Alcohol Addiction Hides in Plain Site

I have a master’s degree in health coaching with a concentration in applied nutrition. And I had no idea that alcohol is addictive until after I stopped drinking.

To be fair, I was exposed to the information. I just didn’t think it applied to me.

My addiction hid behind 1) my ability to function — things to do, places to go, people to see and 2) the multitude of health-hacks (exercise and supplements) that I used to offset my consumption. The only warning light on the dashboard was that I drank more than seven drinks per week, which put me in the “heavy drinker” category for women. But that felt patriarchal. We were in the middle of a pandemic. The world was on lockdown. Arbitrary rules for drinking did not seem relevant.

But acting like I was okay and pretending to care about anything other than drinking was getting harder every day. Alcohol was a life-preserver. It beckoned me to happy hour every night. Other details faded into the background. I’d become single-minded.

But then one day I purchased two handles of Grey Goose vodka at a COVID-safe curbside liquor tent. And reality slapped me in the face. Because I had just “stocked up” last week. So this wasn’t for a party. I wasn’t buying two because of a sale. Furthermore, the vodka would be hidden in my closet–in my secret stash. I’d drink it all. Alone. Just as I had done last week. And the week before that.

Is Alcohol Addictive?

The acknowledgement that the vodka was just for me–and only for me– briefly tipped the scales. My common sense alert went off. Because nothing about this purchase was reasonable. But I knew the momentary brush with sanity would quickly slip away. So on impulse, I called the AA hotline. And when a woman offered to be my temporary sponsor, I accepted. Accountability and guidance felt safe. For the first time, I knew without a doubt that I was addicted to alcohol.

Later that day, I started immersing myself in the topic of sobriety. Because my brain needed something to do. I bought “quit-lit” books, subscribed to podcasts, and followed recovery accounts on social media. Because this felt like the only way out. And I was all-in.

Having been in denial that alcohol is addictive, I was shocked when the withdrawal symptoms lingered for ten days. The symptoms weren’t terrible. I could easily have pretended they weren’t there. Or that my hormones were to blame. Or that maybe I had COVID. Instead, I allowed the evidence of addiction to both mortify and motivate me. 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 drinking, I was escaping from addiction. So dealing with the discomfort felt like an accomplishment.

How Addictive is Alcohol?

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. So 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 we 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. Of course it’s true there is an intial high. Because that first drink stimulates two to ten times more dopamine than natural activities such as eating, social connection and even sex. So the problem occurs over time. Becuase everyday activities feel less fulfilling by comparison (think candy bar vs. blueberries).

What’s more, high levels of drug-induced dopamine (alcohol is a drug) threaten our safety. So the brain protects us by releasing a neurotransmitter called dynorphin, which blunts or numbs our emotions.  So as we build a tolerance to alcohol, we also build resistance to feelings of happiness, satisfaction and empathy. And research shows that our mood is lower after a drinking session than before we started. So next time you drink, see for yourself. It’s easy to observe.

Lie #2: Alcohol helps you sleep.

Not in a good way. Alcohol can help us fall asleep — but not for long. The brain releases stimulants to counter the sedative effects of the alcohol. So once the buzz wears off, stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol race through our system. We often wake up once the alcohol is metabolized, unable to return to deep sleep due to agitation. And even if we stay in bed, we sleep fitfully and restlessly. Worse, the sleep after we “passed out” was altered — too deep. Becuase 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 that alcohol is addictive. Furthermore, it’s a function of compromised brain chemistry, not superior liver function. Tolerance occurs when the brain downregulates dopamine production. Because it’s not safe to get swept away in the currents of alcohol-induced euphoria. So 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. And it does so with cortisol and adrenaline. So thanks to high levels of stimulants in our bloodstream, tolerant drinkers can walk without tripping and talk without slurring. Meanwhile, less seasoned drinkers fall asleep under the proverbial table. But anxiety lingers after the buzz wears off. Sometimes we can feel agitated and uneasy for days. And this increases the likelihood we will drink again. If only to feel relief from withdrawal. This is what makes alcohol addictive.

FYI: periods of abstinence do not reset tolerance for long. Because the brain’s ability to manage alcohol consumption is a learned skill. 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. Even a bit euphoric. Because a high level of dopamine feels good. Pleasant feelings last for about 20–30 minutes — while our blood alcohol level is rising. However, what goes up must come down. As our BAC starts to fall, we feel agitated. And our subconscious can do math. A half hour of pleasure cost us 60–90 minutes of discomfort. And that’s not what we deserve after the day we’ve had (awesome, awful or average — any story works).

So 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. Because it was much easier to sleep through the discomfort. This is the crux of alcohol addiction. Once dependency is established, we aren’t so much drinking to get “high.” We’re drinking to stop feeling bad. We’re in withdrawal. And we just want to feel normal again.

So 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. And it requires a lot of effort and focus. The difficulty of stopping after one is why many people ask, “is alcohol addictive?” Many of us find it much easier to abstain from alcohol than to moderate. Because an intense battle of competing wills does not feel like relaxation or reward.

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. Because once quarantine started, 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. And I made gin and tonics to cut back on vodka. Because I don’t like gin. It doesn’t count if you don’t like it. Plus, 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. So how did a headstrong, intelligent and health-conscious person find herself unable (and unwilling) to follow the basic rules?

Regular alcohol consumption jacks our nervous system with stress hormones. And there are only two ways to mitigate this: 1) feel uncomfortable as you go through withdrawals (which can take a week or more for heavy drinkers) or 2) have another drink. And the quickest solution (have another drink) seems logical. Because we don’t associate the feelings of discomfort with alcohol withdrawal. We’re distracted by the belief that alcohol is relaxing. So we attribute our craving to whatever bullshit is happening around us. And justify the drink.

Why is alcohol so addictive? Anyone who’s drank their way through a weekend event (such as a wedding) can understand the process. You drink your face off on Friday night and ease into Saturday with a hair of the dog. And 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 feel a little uncomfortable when they can’t drink. 

So 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 highly addictive. How addictive is alcohol? The more you use it, the more dependent you become. And while a small percentage of alcoholics end up drinking mouthwash out of a paper bag, many are high functioning. So they suffer behind closed doors. I didn’t get DUIs, abuse or neglect my kids, or fail to show up for commitments. There is a belief perpetuated by AA that there’s a difference between “normies” and alcoholics. And this belief prevents “normal” drinkers from recognizing that we are all vulnerable to dependency and addiction. It’s the drug that’s addictive–not the person. Anyone can qualify for rehab. 

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. So I don’t consider myself an alcoholic. The label feels overly dramatic. And it doesn’t describe me. Why refer to someone as an alcoholic after they stop drinking? That doesn’t make any sense.

I’m fine 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). AUD is “characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control use despite negative consequences.” So the term alcohol use disorder does not refer to a disordered class of people with addictive personalities. It’s just compulsive behavior associated with an addictive substance.

In hindsight, I can see how alcohol addiction developed over about ten years — one justified drink at a time. My ability to control my use was definitely impaired. My “turn off” switch was broken. Luckily my ability to ask for help was not impaired. And 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.

A shot of truth: Alcohol is Addictive

Because I was physically “healthy,” I didn’t think my drinking habits were of much consequence beyond the occasional hangover. Yes, I drank more than I cared to admit. But I was clueless that was because alcohol is addictive. So I didn’t recognize the withdrawal symptoms when I wasn’t drinking. And I didn’t know that my nervous system was chronically stressed. Life just felt so stressful. And I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Thank God my survival instincts kicked in. Withdrawal lasted about ten days. After that, the triggers prompting me to drink each night (agitation, anxiety, apathy, etc.) had mostly gone away.

Sobriety is an upward spiral. You’re going somewhere new and fun and happy. Drinking is a downward spiral. You’re sinking and stuck. And it will only get worse. There’s a lot to work through in early sobriety. For most of us, it’s not fast or easy. But forward progress of any measure feels better than the descent into addiction. Freedom feels amazing.

How to Overcome Alcohol Use Disorder

To overcome alcohol use disorder you must admit that alcohol is causing more stress than it's worth. It's not fun anymore. Drinking too much is a form of self-neglect, not self-care.

group think sobriety

Don't surrender your autonomy to group-think sobriety. Exchanging one set of limiting beliefs for another won't set you free.

Internalized oppression

Is your inside voice a bully? Internalized oppression from patriarchal, elitist and racially-biased "standards" causes fear and shame.

Becoming a Non-Drinker

What's the difference between "recovering alcoholic" and a non-drinker? The words you chose have a big impact on your experience of sobriety. If you don't like what you feel, change what you think.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
Do you wish you drank less but find it difficult to stop once you start? Are the legal experts in your head constantly debating the problem—and what you should do? That's alcohol use disorder.
You’re not alone. Many of us have been duped into using alcohol as a consolation prize for neglecting our needs--and then criticized for becoming dependent on it. I was able to quit drinking after 30 years without AA, rehab or willpower. My energy, vitality and joy have returned. I help high-functioning drinkers experience sobriety as a superpower, not a disease. 

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