When you think of someone who has a drinking problem, what do you picture? The truth is, everyone pictures something different because everyone has a different opinion of what constitutes a “problem.” How someone appears on the outside when under the influence of alcohol or when suffering long-term effects of alcohol dependency is only one factor in identifying whether or not there is a serious problem there. In fact, the majority of the negative impact of over-indulging or frequently partaking takes place in the isolation of secrecy, guilt, and shame. It takes place in the morning after, or the cumulative impact of alcohol-related mishaps. While people in your life may see some (or several) of these pieces and have concerns, in the end, it is up to you to determine if you feel the need to address your consumption of alcohol.
There is a reason that they say, “the first step is admitting you have a problem.” Because alcohol addiction does not look the same for everyone, people tend to minimize or deny drinking problems, making that realization difficult. If everyone in the group was drinking that day, you were just participating. If sometimes you have a “bad night,” but you can get to work every morning, you’re functioning just fine. If you tend to grab a glass of wine after a long day, that’s just your way to unwind. There are so many ways to “normalize” behavior we see around us and in the media and eliminate the idea that we have a problem based on arbitrary factors, such as not having a DUI, or holding a steady job, or never becoming aggressive when we drink.
Criteria from the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) includes any two of the following: spending a lot of time drinking; giving up or cutting back on habits, hobbies, and/or loved ones who were previously important to you; experiencing the craving to drink, and withdrawal symptoms when unable to; realized you had built tolerance, and now have to consume more alcohol than you did in the past to feel effects; attempted to cut down on or cease drinking, but were unable to do so; and more.
The pandemic may have worsened the already-unhealthy relationship you have with alcohol, or you may have found that imbibing is one of your new behaviors or patterns to cope with the stress of lockdown,
isolation, fear, uncertainty, loss, and so many of the issues, problems, and stressors that have plagued us for the past year+. For some, drinking can be a problem that has been in place since adolescence; it is now a way of life. For others, alcohol dependency can “get worse” in their mid-adult life. No matter how it begins, it usually ends the same way.
The stages of change apply to drinking the same way they apply to any change. Some may think that an intervention from loved ones is “the sign” that their drinking has gone too far, but really, signs and clues can be much more subtle than that. Even the act of questioning if you should evaluate your drinking habits is a sign that, perhaps, you ought to. This may occur in the pre-contemplation stage when you experience a level of denial or ignorance that there is a problem. You may have identified the issue in the contemplation stage but feel ambivalent or conflicted emotions about taking any action.
In the preparation stage, you may transition to collecting information about how that change might look or even experimenting with small changes. During this time, you may draw inspiration from uncomfortable, unsettling, or upsetting aspects of your life, your thoughts, and/or your behavior. There can be many reasons for seeking change, but here are some common factors:
These problems can occur in legal or family settings, can result in divorce and/or unemployment, and can negatively impact physical and mental health. In fact, research has shown that chronic and heavy alcohol use leads to significant health problems, including kidney failure, dementia, and overall impairment in brain functioning. You may experience issues with your loved ones, where your behavior when drinking or prioritizing drinking hurts, confuses, frightens, or worries those around you. Maybe you pick fights with your partner when you’ve had a few too many drinks, or maybe you choose to party instead of following through on plans you intended to keep when you were sober. Maybe you find it difficult to maintain steady employment due to “sick days” or miscommunications/fights with coworkers when experiencing withdrawal.
No matter what you might say out loud to others or even what you might try to say to yourself, you may begin to feel uneasy about your drinking habits in the form of shame and/or guilt. This realization can come hand in hand with taking stock of the problems caused by your drinking while saying to yourself genuinely, “I can’t stop drinking.” It can be a shock to the system to realize that, even when faced with the negative repercussions of excessive alcohol, you can’t seem to discontinue using, overusing, or abusing it.
Addiction causes isolation and disconnection because it demands your full attention over time. As you prioritize your next opportunity to consume or binge, you will find that the things you cared about in the past (including people, hobbies, and goals) fall by the wayside. As you eschew what you used to love in favor of drinking, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that you have nothing else in your life that matters because you haven’t held on to anything or anyone else.
The next stage of making a change is the Action stage, where direct action is taken toward a goal.
Many people can avoid realizing that they need to change because they are surrounded by people who are behaving in the same way. Whether you are one of ten moms you know who have three glasses of wine after you put the kids to bed, or whether you are a member of a party crew who stays up till sunrise on the weekends, you are probably surrounded by people who are doing what you have been doing. This doesn’t make them bad people, and it is not your responsibility to try to convince them to adjust their habits. But if you have identified that you are uncomfortable with your drinking habits, they may not be the people for you right now.
If you have let go of relationships with people who weren’t doing what you were doing, the idea of building a sober support network might feel daunting. Part of your continued drinking practices may stem from the idea that you sacrificed friends who didn’t want to go clubbing or a partner who was concerned about how many drinks you had at social events. Over time, you may have felt that you deserved to continue on the path you had chosen, given what you had sacrificed to be there. This idea can make it difficult to imagine transitioning to a new sober lifestyle – who is going to be with you on your journey? It can be a frightening prospect.
It is important not to let the fear of creating a new support system (or reviving an old one as well) keep you from doing so. A strong support system is the cornerstone of mental health and essential to all aspects of life, not only recovery. The great thing about programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Self-Management and Recovery Training (SMART Recovery) is that you will create all new connections with others who are coming from similar backgrounds, who can understand your relationship with drinking, and have a desire to be free of the use of alcohol as a coping mechanism. These are tried and true programs that connect people from all walks of life and encourage and facilitate connections at all stages of recovery. Through the practices, you may learn in these programs or programs like them, or through therapy, you will also find yourself in a position to nurture your chosen community. This may involve reaching out to people you feel you have wronged or people with whom you wish you had a stronger relationship.
Drinking problems and other addictions often stem from an attempt to cope with one’s feelings. When we think about this cause and effect, we often think of negative emotions, but alcohol can be used to respond to pleasant feelings. These may include relief, happiness or excitement; often, alcohol is used to “complete the celebration” somehow. Unpleasant feelings such as shame, doubt or insecurity can lead to alcohol use as a numbing agent, a distraction, or a way to shed inhibitions.
The result of this emotional correlation is that, during sobriety, any emotional state can trigger urges to drink. The temptation to celebrate a promotion by going for drinks with your friends or to take the edge off of a bad day by cracking a cold beer may seem innocuous. If you are in the process of getting sober, you may foresee these potential triggers ahead of you and wish to plan for them. However, emotional shifts are difficult to plan for; often, people say they relapsed because of the time or an event when in actuality, it was the feeling behind the event that triggered the use.
Having a plan in place to manage emotions is hugely beneficial when it comes to achieving and maintaining the level of sobriety that is best for your health. Doing the work of identifying potential triggers will help you to avoid them or plan how to deal with them when they occur. Unpacking the emotional circumstances that can encourage you to reach for a drink and finding another outlet (exercise, journaling, meditation, bubble baths, etc.) will help to substitute a sober response for your previous habit of consuming alcohol when in a heightened emotional state (whether it’s heightened in a positive or negative way). One of the best ways to begin to learn to manage and process emotions is to attend therapy.
As Brené Brown is often quoted, “If you think you can do this work alone, you don’t understand what the work is.”
And along with that, I want to tell you that you are not supposed to do this work alone.
In therapy, not only will you learn skills for relapse prevention but also address the underlying issues. It can be scary to get help for addiction, but therapy aims to help you get where you want to go and support you throughout the process. A therapist will understand (and help to remind you) that sobriety is not a straight, upward trajectory. There will be setbacks, slip-ups, and struggles; a therapist will reassure you in those times that you can identify the issue and go to work on it.
Here in Woodland Hills, at Embracing You therapy, we utilize CBT, DBT, and mindfulness approaches to help you work on treatment goals such as relapse prevention, emotion regulation, distress, tolerance, and conflict resolutions. Through mindfulness practice, you will learn to observe and describe any changes in your emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations more effectively and non-judgmentally. Once you detect any changes in your feelings, you can choose to act accordingly. A therapist will play a major role in helping you to reward your successes, which is a vital component of the Action phase of making changes.
It is also important to know that there can be severe withdrawal symptoms depending on many reasons, your age, your health, how often you were using. Therefore, during detox or throughout your recovery journey, you may need to seek Medication consultation from a psychiatrist who can provide support and ensure that you are medically safe.
Whether you have been drinking for decades or a recent addition to your lifestyle, the vital thing to know is that there is help for you if you want it. Individual support, combined with group support offered by sober programs, is available to anyone who knows for sure that there is a need for change or even those who aren’t sure yet, but feel that something isn’t right. The first step isn’t even admitting you have a problem; the first step is knowing that it can be solved if you do have a problem, and you are worthy of that effort.
Here at Embracing You Therapy, we invite you to explore with us how life would be different if you had more control over your thoughts and emotions, and we invite you to consider that it is possible to accept things just as they are, embracing imperfections to create a gentler place for calm in your life.
Let’s learn what drives your unique perspective on anxiety and stress. Then, let’s find the tools-your unique tools-that help you respond to life in a healthy, calm way. Contact us today for your complimentary 15-minute phone consultation with one of our Client Care Coordinators.
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