Alcoholism is a chronic illness that takes over the mind, and sometimes the body as well. It is extremely tough to control one’s behaviour with any addiction and alcoholics find it harder to stop than most. Sometimes, an alcoholic has to lose everything before they decide to get help. Sometimes, even hitting rock bottom is not enough.
Why can’t alcoholics stop drinking?
Alcoholism is a complex disease to treat because you have to address not only the addiction but the alcohol dependency as well. Although any addiction is not easy to recover from, alcohol in particular has many aspects that make it one of the hardest to overcome. In fact, about 90% of alcoholics relapse after treatment.
Just having an addiction leaves people powerless over their actions. With alcoholism, willpower and motivation are often not enough. That is why it is such a serious disease. Addiction can grab hold of a person in many ways and regardless of how it controls them, is hard to break free from.
One of the main problems with addiction is denial. An alcoholic may be in denial that they have a problem, or that their problem is serious. Even during recovery they may find themselves in denial as to the strength of their addiction. After a period of sobriety, they may manage to convince themselves into thinking they can drink again.
Fear of Consequences
The fear of consequences, not from drinking, but from NOT drinking can halt the recovery process as well. Alcohol can make a person feel better. Without it, their depression or anxiety can feel worse. Some long-term alcoholics become so dependent that they cannot imagine coping with life without alcohol. The thought of sobriety depresses them. Thus, people are afraid to stop drinking, thinking their low mood and other negative feelings will come back.
This is what makes dual-diagnosis patients, with comorbid mental illnesses, even harder to treat. They believe that alcohol helps them, if only temporarily. But it actually worsens the psychological problems, especially in the long run.
Similarly, an alcoholic may be afraid of admitting to alcoholism. A teenager may fear punishment from his or her parents if they confess to drinking. Someone may be afraid to take time off to go to rehab in fear of losing their job.
Alcohol is not only psychologically addictive but physically addictive as well. With long-term and/or heavy drinking, it is probable that an alcoholic will exhibit withdrawal symptoms if they stop. These symptoms are very unpleasant and can be a powerful deterrent to committing to sobriety.
Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:
- Mood swings
Alcohol Alters the Brain
Chronic drinking is known to affect the brain, sometimes permanently. In fact, someone who abuses alcohol may find themselves a different person after years of heavy drinking. Alcohol alters various parts of the brain, especially in the long-run, which can affect decision-making in time. For example, alcohol decreases activity in the frontal lobe, which worsens a person’s judgement. Poor judgement can mean minimising or not being able to understand the consequences of their drinking. Alcohol also affects the hippocampus, responsible for memory. Thus, a person may not remember previous situations where alcohol caused them problems.
Temptation is Everywhere
Alcohol is everywhere. Work events, holiday parties, free tastings, nights out with friends. It seems impossible to avoid. This is why continuing care is so important in recovery. It is much easier to deal with temptation with a strong support system and relapse-prevention skills.
There are many reasons why a person becomes an alcoholic, and there are many reasons why it is tough to quit. As with any addiction, people not only need to admit that they have a problem, but they also need to be willing and motivated to get better. Some people may find it easy to halt their addiction at an early stage. Others need to hit rock bottom before they acknowledge reality.
What is “rock bottom”?
Rock bottom does not have a set definition. It is a state of mind and depends on a number of factors. Each person defines rock bottom differently. What is considered rock bottom for one person isn’t necessarily rock bottom for someone else. To one person, it may mean a ruined relationship. For someone else, it may mean losing all their money or job. For another, it may mean the threat of death.
Rock bottom applies to alcoholics after treatment as well. Since relapse is common with alcoholism, it may be that a person does not discover their rock bottom until several attempts at sobriety.
Ultimately, rock bottom is a point where a person feels they cannot sink any lower. Although, some people do not consider rock bottom a “lowest low”, and instead, define it more of a “turning point” for their addiction. It is a shocking and often painful moment that forces people to finally face their problems. It can jump-start the path to recovery.
When Rock Bottom is Not Enough
For some people, hitting rock bottom is never enough. They think they have hit the worst case scenario of their life, only to bounce back to their addiction soon after. This can go on and on, with the person hitting a new low, a new rock bottom, each time.
This can happen for one of two reasons. First, many people with addictions, especially alcoholism, misinterpret their rock bottom. For example, a person may think a divorce means they’ll lose everything, only to realise later that they are actually happier without their partner. Second, addiction is more powerful than people realise. Even if you truly hit rock bottom but survive through it, it is very possible to forget what happened. You will either keep ending up in the same hole, or digging a deeper one.
So, does it stop? Or do some people have no rock bottom at all? At the end of the day, there is no greater loss than one’s life and sadly, there are people for whom even that does not appear to be a threat.
Does that mean there is no hope for them? Not exactly. There are many reasons why a person can be motivated to get better. A negative consequence may not work, but a positive reinforcement will.
“I’ve been in treatment for alcohol several times. It never seems to work. I think one of the reasons I started drinking is because I have always been depressed. Suicidal, even, oftentimes. Yeah, there are many good moments in my life and things I enjoy. B but at the end of the day… to put it simply, life just sucks! Alcohol helps a lot. I’ve been treated for depression as well and nothing else seems to work. Maybe it’s just me.
I think the reason treatment always fails for me is because I don’t have this “rock bottom”. Every time I thought it couldn’t get worse, I was wrong. It’s like when you have a hangover and you think you’re never drinking again, but then you just go back to it the next day. Now, I think… What’s the worst thing you can threaten me with? Death? Ha! I would probably welcome it.
I still plan to continue with treatment. I’m currently at a relapse point right now, trying to motivate myself to go back to rehab. It’s tough. Even though I don’t have a rock bottom, I have other things that have pushed me to treatment. For me it is the few positive things in life. I am not afraid of death or illness or losing all my money and being homeless. But I would like to enjoy what I can in life, such as my girlfriend, or travel. Little things like that.”
What Does a Therapist Say?
At Smarmore Castle we see many people arriving for treatment with a similar attitude to Shaun’s. It is important to remember that one of the main purposes of treatment is to help patients to identify and change self-defeating attitudes and beliefs. The fact that they display such negative attitudes on arrival is entirely understandable and is expected. People must be willing to change, and accept that change is a goal of recovery. However, provided they do, there is no reason that they can’t achieve a successful recovery through engaging in treatment.
Do I have to lose everything?
Many people assume that an addicted person needs to face dire consequences before they seek treatment or even admit to having a problem. However, this is not always the case. There are plenty of people who have sought treatment at the beginning of their addiction. Aside from losing everything, there are many other factors that motivate people to get help. Of course, this isn’t possible for everyone. An alcoholic may not be aware of their addiction, are in denial about it, or lack the proper motivation.
You don’t just have to wait for something bad to happen. For some it may be worthwhile to spend time focusing on the benefits of a sober recovery, and use that as an incentive. Having said that, the majority of people find that unless they face a serious threat to their well-being, positive motivation is not enough.
Get Help Today
No matter what motivates a person to get better, recovery is possible for anyone. It is not easy, but it is very much a reality. Having a proper treatment programme, that includes detox, therapy and continuing aftercare, is particularly important, given the high rates of relapse. Alcoholism can be difficult to treat, and may require medical supervision to ensure that withdrawal is managed safely. At Smarmore Castle, our unique treatment model and expert staff help you achieve your best chance of recovery.
Page created: 22 April, 2020 Last updated and clinically assessed 26 March, 2021