One month ago I ended eight and a half years of abstinence with a single drink. That one weak beer though was a long contemplated, carefully planned and controlled occasion. Since then I have drank 6 times, each time not more than 2 drinks or 3 units. In consumption terms, I have been a perfect moderate drinker, but the key question is can it last? Am I in the process of re-learning how to drink, or back onto a slippery slope with only one inevitable outcome?
Perhaps the answer is neither – alcohol dependence is not determined purely by consumption or genetics, so my wider life events and choices will inevitably influence what happens. If an unexpected traumatic event comes out the blue, as in life sometimes happens, my emotional state and ability to rationally control my behaviour would be likely to suffer. But assuming my circumstances remain stable, what is the effect of again inducing alcohol’s reward effects onto my brain? The changes and recovery potential for a once alcohol dependent brain is a little known science.
On the surface, my recent drinking occasions have been uneventfully normal. Reassuringly I have not felt particularly compelled to ‘keep going’, despite certainly enjoying the mild but pleasurable effects. A good start so far. On the other hand, I have been regularly thinking ahead to the next drinking occasion in a way few ‘normal’ drinkers probably would. Though I am anxious this could be some indication of a craving, I believe these thoughts are more induced by the personal significance of these occasions and the careful planning to ensure my drinking remains controlled and dispersed by alcohol free days.
My strategy for controlled drinking so far has been simply to stick to the recommended guidelines, not to drink to get ‘drunk’, and have only a few drinking occasions per week. Its working so far, though I have already contemplated whether I can revise these boundaries in the future. If things go steady, and loss of control doesn’t appear imminent, then wouldn’t the odd binge drinking session be ok? Possibly, but probably not to be tried any time soon. What about drinking more regularly, allowing myself to drink most nights of the week rather than only a few? That for me may be the true slippery slope. Instinctively, the more regular the drinking occasion, the more the door is opened to dependence.
It is then perhaps where and why I drink that has preoccupied me most over the last month. A month ago I felt the safest way to drink was at home, as part of a Friday or Saturday evening unwinding. Now though I’m not so sure. Drinking should largely be a social activity, something we do with friends, not to help us deal with stress or negative emotions. My past heavy binge drinking was problematic, but it was the regularity of it that probably led to emergent dependence.
Perhaps the best way to ensure we avoid developing a problem (asides from keeping an eye on how much) is by honestly asking ourselves what our motivations are to drink. At present, I wish to enjoy the social benefits of drinking, the taste of a nice drop and the subtle relaxing effect it brings. But if the reasons begin to shift back to the past, I must immediately re-evaluate. Drinking motivated by wanting to ‘let go’ or escape, quench a psychological thirst or craving, or deal with underlying problems are surely signs that alcohol use is becoming problematic.
Want to assess your own drinking? You can do an online self-assessment here which is based on the validated AUDIT alcohol screening tool. For further UK help and advice see here or call Drinkline anytime on 0800 917 8282.
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