Updated: Jan 27
"I don't need alcohol to see the world in its depths. I carry the sun in me." ~Lamine Pearlheart
Why do people drink alcohol? Without any notion of good or bad, ethical or unethical, healthy or unhealthy, from a position of genuine curiosity and exploration, why do people drink alcohol? If we talk statistics, alcohol consumption today is higher than it ever has been. I won’t bore you with research papers, but here are some numbers according to the World Health Organisation (WHO):
Alcohol represents over 5% of all deaths worldwide, with 3 million deaths every year
The harmful use of alcohol brings significant social and economic losses to individuals and society
There is a causal relationship between the harmful use of alcohol and a range of mental and behavioral disorders
If we were to write up a pros and cons list of drinking alcohol, there isn't much to go on about. For instance, alcohol isn’t necessarily cheap. While this may vary from country to country, the average price of even the cheapest form of alcohol, is in most cases still more expensive than water, or most soft drinks for that matter. It also has a cyclic effect, where one’s tendency to spend money increases with the increase in alcohol intake. Alcohol is calorie dense, with 7 calories per gram, keeping aside the sugars present in any mixers that may come with the drinks; and so it’s not something that can help with our fitness goals.
Alcohol has become such an important part of our society’s culture, that it’s difficult to imagine a social setting completely devoid of some form of alcohol. Whether we talk about work based social gatherings, celebratory events, parties, or even hanging out with friends and family; alcohol has become a widely accepted social norm. If one were to attend one of these events, and if they're someone that doesn’t drink alcohol; they'd be lucky to get by without at least one person asking them to drink. Better yet, they'd likely be ridiculed for 'missing out on the fun'. The purpose of this article is not to pass judgment on those who drink versus those who don’t. There is no notion of good or bad here. Everything has a reason, some are easy to recognise, some require some introspection. After all, if we don’t know why we do what we do, then are we really the ones doing what we’re doing in the first place?
Beneath the Surface
Simply put, people drink alcohol, to get drunk. Sounds obvious when put this way, but depending on who you ask, you may find a series of alternate responses that conceal this underlying truth. For example, you might say that you like the taste of certain alcohol, or that you drink for social reasons, or if there’s an event in your life or someone else’s life such as a promotion, a birthday, a wedding or even a breakup. Alternatively, you might just say you drink to have fun, and that without alcohol, you can’t have fun if you were to meet your friends, go to a club, and so on.
If we look closely and really inspect any of these reasons, we’ll quickly see the hints of neglect in each of these statements.
If someone were to offer you a variant of your favourite alcohol, with the same taste, but without the alcohol content itself, would you drink it? Or, if your purpose to drink is to celebrate a promotion, then can you experience the same level of joy and excitement drinking, say, orange juice? Similarly, if you’re drinking because you’re with your friends, then is it possible for you to enjoy their company without drinking alcohol? If going to a club is fun, then can you experience the same level of fun, if you were to go in a sober state? If your answer to any of these, is a 'no', then it's clear that your source of enjoyment does not lie within the respective activities themselves, but within the fact that you're getting drunk. If your answer to any of those is a yes, then simply ask yourself that if don’t need alcohol to get by any of those circumstances, and if you still choose to consume alcohol, then why you’re doing so.
To get drunk?
This brings me to my next question, which essentially is the heart of this topic: Is that why do people like getting drunk? There must be something special in that feeling of being drunk that inclines people towards it, despite everything else that comes with it.
Alcohol in the Brain
Before getting into why getting drunk feels good, it's useful to explore what really goes on inside our brain when we consume alcohol. Science hats on.
Whenever we consume something, our body needs to metabolise it. This means that the body is processing the substance and combining it with oxygen to make it into a form that can be used. Any food we ingest goes through this process and so, usable energy is created. Alcohol also needs to be metabolised, but it goes through a different method. To metabolise alcohol, our liver produces two enzyme: Alcohol Dehydrogenase (ADH) and Aldehyde Dehydrogenase (ALDH). These enzymes help break apart the alcohol molecule, making it possible to eliminate it from the body as it is a toxin. This can take time, as the liver takes 15-20 minutes to process the alcohol. Simply put, if our alcohol intake exceeds your body’s ability to metabolise it, you experience intoxication or get drunk.
Intoxication goes through multiple stages as the alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways and how your brain processes information.
Euphoria: During the beginning stages of drinking, your brain releases dopamine, the notorious chemical neurotransmitter associated with pleasure, and serotonin, associated with happiness. Dopamine and Serotonin released together are powerful mechanisms that drive addiciton. During this stage, you typically feel relaxed, confident and aloof as your reasoning may be impaired. This is commonly known as the feeling of being ‘tipsy’ or ‘buzzed’.
Intoxication: As your blood alcohol content (BAC) goes up, the inxotication level affects the different lobes of your brain which interfere with their functions, causing blurred vision, interrupted speech and hearing and lack of control. As a result, mood swings and nausea may follow as your senses begin to deceive you.
Disorientation: With higher BAC, your cerebellum which helps with coordination is affected, changing your ability to stand and walk. The hippocampus, associated with making new memories is affected, and so loss of consciousness and memory follow.
Anything beyond this, has the potential to cause blackout, suffocation, compromised respiration, coma and death.
After the overconsumption of alcohol, a hangover may occur, where the toxicity of the enzyme Acetaldehyde changes the level of electrolytes, and blood sugar levels in the body, causing dehydration, nausea and sluggishness. It’s possible that most people who drink alcohol, are fully aware of these effects that alcohol can have on the body. It’s clear that as far as the pros and cons go, the scale tips closer to the latter. Then why is it that despite this, people choose to get drunk?
The Parallel Reality
Getting drunks feels good, because in that state, it appears as though all our life’s problems have been solved. The caveat though, is they haven’t actually been solved. In essence, they’ve just been paused or put on hold. Our minds are more powerful than we can imagine, and when we’re overcome by thoughts that induce moments of stress, anxiety, paranoia and depression, dealing with them can seem like a monumental task. These thoughts may appear throughout our day, affecting how we behave at work, with friends or even in our company, as our minds face absolute delirium.
Alcohol numbs pain, and presents us with an illusion that things are fine just the way they are. This in turn saps our willingness and ability to change our lives for the better. The most interesting of all, is that all this happens in the moment, without us realising that it’s all an illusion. Every thing we experience in life, is through consciousness. All we have is consciousness and its contents. It’s no different to when we’re asleep and dreaming, the dream feels like reality. When we close our eyes, we leave this world and enter another world that feels real to us for the next 7-8 hours or so. We don’t know we’re dreaming when we’re dreaming, unless of course you’re Leonardo Di Caprio from Inception.
Similarly, when we’re drunk, we don’t think about the fact that the state in which our mind is in, numbed of its senses and memories in nothing more than an illusion. One that conceals the hidden perturbed state it will default back to the next day. A good way to put it is, that the perceived happiness you feel for those hours while you’re drunk, is simply you borrowing happiness from the time you’re going to be hungover the next day. In a drunken state, the alcoholic surrenders to the mind-altering substance, and loses any inhibitions that help find value through their relationship with others and the world. The intoxication overcomes any commitment to work, family and friends. One can describe the experience of being drunk, as a feeling of freedom, or as a form of escapism; as if the shackles that every day life has on us, have been broken off. Once again, the more we examine this analogy, the easier it is to see through how incomplete this experience is.
You can only be free, if you’re not free to begin with. Subsequently, if you require alcohol to feel free, then by definition the claim is that in your sober states, you’re not free. In all those times during the day when you’re not drunk, you’re shackled by responsibilities, by thoughts, worries, stress, anxiety, and so on. Confronting these thoughts in the mind can be intimidating, as the questions of one’s self enter the mix. This psychological inquisition can be discomforting, and the mere thought of it is met with disdain as we reach for another glass of alcohol, in the hopes that the buzz doesn’t end.
In the hopes that we don’t fall back into the reality of our life.
End of the Tunnel
It’s important to accept that true happiness, cannot come from anything external, whether that be alcohol or anything else. If alcohol really had the power to give us happiness and fulfilment, all we would need is one drink for a lifetime. I’m in no position to comment on whether alcohol is a problem you need solved in your life, that’s one only you can ask yourself. How long do we want to continue this constant pausing and resuming of our mind’s problems, this bandaid of recovery.
Acknowledging the mind and the contents of consciousness can be a useful place to start a more long lasting healing process. One way to do this is to find yourself alongside people who experience similar problems and thoughts, and openly talk about them in a space free of judgment. Sharing whatever is worrying you with someone close to you, without any notion of finding a solution can be comforting. Suffering is an inevitable part of life. This process can ease the mind of any shackles it may feel it has.
Next, find alternate sources of happiness and pleasure in your life, to get those feelings of excitement and euphoria from time to time. This can be any hobby, passion or even hanging out with those close to you. Mindfulness meditation is powerful, and can be practiced with guidance. There’s plenty of guided mindfulness meditation content online, starting from as little as 5 minutes per day that can help ease you into your mind. Without being too critical of yourself, try your hand at it. While this may not sound like an exact substitution for alcohol, note that I'm not suggesting that giving up alcohol altogether is necessary. If you’re someone who occasionally enjoys a drink or two with friends every once in a while, then the alcohol is no different to any other pleasure of life, and so the whole ‘moderation is the key’ principle can apply. The difference to be drawn is that between having alcohol, and having alcohol specifically to get drunk. To get the feeling of the buzz that makes you feel like all your life’s problems have been solved.
These are a few methods can help you come to terms with the contents of your mind, and so, the question is no longer: ‘should you drink alcohol?’, but rather, ‘do you need alcohol?’. As hard as it may sound to imagine, it is possible to feel no difference in one’s state of mind when one’s drunk versus when they’re sober. As if one is perpetually drunk, tipsy and buzzed without the influence of alcohol, all the time in their daily life; because you can only ‘loosen up’ if you’re tight to begin with.
Doesn’t that sound better, rather than just being drunk for a few hours?