Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism. – Carl Jung
Today – April 11th 2020 – marks exactly 5 years to the day that I made the decision to stop drinking alcohol.
I want to take this opportunity to share what I’ve learned on my journey to sobriety with the hope that my experiences resonate with people struggling with their relationship to alcohol or addiction, just like I was 5 years ago.
I’ve already written about my personal story with alcohol and the benefits and consequences of quitting, so if you are interested, here are the links to those articles:
Alcohol – 12th April 2018
How Quitting Alcohol Changed My Life – 14th September 2017
The purpose of this article is to share my learnings, so asides from a brief contextual introduction, and a recap of my personal story, this article will focus primarily on what I’ve learned.
My Position On Alcohol
As a non-drinker of 5 years, and after years of using alcohol out of balance, I am an advocate of responsible drinking. First of all, I don’t think alcohol is either good or bad. It’s a substance – an indifferent substance – and how it influences and affects someone differs from one person to the next. Although genetic factors may play a role in one’s susceptibility to alcohol, we decide where it takes us, and ultimately it’s the unique makeup of our mindset, attitude and personality that determines our relationship to alcohol.
I do not seek to impede my way or beliefs about alcohol on other people. Preaching and telling people to quit drinking serves no purpose because dependency is a highly complex and individual situation. What I do advocate though, and especially after seeing so many lives of my own family and friends ruined by their relationship towards alcohol, is that people regularly check in with themselves and examine their own relationship towards alcohol – as objectively, honestly and sincerely as possible – and if there’s a problem; seek help.
Since alcohol is a common part of most societies and cultures (especially in the Western world), consumption is deemed a normal part of life. But despite how deeply ingrained alcohol is in our lives (we all know someone in our family or inner circle that struggles with alcohol dependency), it’s easy to overlook how widespread alcohol consumption has become and the obvious health and societal consequences that accompany it.
While researching for this article, I came across some interesting statistics that I want to share:
According to statistics from a 2018 report from the World Health Organisation, 1 in 20 deaths are a result of the harmful use of alcohol.
Furthermore, alcohol is the third leading preventable cause of death behind poor diet and physical activity.
In addition, globally, an estimated 237 million men and 46 million women suffer from alcohol disorders with the highest prevalence among men and women in the European region (14.8% and 3.5% respectively).
Finally, higher prevalences of alcohol consumption correlate positively with wealthier countries, and it is estimated that 2.3 billion people globally are current drinkers, which is just over 30% of the world’s total population of 7.5 billion people.
I’ve covered my personal story in depth here, but here is a quick recap.
Alcohol dependency has been an issue on both sides of my family, and at least from what I know, stemming back several generations. My father has struggled with alcohol since his late teens and still does today, although his relationship with alcohol is not as destructive as it used to be.
I tried my first alcoholic drink (a beer) at 12 years old and I vividly remember not liking the taste of it at all. As I travelled through my teens, binge drinking on the weekend with no limits was my way of having fun. In hindsight, it’s clear now I drank purely for social reasons – to fit in, to be accepted, to be liked – because drinking with friends was a commonality that connected us all and gave us a sense of belonging – a feeling we all so dearly crave for.
My teen years, particularly between the ages of 15-19 were some of the worst and best years of my life. A typical weekend meant drinking with no limits. Inevitably, it usually ended up with me either falling to sleep and passing out or hurting myself by doing something stupid. There was intense social pressure to conform in the group too. It was a highly masculine environment, all about who could drink the most, who was the funniest, and who could charm the most girls.
I believe that alcohol accentuates the truth. My truth was split. At times I was an angry, emotional and sensitive teenager, but I could also be kind and caring. I bottled up most of these emotions when I was sober, but when I was under the influence of alcohol my state of mind at that moment of time would rise to the surface.
These often conflicting emotions led to an unpredictable outcome, depending on how I was feeling that day. Sometimes I was overly sensitive, soppy and caring. Other times I was angry, cheeky and aggressive. I got into dozens of fights, broke my nose 3 times and had reconstructive Rhinoplasty on my nose, losing 1/3 of my sense of smell. I had self-control, and embarrassingly got arrested for drunken & disorderly and put in a cell for the night on 2 occasions (luckily I was only given an £80 fine and a warning on both occasions – I definitely learned my lesson).
When I went to University I mellowed down a little and became better at controlling myself, although there was still stupidity and mornings where I woke up with no recollection of the night’s events.
After university, I decided to travel. It was novel, fun and exciting; I was meeting so many new people and social drinking accompanied that. But 2 years into my travels I began to feel something changing inside. I started to get hangovers that I couldn’t push off as easily, and the novelty of drinking purely for social reasons – since I never liked the taste of alcohol – was slowly wearing off.
A couple of years into travelling, it was April 11th 2015 and I was nursing one of the worst hangovers of my life in Timisoara, Romania while travelling with a few good friends. During a discussion about willpower, I made a bet with a friend that I can and would quit alcohol for good. I’d made bets like this plenty of times before with no success, and on the surface, there were no concrete reasons to believe that this time was any different to any of the previous times. But something was different that day and I still can’t fathom what it was. On April 11th 2015 I quit alcohol and I have not touched alcohol since.
The last 5 years have been a whirlwind of ups and downs, unearthing a world of baggage and trauma that I clearly had been using alcohol to repress and not confront. I’ve lost friends, overcompensated for my dependency on alcohol in other areas of my life, and faced many other challenges along the way. But despite the struggles I’ve faced, the upside has definitely outweighed the downside, and the rest of the article will focus on the most important things I’ve learned from the journey – the good, the bad and the ugly.
Lessons from Quitting Alcohol
I want to point out right now that quitting alcohol isn’t eternal bliss and freedom but comes with serious challenges and consequences. Since a lot has happened over the last 5 years, I’ve tried my best to condense what I’ve learned into 5 succinct lessons that depict how I rethought my relationship with alcohol.
1. Acceptance of the Downsides of Quitting
There are clearly a lot of positives from quitting alcohol – health, sleep, saving money as well as having more energy and time for other pursuits – which I’ve talked about before. But I want to talk about the downsides of quitting. The truth is, although the act of not drinking alcohol was relatively easy for me (probably because I never liked the taste), I’ve struggled with the knock-on consequences of quitting alcohol.
When you quit drinking alcohol, you become part of a minority of those people that don’t drink, which requires a realigning of the way you live your life. I lost friends because we no longer shared the commonality of drinking. I had to relearn what having fun meant because for years I was under the impression I could only have fun drinking alcohol. When I went out with friends to bars/clubs, I had to learn how to be patient around drunken people, not to mention dealing with the social stigma and judgement that comes with being a non-drinker.
I also had to face my shadow (more on that below) – the troubles of my mind and traumas from my childhood that I had been repressing – and in the process, I overcompensated creating new dependencies (more on that below).
In summary, the last 5 years have been largely abundant, but such a dramatic change in lifestyle has also led to a lot of guilt, pain and confusion that I want people to be aware if they are considering quitting alcohol.
I’m grateful for the struggle – it has encouraged me to move inwards and really think about my true priorities and values rather than being led astray by the thrill of the moment and impressing other people.
2. Confront & Embrace Your Shadow
This was definitely the most painful part of the experience of quitting. Life is inherently difficult, and in most societies, there are various conventions and practices that we obey otherwise we run the risk of being marginalised.
We all walk around wearing different masks and personas because we are so desperate to be liked and fit in. This leads to a dull, and somewhat never-ending uneasy tension inside ourselves. Deep down we are all aware know how dreadfully flawed we are. The jealousy. The aggression. The brutality. The over-sensitivity. The weird and quirky ways that we would never like the world to see.
What I am describing is what the well-known psychoanalyst Carl Jung – describes as the Shadow. Nobody is immune either. We all have a “shadow” – a side of ourselves that we purposely conceal from the world.
Fundamentally, alcohol accentuates the truth – it shows the depth of an individual. It lowers our conscious shield, gives us a temporary sense of confidence and looseness, and brings our repressed feelings, thoughts and emotions to the surface. It also gives us relief from the boredom of life and allows us to escape our stress, troubles and pains, so it’s no surprise why people find great value in drinking.
Alcohol peels off our mask and reveals our true essence – good or bad – to the world. Alcohol showed the best and worse in me. It took me to the extremities of my personality (more on that below), and in turn, revealed some deep insights about my own demons and the darkest sides of myself. The anger, the assertiveness, the fear, the anxiety – it was all there, all along – and if my state of mind matched these feelings, this regressed energy would be directed outwards onto people I encountered when I was drunk. And then when the alcohol wore off, the mask would be back on again and feelings of guilt would flow in for the hurt I’d inflicted on myself and others. Life would go on as normal and I’d continue to repress my shadow.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. The energy of shadow is something that we should not ignore and repress. In essence, we could rely on using alcohol as a means of expressing our shadow in positive or negative ways, but that’s only going to strengthen our dependency on alcohol.
So the question is how do you face the shadow without alcohol?
There’s no need to be ashamed of the shadow. We must learn that giving those natural parts of your character (even the sour parts) place to breathe can be hugely liberating. Traits like aggressiveness, envy and worry, may be deemed as negative in society, but they are remarkably powerful traits and rather than hurting other people with them, with the right mindset they can be channelled into positive and beautiful endeavours like meaningful work and helping other people.
Confronting the shadow may indeed be a lifetime curriculum, but what’s the alternative?
Ultimately it’s only through acceptance of our shadow and integrating it positively into our normal sober life that we can become our healthiest best possible selves.
3. Learn From The Extremities of Pain
As I mentioned above, alcohol takes off our mask and reveals the true-self, giving ourselves (and the world if you drink beyond your means) an insight into the very depths and extremities of our character.
Alcohol sometimes took me to the extremities of my personality. It showed me how aggressive and rash I could be. Hurt people hurt people, and under the influence of alcohol, I inflicted a lot of pain on other people, and ultimately myself. Although I am sorry for the people I hurt, I have no regrets for any of my experiences, because by being shown the true extremities of my personality and experiencing continual pain and trauma, I was presented with a much-needed call to action to change.
It was clear to me that inflicting pain on others ultimately hurt me the most in the end. But I knew I could also be kind, giving and caring – even under the influence of alcohol – so once I quit drinking I started consciously manifesting the opposite. And over time, in a slow and gradual fashion, I’ve been working towards kindness – the opposite of aggression.
I don’t want to hurt people anymore. When I see people inflicting pain on each other, or hurt on the news, I feel a deep sorrow inside my heart, because I know that it doesn’t need to be this way. Equally, there is no denying that my own aggressive tendencies are still latent inside me, but with self-control and the right mindset & attitude, I know this energy can be directed into beautiful things.
Who knows, but if I didn’t experience the extremities of what pain, anger and the destruction I caused under the influence of alcohol felt like, perhaps by living a stable and comfortable life, I wouldn’t have developed the desire to change to a kinder way of being. The gift of extremity is that it shocks us, giving us a brutal call to action to change.
So I believe that to a sensible degree, pain, extremity and crisis can be an excellent teacher. We will go through many crises in life (like the current Co-Vid pandemic) and I believe these events are a chance to realign, and often where we make our most important breakthroughs and learnings.
4. Be Wary of Substitution
There’s a concept called “opportunity cost” in economics that states we forego an alternative opportunity for every choice we make. For example, if you go out drinking alcohol, you lose the chance to read or write. Therefore, if you decide to quit alcohol, you give yourself the chance and opportunity to do something else in place of the time you would’ve spent drinking.
This can go two ways. You can use that time productively, or you can also substitute the dependency of alcohol with another dependency, meaning that the initial problem of dependency still exists, and has simply been shifted something else. Same mindset, different substance.
For some strange reason we humans have an incessant need to depend on things external to ourselves – so don’t be fooled to think the game is over as soon as you quit alcohol. More often than not, as I did, you’ll pick up a new dependency, or a few, in substitution.
The means of substitution could be a dependency on anything, but likely examples include work, food, other drugs, social media, attention, sex. For me, I became emotionally dependent on food, particularly sugar, and it remained problematic until I realised that my dependency on alcohol was not the issue, but rather, my dependency on being dependent on things outside myself.
The root of the issue is often much deeper, and we need to ask ourselves why we are dependent on a substance in the first place. That’s why it’s crucially important to think about mindset (more on that below).
We are even more susceptible to dependencies when we are weak, vulnerable, tired, anxious or fearful. In these moments, we may even start drinking again as an emotional cushion. But the key here is to not be too harsh on yourself. You haven’t failed if you manage to do 2 months without drinking, and then go back to drink a beer when you feel weak. Learn from the blip, realign, and get back to not drinking again if it’s important to you. We’re not machines, and if we can remain consistent with a healthy habit 80% of the time, we’re on a good path.
5. Harness The Power of The Mind
Following my point above that it’s often not the substance that’s the issue, but rather the mindset we adopt. Making a decision to quit alcohol (or change anything for that matter) is made in a split second but can take years for us to actually follow through on that decision. Why is that?
We experience the world from the frame of our reality and perception of what’s happening. Genuine mental issues aside, although we may blame our dependency on alcohol on our friends, peers, social status or countless other things – these things are often not the real root of the issue – it’s our mindset.
If you can step outside of your current thinking, and realise your thoughts about alcohol have been created in your mind; and that if you can entertain the thought that you can’t quit, then you can obviously entertain the opposite thought. In addition, and as funny as it may sound, if you can maintain the discipline to carry on drinking, then you can manifest the discipline to do the opposite.
We have the ability to choose how we react to what happens in the world. We also have the ability to choose our attitude, emotions, and how we feel; and ultimately create any reality we want. Of course, we cannot just change our mind and hope that everything in our environment will work itself out. It doesn’t work like that. We may have to get rid of harmful friends, move houses, and find a new place to live. But it’s all an assessment of priorities, and whether reducing the pain of a problem that comes with dependency is a worthwhile cause to pursue.
You can find strength by looking into your past. Look for times in your life where you have shown strength and character. Look at your accomplishments and use these as power. What are you proud of in your life? Where have you been disciplined? These are all examples that show you CAN BE and ARE disciplined to change.
Making such a dramatic change in life is never clear cut. As I wrote at the beginning of the article, after years of trying to quit, I am still unclear what was different the day I quit.
But there is one question that I am commonly asked that I want to finish this article by reflecting on:
Will I drink again?
I’d be a fool to suggest that I am certain I will never drink again, but what I can say is that over the last 5 years, despite the pain and challenges, not drinking alcohol has made my life healthier and more fulfilling. I do miss the unique means of socialising that comes with drinking, but I have developed a feeling of indifference towards the substance of alcohol itself.
Perhaps my fate to quit was set at 12 years old when I tried that beer for the first time and I didn’t like the taste. It took another 12 years to realise that alcohol wasn’t for me, but no regrets, and I am thankful for all the lessons and experiences in-between.
Thank you to everyone who supported me on my journey to sobriety; I am eternally grateful.
And thanks for reading. I hope this resonated with you, and as always I am on hand and happy to talk with anyone going through the journey of quitting or wanting to quit alcohol.
Take care, and all the best,
Friday 10th April 2020
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About the Author
Hi, I’m Dan – a 29-year-old, British entrepreneur from the north of England, living in Bucharest, Romania.
With a love for well-being, business and people, my mission in life is to use business as a force for good to create purpose-driven businesses, while teachings other people how to do the same.
I’m also the founder of Podstel – a vision to help bring the world together to belong and grow by creating a network of ‘homes’ that bring locals and travellers together to share their stories, passions and skills. The first two Podstels are open and thriving in Bucharest, so if you’re in town, be sure to come and say hi or stay the night with us.
You can also follow me on Instagram, where I document my journey and thoughts on daily life.
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