Alcohol addiction knows no classist, sexist, or racist boundaries. We’re all susceptible no matter our demographics or circumstances. Too much alcohol (also known as ethyl alcohol or ethanol) over a period of time can poison you, leading to adverse health consequences, such as cirrhosis of the liver, heart disease, cancer, and death. It’s no wonder native Americans referred to alcohol as fire water: it’s a volatile, flammable, colorless liquid, which sometimes smells like rotting garbage. It’s used as a solvent and as an additive in automotive gasoline, which we would never dream of drinking. It’s also a common ingredient in beer, wine, and distilled spirits such as whiskey, gin, and vodka. Finally, alcohol has also been implicated thousands of times in cases of domestic violence, child abuse, homicides, sexual assaults, robberies, and car accidents.
Accordingly, it seems odd that of all of the legal substances available for consumption, this one may be the most celebrated in western, eastern, northern, and southern societies. Ethanol toxins are intoxicating! You can expect to find alcohol at family celebrations, parties, weddings, graduation ceremonies, holidays, and even funerals. It is the chosen poison of all classes, though the particular type of poison may vary somewhat.
Given alcohol’s potential for addiction, adverse health outcomes (among other temporary and sometimes embarrassing side effects), and associated crimes, why do people continue to drink? Country music singer Hank Williams Junior answered that question with: “Get drunk!”
But why is being drunk attractive and how can people jump off the party bus if so inclined when alcohol has become so embedded in so many events in people’s lives? We’ve all heard the stories of people who’ve tried to curb their addictions, only to return days, months, or years later to the bottle. Their will power gave out and they gave in to the pressures of life. Self-help videos and books are widely available as are Alcoholic Anonymous facilities, rehabilitation facilities, retreat centers, and more. Numerous cottage industries have emerged over the decades to help free those suffering from Alcohol Use Disease (AUD). Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.
But do you really need to spend thousands of dollars to remedy yourself of addiction – or is there a way to reorient your views on alcohol to remove the desire to drink? The answer to the latter is yes: you don’t need to think of alcohol as something you’re giving up; you can and should think of it as something you no longer want. Let me explain by dialing back a bit so you can see where I’m coming from.
A few years ago, a friend I knew from childhood let me know that her sister [whom I’ll call Lisa] had been suffering from alcoholism for over a decade. She had lost her husband, children, home, and job. Despite court-mandated efforts to assess her situation and to help her stop drinking (through Baker and Marchman Acts’ involuntary assessment orders), she failed to sustain a recovery for more than a few months. Her ex-husband lamented that the devil had a stronghold on her and it seemed she would never break free. She was in a vicious cycle of drunkenness and sobriety that was leading to greater drunkenness and lesser sobriety with each repetition of events.
“If she won’t stop drinking for her five sons, there is nothing we can do,” her sister sighed.
How did this happen?
By all accounts, Lisa grew up in a bucolic setting in a golfing, pool, and tennis community just outside of Chicago. She and her siblings were Catholics who attended Catholic grade school, high school, and college. She had successfully graduated from the latter and soon afterwards married her sweetheart and began a family. Life was good. The happy couple went on to have five beautiful sons while living in several upper-middle class family-friendly communities in the Northeast and Florida.
Now let’s fast forward a couple of decades to the day I arrived at her apartment to help her. We started by filling half a dumpster with dozens of empty beer cans that she had piled on her floors and stuffed under her furniture. (She had dividends and funding from several sources that supported her lifestyle). We then bought groceries and visited her church. We talked. We cried. We hugged.
She seemed hopeful.
But that short-term fix didn’t last long. It only scratched the surface of what she really needed, which went far beyond the Alcoholics’ Anonymous classes, retreat and rehabilitation facilities, self-help books, and many other methods she and her family had tried. These were only band-aids atop a wound the size of Texas. Alcohol is only a symptom of an She needed someone to speak love to her soul. She had lost everyone she loved and she needed a greater purpose, meaning, and a means to break free from the monster of alcohol, which had pinned her neck to the ground and seemed to be succeeding in its mission to squeeze the life out of her.
People use various means to escape from life’s daily rigors. Some turn outward to their families, friends, religious leaders, teachers, professors, coaches, or other influencers, while others turn inward through meditation and prayer. Some channel their inner peace in healthy ways, such as seeking God and enjoying nature, art, music, and other creative pursuits. Others choose less healthy habits, such as eating too much food or using marijuana, cigarettes, illicit drugs, and/or alcohol. I’ve tried numerous approaches in my 50+ years on this earth and can speak to which work and which don’t in bringing us sustainable joy and happiness.
For example, in my twenties, I visited the Florida Keys with dozens of friends often. We had margaritas in Margaritaville, beer at Sloppy Joes, rum punches in Islamorada, and wine in Marathon. We laughed, sang, danced, and made Conga Lines to songs of escape by Jimmy Buffett, Kenny Chesney, U2, Willy Nelson, the Doobie Brothers, the Eagles, Def Leppard, Toby Keith, and others. We rented scooters, bikes, boats, and parasails and lived life to the fullest. In short, we had fun. And my family and friends still get together and enjoy one another’s company, but many of us have come to realize that these short-term party-infused pleasures can turn our lives into a never-ending cycle of chasing the wind (and the next vacation escape) with no sustainable joy.
Songwriters and singers like Jimmy Buffett have made careers out of “escapism,” singing songs about far away beaches, bars, and boats. But escaping from the everyday drudges of life is only a temporary means of joy. It’s disconnection from connection, engagement, and integration. The party and the vacation were never meant to be ongoing, though some long for their continuation.
“I never wanted the party to end,” said one of my closest relatives who had developed a habit of drinking a few glasses of wine each day. When people have relatively few resource constraints, the desire to drink is easily fulfilled.
Enter the country music singers who have a knack for making our interactions with alcohol comedic:
“I got you in trouble in high school
But college, now that was a ball
You had some of the best times
You’ll never remember with me.
Alcohol.” – Brad Paisley
Alcohol introduces itself when you’re young and naïve, showcasing its availability as beer in frosty mugs or rum in fruity fishbowls with tiny umbrellas. The alcohol industry is built on promoting the fun factor with friends at tail-gating events, bars, and parties – and the glamorous factor with wine connoisseurs at wine tastings. To say alcohol is socially acceptable and encouraged in western societies is a tremendous understatement. It’s practically a rite of passage into adulthood.
“Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself…”
Despite the perceived hype and societal pressure to indulge, your first date with alcohol is likely to be a miserable experience. The bitter tastes of whiskey, beer, or tequila, for example, are hard to mask. They burn your nose, palates, and guts. Your body may even fight back by forcing the fire water out of your system in violent heaves. If you’re one of alcohol’s newest aficionados, you should know that vomiting isn’t uncommon, which gives you one of many signs that your body is not made to enjoy alcohol.
However strange, you may be one of those who persist in “developing a taste for alcohol.” The buzz that releases you from your sensibilities seems worth it. Should it matter to you that alcohol can lead to poor social judgment, poor concentration, a loss of critical judgment, poor coordination, mood swings, raised blood pressure, slurring, and blackouts? Nah, why should that bother? What’s not more enjoyable than listening to a bunch of people who’ve been drinking all day in a bar? If the elevated volume isn’t music to your ears, then surely the repetition of stories will appeal. Who doesn’t want to hear Ben bloviate about the swordfish he caught at the tournament over and over and over again? It’s interesting.
If you can get past the foul taste, smell, embarrassments, and sometimes debilitating hangovers and side effects, you may start developing a long-term relationship with alcohol. You may even take your relationship to the next level by moving alcohol into your home.
At first, your little alcohol creature is relegated to a cage where he can only come out during social events on weekends, but soon his value grows. He eventually becomes an uncontrollable monster who demands your daily attention.
At first, you don’t notice the way that the glass of wine at the end of a long workday is so enjoyable. It’s healthy to drink in moderation, right? Soon, one glass turns into two and then three and maybe more. Suddenly, you find yourself thinking about alcohol more and more. This could happen quickly or over a period of decades. Left uncontrolled or unattended, the end result is always the same: regret. You regret that alcohol may have clouded some of the best memories and events in your life. You regret that you’re not only married to it, but you’re subservient.
But there is hope. It’s never too late to break free. All it takes is a mindset reversal. It’s easier to cage the monster than you may think.
A Few Facts about Alcohol Addiction
According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 19.7 million adults over the age of 12 battled a substance abuse disorder in 2017 and 74 percent of those struggled with Alcohol Use Disorder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (2017) Trend and Statistics, drug abuse and addiction cost Americans $740 billion each year in productivity, healthcare expenses, and crimes.
Furthermore, women are increasingly boozing it up, as evidenced in their spiking alcohol-related death rates. Between 1999 and 2018, the rates of non-Hispanic women between 25 and 69 who’ve died prematurely from alcohol-associated liver disease has skyrocketed. Women’s bodies (with more fat and less water content) do not process alcohol as well as men.
This alarming trend hits close to home for me. Like Lisa, one of my female cousins seemingly had everything. For years, she posted daily photos on Facebook of her husband and three young children, which gave the appearance she was blessed, fortunate, appreciative, and happy. But deep inside, she wept. It may have been the standards she set for herself, which were impossible for her to achieve. It may have something else. I really don’t know for sure. What I do know from a relative who contacted me after she passed away (when only in her 40s) was that she drank too much alcohol and her organs failed her. She shriveled to around 80 pounds before dying in her home, surrounded by her family.
These women are not the “typical” junkies you envision sitting on street corners and in back alleys amidst mattresses, bags of clothing, and drug needles. These are women in the middle and upper classes who were born and raised in what many would consider idyllic circumstances.
There is no single factor that can explain what happened to my friend and relative and so many other men and women in society who fall prey to the monster of addiction. It may have been a series of unfortunate circumstances, such as the passing of a loved one, rejection, a parental divorce, or perpetual feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, or insecurity. It may have been the wrong crowd, lost job opportunities, or struggles with and/or abuse from one’s siblings, parents, spouses, children, or other loved ones. No one gets off this planet without facing struggles, so we must work together to solve these challenges.
Enter the Moderates
Some do not consider these desires for alcohol to be problematic. You may be one of them, believing you can live your life by drinking in moderation. Some of my relatives are like that. They may have a few drinks once in a while, rarely over-indulging. Others are not so fortunate. At issue is how you view alcohol: is it something you rarely think about, like radishes or fine china? Or is it something you think about often, using it as a crutch when needed to act more socially, calm your nerves, or wind down? If you’re in the latter camp, this message is directed to you. This message is also directed to people with other similar addictions, such as those who can’t quit smoking cigarettes.
In 1990, someone asked me the following question after learning that I smoked between a half-pack and a whole-pack of cigarettes daily: “Are you going to let those cancer sticks control you?”
I had decided that I really wanted to quit by that point and something about his question struck a chord. I wondered if I had enough will power to just slow down. Maybe I could reduce my smoking to 2 or 3 cigarettes a day.
That failed miserably. After weeks of trying to cut back, I realized that the only way for me to kick this habit to the curb was to quit cold turkey, which I somehow managed to do on January 1, 1991: New Year’s Day. I substituted gum for a little while and gained a few pounds, but the outcome made everything worthwhile.
I really doubt that I could pull off the same feat today, as I was single and without more stressful familial and workplace obligations. I had used cigarettes as a crutch, not realizing how deadly they are. In the years since, I’ve lost multiple friends, family members, and acquaintances to lung cancer, breast cancer, and other smoking-related diseases. This long list includes my father-in-law, whom I never had the pleasure to meet.
Here is the mindset: we don’t want to think of ourselves as “giving up” an addiction as if we’re giving up on something worthwhile and good. “Giving up” on cigarettes (like alcohol) implies that we still desire and want to smoke or drink. We should instead focus on fully eliminating our desire to smoke or drink. I stopped desiring cigarettes after a few weeks when I realized how revolting the odor and cancerous outcomes are. I haven’t had a single cigarette in over 30 years! It worked for me and it can work for you. Alcohol can be treated in the same way when you become disgusted by its odor, taste, side effects, and long-term health consequences.
By clutching alcohol as if a friend and allowing it frequent visits in your life, you set yourself up for future destruction should you face tragedy (which we all eventually do). You’re no different than the pawn on a chessboard who finds himself in the line of fire of the opposing queen, with no way to turn around.
Alcohol and cigarettes are no more friends to you than rubbing alcohol, solvents, and gasoline are your friends. Of course, imbibing the latter has a much speedier detrimental impact on your insides.
You have the ability to make choices that keep you away from the pits and move you closer to the pedestals of positive influence. And if you’ve chosen correctly, you’ll have few regrets once you’ve reached your final days. You’ll know that you did it your way, which was the way you knew deep down would make you a stronger and more exuberant person than you are today. You don’t know your capabilities until you’ve freed yourself from the bonds that are tying you down.
So cast off your past, no matter how rotten it may be. Today is a new day, one which is filled with great promise and hope. Don’t let the doubt, the tears, the pain, and the knowledge of any past failures hinder your future. You’ve already given the devil his due. It’s now time to give to God what is God’s by letting your light so shine for all the world to see. The kingdom of heaven is within you.
Here are 8 steps you can use to eliminate addiction:
1. Identify triggers to addiction. Why do you drink alcohol? Nostalgia? Are you trying to get back to a happier time in your life? Music brings memories. Alcohol does too. What does alcohol do to your system? What are the short-term and long-term effects of alcohol on you? Do you feel you need alcohol to be happy?
2. Consider activities to use the time you once put aside to serve your addictions. Reading, writing, and art are intrinsically satisfying, especially for introverts. Extraverts may want to join groups with other people who are busy, relatable, open, and/or actively recovering from addictions, such as sports groups, mountain-climbing groups, chess clubs, and more.
3. Be strong. Realize that you can control your alcohol and you need not let it control you. Native Americans call alcohol “fire water.” Why imbibe flammable toxins?
4. Seek amnesty from your past. Forgive those who’ve trespassed against you and seek forgiveness from those you’ve trespassed against. Remember to think holistically at the physical, mental, and spiritual levels.
5. Create a vision for a “new you.” Remember the life of George in “It’s a Wonderful Life?” Why are you here? What could you be if not hindered by your past or your addictions? How far could you go? Set several goals, which you will achieve in a month, a year, and five years. What metrics can you use to determine whether you’ve achieved your goals?
6. Surround yourself with people you admire and steer clear of those who persist in bringing you down. Find a friend who can hold you accountable.
7. Identify obstacles that could prevent you from achieving your vision, mission, and goals. How can you anticipate and overcome these obstacles?
8. Don’t let the “what is” of today get in the way of the “what could be” in the future. Your addiction was never more than a shadow cloud over your capabilities. You’re past that now. It’s time to live your life to the fullest with zero regrets. You’ve made it. You’re an overcomer.
 Muslim societies that advocate abstinence at the governmental level are an exception.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
 Yoon, Y., Chen, C.M., Slater, M.E., Jung, M.K., & White, A.M. (2020). Trends in premature deaths from alcohol liver disease in the U.S. 1999 – 2018. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, https://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(20)30229-4/fulltext