“Alcohol is the anaesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.” ~ Bernard Shaw ~
Those of us who love alcoholics do them a profound service if we can refrain from defining their problems for them and instead make a sincere effort to understand what is right about their alcohol use. Drinking is an adaptive behaviour. It came into being for the person as a solution to a problem and is serving a function for them…holding them together, making it bearable to live within their own skin, allowing them to keep going, providing relief of some sort. Unfortunately, it is a solution that comes with a raft of negative consequences over time, so that the adaptation eventually becomes maladaptive and begins to compromise functioning, rather than enhance it, threaten survival, rather than promote it.
Having unsolicited diagnoses handed down by well-meaning others, and one’s survival strategies re-defined by others as problems, typically invites more resistance and rebellion than change. This can be an all-too-familiar experience that drinkers become somewhat reactively allergic to. For people who are extremely invested in continuing to drink even at the best of times, this can actually intensify their resolve to do so. Alcoholics are people, not pathologies, and rather than imposing our own labels and definitions on them, it is wise to engage them in their own thinking so that they can be part of defining their own problems. Then they have a real opportunity to begin the work of developing more sustainable solutions and setting themselves free.
Questions for Drinkers to Consider When Thinking About Their Relationship With Alcohol:
- Do I like how I behave when I drink, when I have run out of alcohol or when I am recovering from drinking? Do I want to continue to behave in this way?
- What consequences have unfolded as a result of my drinking? Am I willing to experience these consequences again?
- How is my drinking helping me? How is it hurting me? Is it helping more than hurting, or hurting more than helping?
- What are some likely outcomes for me and my family if I continue to drink as I do now? What might this look like in 5 years time?
- How do other people treat me when I have engaged in drinking behaviours? Do I like being treated this way? What would I need to do differently in order to be treated differently?
- Would I be okay for my children to develop a similar relationship with alcohol? What kind of example am I passing to them? Am I willing to pass this legacy?
- What principles of mine have I violated when drinking? What responsibilities of mine have been compromised or promises broken? Is this okay for me?
- What price would I be willing to pay in order to continue to drink? What price would be too high?
- What are my top priorities in life? Does my behaviour honour these or run incongruent to them? What part does alcohol play in this?
- Do I see a problem? If I see a problem, what am I willing to do differently? What professional help and support from important others might I need in order to begin to change?
- Am I ready to change? If so, what is the first step?
The zeitgeist of our times is avoidance, distraction and disconnection. When we are engaging in a behaviour that is grounded in these things, this cultural context can serve to obfuscate the reality of that behaviour and allow us to stay in a level of denial about it. In a culture where excessive drinking is normalised, and very often celebrated, it can be particularly challenging for people to get clear on whether their drinking is okay or not.
A person’s drinking may be relatively in line with a cultural norm, but still be problematic for them personally. Defining one’s own problem and holding one’s own drinking up to the light for an honest self-appraisal according to one’s own needs, principles and standards is the foundation on which sustainable change rests.
Anna Lloyd is a Family Therapist at Byron Private and a Clinical Psychotherapist in Private Practice in Sydney’s Inner West, working with individuals, couples, families and groups. Trained in Gestalt Psychotherapy, Bowen Family Systems Theory and Systemic Family Constellation work, Anna is passionate about family systems and the power of systemic approaches to recovery and wellness. Specialised in Addiction Recovery/Addictive Family Systems, Anna brings 15 years of experience living and practicing the work. She is strongly committed to trauma-informed therapeutic approaches, and values warm, holistic, body-inclusive, life-affirming therapy grounded in mindfulness, practical wisdom, and the science of relationship systems and the brain.