Would you know if you were caught in the Alcohol trap?
Alcohol addiction is a trap that we fall into. We don’t intend for it to happen and we rarely see it happening. Alcohol hijacks our brains and cons us into believing that it benefits us and that we need it. In this article I expose the truth about the Alcohol trap, and how this works from the very earliest days of you and me as young drinkers to the point where we are well and truly hooked.
As young drinkers we all wanted to be part of the good things we saw in society, and to join in with everything everybody else was doing that looked worth doing.
It’s only natural that a young person wants to conform to social norms, and in a society where drinking is the norm, this, of course, means drinking. A young drinker wants to fulfil the expectations of their role models, and to experience all the things associated with the positives of becoming an adult and living the good side of life that adults live.
A young person is at a stage of life where they are highly vulnerable to suggestion, let alone when those suggestions come from everywhere, and everyone that they trust. A young person is vulnerable to their desires to fit in, and to prove themselves in the adult world, and so they are vulnerable to their desires for pleasure.
Before you became consciously aware of alcohol, the trap has already been sprung.
You would have seen your parents, their friends, and all members of society regularly consuming alcohol in groups, in public places, and at home. In your subconscious mind, you, as a young person, began to associate alcohol as an integrated part of adult life. When we were young, we wanted to fit in with our peers and with the adults we admired, and it’s only natural that we wanted the pleasure that we began to perceive them having when they consumed alcohol.
If we’d asked an adult for a drink of alcohol, and were told no, we would have wanted to try it even more. There is nothing like being denied something to make you want it more! That’s why willpower is ineffective in outsmarting alcohol, but more on that later.
On a psychological level, young people are hooked by curiosity, and a desire for pleasure and acceptance. These are strong pulls that make it virtually impossible for anyone to resist. At this point young people are bait and alcohol has already won their confidence.
“What we take to be true is what we believe … What we believe determines what we take to be true.” David Bohm, Physicist
The desire for alcohol has been established out of curiosity and wanting to join in the fun promised by the grown-up world. The young drinker’s hopes and fears are clear; alcohol is waiting in the wings to offer the promised land, and to jump in to satisfy the needs and wants that it has placed in the young drinker’s path.
The young drinker takes their first sip, and all the hedonistic pleasures that they believed in and wanted are delivered … or are they?
Take yourself back in time to when you had your first drink 10, 20, or 30 years ago. The first alcoholic drink isn’t what it’s expected to be, and yours probably wasn’t either. The first alcoholic drink experience is disgusting, and a non-drinker finds the smell revolting. You often see them recoil, with a mature drinker at their side laughing at them, with body language that says ‘You don’t know how good it is,’ or ‘Oh look at her, isn’t she sweet turning up her nose. She just hasn’t learned to like it yet.’
This is less true for young drinkers today because the alcohol industry has worked hard to avoid losing any early-stage drinkers who may be put off by the foul taste. Alcoholic drinks are now made sweeter to cater for new drinkers and to make it less difficult for them to navigate those hard days and months of acquiring a taste for what we now know is poison.
So, the first drink tasted horrible and had none of the promised benefits, yet we persevered. Why is this?
From a very young age drinkers are conditioned to believe that there is something very beneficial, grown up and pleasurable about consuming alcohol. As we said, these beliefs come from observing parents and friends, as well as the huge influence of the alcohol advertising industry. There is often little pleasure in these earliest days with alcohol. But the young drinker is so convinced of the benefits of alcohol, and their faith in it is so strong, that a young drinker will work to overcome the initial displeasure. And if they can’t do it the first or second time, they’ll try even harder.
The initial drink may have left them feeling sick or queasy, dizzy or disorientated, and out of control in a way that felt unpleasant. But the young drinker is still vulnerable, and the benefits that we saw adults and our peers enjoying drew us and other young drinkers further in, and the rope tightened.
Social proof is known to add to the persuasiveness of marketing campaigns. It’s a term that covers everything from advertising, reviews, mentions on social media, posters, conversations in the hairdresser, and in the board room, celebrities we see in films, what we see at home, and in our towns and cities. Wherever you look there is social proof that alcohol is amazing, and is the choice for cool, carefree and sophisticated people. It was reported that Heineken paid $45million to have their beer featured in the James Bond film Skyfall, and more than 80% of movies have depictions of alcohol use.
When we see those same celebrities making headlines in the rehab centre, we tut, and think,
‘What an idiot!’
Just like the “alcoholic” on a park bench, we close our minds to anything that contradicts what we are determined to believe, and we WANT to believe the alcohol con artist, we really do.
The young drinker has overcome the initial distaste of alcohol that left them dizzy, and disorientated. They have proved themselves to be a fledgling grown-up drinker and are now on their way to becoming a proper drinker and an unwitting alcohol addict.
When I started drinking, and even right up to when I stopped drinking, I didn’t understand what alcohol really was, how it worked, or why I kept drinking it even though it was starting to make me miserable.
I didn’t know that alcohol was an addictive drug; it wasn’t something that I had ever stopped to consider, and I certainly didn’t associate reaching into the fridge for a cold glass of Chardonnay at the end of the day as in any way related to addiction. Even the medical profession separates alcohol from other drugs in its service title: Drug and Alcohol Abuse. Every part of that title is misleading. We now know that alcohol isn’t separate from other drugs, and it abuses the people who are conned into taking it. Alcohol is the abuser.
Let’s look at that another way. If you were unfortunate enough to be in a relationship with an abusive partner, would anybody say that you were abusing the relationship, and therefore abusing your partner? Of course not. It would be clear that you would be the victim, and that the abuser is the person dishing out the abuse. It’s the same with alcohol. To say that you are abusing alcohol is to present the logic completely back to front. Alcohol is abusing you, and as you’ll learn, most of the stories that we have learned around alcohol rely on back to front logic.
Drugs abuse the victim, pure and simple.
Given what we know about the alcohol trap, it should be becoming clear that drinkers don’t make a conscious or informed choice to take alcohol. The con around alcohol is too sophisticated, established and clever. We are lured into a trap.
There is another very clever part of the addiction con. Even if someone knows that a substance is addictive, in the early days of taking the drug they will always think that they are unaffected by it and won’t become addicted. Every drug addict on the planet went through a stage when they thought that it didn’t apply to them. This is partly because when they first tried the drug, they didn’t like it.
No one ever sipped their first drink wanting to be addicted to a chemical that caused them to wake up in the early hours of the morning full of remorse and nausea. No one smoked their first cigarette wanting to be a chain smoker, and no one experimented with heroin wanting to be a heroin addict that their family had given up on.
When people first start drinking alcohol, they take their second, third, and fiftieth drink completely convinced that they won’t become addicted. And they conclude this without having any idea of how addiction works. Even when they are addicted, they don’t know it, because they are too happy in the middle of the cocoon of the con. They feel safe, they have all the other drinkers with them, and they feel confidence growing in the very substance that is causing them harm.
There are two reasons why people don’t know that they have slowly and unwittingly become addicted. Firstly, addiction sits in the subconscious mind, which means that your conscious mind doesn’t know anything about it. Secondly, the effects of withdrawal from the first consumption of alcohol are imperceptible. The conclusion: It can’t affect me. I’ll never get addicted!
The minute we had the first drink of alcohol, it began to withdraw from our system. The feelings were barely perceptible, but they were there.
As the alcohol leaves our bodies, it leaves a void. We’ll delve a little further into the science behind this later. Essentially, the void was never there before we took the first drink. The void feels like a nagging little itch, or a general feeling of agitation, but it’s a tiny feeling and we are largely unaware of it. In fact, it’s another part of the confidence trick that this feeling grows very slowly over time, so that we don’t notice it developing.
If a non-drinker was to suddenly find themselves with the withdrawal feelings that a regular drinker feels every day, they would feel very snappy, jittery, and on edge. It’s not a nice feeling.
The drinking pattern becomes established. We have experienced the initial burst of euphoria from alcohol, and the belief that drinking is beneficial has been reinforced. The next time we have a drink the alcohol gives us a very short burst of euphoria, but it now does more than that.
The drink partially fills the void that was left by the previous drink and therefore we feel a sense of relief which we interpret as pleasure.
This pleasure is no more a pleasure than removing a tight article of clothing. It’s as pleasurable as getting out of a stiflingly hot car after being stuck in a traffic jam. Filling a void is not pleasurable: the word is ‘relief’. Removing a tight item of clothing gives the wearer relief, just the same as getting out of a stiflingly hot car also provides relief. You wouldn’t say that ending these things is pleasurable, you’re just glad that they’ve gone away, and you certainly wouldn’t go looking to get those feelings back again. But this is what we do when we drink. And we do it again, and again, and again. It’s what alcohol does when it fills the void caused by the last drink: it makes the niggling, slightly hungry and unsettling feeling go away. The subconscious mind interprets this relief as being a good thing, and therefore it makes the connection that alcohol is doing us good because it gets rid of a feeling that we don’t like.
It’s clever. It’s devious, and people have no idea it’s happening. Understanding the void is fundamental to understanding alcohol addiction and outsmarting alcohol.
A drinker will now seek pleasure and support in the very thing that causes the need for it in the first place. Not satisfied, this con artist ups its game, and the stakes are raised in the form of ‘tolerance’. Over time the body becomes tolerant to certain aspects of the poison and the feeling of exhilaration diminishes to virtually nothing. This means that we will drink more as time progresses, chasing the high, and all the while trying to top up the widening void.
From those early drinks of disgusting displeasure, the alcohol hustle works on the belief system of its mark; the tale that it tells and persuasion that it delivers is second to none. The lure and appeal grow ever greater, while the defences and resistance grow ever smaller. We have turned a corner oblivious of the trap we have fallen into.
We all want to enjoy life safely and fully, and it is human nature, even instinct, to protect ourselves from the bad things in life. But at this point in the con, alcohol has now become a learned response and a trusted vehicle to give ourselves the good things in life that are promised by alcohol.
We begin experiencing alcohol as it was promised, and believe that the relief is genuine pleasure. The fraudster is now our trusted friend and has our complete confidence if not our complete attention yet. But like many abusers the friendship is false, and we now know that the confidence is a lie.
There is still an initial high that we feel somewhere after the first drink or two, or three, depending on tolerance levels that have been built up, but this is followed swiftly by the depressant nature of alcohol as our body starts struggling with the effects of the drug slowing us down, and the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are released into our blood stream in an attempt to compensate. This is what causes the horrible 4am anxiety that wakes us up with a pounding heart.
The con artist is now about to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that continuing down this path is guaranteed to work to the victim’s benefit. This may take months, years or even decades to fully embed in our mind. Some drinkers may stay at this point all their lives, and they may be the lucky ones that escape without any repercussions or illness. Everybody knows an Aunty Mabel who drank like a fish and smoked like a chimney, and lived until she was 99. Data from a report in the UK, NHS Digital in 2017/8 tells us that about 1 in 4 of us will become dependent on alcohol in our lives. The statistics for the Baby Boomer and Generation X group is of particular concern. People born between 1944 and 1979 are presenting as the highest group with health problems. For people aged between 40-75, 70% of alcohol-related hospital admissions in the UK in 2017 fall within this age group, representing 7.2% of all admissions to hospital in the UK.
As the confidence trick rolls on, after months or years we have become hooked, and the rope has tightened. Alcohol has begun to do so much for us, and we believe it’s beneficial in so many ways we never stop to wonder if it really is too good to be true. Drinkers get so far into the con without stopping to question the complete versatility of alcohol and how one substance can do so many different things.
No one questions it. A friend of mine commented once how weird it was that she had a drink when she celebrated something great, and had a drink when she commiserated something bad, ‘In fact, I have a drink for pretty much all feelings!’ she said.
I never stopped to question how alcohol could relieve boredom one day, relax me the next, remove anxiety at social occasions, make life fun, make me the life and soul of the party, and make me as strong as a lion.
But nor did I associate alcohol with the darker side of the relationship that manifested later in the evening when I talked too much, said too much, thought I was really funny, or was super-sexy and cool. By then drinkers are too drunk to really remember when they’re neurotic, or jealous, or angry, or hyper-sensitive to criticism. And they are not likely to remember hurling insults, or falling over, or crying hysterically for hours. Drinkers rarely associate themselves directly with the negative sides of their drinking behaviour because they are never truly there to experience it.
We are drunk, incapable and weakened by the time the alcohol makes us neurotic, jealous, disappointed or angry. When alcohol starts to leave our system at 3 o’clock the following morning, adrenaline starts pumping and our heart rate starts rising as the hangover descends.
These things are dimmed in the background as the void comes back with a new day, and we still believe in the trusted con artist. It might be the next day, or three days, or two weeks later that we reach for another drink: but reach we will.
At this point we are completely convinced by the confidence trick. We’ve invested our time, beliefs and emotions in alcohol, and the thought of living life without this unquestionable support fills all drinkers with fear and dread.
People are trusting by nature: we’ve had to be to work with others, to evolve and survive.
Therefore, to trust, and be a victim of a confidence trick is to be human, and to be human is to be fallible.
All con tricks have a destructive force at their root, and alcohol is no exception
A confidence trick is designed to manipulate our beliefs. The long alcohol con manipulates our most basic beliefs by feeding on our desire for an existence that is more extraordinary and more meaningful. It is this desire that allows the con to thrive.
In every con trick, there are conflicting mentalities of ‘It’s too good to be true’ and ‘I deserve the perceived benefits’. We know that if something’s too good to be true, then it probably is, but we’re blind to that when it comes to alcohol. Fundamentally, we want it to be true, so we just ignore the fact that it might not be. On the other hand, we’re very good at rewarding ourselves with a million different reasons behind ‘I deserve alcohol.’ And so, we become blind to the obvious conflict between ‘too good to be true,’ and, ‘I deserve a drink,’ when it comes to our actions.
We may have even seen others fall into the trap, but we think we’re invulnerable.
Drinking alcohol falls clearly into these two mentalities. If you really stop to think about all the things alcohol is supposed to do for you, can it ever make sense?
When you eat a banana, you don’t do it for fun, or because you’re tired, bored, or stressed. We know that bananas are a natural source of flavour and goodness, but even if you love bananas, I doubt you’d be thinking, ‘Ooh, I really need to relax. I know, I’ll just go get a nice relaxing banana.’ If you’re feeling hyped about something you wouldn’t reach for a banana to regulate your mood.
What about those days when you promise yourself you won’t drink, but a voice pipes up, ‘I’ve had a long/hard/boring/stressful/difficult* (delete as appropriate) day, I deserve a drink.’
Despite our deep certainty in our own immunity, or even because of it, we all fall for the psychological manipulation of a confidence trick. And alcohol is a very brilliant confidence trick.
In fact, many confidence tricks are never known to the people who are tricked by them. One of the marvellous ways they work is that when the con falls apart, the person being tricked, the victim, believes that they’ve been unlucky, and that they have had misfortune when things don’t work out as promised. They may believe that the situation they find themselves in is their own fault, or that they’re weak, when they are unable to turn the situation to their advantage.
Isn’t this so true of alcohol? The whole of society is programmed to see a ‘problem drinker’ as weak, and as someone who can’t control alcohol. One minute a celebrity is a fun, good time drinker, and the next they’re being publicly reviled as weak and pathetic.
It’s only when a con is revealed that the psychological manipulation is evident. The alcohol con is the same. Drinkers are not weak; in fact, you will see that they are often the most determined and strong-willed of people.
When we invest in something, we calculate the odds that things will turn out as expected. This builds an expectation of an outcome, in psychological terms this is known as ‘expectancy’. As any new evidence is received, the initial expectation will affect how we interpret the evidence. This means that despite the ‘morning after’, the hangovers, the guilt and the shame, we still hold on firmly to our initial expectations of the benefits of alcohol long after they have ceased to exist.
Essentially, we are biased to pay attention to information that confirms our initial expectations. Psychologists Neil Rose and Jeffrey Sherman wrote ‘Once useful expectancies have developed, our cognitive system is conservative about altering or replacing them. We don’t altogether ignore new inputs, that would be maladaptive and stupid, but we err on the side of what we’ve already decided was true, after all we did a lot of work to get to that point and what we decided was true already can colour how we view the new event. Our prior expectations give us a kind of cognitive road map for how we should look at what’s going on.’
Psychologists term this ‘tendency’ or ‘confirmation bias’, a predisposition to take in and sift through evidence selectively so we can confirm what we were already expecting to be the case. Society continues to bombard us with confirmation of our beliefs in the benefits of alcohol, even when we have begun to experience strong negatives in our lives.
This psychology is as true of every confidence trick as it is for the con of alcohol. Changing your perception or your memory is easier than changing your behaviour. It’s easier to change what we believe about the way we’re drinking than to actually quit, particularly when we are looking for evidence to keep our beliefs true. Even if conflicting evidence is received, expectancies tend to be rigid, especially when they’ve been confirmed in the past. We need to understand more about alcohol and how the con actually works, so that we may see past our bias to confirm what we want to be true. In psychological terms, we need to overcome our confirmation bias.
Our desire to avoid the internal argument of whether to have a drink or not means that we put forward the best possible argument to make sure we get a drink. It’s a sort of unconscious equivalent to what a lawyer does when they present evidence in a way that sheds the best possible light on your side of their case.
Things don’t completely fall apart yet, even though the cracks may be beginning to show. At this point in the con, we start want to prove to ourselves that we’re in control of our drinking. Drinkers do this in different ways. I used to stop drinking for a few weeks as part of Dry January to prove to myself and the world that I didn’t have a drink problem. Halfway through the month-long challenge, people would start congratulating me on my resolve, my commitment, and my super-hero strength. ‘Yes,’ I would nod proudly, ‘I’m doing Dry January.’ Then there would be two different kinds of response.
‘Me too. I had a bit too much vino over Christmas.’ Little laugh. ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Yeah, fine. You?’
‘Yeah, it’s okay. Keep up with the distractions, you know anything to stop thinking about a cold glass of wine …?’
‘Yeah, me too.’ Smiles. ‘Can’t wait for February though. The wine’s waiting in the fridge!’ Relaxes, ‘I can’t wait either. My gin’s in the cupboard.’ Laughs. ‘See you then! Keep up the good work!’ Type Two:
‘Yes,’ I would nod proudly, ‘I’m doing Dry January.’
‘Oh, you’re not! Why? Are you mad! I could never do that. I like my wine too much!’ Nudges, winks, laughs very loudly.
I scuttle off feeling stupid.
Just think about it for a second, what would you think if there was a Banana-free January, and hordes of people were signing up to it. You’d probably wonder if there was a banana shortage. If they carried a health warning, you’d never eat a banana again, and you would certainly wonder why bananas were the focus of such attention.
Now imagine those same two conversations being about bananas. This is what you would hear: ‘I’m doing Banana-free January.’
‘I had a few too many bananas over Christmas.’
‘Are you mad! I could never do that. I like my bananas too much!’
The chances are that if you need to stop drinking for a month to prove that you don’t have a problem, then you probably do. Would you need to give up bananas for a month, or peas, or carrots? Of course not, because they’re good for you, and I doubt that you consume them to excess. You’re also not addicted to bananas, because they’re not addictive, and if they were toxic and poisonous you would never have one again.
You may also have tried to control your drinking in other ways. I know that I did all of the following things at different times: only allow yourself a certain number of drinks at a time, or only drink on certain days of the week, or call a halt to drinking at a certain time. No doubt you managed it for a while, as I did, again feeling noble and proud as you declined a round of drinks, or smilingly placed your hand over your half empty glass that you’re nursing.
Then something would have happened. And it could have been anything. It could be an event where you felt that you needed to drink, or one of those particularly hard days when you thought you deserved a drink, or any number of other reasons why the little voice in your head piped up and shouted, ‘I deserve it … I need it.’
When we try to stop drinking or cut down, we may tell ourselves that it’s okay to drink at the weekend, or it’s okay not to drink wine but to drink gin, or it’s okay to drink every other day, or it’s okay to drink every day but just a small amount. Whatever we decide, what we are doing is trying to make ourselves feel better by changing the rules of the game. Ultimately, these methods of trying to control consumption won’t work. The natural progression of addiction is that over time we will always drink more, and not less.
And we’re back where we were. If we’re lucky we are drinking the same amount as before, but often we’ll find that we are drinking a little more.
Something else that we might try is to behave differently when we’ve been drinking. Maybe our drinking behaviour has caused problems with work colleagues, or a loved one. Maybe we’ve got ourselves into dangerous or illegal situations. We’ll tell ourselves that we will be more controlled, and that it will all be okay because this time it will be different. You’ll know that you are a capable person, and that when you decide to do something, you’ll do it. You may tell yourself that, ‘This time I won’t be overly critical of …’, or ‘This time I’ll not flirt with …’, or ‘This time I’ll not get into a fight’, or ‘This time I won’t get angry.’ This is probably the saddest and most soul destroying of all things to try to do.
Alcohol is a depressant, and this doesn’t mean that it makes you miserable, although it often does that the day after. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system so much that it results in impairments such as slurred speech, unsteady movement, disturbed perceptions, and an inability to react quickly. Mentally, alcohol reduces our ability to think rationally, lessens inhibitions, and distorts judgement. Given this information, it makes it extremely difficult to change drunken behaviour; because we are not thinking rationally, our inhibitions are non-existent, and our emotions are going haywire.
The only way to behave differently is not to get drunk, and the only way to guarantee that is not to drink. But that is easier said than done. I spent over ten years trying to adapt my behaviour when I was drunk. It was like rolling a dice. Sometimes I’d win and sometimes I’d lose, but on balance it just didn’t work.
By trying to cut down or stop drinking altogether, drinkers are like a fish on a hook and the more we struggle, the more the line tightens, and the deeper the hook embeds.
Drinking alcohol then becomes a personal problem that we begin to realise can’t solve. When we realise that we have little control over alcohol, our stress levels rise, and we become concerned, and anxious about the hold that drinking alcohol has on us. That’s when, paradoxically, we’re more likely to turn to alcohol for the perceived support that it gives us. Because what happens when we feel stressed? We have a drink. At this point we are pulled even further into the con, and we become more reliant on alcohol.
The good news is that you have everything that you need to break free from the con artist, and layer by layer, like unpeeling an onion, you are already on that journey. You have ventured into the unknown many times before in your life. You have done things for the first time not knowing whether you could, and not knowing what the outcome would be. This is just another of those things.
The con is exposed, and once you have seen it for what it is, you can never un-see it. The mask is off.
It is a hard truth that none of the regular people like you and me, who drink alcohol, know anything about how drugs work, why they keep us coming back for more, and how the process of addiction works.
Your eyes have now begun to open.
I didn’t know much of what I have learned since I stopped drinking in 2016.
I had my first alcoholic drink, aged eight, at a family gathering. I remember laughing and crying myself to sleep. If my parents had known that the thimbles-full of wine they let me have was an addictive drug, they most certainly wouldn’t have given it to me. I went on to start drinking occasionally, and then socially at around age 16, then I progressed to drinking to keep up with the boys at university, to drinking and partying at weekends with friends when I started working.
That went on to drinking after work with my husband, to drinking alone as a single mother. As my friend said, ‘I drink when something goes well, and I drink when something goes badly. In fact, I drink when anything happens!’ Like many others, I was lulled into a false sense of security, because most of the people I knew admitted to drinking for those reasons too.
And the bitter truth is that we are all drinkers who are addicted to the addictive drug that is alcohol.
Try telling a room full of people who have just arrived at a party that there is no alcohol, but plenty of soft drinks, and watch the reaction. It’s a little different to being told there are no sausage rolls but there’s plenty of food, isn’t it?
One of the things that I find completely baffling is that there is so much money spent on alcohol awareness resources, how many units you should have in a week etc, but I don’t remember seeing anywhere a clearly spelt out message that alcohol is a drug and if you take it you’ll likely get addicted. One of the major problems is that even the support organisations and general practitioners don’t really understand the deceit and ingenious trappings of the alcohol confidence trick, and they don’t communicate with people anywhere near as powerfully as the advertising giants who are selling alcohol.
That is how we become trapped in the alcohol trap, and embroiled in a world where we can’t bear to be without alcohol, but desperately want to be free.
The Legacy Process is my unique process for Transformational Freedom. It’s amazing, it’s wonderful, but most importantly: it works!
Hi, I'm Michela
I’m a leader in the science of transformational freedom for women, and someone previously addicted to alcohol. I have walked the path. I understand your concerns and fears. Here you will find some of my thoughts and insights. Happy browsing!
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