that we are vulnerable to dependency and addiction. The truth is that anyone can qualify for rehab. Alcoholism is an equal opportunity disease.

Lie #7: Quitting drinking means admitting to being an alcoholic. The term “alcoholic” is a cultural term not a medical diagnosis. Regardless, we now live in a create-your-own-lifestyle-brand society. Personally, I don’t consider myself an alcoholic. The label feels overly dramatic. It doesn’t describe me. Why would I start calling myself an alcoholic now that I’ve stopped drinking? That doesn’t make any sense. I’m willing to say I was an alcoholic but technically, there is no such thing. The official lexicon in the DSM 5 is person with “alcohol use disorder” (AUD), which is “characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control use despite negative consequences.” I definitely had alcohol use disorder. In hindsight, I can see how it developed over about ten years—one justified drink at a time. My ability to control my use was definitely impaired (my “shut down” switch was broken). Luckily my ability to ask for help was not impaired. Once I admitted to myself and someone else that I had a problem, the lights came on in the tunnel. The nightmare was immediately over. 

Because I was physically “healthy,” I didn’t think my drinking habits were of much consequence beyond the occasional hangover. I drank more than I cared to admit but I was clueless as to why that was a problem. I didn’t know that I had become dependant, meaning I experienced withdrawal symptoms when I wasn’t drinking. I didn’t know that my body had chronically high levels of cortisol, adrenaline and dynorphin. I just knew that I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Thank God my survival instincts kicked in. By the time I was through the detox, the physical sensations prompting me to drink each night (agitation, anxiety, apathy, etc.) had mostly gone away. There’s still been a lot to work through and it hasn’t been fast or easy. But forward progress of any measure feels better than the downward spiral of addiction. Freedom feels amazing.

If you’re struggling, having someone to talk to makes a huge difference. As a coach, I provide direction, support and accountability for people who want to make changes in their life. Email [email protected] for a free consulatation. 

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