Overcoming a drinking problem is possible, it is not a life sentence

In 2016, I was a huge man with a huge drink problem.  One of the reasons I drank for as long as I did was that I believed certain myths about drinking.  Having got myself sober and helped thousands of others get their lives back on track too, I want to debunk these myths, so they don’t stop others from changing their drinking and transforming their lives. 

Myth 1:  If you drink too much you are just weak

I was at a school sports day when I overheard a father berating his son, who had come last in his race.  I heard him bellowing “JUST RUN FASTER”. It struck me that whilst his advice was clear, it was also completely unhelpful. Telling someone with a drink problem to “JUST STOP” or “JUST HAVE ONE” is like shouting into the wind.  If we could, we would! 

This type of ‘advice’ is unhelpful not only because it doesn't work, but also as it makes the receiver feel shame about their behaviour.  Shame is a terrible feeling and us problem drinkers are riddled with it. Shame keeps us stuck and makes us hide problems, because it makes alternatives feel impossible. But the truth is that an addiction isn’t about poor character traits - it is a combination of a physical and emotional dependencies.  You need to address both if you are going to be able to make a lasting change.  Whilst it’s comparatively quite easy to break the physical cycle, reframing how you feel requires more time and careful attention. 

The very fact you are reading this shows huge strength and self awareness. I occasionally get asked, 'How can you bear to work with such broken people all the time?' My answer is always the same - I get to participate in somebody's journey to be a better version of themselves - these are the strongest people you will ever meet, and doing what I do is the best 'job' I have ever had!

Myth 2:  I can use willpower to reduce my drinking

By studying how our brains work, I learned our minds have 2 parts, the conscious and the subconscious.  The conscious mind is the rational one - the one that makes considered choices, weighs up the evidence and acts coolly and with care.  Unfortunately, this type of thinking only accounts for 10% of our processing power.  It is outgunned by our subconscious brain, which works emotionally, rather than rationally and below our level of awareness (hence SUBconscious) so we often don’t even realise it is influencing our choices.  It is almost impossible to overwhelm this subconscious system with willpower - you might be able to do so for a short time but after a while, you may falter and be dragged back to old ways by a subconscious mind that hasn't yet worked out what you are trying to achieve. You might think you can fight this but it’s hard - that’s why we make impulse purchases, eat too much chocolate and don’t do enough exercise.  If it was effortless to make good choices, we would all be wealthy supermodels.

Also, where is the fun in battling yourself all the time? It is much better to start co-operating with yourself!

Myth 3 - Focus on the problem if you want to solve it

Focusing on the 'problem' is helpful in terms of accepting things for what they are, but you need to focus on the solutions and the benefits of that to achieve lasting, sustainable change.  We need to re-frame our thinking and use our brains to our own advantage.  The subconscious mind prefers positive thoughts to negative ones (it's the reason we tend to assume we are cleverer and luckier than we are) .  So whilst you need to acknowledge a problem in order to be able to solve it, obsessing about the problem will only see you staying stuck where you are. 

Instead you need to look down the other end of the telescope.  Think hard about how changing your drinking will change your life for the better.  List all the things that will improve as you reduce your drinking - your health, your wealth, your sleep, your relationships, your shape, your skin, your energy levels,  As you make this list, make your positives personal.  Attach them to specifics in your life. Your subconscious will LOVE THIS. It will get excited about this future life and make it much easier for you to move towards it.  If you want to solve a problem, think about how you are going to move past it, not the problem itself. 

Myth 4 - All problem drinkers use alcohol to cover up massive life issues

Nope. Whilst it’s true that many people who suffer from trauma, grief or abuse often mask their pain with self-destructive behaviours, for most people I work with, drinking is a habit that has evolved into dependence and addiction.  I had counselling, hypnotherapy and psychotherapy to try and find the ‘reason’ for my drinking.  What I learned was that there wasn't a single, big reason.  It wasn’t because I was adopted, or divorced, or stressed at work.  It was because I had become habituated to downing a bottle (or two) of wine every night. There were probably a hundred subtle, individual reasons that led to my drinking.

If your  drinking is out of balance then your life is out of balance, but don’t spend too much time looking backwards.  Instead, if you can look forward and get really clear on the life you want without alcohol, then every part of your life will improve.  Drinking too much is a habit you can get out of, but you need to know how. 

Myth 5 - If you have a problem with drink, it will be a problem forever

I no longer think about drinking.  It’s taken me a while, but I have turned off the desire for it.  I still get stressed, my life is imperfect, things still go wrong, but I have learned that solving my problems is never helped by reaching for a bottle. I’ve now helped thousands of other people better understand their drinking and then put it behind them too and get on with their lives. Some abstinence methods disagree with me.  They feel that to be in control of a problem you need to confront it daily. I never 'bought' this idea and it held me back.  I wanted to address the issue and move on.  And I did.  If you want to too, then you can find the Sober in Seven programme here 

It is true that if you DON’T get serious about solving your problem then it will definitely be around forever.  But if you have read this far then you are probably pretty serious.  Just don’t spend your energy on the wrong things.  It is the power of positive thinking that will change your relationship with alcohol and transform your life.

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Feeling great the next day is not boring at all

Drinking and having fun have been culturally intertwined since man discovered how to ferment alcohol.  Romans ate and drank so excessively together that they created the Vomitarium - an actual room to be sick in. Social occasions seem to run more smoothly with a drop of alcohol to lubricate proceedings, and hosts are often judged by their ability to provide a never - ending supply.  We know key social celebrations in many cultures are built around wine and song - we raise toasts and the beginnings and ends of life. Alcohol companies spend billions on ads showing us beautiful people laughing and drinking together and how much you can drink is often directly linked to status.  It is no surprise that we struggle to see where fun stops and alcohol starts. 

The numbers

Yet the fun has a downside that is well documented in healthcare journals. Alcohol is a factor in xxx deaths as well as contributing to major diseases, innumerable breakups and family misery.  Over 50,000 each year seek help from their GP for their drinking in the UK.  

Even though we know about the downsides, we still love the drink. One reason why life can feel more fun with a glass in our hand is that alcohol reduces our inhibitions.  It makes us feel funnier and more confident, it helps take the edge off anxiety and steel the nerves.  Which is fine if you can take it or leave it, but for many of us, moderation is not an option on our menu.  One of the reasons many people continue to drink too much is that they think that the drink-free version of themselves will shine less brightly and be less fun. In practice the reverse is true but some re-framing is required.

However, if you fear fun-loss, here are 5 reasons why drinking less won’t feel like a bad call: 

Booze doesn't make you fun  

Yes for those few minutes at the beginning of an evening when you get the buzz, alcohol can feel like the fun starter.  But booze-filled nights tend to follow the same pattern.  They start with giddy positivity, before lurching into shouting but not listening and repeating yourself.  Then it doesn't take much to accelerate into arguments, over-reactions and even violence, before the stagger begins into clubs and cabs, being sick on buses and in laybys.  Followed by 24 hour hours of toxicity and self loathing.  Is all this worth that 30 mins of fun?  

Being able to remember is fun

When you overdo it, you can often end up not being able to remember what happened the night before (or worse wishing you couldn’t remember...).  Going out and staying sober means you can remember the good stuff and tiptoe around the rest without getting your shoes dirty. 

Booze encourages bad choices

Ask then when they are sober and very few people expect to drink-drive or get into a fight.  But alcohol changes our choices and rarely for the better.  Alcohol increases your likelihood of risk-taking and affects your judgement around those risks.  Whilst things can go wrong at any time, there is a correlation between the people in A&E on a Saturday night and excessive drinking.  Anyone visiting the Emergency room on a weekend evening with a genuine medical condition is often confronted with hoards of incoherent, abusive refugees from the local drinking establishments.

Feeling great the next day is not at all boring

Alcohol is a toxin.  We know this and drink it anyway. But excess alcohol poisons your body, and leaves you able to do nothing but lie on the sofa, moan and eat toast.  Going to work on a hangover is too horrific to think about.  Being sober means saying goodbye to the headaches, the sweats and the smell of booze coming out of your pores.  Nothing boring about that. The crushing anxiety and guilt that follows a hard night, is your body’s response to having a depressant forced on it. Over the course of the following day, the craving begins (all addictive substances create cravings which can only be satisfied by their creators) which also manifests itself as anxiety. The best intentions of the morning after start to ebb away quickly when the sense that a drink will make things feel better really ramps up. Which it does - for a while. The cruel irony is that the need to drink is driven by the behaviour of yesterday, and non-drinkers don’t experience this.

You are interesting anyway.

The fact is that you  don’t need alcohol to be fun.  You are fun anyway.  Without booze, you might not be as loud, or as pushy, or as dominant, but that might be a good thing.  Alcohol is so mixed up with the good times that we struggle to see what it brings to the party.  And the answer is chaos. 

If you can see the upside in being sober, you are more likely to embrace them.  Culture has told us for so long that we are better and brighter squiffy than sober, but the stats don’t lie. Booze might be a party starter, but it rarely provides a glossy finish.  The confidence you sought from alcohol was probably born of the desire to not embarrass or make a fool of yourself.  And how did that turn out?!   Life is interesting enough, don’t let alcohol tell you that it is the fun when actually the fun is in each and every one of us

Learn how to get sober now by watching the 30 minute free webinar, 'How to get control of your drinking and move on with your life' here.

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The most distressing thing about having a drink problem isn’t the impact it has on you personally, but the shockwaves that it has on those around you.  As someone who lived with a ‘functioning alcoholic’ for several years before he turned his life around, I identify with the stomach-churning combination of anxiety, fear and despair that comes with watching someone you love hurt themselves.  Here are some things I learned on the journey that I hope can help you understand what you can and can’t do, if you are love someone with a drink problem 

You can’t save them from themselves, but you can support them when they choose a better life

My partner was everything you would hope for.  Funny, kind, clever, successful and a problem drinker.  Not in a shouty, aggressive, out of control way, but in a quietly desperate, relentless every-single-evening way.  And every morning he would get up and go to the gym and pretend it wasn’t happening.  He was a lovely person and he knew he was in trouble.  But no amount of shouting and pleading from me could change his behaviour.  He only sobered up when he got to the point that he knew he needed to take action.  Drinkers need to get to that point themselves and our job as the people who love them is to support them when they get there.  I hear stories of people spiriting their loved ones to rehab, or creating interventions and in some cases, perhaps  it helps.  But the hard truth is that until the person involved takes responsibility for owning the change, the change won’t come.  You can’t love them until they choose to love themselves. 

What you can do is be ready.  Have resources in place to show them.  Books, online programmes, groups,  encourage them to find whatever avenue that works for them.  Then try and take a deep breath and step back.  They need to own their decision or it just won't stick.

They can love you desperately and still drink

Drinkers don’t love their families any less than non drinkers.  They don't choose to be more in love with the bottle than you,  it’s an addiction and it’s not a fight you can win. There will come a moment when they look in the mirror and choose a different path.  As their loved one. you will be a major reason for choosing that path.  But you won’t be the main reason - that has to come from inside.  Andy didn’t stop drinking for me, or the kids.  He stopped drinking for himself. It might sound selfish but as humans, to effect permanent change we need to change how we feel about ourselves and our futures.  He needed to be able to visualise a better future for himself, before he could live it. 

Don’t enable or shame them.  They must be responsible for their choices

Nobody feels worse about the situation than the addict - even if they can't acknowledge it

Part of love is trying to make things ok.  But drinkers know perfectly well that they are NOT ok  They might not want to admit it - to you or to themselves, but they aren’t stupid.  So try and walk a line where you don’t cover for them, but you don’t punish them either. Don’t make excuses for them and don’t feel that you need to make everything ok.  It’s only when drinkers accept just how NOT OK life is, that they can make the change.  

Equally,try not to shame them either.  Shame is an incredibly powerful emotion and it kills progress by creating panic and fear which are counter-productive. It might be hard to believe, but the drinker is more ashamed of their problem than you are of them. Yes you can’t change your life without a little commitment and discipline, but shame has only negative consequences for everyone. 

Be supportive but don’t take it on your own shoulders.

It is incredibly hard to love someone who is hurting themselves and part of their journey needs to be finding people to support them as they build a better life. So if someone you love is making progress do try and be a non-judgemental supporter.  IF they make a mistake, encourage them to reflect on what went wrong and to get back at it.  Try and help them focus on the better life they envision for themselves instead of obsessing about the problem. But remember that you can’t solve it for them.  Point them to community groups and programmes that could support them.  You can be part of the journey back, but you can’t carry them.  They must walk alone, even if you are cheering from the sidelines. 

It’s OK to walk away.

It’s brutal but it’s true.  It’s also not easy if you have kids, or the person is your child. But just as a drinker must have ownership over their actions, so must you be able to have ownership over yours.  If  living with a problem drinker is too much for you, then you need to put your needs first.  It maybe that in doing so, the situation crystallises for the drinker.  But it may not.  Don’t rely on a grand gesture to create change.  Leaving someone doesn't mean you love them any less, but you need to love yourself. 
It was the impotence I found difficult, the inability to change something that was damaging our whole family.  In my situation, Andy was able to find a way back and now he helps thousands of others do the same.  If you want to find out more about how he does it then click here.  I now see example after example of drinkers who find the way to transform their lives and I see many families survive a drink problem and go on to flourish.  There is a path back from problem drinking, but it needs to be the drinker who leads the way.

Written by Louise, Andy's partner

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Further reading & resources:

Al-Anon - help for families of addicts

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