I remember a particular glass of champagne that felt like it solved all of my problems. Over the next two decades, my normal drinking would create such a worn-out rut, it would feel impossible to crawl out.
Despite society telling me that hangovers were funny, it actually felt like a crack in my heart the moment I understood that I was no longer sharing the magic of the present moment with my family. Instead, I was checking the time to see if it was too early for a drink. The spotlight of my attention had become imperceptibly trained on alcohol.
This is when my inner dialogue became impossible to ignore: I’m not an alcoholic. Proof: I’ve never had a DUI, I make my kids dinner every night, read to them (yes, along with a glass of wine… but that’s NORMAL), I can remember the events of the previous night. I finished second in my triathlon. I can take a break… though I really don’t want to. I can stop halfway through a bottle of wine, though I rarely do. I drink no more than most other drinkers. Even people in AA call me a “normie.”
So why, when I take a quiz measuring individual drinking levels, am I told that the amount that I drink will lead to serious health consequences? (This is confusing because when I look around, the amount that I drink is less than most people.) Why is a vacation or a sunset or a special moment only complete when booze is involved? I use alcohol as a salve for stress and conflict, despite feeling worse the next day — why? Why can’t I have one and be satisfied? Even more: why can’t I be truly satisfied with… zero? Why does this topic take up so much of my precious energy? Why is this such a big friggin’ deal?
As a culture and society, we are willfully blind to the answer: alcohol is addictive. While there are clearly genetic and, most powerfully, environmental propensities and circumstances that account for the individual variation in depth and destruction that an addictive substance will cause, it is important to maintain a clear fact. Alcohol is addictive to the human brain. Full stop.
As we all know, alcohol triggers changes in the neuro circuitry of the brain when intoxicated. What we experience — but is rarely understood by the mainstream — is that these changes persist over time. Some of these short-term and long-term changes include depression, anxiety and cravings for alcohol along with the belief that alcohol makes life better. These changes are also part of why we mistakenly believe that alcohol makes an event, travel, day of skiing, night at the theater, night out dancing, cuisine, friendship, live music, our creativity — better.
Simply, here is how alcohol keeps you coming back: you have a drink and feel that warm fuzzy elation for 20 minutes more or less — depending upon your tolerance. But here’s the kicker: in order to maintain homeostasis, your body reacts to this buzz by activating its stress hormone axis in order to return to its normal state. Because of those stress hormones, 20-40 minutes later you feel irritable and need another one. (This explains why alcohol is both a stimulant and a depressant.)
Another key chemical in this process is dopamine — a neurotransmitter triggered by pleasure and whose job it is to keep you coming back. The problem is, the amount of dopamine that alcohol triggers in the brain is much higher than the dopamine triggered by, say, sitting outside on a summer evening listening to the crickets. Over time, your brain becomes accustomed to the artificially large amount of dopamine triggered by alcohol. Eventually, experiences that are beneficial to your health and well-being — like, say, sitting in quiet nature at dusk or listening to music — no longer provide you with fulfillment on their own.
This explains why I lost my ability to feel complete joy or gratification in the present moment with my family. And why it takes weeks to experience pure joy again after we take a break or try to cut back. This is also one reason (of many) why, when we are accustomed to drinking and we try to take a break, it’s so miserable to live life without it.
The thing is, people like alcohol and that is not only okay but also understandable. I’ve had many fun nights while drinking. But what we’re not told is that over time, alcohol robs us. We’ve been duped into believing that alcohol is the elixir of life when in reality it is nearly the most addictive mainstream substance second only to heroin, is a class 1 carcinogen, causes depression and anxiety, organ disease, premature aging and many other illnesses. And this is to say nothing about the (perhaps invisible) negative effects it has on our human potential as athletes, parents, artists and friends.
With this knowledge comes individual and social empowerment that no doubt will bring us closer to collectively living the life of joy, gratification, meaning and fulfillment that we crave. If people throughout society — most importantly young people — simply knew the facts about alcohol in the same way that we know the facts about cigarettes, we could admit that while it may be fun to see the emperor naked, he is, in fact naked and should probably go put some clothes on for the rest of the party.