Category Archives: About the author

Re-learning to drink? 3 months in…

Three months ago I tentatively began to drink again after many years of abstinence. I have explored why I felt this might be a possibility for me when for many with past dependency this would be a bad idea. Here’s a brief update on how its going.

Certainly my new experimental relationship with alcohol has been at the forefront of my conscience, carefully weighing up my instincts, the evidence and words of friends and colleagues. When I started, I was sure it would not be until at least several months in before I had an inkling as to whether it was going to work.

At present I feel confident to say that – so far – I am succeeding in non-problem drinking. But it is certainly too early to describe myself as ‘recovered’. Indeed I may never feel this an appropriate term – anyone with past dependency may only ever achieve ‘controlled’ rather than normal drinking. In addition, there are a few issues which might raise some legitimate causes for caution.

Over the last 3 months I have been drinking on average twice per week, usually a couple of lower strength (4%) beers. There have however been exceptions; one in particular where I felt moderately intoxicated, and another where I did not feel imbibed but drank more than on other occasions, but over a longer social event. The vast majority of my drinking occasions have been moderate and harm free. Two have been pushing the boundaries and left me feeling ambiguous about the implications.

Many people would argue that occasional sessions of mild drunkenness or exceeding the (fairly low) guidelines are a part on “normal” drinking.  However “normal” is not something a former problem drinker might consider themselves capable of. I am at present pleased that on the whole I seem capable of a moderated approach, though am cautious that as time passes, I may test and blur these boundaries until the regularity and amount I drink creeps up. And with that could come a range of health and social risks. And my greatest fear – re-occurring psychological dependency.

Overall though, I feel so far so good. But of huge importance is that I never forget my past problems in controlling my alcohol use and the consequences of that. Complacency could easily spell trouble as times passes and self-preserving fears dispel. We should always keep a close eye on our lifestyles and any self-rewarding behaviours. The more in tune we are with these the greater the chance we have of nipping a potential problem in the bud.

I wish to highlight that I feel controlled drinking is in most cases not the best option those with past dependency. I have explained here why I felt I was able to attempt controlled drinking.

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Re-learning to drink? One month in…

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.

Image credit: Evgeni Dinev / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Will I drink again… recovery or re-lapse?

“Will I drink again?” was the perhaps ambiguous conclusion to my last post.

Over the last year or so I have been considering attempting ‘controlled drinking’. By this I mean harm-free drinking, most importantly for me without any re-emerging dependence. If I succeed by learning to drink ‘responsibly’ and without problems, some may believe I was never an ‘alcoholic’. Others will say this is consistent with evidence that it is possible to return to ‘normal’ drinking following former problem drinking (including in some cases dependency). I accept I may later regard any failed attempt at controlled drinking as a re-lapse.

Either way, I am in no way suggesting that anyone in recovery attempt controlled drinking on the basis of my experience; if at all. Abstinence is the only 100% safe option and the evidence for successful controlled drinking in former problem drinkers is to some degree under-developed. What seems clear is that the more serious one’s level of past problem drinking, the more appropriate an abstinence goal appears for successful recovery. In addition, prolonged periods of abstinence are also important for ‘former alcoholics’ that have reportedly succeeded in normal drinking. So ultimately, why should a formerly alcohol dependent person ever put themselves at risk by drinking again if they have succeeded in abstinence? I’d expect for most it is not a risk worth ever taking.

In fact I failed in a sustained attempt to moderate my drinking after first recognising my difficulties nearly 10 years ago. But that circumstances were so very different then, environmentally and personally, it is not surprising I did not succeed. My attempts to cut down were without professional guidance, in a drinking centred environment where I had not learned other coping skills. It now seems quite apparent why I came to realise that not drinking was the only way I could avoid my drinking problems at that time. Abstaining provided a clearly defined line – no drinks was no drinks whichever way you looked at it, whereas ‘just a couple’ all too easily became many more.

Nearly a decade later, most of it sober, I have increasingly felt that I could now drink in a controlled way. There is no single reason I can point to, though my circumstances are entirely different. I have a fulfilling and active life in which social pressures to drink are limited. Years ago I felt angry and troubled which was I believe was linked to a strong desire to get drunk. Today I feel happier, more emotionally secure, and somehow like I could enjoy one drink without craving for another. This isn’t a professional judgement, just an instinctive and I believe honest assessment. Most importantly, I feel ready to accept that if I attempt controlled drinking but feel dependence creeping back, I would accept that drinking is not an option for me.

Below are the two key reasons as to why I think controlled drinking may be achievable for me.

  1. Whether we call it alcoholism or dependency, there is evidence to show that a minority of those who recover from serious alcohol problems later achieve controlled drinking. The research is perhaps limited, but it is there, as far as I am aware most comprehensively collated in the book ‘Controlled Drinking’  (Heather; Robinson, 1980). The book finds that the greater the level of dependency, the less likely controlled drinking may be achievable. The length of abstinence and significanct shifts in social circumstances also seem important factors in determining the likelihood of recovered control. Essentially it argues that the notion of alcoholism as an irreversible condition has been proven false.
  2. Whilst there is undoubtedly a genetic component to the risk of developing alcohol problems, alcohol dependency cannot be accepted as only biologically determined. Arguments against the disease model present significant aspects of ‘alcoholism’ as socially learned behaviours. This has been most persuasively set out in the influential book ‘Problem Drinking’ (also by Heather & Robinson, 1997). A key premise of the book is to redefine alcohol misuse and addiction as a wider scope of ‘problem drinking’ behaviours. It aims to reconstruct some of the simplistic misconceptions that appear to surround the subject of problem drinking such as the often narrow and flawed perceptions of alcoholism and its causes. From this perspective and my own thoughts, I am as yet unconvinced that I am, and therefore always will be, an ‘alcoholic’. If I fail in any attempt at controlled drinking, I may still be inclined to reassess.

In considering the theory of alcohol problems as socially learned and the evidence of normal drinking in former alcoholics, I stand in relatively good stead to succeed. Perhaps most significantly, that I never reached a stage of severe (or physical) dependence. I have clear recollections of thinking ‘if I don’t stop now, it will be increasingly hard to do so if I continue drinking’. I had instinctively recognised mild dependence and stopped before it developed. Therefore in scientific terms, that I never developed severe dependence is a key factor in the likelihood of success. That I have been sober for many years, reconstructed my social life and improved my overall mental well-being are also undoubtedly significant. On the downside, some family history and early onset of harmful drinking do not favour so well as indicators of likely success.

Nonetheless, the last time I drank I had no intention of it being for good. That I haven’t had a drink for over 8 years was down to my own recognition that I felt it was best for me not to do so, as the risk of dependency felt present. Many things have now changed and I feel confident that I have a good chance to re-learn alcohol use without developing problems. I may be wrong, but I unless I try I will always wonder. Will I drink again? Yes… but carefully.

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Contemplating a problem: an early reflection

This blog is to help me explore my own relationship with alcohol, and perhaps resolve whether I was, or still am, ‘an alcoholic’. This is partly why I previously explored alcohol dependency as the preferable term for ‘alcoholism’. Here’s an early reflection.

Whilst grateful for the opportunity to go to university, I must admit it was mainly for the chance to leave home and have a good time. Fortunately I also recognised the importance of the academic opportunities, but for the most part study was an inconvenient aside. My focus was on the there and then, so as a sociable but somewhat emotionally volatile 19 year-old, drinking surrounded all that I enjoyed.

During my adolescence I had become an increasingly enthusiastic beer drinker, but it no longer delivered the drunkenness I craved for a good night. A large bottle of Jack Daniels, some brandy and rum were the most important items I unpacked on my first day in university digs.

I’m now quite ashamed of much of much of what I so drunkenly did in that first year of ‘study’. Ironically, many of those reckless actions were at the time things I was proud of, and brought me some degree of reverence amongst like-minded peers. I grasped onto a laddish ‘binge-drinking’ culture and made it my own. It gave me an identity through which to achieve both release and hedonism. A life without drinking seemed dull and pointless. Partying, casual sex, unplanned drug taking and crippling hangovers are arguably par for the course for many outgoing youngsters. But that my dis-inhibited behaviour included numerous fights and one incident of drink-driving remain deep regrets.

It is perhaps an indication of the cultural embededness of ‘binge drinking’ that the risks to others I at times posed had no effect on my drinking behaviour. But during that year of particularly vociferous drinking, one occasion stands out as the trigger for contemplating that perhaps… I had a problem.

I can remember many things about the night of a good friend’s birthday (as good a reason as they come). Caution – the final reason won’t please the squeamish too much. Despite it being some 10 years ago, I clearly recall the frustration of trying to get drunk that night. The event started with a typical ‘pre-loading’ session before hitting the bars. But despite no lack of supply and my increasingly determined efforts, I felt frustratingly sober for most of the night. Returning to the house, I refused to be beaten. With more shots, shared with anyone that was able to join me, eventually I began to achieve the effect I had craved.

The hangover after such a session had reliably become a splitting headache and some unhappy insides. Painkillers were handy for alleviating the head pain, but I was about to receive a worrying shock. Reluctantly emerging late in the afternoon to use the toilet, I sat slumped on the seat and anguished the pain in my stomach. When I stood up and looked down there was blood. I stared motionless, anxiety creeping in, and began to repeat to myself “What am I doing?”.

This was certainly not the last time I would drink, but here started an important process of reflection and recovery. But I am still left with one key question unresolved. Will I drink again?

I hope to use this blog to help me explore my relationship with alcohol as problematic or not, past and present. I will share more about where I have been with alcohol, where I am now, and where I may go, and welcome any comments. Ciao for now!

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Well, here goes…

Having a rather unusual relationship with alcohol I want to share some thoughts, experiences and comment here. I hope you may find them interesting.

I spend a lot if time thinking – personally and professionally – about how alcohol works, the role it plays in society. So here is a place I will aim to explore some hopefully interesting perspectives and stories. I’m expecting this to include an examinaton of my own past, present and future relationship with alcohol given my history of problmatic drinking. Perhaps I’ll also explore some of the goings on in the alcohol business world and government ‘harm reduction’ policies.

I should highlight though that for now I prefer to remain anonymous as the author. Mainly because I wish to keep my personal and professional identity largely separate as knowing about one often leads to false assumptions about the other. Another reason is that I want to be able to write as freely and honestly here as possible.

I recognise though it may be unfair to claim to have such an ‘unusual relationship’ with alcohol without submitting any proof. However I will summarise it very briefly, and hope that for now you can take my word for it! Additionally, many of my posts will undoubtedly reveal plenty about myself and my personal and professional experiences.

But to summarise briefly, it was my own personal experience of enjoying, misusing and then struggling to control my alcohol use that took me down an arguably interesting and unusual path. This does not mean I am anti-alcohol in any way; alcohol for most people is enjoyable, fun, relaxing and tasty!

Professionally, my work puts me in a group of researchers, commissioners, clinicians and policy makers interested in alcohol harm reduction. To start out, I should make clear we are not part of an ‘anti alcohol movement’; in fact based on my observations just as many of them drink to excess as any other group I know! But it is indeed a thrilling arena to work in – the question itself as to what role the state should play in reducing the harm caused by alcohol is itself a fascinating and highly political one. One I will undoubtedly explore further.

So I hope that’s enough for now. You can get in touch with me at thinkingaboutdrinking@gmail.com

Ciao for now!

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