Drinking is the worst thing that I have ever done to myself, so why on earth did I start and then continue drinking?
I look at teenagers and young adults now, who do not drink and have absolutely no problem with it and I ask – why was I not like that? What made me feel I had to start?
I am not claiming to be an expert in the physical or psychological motivations and consequences of drinking alcohol, but I am writing based on knowledge I have gained through personal experience and personal research in my own quest to understand why I drank and eventually stopped drinking.
Why do start people drink?
I started drinking at 14 because it was completely normal. I had grown up in a family of drinkers, every single social occasion involved drinking, and I sent to boarding school where alcohol on a Saturday night before the disco was basically de rigeur. Alcohol was present at meals, in the evenings and after church on a Sunday. Alcohol took centre stage at birthdays, Christmas, funerals, Easter, parties and holidays. It was used to celebrate new jobs, new homes and new babies, and to commiserate break ups, unsuccessful jobs interviews or any other unfortunate event. Advertisements scream about the latest alcohol and show the beautiful, glamourous people having a wonderful time with the alcohol with a tiny bit in the corner saying ‘Please drink responsibly.’ Oh OK, why didn’t I just think to do that?!
Alcohol was all over university, it was everywhere I used to work (pubs, bars, restaurants, clubs) and it was in nearly every home I ever visited. The accessibility of alcohol made it so much easier to start drinking. I think the ‘think 25’ challenge in shops and bars has made it a little harder to access alcohol at a younger age, but when I was a teenager I could buy it at 15. Funnily enough now, without my children in tow, I’m asked for ID for alcohol free beers!! But once you hit 18, it’s a free for all. Buy and drink whatever you like! The first polite offer as you enter a house, ‘would you like a drink?’ Our society, particularly in the UK and Europe, is alcohol soaked. From what I have seen, if you come from a family who do not drink or smoke, you are less likely to drink or smoke. So normalisation and accessibility play a massive part in why we start drinking.
Similar to the points above, if you live surrounded by alcohol, there is a massive social pressure to start and continue drinking. It is hard as a teenager and young adult, to navigate the big scary world and try to find your place in it. If all your friends are drinking, it’s very unlikely that you are going to be the one who wants to stand out by abstaining. If your boss in a new job is taking you out for after work drinks, are you going to be the one who says, actually no thanks. It’s far more likely at that age that you want to impress your friends or your boss. You want to be seen as fun, social and popular. The expression ‘you can’t put an old head on young shoulders’ is famous for a reason.
Like social pressure, social anxiety is a huge problem for young people and often carries on well into adulthood. Many, many people are shy or introverted. People like this will often hide these parts of their character behind alcohol. Our society celebrates people who are loud, funny extroverts. So where does this leave the shy introverts. Think of Robin Williams. One of the most brilliant actors of my time and by all accounts an incredibly kind and good man. The public saw him as hysterical, loud and energetic but apparently in real life he was quiet and reserved. Tragically he struggled with depression, alcohol and drug abuse. I am speculating here, but could part of his alcohol abuse have been because he was fighting against his true nature? When we drink it does lower our inhibitions, so it makes us feel like we are OK in situations that we are actually not comfortable in.
The first drink of alcohol is often a pleasant experience. Initially when we start drinking, before it takes over, those first drinks and first social occasions are fun. We feel part of something, we feel accepted, at ease socially, funny, exciting, spontaneous and relaxed. The initial tipsy can be so nice why wouldn’t you want more? It’s not very long before we are chasing that feeling. I loved the feeling of the initial glass, but realistically the nice feeling only lasted about 15 minutes. After that, the rest of the time was spent drinking more and more to try to recapture that nice feeling that could never be recaptured until the next day. Was that 15 minute nice feeling really worth the years of struggling, arguments, hating myself, and feelings of guilt, shame and anxiety?
One of the reasons we keep chasing that 15 minutes is that it’s so quick and easy to reach. Alcohol starts working pretty quickly and all the pleasant feelings are there. Everything melts away and we are temporarily at peace. Everything else that could give us the same feelings takes work and effort and we all have such busy, often difficult and stressful lives, that reaching for a glass of instant relief is more realistic. However, like I said, that peace doesn’t last.
I believe that escapism is a HUGE reason why people continue to drink, and end up drinking to excess. For the 15 minutes you feel better and for the rest of the drinking time, until you go to sleep or pass out, you are not fully there. You don’t have to face anything, do anything, you can dream and pretend and nothing is really real. It will be real the next day, it won’t go away, but for the drinking time, it’s not there. So what are we escaping from?
Often it’s stress. We don’t live in a very relaxed society. We expect ourselves to work, raise families, maintain friendships and relationships, be glamourous and thin, look after our health, cook well and be sociable, fun and spontaneous. Not exactly a small order!
As parents, we are expected to do all of the above and be good parents, give our children special attention, cook, clean and wash, do homework, do fun family things, take them to school and extracurricular activities and, obviously, bring them up to be happy, healthy, kind, loving, well rounded people. All of this while they are fighting us, fighting each other and learning to navigate their own place in the world. Is it any wonder we need a break? Even though there are amazing books like ‘The Unmumsy Mum’, that have made it easier for people to talk about how hard motherhood is, it still feels like we can’t really say ‘Help! I can’t cope!’ We still have to pretend everything is wonderful and post pictures on social media to show how well we are doing. So we hide our not coping behind our wine or gin or cocktail. There are other books about motherhood that are really funny, like Hurrah for Gin, and I have laughed so many times at parts of this book, but it comes with the downside of normalising alcohol for mothers as a coping mechanism. It’s not just books. Facebook memes, birthday cards, presents and Gifs – all screaming, we need alcohol to cope!
On top of this people often have really crappy things going on in their lives. If you don’t have people to talk to and share the problem, or people who can help, you are going to try to help yourself. It is awful but there are so many people who have had rubbish childhoods. From full on abuse and bullying to benign neglect, there is a whole spectrum of stuff that goes on in childhood which is often not dealt with and is buried. As people get older and they start drinking, it becomes another way to escape from and bury negative feelings and memories.
I had a whole combination of reasons to start and continue drinking. Later, I added disappointment and frustration to the list. I had this idea of what my life was going to be like. I would have a job I loved – preferably with a charity abroad, travel the world, learn languages, have amazing friends, be sociable and glamourous, attend black tie events and dance and sing all the time. I would read books, paint pictures and practice yoga. I would walk up mountains and host charity events. Then…..children. What happens when you have children? You love them fiercely but you give up your whole life. I found that I disappeared into motherhood and there was very little of me left. All those dreams became much harder to fulfil, and when The Bear got diabetes they became harder still. I was living a life I had never wanted to live and everything around me was telling me I was supposed to be happy about it. So I drank to dream, and pretend I could still do all of those things.
We are hiding from feelings because we have not learnt how to deal with them. From loneliness, sadness, stress and disappointment to depression and anxiety, alcohol can temporarily numb and block out these feelings, appearing to make life easier to manage.
Underlying reasons we drink
Ultimately, I think the reason we drink comes down to two categories, a lack of community and a lack of self-worth.
Communities are not what they used to be. Although I wouldn’t say that community was always a good thing, there were definite benefits. We are all now expected to navigate the world in small nuclear families or by ourselves. We feel we have to do everything ourselves and prove to the world how well we are doing it. If we’re ‘failing’ we blame ourselves not the situation. We don’t have the large support network that communities used to provide to support us and reassure us that we are doing OK. We haven’t got the experience of watching people living their lives in the open to know what is normal and what isn’t.
Imagine as a parent, you’re suddenly expected to have a child, know how to bring it up, care for it entirely yourself, give up everything you’ve done before (except possibly work) and get no break. Is it any wonder this causes feelings of inadequacy, isolation, loneliness, anxiety and depression?
This would be hard enough to manage if many of us weren’t struggling with a lack of self-worth. There are few people who really appreciate their own value and love themselves. The people I have met who are closest to this are usually the ones how have really struggled and dragged themselves out of difficulties. We often judge our value on what our families and then society tell us it is rather than looking to ourselves and those who love us. Families and parents, either consciously or subconsciously, will give us our initial sense of self-worth as children. Often parents are dealing with their own feelings of inadequacy, so can pass this onto their children accidentally. As a teenager it is society, peers and family. If we are shy, we do not have value; if we don’t conform we don’t have value; if we don’t look the part, we don’t have value. As we get older it becomes more about ‘success’, possessions and parenting. We end up believing these things and berating ourselves for not being enough. The more we listen to this negative voice, the more we believe its negativity. If we do not believe we are to enough, we are never going to believe we deserve the life we want, so we will not strive for it and we will lose ourselves in trying to be acceptable to society. We will then drown the accompanying negativity, frustration, disappointment, unhappiness and loneliness in alcohol.
Why is it so hard to stop
I listened to an amazing TED talk by Claire Pooley, author of The Sober Diaries. She said we still see drinking too much as a taboo. Like a shameful character failing. She says when people say that they’ve quit smoking, everyone says ‘wow that’s amazing, well done!’ When you say you’ve stopped drinking, they look shocked, ask if you were ‘an alcoholic’, justify why their drinking is OK and try to push you to have just one. Alcohol is so deeply ingrained in our society and not drinking is seen as the odd thing, not visa versa. So stopping, in this society, is very hard for anyone.
Form of self-harm
I know that for me alcohol had become a form of self-harm. Self-harmers are often trying to escape from or cope with feelings they can’t manage and trying to punish themselves for their inadequacies. I couldn’t cope with my inner voice and daily struggles so I drank to cover them. I then felt so shit for drinking that I drank more to punish myself. I then spent months trying to stop again because I was so filled with disgust at myself. I never forgave myself, just berated and hated. Very hard to make any positive changes with this mindset.
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To be honest, this is where my knowledge gets bit fuzzy and I’m not entirely sure what I believe yet. In post How to beat the alcohol illusion, I to try to counter all my points above and discuss how we can overcome alcohol once and for all. However when it comes to addiction, my posts Am I an alcoholic and How to stop alcohol cravings put forward arguments and counter arguments from reputable sources do try to gain some understanding for myself and for my readers. I have seen people in withdrawal, from alcohol and drugs. I have seen people at the end of their lives; their body’s destroyed by alcohol. So I know that addiction is a real and awful thing. But I have also seen people go from drinking bottles of whiskey a day to stopping completely without the withdrawal effects. I don’t really understand where we cross the line, or even if there is a line to cross. From my personal experience, I know I drank too much because it made me feel dreadful, but I think, for me, it was all psychological. Habit is too weak a description, but addiction is to strong.