Three steps to help you escape an addiction to alcohol

Are you worried you may have become dependent on alcohol? Read on for three steps that can help you give up drinking.

Alcohol. It is the magic elixir without which no social gathering is complete. We drink alcohol to connect, to celebrate and to commiserate. And it is the only drug that is not only acceptable to consume, but where you have to justify not having it.

We are expected to drink at every kind of social gathering from socialising with work colleagues, a child’s birthday party, a christening, a funeral and everything in between, but at the same time there is a huge amount of shame around over drinking, not being able to ‘handle your drinking’, getting drunk or being considered an alcoholic.

As someone who struggled with alcohol personally and is now a qualified life coach specialising in supporting others to gain complete control over alcohol I want to share three simple steps to allow you to examine your own relationship with alcohol objectively, determine if it is a problem, and if so, get clear on why you are drinking more than you plan to or would like, and then the action you can take.

Please note this is designed for the vast majority of people who drink alcohol who are not physically addicted (the US alcohol advisory board estimates that around 10% of people who drink regularly are physically addicted).

Step 1: How to examine your drinking

One of the most common questions I get asked when speaking to potential clients is: am I an alcoholic and how can I tell if I have a problem?

Most people, if you ask them to describe a typical alcoholic, it would be someone drinking from a brown paper bag on a park bench at 9am, or someone who reaches for alcohol as soon as they wake up and who drinks constantly throughout the day.

But problem drinking is much more widespread and harder to detect than most people realise.

Simply put, if you know you regularly drink more than you planned to or you feel deprived and struggle to not drink then you have a problem.

High-functioning problem drinkers are among us and well-hidden. One of the biggest growing demographics with a drinking problem right now are middle-class professional women. Typically, these women are high-achieving with a successful career, and while on the surface everything looks great, in private they are drinking every night, relying on alcohol to de-stress and unwind. 

So if you are telling yourself you do not have a problem because you only drink in the evening, you don’t fall over or get hangovers, or you only drink quality red wine, never touch spirits, and you still manage to go to the gym in the morning… that simply means you are high-functioning. 

If you drink every night, or you regularly drink more than you intend and find it difficult to not drink then alcohol has taken a grip, you have most likely built up a dependency and you are not in control.

And if you have other healthy habits such as eating well or exercising this does not negate the hidden damage from alcohol. In fact, high-functioning problem drinkers can find themselves more at risk because their problem is not obvious, and they are able to function well for longer.

Step 2: Looking at the problem 

Many of my clients describe themselves as being in control of every other area of their life – except alcohol. I want to explain the most common reasons for this, in high-functioning women.

For example, before working with me, many clients describe a scenario where they get up on a Monday and promise themselves that they are definitely not going to drink that day and really mean it, but somehow end up drinking another bottle of wine that night.

If this is you, it is critical to know that it is not your fault and does not mean you are weak or flawed or lacking willpower. 

Alcohol is a highly addictive substance, and in the UK and US, women have been heavily targeted by the alcohol industry. We have been conditioned to believe alcohol is harmless and fun and the perfect solution to cope with motherhood. 

To share a few examples from my life and that of my clients:

  • The rise of bottomless brunch where you pay a set amount to drink unlimited amounts of champagne or prosecco, often targeted at groups of women
  • Female birthday cards predominantly featuring champagne or a cocktail on the front 
  • Gyms encouraging alcohol as a reward after exercising – my gym in central London, (which is predominantly female) has trays of free wine at reception for all members every Friday afternoon 
  • Running socks and tops carrying the slogan ‘no pain, no champagne’ 
  • Hairdressers offering a free cocktail of the day for all customers.

In addition, while the current generation of women, aged 45-65, have been encouraged to drink alcohol and conditioned to do so more so than any previous generation, traditional guidance on how to control alcohol is weak and ineffective.

General guidance consists of advice to ‘drink responsibly’ or exercise self-control. We would never advise anyone to smoke responsibly or exercise control when taking cocaine, yet we believe this will work for alcohol.

Next, having looked at why you may be struggling with alcohol, let’s focus on your drinking pattern and what you are using alcohol for.

If you find yourself stressed during the day and looking forward to having alcohol in the evening, it is likely you are using alcohol to try to numb out stress or avoid uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety, worry, overwhelm, frustration, etc.

You may have a pattern of binge drinking, or drinking in certain situations. Again, the key is to notice what you say to yourself to justify drinking and what you are trying to avoid, such as social anxiety, loneliness, etc.

Realising that you are no longer drinking for fun and that you drink even though you don’t want to, is evidence that you are using alcohol to self-medicate. Studies have shown that when we use alcohol in this way, we are more likely to build up a dependency.

We learn that alcohol provides temporary relief from our thoughts and emotions and this can quickly become a coping mechanism and deeply ingrained behaviour to the point where we no longer know what we are numbing out from.

We have powerful subconscious beliefs telling us that alcohol will make us feel better – which it does temporarily – but then leaves us feeling worse and less able to cope with the issues we were numbing out from.

Step 3: Action to take

If you have determined that you have a problem and that you are drinking to self-medicate, what next? As someone who tried all the ‘quick-fix’ solutions for decades, let me share what does and does not work.

First, let’s look at what I call surface level tactics. These are popular tactics designed to address the surface level problem: i.e. drinking alcohol. These include using willpower, downloading an app to monitor your drinking, signing up for a sober challenge, having a soft drink in between alcoholic drinks, etc.

These appear to be sensible logical strategies but are ineffective because they do nothing to tackle the root cause, i.e. the reasons why you are drinking in the first place, such as work or relationship stress, trying to reduce social anxiety, and so on.

A good example is when people challenge themselves to a month off alcohol as part of a sober challenge. Removing alcohol can cause the thoughts and emotions you were numbing out to come rushing to the surface, which can be unpleasant and reinforces the belief that life is miserable without alcohol.

My own experience, and that of my clients, was to feel deprived and either give in and drink, or slog it out to the bitter end, feeling a huge relief when the month is over and drinking even more as a reward or compensation.

Distraction techniques where you do something different at the time you would normally drink, self-help books and hypnotherapy all have similar limitations. They can provide relief that you are doing something to tackle the problem but they do not address your own reasons for numbing out, which is why people try them but remain stuck.

To summarise, unless you address the root cause of why you are drinking, you will always feel deprived when you try to cut down or stop, keeping you stuck in a cycle of trying and failing, often drinking more as a result each time.

The most effective way to get lasting control over alcohol is to work out what situations or emotions you are finding difficult to face. The most common issues I have come across are using alcohol as a crutch for work stress, exhaustion, to mask grief, switch off from anxiety, deal with overwhelm, numb out from relationship difficulties, or loneliness, and as a general coping tool.

If you have identified that you are not in control of your drinking, you may find that by reducing it gradually you are able to handle the underlying issues and emotions. If so, keep going and know this will get easier over time.

However, most people who are not in control do need support to break their dependency on alcohol. It is important to remove the shame and be honest with yourself. If you have been trying and failing on your own for a long time, deciding to seek help is a huge step forward and a sign of strength. Look for a professional that you can relate to and who will hold you accountable.

Can you be free of alcohol?

Getting free of a dependency on alcohol is not easy and will require you to be willing to take action and be accountable but getting to the point where you no longer need alcohol is a magical place to be and will have a positive impact on every area of your life. For me, it was the one thing that changed everything. I highly recommend it.

Author: Sandra Parker is a sober coach and founder of London-based online coaching company, Just the Tonic.