When I see a couple for therapy and they begin a sentence with “We just had a few drinks and…”
I know that what comes next is not going to be pretty. They are not going to tell me about a shining highlight in their relationship. The story they tell will not be about how they rose in each other’s esteem. They will most likely recount a moment from which it is very difficult to recover.
Harmless fun or recipe for disaster?
Alcohol is a taboo subject- full of denial
The assumption in the statement “we just had a few drinks” is that alcohol is harmless and drinking is something everyone can relate to and everyone does. Or can get away with. It is as if there is a disjuncture between the “just” and the “and” that follows; it is a surprise, something they were not expecting.
Alcohol consumption is so normalized that people rarely ask what is the fallout for individuals, and the cost to our health and to our relationships. In this Insight, I tackle one of the hard subjects that we resist discussing. It is hard to discuss for several reasons. Firstly, alcohol is a huge and profitable industry. Second, alcohol is highly addictive and readily available, and it makes emotional pain (almost) bearable. But does that make it good for us? Or good for our relationships?
Alcohol, along with subjects like pornography, occupies a shadowy place in our culture and in our psyches, and in Jungian terms is a manifestation of the Shadow. Yet that is not our initial intention – we get derailed.
For more than 40 years I have been hearing stories of the personal cost to relationships of alcohol use, ranging from unwanted sexual engagement including rape in marriage to partner violence and abuse of children. This is not news to you, is it? Yet, alcohol use contributes hugely to an unsafe environment. There is so much denial by drinkers, so many excuses, so much rationalization. And I’m talking here about people who consider themselves to be moderate drinkers, not those who are confirmed alcoholics.
So how did we get here?
Drinking alcohol is undeniably pleasurable, initially at least.
For many people, the pleasure centre of their brain is triggered in a way that becomes very addictive when they drink alcohol. It has a pronounced opiate effect. At the same time, the pleasure of alcohol leads us to act impulsively, do stupid things, compromise our health seriously, fudge the truth and lie about our drinking. We all know this, too. Particularly if you are one of those people, or if your partner is one of those people. So, basically, we need something else in our lives, something that is so important that we do not want to stuff it up.
We need a bigger adventure where the stakes are higher than alcohol and its (limited) pleasures and relief. This adventure might be a sustained and happy relationship. You might not realize this at the time when you are flushed with alcoholic-induced pleasure, but alcohol actually interferes with our ability to experience the full and deep adventure of life. In other words, it is a poor substitute.
A great read on control over alcohol
The romance of the heavy drinker
In countries like Australia (and Canada), there is a romance around the heavy drinker, the tough outback hero who always has a beer in his (or her) hand. The suburban BBQ and advertisements and movies enact this daily. As if there is something heroic about heavy drinking. And self-worth is conveyed through alcohol consumption. Or alcohol consumption makes us worthy. This is quite a strange psychology but is it firmly entrenched, unquestioningly so.
Robert Johnson, the famous Jungian, in his book “Ecstasy” describes alcohol as a third rate spiritual experience. Jung guided the foundation of alcoholics anonymous and this is discussed in this link. Jung believed that the alcoholic needed a much “higher” goal in life, and he described this as a spiritual experience. Spiritual experience is, therefore, one possibility for the bigger adventure I mentioned above. In Jungian thought, this also equates with the life of the Self, the highest aspects of our being, rather than ego concerns.
Fears around giving up alcohol – or even cutting down
I won’t have fun anymore.
Will I still be funny?
How else will I loosen up?
Others won’t like me because I will no longer be part of the social group.
My friends will act differently around me. They will wonder if I am still a true friend. As if I’ve become a wuss – alcohol seems to be the immunization of choice against being a wuss!
How real are these fears?
I had a male client who wanted to give up alcohol for years.
He didn’t enjoy drinking, but he loved his mates. Eventually, after much worry about social isolation, he just stopped drinking and still hung around with the same mates. They hardly noticed that he wasn’t drinking! But after they’d had the third drink or thereabouts he couldn’t stand to be around them! They were so boring and predictable. He realized that it wasn’t mateship that was holding them together, it was alcohol. They were not loyal to him but loyal to alcohol.
He then had another challenge; to find a group he could hang out with that had more than alcohol holding them together. He had realised that his friends had been standing in the way of him getting his life together. This was a genuine life crisis. He had lost respect for his mates, and this was shocking. But he was gaining respect for himself. They were aiming down, and he was aiming up.
He began to rebuild his life, with a new set of habits and a new set of mates. He worked towards what he wanted in his life, rather than going from one weekend of heavy drinking to the next.
Do you use alcohol to numb social anxiety?
Social anxiety and alcohol
So, what I’m talking about here are the fears around giving up alcohol. People often drink to relieve stress and depression. In other words, they are self-medicating.
And alcohol does reduce anxiety – temporarily. You worry about things less, at least for a short time. But seeking counselling for depression and anxiety, and actually sorting out the underlying problems is the long-term solution.
Using alcohol to numb anxiety can work against you because you are not learning to cope and grow. It is just a cover-up! Learn about increasing your window of tolerance here.
Social anxiety is very real, and for many people alcohol enables them to be more extraverted and more enthusiastic. But only while drinking – there is no flow-on effect. Remember, you need to grow to overcome it.
So what are regulating bodies doing about alcohol?
In Australia, in 2019 a National Alcohol Strategy was created as a national blueprint for tackling alcohol-related harm.
The original draft addressed Australia’s “alcohol culture” as contributing to “increased risk of serious harm and the development of harmful drinking patterns”, and mentioned that “public figures are glorified for drinking alcohol”. Alarmingly, the alcohol industry has pressured a change so the modified wording is weak and avoids the truth.
The truth is that alcohol does a lot of harm, even for the modest regular drinker. The truth is a casualty of the financial interests of the industry and expediency – the government gains from the hight tariffs on alcohol.
What harm does “just a few drinks” cause?
The harm ranges from cancers of every kind, to lost productivity and life-changing stupid decisions we make when drunk, or even when just a little bit too over-expansive.
Alcohol plays a role in at least half of all serious trauma injuries and deaths from burns and drownings. It’s also involved in four out of 10 fatal falls and traffic crashes, as well as suicides.
Alcohol makes people more aggressive and 50% of murders are committed by people who are drunk. Not only that, but 50% of murder victims are drunk too. But the real face of alcohol-induced violence is not nearly as visible but can be as subtle as careless and cruel insults which are often forgotten by the drinker but not by the victim. Read “domestic violence is not only physical”.
Those who chose not to drink alcohol in order to increase their creativity and clarity
One example of people who have chosen not to drink alcohol is Jordan Peterson. He says, “when I started writing seriously, I had to stop drinking. Because I couldn’t think properly. So that was it – it was either one or the other. I was having a fine time. I was in graduate school and I was very social and a lot of that involved drinking and that sort of thing. But I couldn’t do both. I had to let the drinking go.”
“Particularly when I was editing; I couldn’t get my thoughts down precisely enough. Plus, the emotional magnitude of the things I was dealing with was more overwhelming in the aftermath of a party. So, at 25 I decided to stop.”
Are you more married to alcohol than to getting down your thoughts precisely and speaking with clarity?
Writing teacher and author Barbara Turner-Vesselago advises that people avoid alcohol when they participate in her residential week-long writing workshops. That’s because it dulls creativity and clouds thinking. Alcohol makes it more likely we will retreat into our defences rather than courageously move to our creative edge.
Another example of someone who chose not to drink alcohol was an up-and-coming young man I met about 30 years ago. He determined to succeed in his profession. The profession he had chosen is extremely competitive and he noticed that his colleagues let themselves down mostly when they “just had a few drinks”.
He recognised that he was not more talented than them, but in order to sustain a competitive edge, he decided not to drink.
I have lost touch with him, but I see that he has indeed become very successful. Clearly, he sustained his creative edge.
Alcohol and relationships
For conflict-avoidant couples, having a few drinks evokes a feeling of closeness. This is because alcohol takes the edge off your awareness of all those unresolved issues. The feeling of closeness is an illusion, however, because in fact, nothing has changed, the problems are waiting to bite. Here, the main reason for drinking is to avoid or evade responsibility and accountability.
Alcohol might make you happy, but does it make your family or partner miserable? Ask them!
This post has only scratched the surface of a gigantic cultural, social, health and relationship issue. Let me know what has been useful.
Just one thing…
Both these books can be found on my Therapist’s Bookshelf.
Ecstacy – understanding the psychology of joy
This is an important read.