Alcohol abuse is one of the most insidious, destructive and self-defeating habits that millions of people struggle with. Many thoughtful, kind, intelligent and good people get caught in the web of alcohol abuse and dependency. You don't have to be an "alcoholic" to have a drinking problem -- but you need to examine honestly whether drinking has led to problems for you and the people in your life.
No one sits down on Tuesday afternoon at 3:30 and says, "I think I'll become an alcoholic." No one wants that as a life problem. But it happens, and it's hard to break free from it.
Many physicians and therapists are reluctant to address the issue straight on. They may not want to offend their patients, they may fear losing the patient's business. Or they may simply not recognize how serious the problem is. But many people with anxiety and depression misuse alcohol -- some become dependent on it. Many use alcohol to cope with situations that make them anxious ("I'm going to a party so I will need a few drinks to loosen up"). But there is no problem that you have that alcohol abuse won't make worse. Whether it's your marriage, your relationship with your kids, your job, your health, your mood or your ability to get anything done -- alcohol abuse will make things worse.
Thinking Yourself into Drinking:
I'd like to discuss in this article the way you "think yourself into drinking" -- what I call "drinking thinking." I would suggest that you have two heads -- the head that wants to drink and the head that is rational that wants to be in more control. In this case, two heads are not better than one.
I've been listening to people for years who overdrink. They always have excellent reasons for drinking more -- convincing themselves that they are in control. Let's take a look -- and ask yourself if you or a loved one is a familiar voice here.
- False Comparisons. You compare yourself with people who are worse and conclude that you don't have a problem. "Other people drink more than I do." This is like saying that someone else is 100 pounds overweight but you are only 50 pounds overweight. You are still overweight. If you are a chronic over-drinker you might find yourself changing the comparisons. Eventually you might say, "At least I am not lying on the street." Perhaps you can have a higher standard for yourself.
- Illusion of functioning. You think that because you still have a job or are still able to do certain things that you don't have a problem. "I still work and support my family so how much of a problem can this be?" The problem here is that you might not be noticing that the time bomb is about to explode -- your drinking might lead to a crisis or a serious problem. I have had patients who went into rehabilitation clinics -- they were hedge fund managers and partners in law firms. Being a highly functioning person does not preclude having a serious problem.
- Lack of insight. You don't see yourself the way other people see you. You go to a party and think that you come across as someone having fun. But you might come across as someone who says or does things that are inappropriate. Have you ever been in a restaurant where you were sober and there was a table of people who were drunk -- talking loudly, saying things that sounded obnoxious? Do you think they were able to see themselves objectively? When you overdrink you might not realize the impact on others. You lack insight.
- Normalizing the situation as a drinking time. You say to yourself that everyone else is going to be overdrinking so it's O.K. But it might be that some of the people are overdrinking, some not. Which one do you want to be? Even if everyone was drunk, does that give you permission to indulge a habit that can be causing you other problems? The more you reinforce overdrinking the more you will overdrink. You might normalize the drinking by saying that you are entitled to get high -- "I'm celebrating" or "I had a rough day." Your drinking head will be creative to come up with ways to normalize and give you permission. It's convincing you. But is it really acting in your long-term best interests?
- Social Pressure. You think that because other people are drinking that they will feel uncomfortable if you don't drink. "I am going out with friends and they like to drink. They won't have a good time unless I am drinking. It will make them feel uncomfortable". This may or may not be true. However, many people find that they can simply assert themselves -- either limiting their drinking to one or two or having club soda. "I'm on a diet" or "I have work to do in the morning." But if your friends keep putting pressure on you then you might wonder what the problem is that they have that they would need you to drink. Being a good friend is letting others not drink.
- Control illusions. You say to yourself that you can limit your drinking to two drinks -- OK, now you say, "I can limit it to three." That would be great if you continue to follow the controlled drinking -- and some people can. But see if that is actually working. Or are you saying you will limit yourself but then go on to have six drinks? It's a realistic question as to whether you really have the control that you say you do. Keep track of what actually happens.
- Needing to drink. You believe that you need to drink to get through something -- that it would be impossible -- or almost impossible -- to go to that party or meet with people and not drink a lot. "I am going to need a few drinks to relax and talk to people." But the reality might be that you might be able to interact with people -- even if you are anxious. Perhaps you might feel a bit more anxious talking with people, but the only way to get over the anxiety is to practice acting and talking while you are anxious. Other people do, you have, maybe you can.
- Drinking makes me interesting. This is a common belief that a lot of people have -- that they are far more fascinating and funny when they are drinking. This is another version of the lack of insight I mentioned. Have you noticed that when you are listening to someone who is drunk that they don't sound as interesting and funny as they think they do?
You need to be honest with yourself about your overdrinking. Has anyone ever told you that you have a problem? Have you ever tried to stop drinking or cut back? Have you had a black-out where you had a hard time recalling the night before? Have you woken up with a hangover? Have you had arguments or said inappropriate things when you were high? Did you ever drive while you had too much to drink? Have you had the urgent need to have a drink, a sense of craving that you needed something right now?
Drinking is not a character flaw. It's a habit. Sometimes people can drink and be O.K. with it. Others may be hardwired so that one drink leads to another -- and then to another. The first step is coming to terms with whether you have a problem. Look at these eight "illusions" and ask if any of these sound like you. Then ask your rational mind, "Who am I kidding?"
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