I am a recovered alcoholic. I have been sober since 2 May 2000. I have personally experienced the pain and degradation that alcoholism can cause, as well as the joys of recovery. As a qualified addictions therapist in the UK, I have worked with hundreds of clients seeking a way out of the hell that they are living – unable to understand why they can’t control their drinking or how things ever got this bad. And, more to the point, what they were going to do about it.
I drank alcohol for years and got sober at the age of twenty-seven, when I finally realised I was dying on the inside as well as the outside. I knew I had to drastically change my life.
But how had it come to this?
On the outside my life looked ‘normal’. I had been to University. I always had good jobs. I’d never been arrested, fired or expelled from anywhere. I had lots of friends and was well travelled. On the outside everything looked OK. On the inside I was falling apart.
No matter what I did or where I went or who I was with, I had a desperate feeling deep inside me that never went away. Namely, that I didn’t fit in, was ‘less than’ everybody else, and I had an overriding fear that I simply didn’t know how to ‘do life’.
Alcohol was the only thing that ever gave me comfort. But of course, it created a whole new set of problems: I did and said things when I was drunk that I felt deeply ashamed about. I became someone I didn’t like or respect. I hated myself. So I just drank and drank because the alcohol worked like an anaesthetic. It helped me fit in, not feel ‘less than’. It numbed the pain of my thoughts and feelings, for a while at least.
My personal experience
I tried to drink like ‘other people’ because they looked ‘normal’ to me. Other people drank and they were fine; I could tell. I would judge them by how they looked on the outside and I wanted to be like that.
Something inside me was different and it wasn’t fine. Which is why I had to lie to myself – a big fat lie that ate me up and that I had to keep telling myself, because it kept a lid on the horror. I had to lie about what I was doing to myself. I had to lie about how I really felt. I had to lie about who I was. I had to lie because I was terrified of the horror inside me being exposed.
This may only make sense to someone who has had a problem with drink or any other mood or mind-altering substance. Or it may make sense to you if you have lived a life of desperate compromise and unfulfilled promise.
Do you understand?
Have you got secrets inside you?
Do you have to lie too?
Do you know what it’s like to live with such a denial of your truth that you wake up every morning in despair and feel like your soul is lying on the floor next to you and you have no idea how you are supposed to make it through the day, let alone through life?
I just couldn’t figure out how everyone else lived. How were they doing life? How come it was so easy for them?
I know I was born this way. I never felt right. I always felt that I was looking at you through a glass screen. I was on one side, alone, and everyone else was on the other side.
I’ve always felt wrong. I would measure myself up against people. I would always come up lacking, so I’d just try harder to be like them. I wanted my insides to feel like their outsides looked. So I drank and drank. I didn’t know there was another way to live this life.
And for a while, the burning pain inside me stopped because alcohol numbed everything. However, it took me further and further away from my truth; from who I was and could be.
Alcohol wasn’t killing me. Alcohol was holding me together.
But alcohol was only a symptom of the problem. The problem was within me. And, as I was to learn, so was the solution.
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PART 1 – ALCOHOLISM
Chapter 1 – What is alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a physical, psychological and spiritual disease. All three of these components have to be understood if they are to be addressed in the alcoholic.
Alcoholism is not (necessarily) binge drinking or even heavy drinking, but these can lead to a dangerous breakdown of inhibitions, with the attendant consequences, and in some cases, to alcoholism.
Alcoholism a disease in three parts
Alcoholism is a condition that has baffled society for hundreds of years. Up until the 1950s, alcoholism was perceived as a moral disorder or a failure of will power. Alcoholics were seen as immoral, weak-willed or degenerate and were treated with scorn and contempt.
This began to change with the emergence of Alcoholics Anonymous, and medical research into the causes and conditions of alcoholism. It was E M Jellinek’s work in the 1950s that introduced the concept of alcoholism as a disease with particular symptoms. In Concepts of Chemical Dependency (2012), Harold Doweiko explores whether there is a genetic predisposition towards alcoholism and addiction, or if there are biological differences between individuals who become addicted and those that don’t. The truth is that we don’t yet know to what extent alcoholism and addiction are due to ‘nature’ or to ‘nurture’. It seems that both biology and circumstances can contribute to whether someone becomes an alcoholic.
There is an important argument about personal choice and responsibility, and it is also said that no one puts a gun to an alcoholic’s head and forces them to drink. At some point we choose to drink, we are not forced to.
There is merit in all these points, but this is not what this book is about. I am certainly a believer in personal responsibility, but I believe that biology and circumstance both contribute to the development of alcoholism. I don’t believe we can ascribe ‘fault’, as the conditions for developing alcoholism are mostly set up in childhood. These are issues I will explore later. I do believe that instead of getting lost in the ‘why’ you are an alcoholic, it’s far more important to figure out what you are going to do about it. Because once an individual has crossed the line into destructive drinking or drug use, it is their responsibility to do something about it.
And for alcoholics, the problem and the solution both lie within.
I believe, as do many others, that alcoholism is a three-part disease or illness, compromising:
• physical addiction
• psychological craving and obsession
• spiritual illness.
As with any disease, it can be fatal to treat one part of the disease and ignore the rest. This is particularly true of alcoholism. In treating alcoholism, all three aspects of the illness must be treated in order to have a successful outcome. However, the most important part, and the part that is often ignored, is the ‘spiritual illness’. There can be some resistance to accepting that alcoholism is primarily a ‘disease of the spirit,’ but it is actually the most critical factor and can explain the insidiousness, denial and insanity of the illness far more effectively than the other factors.
To the casual observer, alcoholism seems like pure insanity; it’s incomprehensible, as the drinker self-destructs again and again, yet still refuses to see the part of alcohol in this, or indeed to see alcohol as the cause. This is because it is very difficult for an alcoholic to just stop drinking without outside help – just as it is difficult to treat any other disease without help.
Not every alcoholic is necessarily physically dependent. Physical dependence on alcohol is apparent when a drinker displays withdrawal symptoms and increased tolerance to alcohol. Doweiko discusses how the alcoholic has to drink in order to feel normal. As well as the physical dependence, the physically dependent user will also be tolerant to alcohol. This means they will need to drink more and more to get the same effects. The body physically adapts to having alcohol always inside it. When the alcohol is withdrawn, the body must adapt again. When this stage is reached, a medical intervention is required to safely detox from alcohol.
Psychological dependence occurs when the user habitually uses alcohol to cope with their emotions and feelings. The user may not yet be physically addicted to alcohol, but is clearly pre-occupied and obsessed with alcohol as the ‘solution’ to their circumstances and feelings. The user comes to believe that they need alcohol. It is the primary thing in their life, the solution to all their problems and the accompaniment to all situations. They will convince themselves they can handle one or two drinks, but end up having far more, despite their intentions or promises. It’s almost as if they are drinking against their will. The alcohol is in charge. In spite of themselves, the opportunity to drink is never passed up despite the consequences of this beginning to add up. Without realising it, the alcoholic has lost control of when and how much they drink.
Then there is the spiritual illness, which I would argue is the most important and the least understood. For many people, there is a confusion over the meaning of spirituality. Spirituality is not the same as religion. Religions can and do contain elements of spirituality, but religion is not necessarily spiritual.
The terms ‘spirit’ or ‘spiritual’ refer to the voice inside us – the voice that makes us unique and is the basis for who we are and who we become. It is the part of ourselves that loves, hopes, dreams and hurts. Our feelings stem from our spirit and its unique response to the world. It is the part of us as human beings you can’t put under a microscope, but we all know is there. And it is the part of ourselves that most of us know least about, let alone know how to manage. It is our internal experience. With alcoholics, this ‘spirit’ is wounded and in pain.
How this comes about is complex and will be explored in later chapters. But like a physical pain, it won’t be ignored and will beg for our attention until we treat it. For alcoholics it is this deep emotional pain that is so hard to describe or articulate. It just feels that something deep down is ‘wrong’. When someone persistently feels this way, they naturally look for a ‘cure’ or a fix. Alcoholics choose alcohol.
Alcoholism is an ‘internal condition’
My work with alcoholics and my own experience has shown me that alcoholism is an internal condition, one that takes root in our thoughts and feelings before eventually becoming expressed in our behaviour. This book will explore the internal, or spiritual, experience of the alcoholic and show why this is essential in understanding alcoholism. It is only with this knowledge that recovery becomes possible.
The themes explored here are not unique to alcoholics. I believe they are universal in their scope. I also believe, based on our behaviour, that the world in general is suffering from a form of spiritual illness, and that alcoholism is merely one example of this.
Our culture has become focused on the external factors of our existence. We over-emphasise the importance of what we look like, where we work, what we have and what others think about us – to the detriment of our internal experience, and to such an extent that not many of us know how to manage our internal experience, or understand its significance and its impact on our external experience.
If you understand, as many in the field do, that our behaviour is a manifestation of our inner experience, then we can see that the destructive things we do are a reflection of inner turmoil and pain.
Alcoholism is an extreme version of this, but only one version. The effects of an unsatisfactory internal experience are apparent in many ways: over-consumption, obsessive focus on appearance, all forms of addiction, overspending/debt, eating disorders, obesity, etc.
Are these not just behavioural patterns we have developed to cope with how we feel about, and deal with, our feelings and the world at large?
Throughout history human beings have had the urge to fix or change the way they feel, to escape or enhance reality. And for some, no price is too high to pay for the experience.
There is something so attractive and seductive about the effects of alcohol that we are able to ignore, rationalise or even glamorise the destruction it has caused throughout history. We look back on our history with alcohol, both personally and collectively, with rose-tinted romanticism, refusing to see the deadly grip it maintains over those who surrender to its creeping ability to distort our truth.
Such is the power of alcohol that we have become able, to an astonishing degree, to tell ourselves massive lies, in order to keep doing what we are doing. Even when it’s gone way beyond the point of having fun, even when we know it’s destroying us. We alcoholics are able to lie to ourselves in such a way that we can continue to self-destruct, lead miserable and unfulfilled lives, and all the time telling ourselves we don’t have a problem.
It isn’t alcohol that kills alcoholics. It’s the lies they tell themselves in order to keep doing what they are doing. If they didn’t lie to themselves, the pain of the reality would be unbearable. Why is it we would rather drink to the point of destruction than tell someone else how we really feel? What are we so scared of?
I spent twelve years drinking and self-destructing. I still had a job and a place to live, but I felt like my insides were going black and I had no way of changing that. I kept drinking because it took away the pain. I couldn’t even begin to describe my internal experience to anyone else; it hardly made sense to me. In reality, the drink worked for me for two years, then it stopped working and I began to feel even worse than I had before I started drinking.
I slowly began to die on the inside.
Anyone who has ever had a drink or drug problem or has suffered from depression will understand what that feels like. And it wasn’t just the drink, drugs and nameless men I slept with that were killing me, it was the lies I had to tell myself.
I seemed to have this default programme that was set on misery and denial.
For alcoholics, there is a disjunction between who you really are and what you have become. Alcohol will make you into someone you do not recognise. Drinking is just one way to take away the pain of an inauthentic existence.
This book is less about drinking and more about the engine that drives drinking behaviour. It’s about what’s underneath an alcohol problem. It explores the thinking and the feelings that drive someone to abuse a harmful substance in such a way that it becomes the central most important thing in their life. It examines the fact that destructive behaviour can only be permanently changed when an emotional rearrangement takes place first. The book then, more importantly, explores the solution.
Reviews and praise for ‘Why you drink and How to stop’
“Veronica Valli has written one of the clearest, most fascinating & truly helpful books on addiction I’ve ever read.
To me, it’s up there with ‘Clean’ by David Sheff, except from the viewpoint of someone who’s in long-term recovery.
Whether you’re struggling now & need help, have struggled in the past, or you’ve ever loved an addict, this book pierces through the confusing and terrifying misinformation that surrounds this disease.
From the first page to the last, I was completely enthralled by this brilliantly researched, refreshingly straightforward & delightfully compelling book.” Kristen Johnston, two-time Emmy award-winning actress, NYT best-selling author and addiction recovery advocate.
About the Consultant Editor
Annemarie Young, Writer and publishing consultant, BAHons, DipEd, MSc, MA
Annemarie has worked in publishing for almost thirty years: as a senior editor in a major university publishing house in the UK for the first twenty years, and after that as an editorial consultant for a number of large publishers.
She also writes books for young children learning to read, and is co-author of an acclaimed non-fiction series for older children. She is Editor of the alumni magazine for a University of Cambridge graduate college.
Praise for Why You Drink and How to Stop
Chip Somers, CEO of Focus 12 Treatment Centre www.focus12.co.uk
For the first time, all the relevant information and help for the struggling alcoholic or addict is in one place. Too often all this valuable help and guidance is scattered about in many places. This book brings it all together and forms a perfect handbook.
It also provides guidance for the ‘forgotten’ people in this matter – the family and friends. This book should be compulsory for every doctor’s surgery. It is direct, to-the-point, and easy to read and access. Focus12 will be using it to back up much of its work.
Rosalind Bubb, Dip Clin Hyp MNLP Coach, EFT, TAT Professional www.rosalindb.com
Do you think you might have a problem with drink?
Does someone you care about have one?
Do you want to understand what’s going on, and how to find a way out?
Then this book is for you.
Facing up to a life without alcohol can be a very frightening prospect. As a recovered alcoholic and drug addict, Veronica Valli has personal experience of what it takes to recover. In this friendly and life-changing book Veronica will guide you step by step through a practical approach to stopping.
Why You Drink and How To Stop is straightforward, grounded, and inspiring.
The book is broken down into three parts, comprising ten chapters in all. The author’s story comes first and hooked me from the outset.
Part 1 is all about alcoholism; the disease and the attendant madness. I got a lot out of Part 1 because I could relate to a lot of the shared thoughts and feelings. Anybody unsure about whether they are drinking alcoholically or not, should take a look at the section, ‘The cost of drinking’. I highlighted a lot here, and throughout this book. I have been sober since May 26, 2006.
Part 2 addresses ‘The Problem’. The problem of course is the ‘why’ of alcoholism. There is an emptiness in an active alcoholic, and Veronica touched on it perfectly.
She wrote a lot about our ‘spirit’ and living our truth. There was also much about emotions, fear and behaviour.
Part 3, ‘The Solution’, fascinated me. One of the most interesting parts of the book was the ‘farewell letter to alcohol’. I enjoyed that letter and the idea of writing the letter as if ending a destructive love affair. There is a chapter on how to deal with friends who still drink, the spiritual aspect of recovery and lots of questions to think about.
Throughout the book I highlighted many parts as I wrote notes in the margin. The talk about Alcoholics Anonymous was refreshing because the programme has been around for decades and any alcoholic I know who works through an honest and rigorous programme is still sober and happy today.
The stories of other alcoholics’ experiences, strength and hope, are inspiring too. As alcoholics, we tend to think no one has gone through what we have, or felt the way we feel or lost the things we’ve lost. The stories scattered through Veronica’s book put paid to this and give a message of hope and possibility.
I definitely recommend this book as an aid to The Big Book and the programme of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Alexander McKinlay, Recovering alcoholic and addictions therapist at The Living Room, Stevenage, UK www.thelivingroom.me.uk
Why You drink and How to Stop is a must-read, user-friendly, thorough, and practical book that will help alcoholics, their families and friends, as well as any therapist working with alcoholics, to understand the alcoholic personality. It also provides practical steps to recovery; steps that anyone can follow.
Veronica Valli has written a comprehensive book on alcoholism, addiction and recovery. In this book, she shares what really works when it comes to getting sober and staying sober. I am glad she has. Read this book if you’re an alcoholic or addict and don’t know how to get sober and clean, or you know someone who is still suffering. This is an inspiring read, and I highly recommend it.
Reverend Linda Carter
The honesty and integrity of Veronica’s book are testament to her work and life. The transparency of her personal experience will encourage and inspire anyone who reads it, giving them courage and confidence that she has ‘been there, done that’ and found her way back to her true self. She shows anyone how they can do the same.
I liked Veronica’s writing style. I found her direct dialogue with the reader refreshing. I felt that she was personally speaking to me – intimately, powerfully and at the same time, providing a comfortable and accessible read.
Foreword by Danielle Lloyd
The foreword is written by Danielle LLoyd who was a client of Veronica’s and credits her in helping her overcome her depression and drink problems. She is now a married mum of 3 beautiful boys (with one more on the way).