Inspired by Louisa Young’s article on how society and media normalise our destructive habit of drinking, Paul Wolstenholme shares his uncomfortable relationship with alcohol. He recounts his journey from childhood trauma and abstinence to hedonistic binge-drinking, guilt, shame and emotional numbing, from crisis to spiritual awakening and new behaviour…and a COVID-fuelled relapse.
What is alcohol, actually?
Alcohol is an addictive, psychoactive drug that is utterly intwined and normalised in our culture. Although it masquerades as a stimulant, it is actually a depressant. Have you ever noticed yourself feeling low either during or the day after a night of drinking? I have…many times. It can relax us. It also impairs our judgement, removes inhibitions and makes us impulsive. I, for one, recognise that I have made countless regrettable decisions after consuming alcohol.
My uncomfortable relationship with alcohol begins…
I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with alcohol. As a child, I would watch my late Dad occasionally drink. He wasn’t a big drinker by any means, but I could see that alcohol caused his behaviour to change; I found it somewhat disconcerting and unpredictable – this frivolous and wobbly person didn’t seem to be him. The Dad I knew was traditional, serious and sensible. I also found him scary – his strict, perfectionistic, critical and, at times, abusive parenting led me to keep my head down and mouth shut, resulting in me becoming shy and under-confident throughout most of my life.
In my early teens, I witnessed the hugely destructive effects of alcohol as someone close to me fell into a heartbreakingly messy addiction. Alcohol ruled their life, costing their health, their financial stability, their career prospects and nearly all of their relationships. I vowed never to touch the stuff.
And yet all the world around me seemed to be painting alcohol in a very different light – it was, apparently, a necessary fuel for fun, success, coolness…
“If alcohol were invented today, it would be defined as a Class A drug. For many of us this delicious reward cheers us when we’re sad, soothes us when we’re anxious, lubricates us when we need it. If the drug didn’t work (at least at first), we wouldn’t like it so much, ergo it wouldn’t be a problem. In the meantime, we forget that it’s a depressant. We scoff at the health risks.”
~ Louisa Young
Peer pressure and the hedonistic years
Whilst at university, however, I succumbed to peer pressure and curiosity. On the last day of my first year, our Hall of Residence held a ‘ball’. We got dressed up. We were given a cocktail. My inhibitions disappeared and I enjoyed acting the fool for a night. Despite experiencing awful hangovers, I immediately bought into the joyous revelry that alcohol provided: it gave me the confidence to release the shackles of shyness and social conditioning – I could dance, approach potential lovers, take risks and entertain myself and others with high jinks.
Thus followed many years of hedonistic binge-drinking, mostly at weekends. I tried a wide variety of drinks, none of which I truly enjoyed the taste of – I was just drinking for the alcohol – the feeling of getting drunk and the sense of liberation and escape that it brought me. In hindsight, I was using alcohol in an attempt to fill a hole in my life – my job and my marriage were unsatisfying…but I was avoiding facing those realities because I wasn’t ready to acknowledge them.
“It seems whatever our role in life, our culture offers us a way for alcohol to be central to it. Alcohol tells us who we are.”
~ Louisa Young
Marital, mental and emotional crisis
In my late 30s, my marriage broke down. After 16 years of being together, I now had to redefine myself as a single person and a single co-parent. This was a very difficult and painful process. As a vulnerable human being, I wanted to avoid pain and difficulty, so I used alcohol to try and numb those difficult feelings and provide some escape. I regressed to the carefree days of my youth, partying and sleeping around, all fuelled by alcohol.
I was in emotional pain. And my drinking seeped into midweek – first half a bottle of wine once or twice per week, then a whole bottle of wine… I was functioning but the cracks were appearing. A stream of workplace Friday nights out, lads’ holidays, weddings and most other social events would see my drinking to get drunk – often more drunk than anybody else – often with messy consequences. Nobody around me told me I had a problem, cautioned or criticised me and I never saw myself as an alcoholic. I gave up alcohol for a year, just to prove to myself that I could, that I didn’t have a problem. As soon as the year was up, I was back on it again.
“Addiction is manifested in any behaviour that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in but suffers negative consequences as a result of, and yet has difficulty giving up. In brief: craving, relief, pleasure, suffering, impaired control.”
~ Dr Gabor Maté
Apparently, using alcohol in this way was deemed ‘normal’ and acceptable behaviour in our society. Many of my friends and colleagues were regularly using and abusing alcohol, and it was everywhere in popular culture – films, tv shows, adverts, celebrities, virtually every social gathering – all presenting how normal, joyful and almost necessary alcohol is.
“The Rev Richard Coles, former pop star, vicar and borderline National Treasure, spoke with feeling about representations of alcohol recently. ‘If we are to make realistic decisions about how we poison ourselves, we need the information, the hard facts, not the romanticised, glamorised, falsified version of alcohol that entertainment offers and advertising promotes.’
And on top of the glamorisation, there’s the normalisation. Our culture is so obsessed that when we see somebody refuse an alcoholic drink in a drama we immediately know they’re an alcoholic in recovery – why else would they not drink? Easier to go with the clichés than to look at the boring, destructive drudgery, the repetitiveness and sheer sorrow of everyday addiction.”
~ Louisa Young
I was trying to be the perfect Dad, the perfect employee, the perfect housekeeper and the perfect Mr FunNightOut. I was burning out. And my house of cards ultimately came crashing down. My GP diagnosed me with depression and anxiety and I was signed off work for a few months.
I wasn’t entirely open with my doctor about my alcohol use, partly out of shame/stigma and partly out of denial. Years later, when I trained to be a Mental Health First Aid instructor, I learnt that people experiencing mental ill health and substance misuse are given the label ‘dual diagnosis’. Such people are extremely vulnerable and often do not get the help they need – they may be turned away from mental health support services until their additions are attended to and vice versa.
Alcohol had served a purpose – a temporary cycle of distraction that helped me avoid addressing my underlying issues. I now needed a deeper, more nourishing and longer-lasting kind of help.
A transformative springboard to new behaviour
The Hoffman Process – a week-long personal/spiritual development retreat – provided the springboard I needed in 2012. The hyper-exposing process helped me acknowledge my childhood wounds and showed me how my early coping mechanisms were playing out in unhelpful ways in my adult life. This beautifully-crafted and expertly-curated process allowed me to trace back my unhelpful behaviours to the parenting I had experienced and the trauma that had been passed down through generations before me.
“Everyone is guilty and no one is to blame.”
~ Bob Hoffman
Acknowledging and expressing these wounds allowed for compassion and forgiveness. It also opened the door to new behaviour founded upon mindful awareness and reconnection to my soul/purpose/spirit. I shall be forever grateful for this most powerful and transformative of weeks.
Later that year, I decided the time was coming to give up alcohol. Two main drivers led me to this realisation. Firstly, alcohol and other drugs were not aligned with my spiritual journey and intention to live more authentically. My ex-wife used to say, “I don’t like the person you become when you’re drunk.” Now I could see what she meant – just like the ‘different’ and disconcerting Dad I saw as a child and the person I witness tragically transform from a beautiful soul into an angry, self-destructive, barely-functioning addict, something changed in me when I drank. Alcohol is, after all, a psychoactive drug. I wanted to show the real me instead.
“I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom.”
~ Edgar Allan Poe
Secondly, as I got older, my already terrible hangovers were getting worse; this was not serving me and was destructive habits were not serving my children, whom I was co-parenting with my ex-wife. Every other Saturday morning, my two young children would arrive for their ‘Dad week’, bounding into my arms full of energy, asking to be taken swimming or trampolining or suchlike. “Can’t we just stay in and watch a film?” was all I could muster in my hungover state. The guilt and shame of not being able to fully serve my children and make the most of our precious time together became a heavy weight. I had to change now, if not for me, then for the two most wonderful souls in my life.
My last night of drinking was set to be my cousin’s birthday party in January 2013. The reality was slightly different: a party on the night before New Year’s Eve broke me. I was on a mission to try every cocktail on the menu. The next day was the last time I would ever spend throwing up, feeling like death, regretfully wasting the day due to my impulsive hedonism. I announced my intention to maintain sobriety live on a BBC Radio 5 Live phone-in about Dry January on 2 January, 2013. The presenter, Tony Livesey, refused to believe that I would give up this habitual national pastime beyond the end of the month of January. I knew that I was finished with it…for the foreseeable future. In solidarity, my late Dad vowed to join me on this sobering journey.
Later that week, my cousin’s birthday party was probably the first significant social gathering I had remained sober at for twenty years. It was great! It showed me that I could enjoy nights out, dance, talk to others, sing and play the guitar publicly whilst sober…and I felt as fresh as a daisy the next day!
Eight years of abstinence…and why do we drink?
For the next eight years, I drank nothing but water and herbal tea. I felt I no longer needed to hide behind a mask. I no longer needed the confidence boost that alcohol would temporarily afford. I no longer needed to poison myself. I was getting comfortable in my own skin and alcohol would play no further part in my journey towards authenticity and vulnerability. I felt determined, energised, fresh, aware, clean, myself. I changed career to follow my passions, retraining in psychotherapy and becoming a Mental Health First Aid instructor. I became a vegan and took up running; I was fitter, healthier and more content than ever.
During this time, many people asked me, “Why don’t you drink?” For those that knew me during my ‘drinking career’, this would often be followed by, “You didn’t have a problem, did you?” I never saw my drinking as a problem; the hangovers were a problem, but I did not see myself as an addict. I can see things differently now that I understand more about addiction and can appreciate how early life traumas had left me with unresolved mental, emotional and spiritual challenges. At the time, I would generally answer the, “Why are you teetotal?” question with some version of what I have explained in the preceding few paragraphs.
Sometimes, I would turn the question around and ask, “Why DO you drink?” This would often create tension, the other person uncomfortably scrabbling around for an answer that made sense to them. “Well…everybody around me drinks. It would be weird if I didn’t.”
I find this a common occurrence with aspects of life that have become normalised due to social conditioning. Take the example of smoking, a habit that has been around for millennia but peaked in the last century. In the 1950s, fuelled by media promotion, over 60% of UK men were regular smokers. By 2019, this figure was less than 16%, partly due to enhanced awareness of the health risks associated with smoking. Remember when smoking in restaurants and on aeroplanes was deemed acceptable? In England, the indoor smoking ban came into place in 2007; that’s only 14 years ago, but the public attitude towards smoking has significantly shifted in that relatively short space of time. Eating a meal or visiting a pub surrounded by cigarette smoke was accepted as ‘normal’ but now is anathema for many people.
Alcohol is ingrained and normalised in large swathes of our society in a same way that smoking used to be. I imagine most of us are aware of the risks associated with drinking and yet, over the past few decades, there has only been a small reduction in the number of UK adults who drink alcohol. The number of teetotal adults in the UK has remained pretty constant at around 20% since 2005. Perhaps, in time, drinking will go the same way as smoking. Or perhaps this ancient, ritualistic behaviour is destined to remain as a socially acceptable vice. Either way, asking ourselves why we drink can be a powerful first step to challenging the prevailing culture and, if we wish, writing a different narrative for ourselves.
Having our life scripts challenged can be difficult. I recall a friend of mine reacting angrily when I announced my decision to stop drinking. Up until that point, we would regularly go to the pub together to watch football matches and have a few pints. He said I was selfish for becoming teetotal and I hadn’t considered how it would affect him. He was right – I hadn’t…but I replied, “Why does it need to affect you? I’ll still come to the pub with you; I’ll just drink sparkling water instead.” “That’s not the same. I’m not drinking on my own!” We haven’t socialised together much since then.
Pandemic pressures: falling off the waggon
Last Christmas, after eight years of sobriety, the pressures of the pandemic combined with ongoing personal challenges took their toll. There was, again, a big hole in my life: a loneliness dug by too much isolation and not enough human contact. I hadn’t hugged another adult for nearly a year. I felt a deep sadness at not being able to connect with friends and family at this traditionally festive time of year.
Part of me didn’t want to connect with others, though. Despite having forged new levels of openness, authenticity and vulnerability through many revealing videos on Pathlight Thrive Hive, the Facebook group I set up to support, inspire and connect others through the challenges of COVID-19, my self-confidence had nose-dived. For various reasons, I was no longer as comfortable in my own skin and I expereinced aspects of the outside world as rather intense and threatening. I felt the pull of alcohol.
I went for a long walk and performed an internal enquiry into this craving. What did it mean? What was I looking for? Would drinking alcohol make things better, worse or change nothing? Why did I feel shame at the prospect of purchasing alcohol?
Since I began training to be a psychotherapist three-and-a-half years ago, I have been in therapy myself. I reflected on one of the key themes of my personal psychotherapy journey – loosening. I am becoming softer, more compassionate, less rigid, more accepting. In the spirit of this ‘looseness’, I decided to experiment: allow myself some alcohol and see what happened. That night, I sank some mulled wine (well, it was Christmas!). I felt a distant, familiar warmth, a little tipsy and a little sleepy, but nothing significant transpired.
Over the next few months, I periodically made surreptitious trips to buy ale or wine, feeling shame for having let my self-imposed halo slip. I would drink it at home, mostly alone. A few times, I drank in front of my children whilst watching some football; maybe they saw a ‘different Dad’ appear, just as I had done decades earlier. Two bottles of ale here, half a bottle of wine there. Occasionally, I would drink a whole bottle of wine, usually leading to a ‘kitchen disco for one’ and/or endless social media scrolling to find someone to connect with…
What I have learned about alcohol, mental health and our societal attitudes to drinking
…And therein lies the rub. I, like countless others (but not everyone, admittedly), turn to alcohol in times of pressure. In my 20s: peer pressure, wanting to fit in, seeking the confidence to step outside the shyness that was baked-in due to my childhood traumas. In my 30s: the pressure of unfulfilling or demanding jobs, plus the pressure of difficult feelings stoked up by my failed marriage. And lately: the pressure of isolation due to the pandemic (plus other factors).
Surrounding all this pressure are ubiquitous adverts and other media, showing how much better your life could be; all you need is some alcohol, apparently, and some friends to booze with.
“Our economy is interminably intertwined with it; our hospitality and performance industries depend on it. Taxes we pay on it support the NHS on which it puts so much pressure. Periodically we may wonder if we have a problem. Here is my preferred pop wisdom on that: it’s not what you drink, or how much you drink. It’s why you drink, and what it does to you.”
~ Louisa Young
Over the years, I have used and abused alcohol in an attempt to numb pain, boost my confidence, fit in and fill gaping holes in my life. In some senses, one could say it has served a purpose. But it hasn’t solved anything.
What does tend to work for me is to explore the cause of the suffering and take responsibility for processing and addressing it. One way to start this process is through Tara Brach’s RAIN technique, a form of internal enquiry built upon mindfulness and compassion:
- Recognise what is happening;
- Allow the experience to be there, just as it is;
- Investigate with interest and care;
- Nurture with self-compassion.
I’m not here to criticise those that use alcohol or any other (legal) drug – there is a complex web of individual and social factors involved in such behaviours and I have no right or intention to judge others. However, Louisa Young’s article makes important points around how we as individuals and as a society readily embrace and even glamorise drinking. The reality, for many of us, is far from glamorous.
My personal experiences and my client work shows me that alcohol can be a socially-sanctioned temporary coping mechanism, which often masks many ills. The negative impacts upon us as individuals and for society as a whole – mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, relational and financial – are often enormous but hidden. I have seen lives wrecked by alcohol. I have seen alcoholics deny their addition. And I see people use and abuse alcohol without questioning why they are using this drug or consciously accepting what it is doing to them.
“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.”
~ Carl Jung
As we teach in Pathlight’s Mental Health First Aid courses, there is no safe drinking level apart from zero.
Personally, I’m now back to the ‘beautiful simplicity of zero’ but I know there may be challenges ahead. I’m a work in progress and, until I have healed my pain, I may be vulnerable to the addictive pull of alcohol, like the Sirens of Greek mythology whose enchanting songs lured sailors to their destruction.
I am grateful for the learning that my journey with alcohol has brought me. In coming to better understand myself and my behaviours, I feel more empowered to make conscious changes. And, as with all the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical challenges I have experienced, I also feel better equipped to compassionately support my clients and others towards understanding, healing and growth.
Further information and support
If you are concerned about your alcohol consumption or would like some support, try the AA or the NHS:
For information on how Pathlight can support you, your family or your organisation around mental health, relationships, workplace wellbeing and more, please get in touch:
With thanks to Louisa Young, whose recent article inspired this blog:
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