USING ALCOHOL TO COPE

If you cope with everyday problems by using alcohol, you’re on a dangerous path.  Sure, some abusers say, “I can be a moderate social drinker with no problem,” but they’re kidding themselves. Regular use of booze has a way of expanding and taking control of the drinker. Alcohol becomes a crutch, a necessity for dealing with life. Consider Henry’s case, related by Brooks:

Henry returned to college for his 10th reunion. I remembered him not only as a bright student who worked hard for his grades, but also as a student who partied hard and made no bones about it.  On several occasions at off-campus social gatherings, things like senior class socials, the homecoming dance, and other major social occasions, I had a chance to see him in action, so to speak. He always seemed mildly intoxicated, not to the point where he was staggering and slurring his words, but displaying reduced inhibitions and even silliness in his conversation. He was “buzzed,” and it was clear he had begun his partying several hours earlier. Again, he wasn’t falling-down drunk, but no one would dare get in a car he was driving! I often heard stories about his drinking exploits that circulated among the students. A common comment was, “Booze is Henry’s way of coping with college stress.”

In spite of Henry’s hard partying style, he always attended my class, arrived on time, and seemingly was none the worse for wear. If I knew there had been some social event the night before, I might ask him how late the party ran, and he would reply something like, “Oh, I don’t know. I think the last ones left around midnight. You know, class night and all that. I’m not sure when I went to bed. Maybe I didn’t!” I always felt his casual, joking style was serving to hide some inner demons.

Henry seemed to have a body chemistry that allowed him to overindulge in alcohol but not have to miss responsibilities like class the next day. What some students might see as a gift, for Henry this body chemistry was a curse.

Getting back to the 10th alumni reunion, I was chatting with him and noticed he was drinking soda. I almost jokingly asked him, “What’s up with the soda? Give up the sauce?” He proceeded to tell his story.

Henry’s parents met in Alcoholics Anonymous when they were both recovering alcoholics. They began dating, fell in love, and married. Dad was 42 and mom was 40. Mom quickly became pregnant and Henry was born normal and healthy. He grew up never seeing his parents take a drink because they maintained their sobriety for the remainder of their lives. Yes, they kept alcohol in the house, and when they entertained they offered alcohol to their guests, but they neither provided a drinking role model for their son nor did they preach to him about the evils of alcohol.

When Henry was old enough to understand, and the subject of alcohol came up, they willingly told him their stories. They explained they were simply unable to control themselves when it came to alcohol consumption; the booze was stronger than they were. As adherents to the 12-step format in AA, they decided they were powerless when it came to booze, and they chose to eliminate it from their lives.

Like many teenagers, Henry soon discovered alcohol for himself. He loved it! He thrived on the intoxicating effects. The “buzz” his friends experienced, the pleasure they felt from alcohol, was experienced a hundred-fold in his case. Henry found it very easy to deal with typical teenage stress and angst by slugging down a few beers or a few shots of “Jack.”            Gradually, staying at some level of intoxication became his way of coping with stress. He basically went through high school and college in an alcohol-induced fog. His youth and possibly inherited biochemistry enabled him to function through so-called hangover periods. If necessary, he quickly learned that a stiff shot could cure any hangover blues, although as we noted earlier, for Henry hangovers were usually not a big issue.

Eventually, Henry’s booze-infested world came crashing down. He had landed a good job out of college, but after about five years his work began to deteriorate. The thing that really brought him down, however, was the damage his drinking was doing to his romantic relationship.

One night Henry arrived at his fiancé’s apartment to take her out to dinner. He had obviously already been drinking (nothing new there!). She told him to sit down at the kitchen table. She put a bottle of booze in the middle of the table, and sat across from him. She looked him squarely in the eye and said, “There’s your choice. That bottle or me! Choose one right now. Not just for tonight. Forever! You will walk out the door tonight with one of us, and the other you will eliminate from your life. If you choose the bottle, we’re done. If you choose me, you’re done drinking. For good.”

“I had been drinking earlier, but something in her tone, something in her eyes, cut right through the fog and rammed me in my gut like a spear. I literally had to gasp for air,” Henry said. “I chose her,” he added, chuckling, pointing at her across the room while taking another sip of soda. “I decided she was more important to me than booze, so I quit. Right then and there, cold turkey! She made it clear to me, no half-way stuff; no social drinking or an occasional beer. She said I just couldn’t handle it so it was all or nothing.”

“Do you think you could drink socially?” I asked. “Could you exercise control to the point that you could drink in moderation?”

He smiled and said, “My folks would say ‘no.’ People in AA would say ‘no.’ I guess I’ll never find out. I look around this room and see some classmates who abused the hell out of alcohol when we were in college. Yet, here they are, having a couple of beers and then heading home. They made a choice to drink sensibly once out of school, and they could do it. Maybe I have my folks’ chemistry that gives me only one choice. One thing for sure……..why would I want to take a chance on trying to drink socially? The cost of failing would be way too high.”

What coping lessons can we take from Henry’s story? I guess the answer to that question is no mystery. If you’re anxious about life events, turning to booze will complicate your life tremendously because it’s an avoidance action. This statement is obvious, yet people fall into the trap again and again.

Look at it this way. You have a problem and you cope with it by getting buzzed. For the time being at least, you have reduced the anxiety caused by your problem, but you have also reinforced the drinking action to cope. Eventually, of course, drinking will bring you more problems: loss of job, loss of family, loss of self-respect and self-esteem. All of these negative consequences will raise your anxiety level. Now ask yourself, what action have you practiced again and again to deal with anxiety? That’s right! Excessive drinking.

So now you’re caught in a vicious cycle: Anxiety causes you to drink, which brings you more anxiety, which causes you to drink, which brings you more anxiety, which causes you to……well, you get it.

The only way to confront the drinking problem is allowing yourself to come to grips with problems when sober. The same can be said of all drugs. Cleanse your body of alcohol and other recreational drugs before you work on coping actions to meet the demands of life. Yes, that includes smoking!

Stopping drinking can be a very complex process, and many folks need professional help both through counseling and 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. As a supplemental first step, however, if you decide that you are going to begin eliminating a bad habit like smoking or excessive drinking, a good way to start is to begin keeping a daily record of your behavior. We discussed that method last week for the case of smoking, and noted that keeping an accurate daily record and displaying it in a visible place can help with any behavior you are motivated to reduce: calories per day, ounces of alcohol per day, number of times yelling at someone per day, number of times you think negative thoughts per day, etc., etc., etc. The key here is to bring the undesirable action to your attention and accurately assess the frequency of the action. Then you have something to work with.

When you try to change behavior you are used to doing, awareness of what you’re doing and when you’re doing it is crucial. Only then can you focus on the problem and begin to organize your life around actions and situations that allow you to cope without engaging in those actions that are bringing you such pain. Try it!

 

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