Are you “powerless over alcohol?” This particular phrase rubs some of us the wrong way, and, I think, keeps many people stuck in a cycle of denial. After all, we might say, we do have the power to drink moderately some of the time. We aren’t always completely powerless. I’ve also never liked the phrase because I think it implies weakness. And I don’t think I was weak when it came to alcohol. Confused, yes, but not weak.
In fact, the part of my brain that wanted alcohol oh so badly was incredibly strong. It was so strong that it could convince me to drink despite obvious and unavoidable negative consequences. My confusion was in thinking that I needed to listen to that voice in my head. I thought it was being logical, reasonable, realistic. I thought it was me.
And now that I’m no longer confused, I feel like I have more power over alcohol than any drinker I know. I have the power to say no to it, every time, no matter what. And I know that this simple act is what ensures that I win, and, in fact, that the battle no longer even begins.
So if it isn’t powerlessness, and it wasn’t really me, then how do we explain those many mornings of regret? How do we explain deciding not to drink that day only to change your mind by 4pm, again and again? And how do we explain repeating that painful cycle for months, even years?
Like many things, I think it’s both complicated and at the same time profoundly simple.
Let’s say people are driven to action by two main forces: logic and instinct. Our thoughtful logical self might give us some good advice – remember the terrible hangover you had last time? Let’s lay off the booze, shall we? But our instinctual center knows only how to respond to pleasure or pain. Seek one, avoid the other. Alcohol feels good, drink it. The instinctual center, also known as your reptilian brain 🦎 (such a creepy concept, no?), is very powerful, and becomes even more powerful once the alcohol comes in and clouds over your rational thinking. Then it can get so loud and cause so many uncomfortable feelings that we attribute it to a witch or a wolf or a demon. Sound familiar? I called it The Voice. All it knows is it wants what it wants and to hell with the consequences.
But now that I’ve gotten this part of myself to simmer down a bit, I don’t think of it as some sort of monster, curled up in the far recesses of my mind, sleeping, but ready to awaken and wreak havoc at any moment. No, instead I’m coming to see this part of myself as just an impish toddler who didn’t know better. I spoiled her a bit too much and she learned to kick and scream and tell lies to get her way, even though she was begging for things my logical adult brain knew were unhealthy, even dangerous. It sometimes felt good to give in and let her have what she wanted, but we all know what happens when you give in to a toddler’s pleas.
And now? She doesn’t yell much anymore because I’ve been retraining her. ☺️ You know how toddlers are, they can be tricked, distracted, soothed. They often don’t know any better when they’re being naughty. They need love, not shame.
So I’ve been distracting her with treats and engaging activities. I’ve been soothing her with baths, music, warm drinks, and lots of sleep. And I’m not afraid to trick her once in a while with a fake beer, something in a wineglass, or a promise of a drink “someday.”
You see, toddlers forget. They can be taught that tea and baths are for soothing, parties are fun because of the people, fatigue-induced sleep feels good, concerts are about music, and that life is full of beauty and fun and simple pleasures. And alcohol isn’t necessary for any of these things.
So yes, I think we have loads of power. We have the power to take charge of our inner toddlers. We have the power to shut the whole thing down and do some retraining. We have the power to build something new and beautiful.
Happy Sober Friday,