Message in a bottle

Think you don’t have a drinking problem? Your alcohol use may be masking deeper issues that need to be addressed. Words by Cynthia Hickman.

Another weekend, another round of reports about alcohol-fuelled violence on the streets. The police spokesman describes a drunken brawl where yet again someone has been seriously injured. Surely it didn’t used to be this bad? What’s going on we ask ourselves?

It can be easy to feel that our own alcohol consumption is unrelated to these news reports. But as we sit there sipping our second wine for the evening it’s worth pondering the issue a little more.

You don’t have to watch television for too long before coming across the ubiquitous scene where someone reaches for a drink to cope with a bad day. The attitude this fosters is that if you have a difficult issue or event to deal with then having a drink will make you feel better.

If our colleagues, kids, spouse, finances or workload trouble us then we reach for the bottle and “take the edge off”. No one sees anything wrong with this. It is a completely acceptable and socially sanctioned way to manage life. But it doesn’t mean it is healthy. And it may actually be more related to the street brawls than we would like to think.

Alcohol Use World Wide

When I speak to an Italian colleague about our society’s over use of alcohol she says something like, “Oh its just Anglo culture. They are so repressed they need alcohol to loosen themselves up. This wouldn’t happen in Italy or Greece. We teach our kids about alcohol from an early age, then its no big deal for them.” Another person says, “Australians aren’t cultured enough. Look at a country like France. They know how to manage alcohol. They’re more civilized than us.”

It turns out though that such stereotypical views are not borne out by the facts. Firstly the French: Pierre Kopp, a professor of Economics at the Sorbonne says that the French are actually in denial about the cost of alcohol to their community. Five million drink too much and two million are dependent. It is the number one health problem and a government commissioned report says that one in ten deaths are directly linked to alcohol. French youth binge drink just like teenagers in Australia.

So what about Italy and Greece where children are supposedly introduced to the responsible use of alcohol? It turns out that as these countries have become more affluent and permissive alcohol abuse is a growing problem. In Italy there are 60,000 alcoholics across the country. And 1.5 million people between the ages of eleven and twenty-four are at risk of alcohol abuse. In Milan for example thirty-four percent of eleven year olds have had problems with alcohol. So much for healthy Mediterranean drinking habits.

Definitions of Alcohol Use

Problems with alcohol are not just about a specific culture, they occur across the developed world. Nevertheless, someone opening their nightly bottle of wine can still feel that the issue has nothing to do with them because they don’t get into drunken brawls and they are not alcoholic.

As a psychologist I have heard many people say something like: “No, alcohol’s not a problem for me. We have a bottle of wine with dinner and sometimes I might drink a bit much on the weekend but I’m not an alcoholic or anything.” This is the same person who is turning up for counselling with his partner because they are having constant arguments that are ruining the relationship. Or they might be seeing me because depression has become an issue. They fail to make the link between the alcohol use and their presenting problem.

Personal problems can have a link with alcohol even if the person is not an alcoholic. Most people think that you only have an issue with alcohol if you are the classic alcoholic who has their first drink in the morning and continues all day from there. But the harmful influence of alcohol can be a lot more subtle.

It might be useful to get clear about levels of alcohol consumption. An alcoholic is said to be ‘alcohol dependent’. This means that the person continues drinking despite evidence of negative psychological or physical consequences such as depression or liver disease. They experience craving for alcohol, need to consume greater amounts to attain the desired effect and may experience withdrawal if they stop consumption.

A lower level of consumption is called ‘alcohol abuse’. This is where there are recurring adverse effects from alcohol consumption such as interpersonal problems, drink driving or lowered performance as a result of hangovers. There is a spectrum of alcohol abuse and most people at the lower end of the category would see nothing wrong with what they are doing. It is completely acceptable and considered normal in Australian culture for people to regularly drink to excess. People don’t realize that their low level depression, lack of motivation at work or constant arguments with their spouse are related to this regular drinking.

Although not officially categorized there is another level of consumption that I would call using ‘alcohol as a crutch’. This is where people are only drinking one or two drinks a night but they would really miss it if they had to stop. It helps them cope with life. It takes the edge off, relaxes them and is a reward for dealing with the stresses of life. It is like popping a happy pill a la George Orwell’s 1984. It keeps people comfortably numb.

Most people would see nothing wrong with daily drinking since even doctors say that it has health benefits. The trouble is that medicos are only interested in physiology. So, physiologically it might be manageable to have the recommended daily alcohol intake. Whether it is psychologically healthy is another thing.

So when is drinking a problem? When is it an addiction and when is it being used as a drug? Where does the line get drawn?

Signs that alcohol is being used as a crutch

  • Life without drinking would seem boring or empty
  • You think a drink helps manage stress
  • A drink distracts you from some problem
  • You need alcohol to have fun socially
  • You have to have a drink every day
  • You look forward to the drink and think about it during the day
  • Having a drink gives you a feeling of relief
  • You like the fuzzy numb feeling alcohol gives

Alcohol is Sneaky

“I need my glass of wine at night to cope with this stress I’m under.” “I can’t have sex without a drink. It helps me relax.” “I can be more open and lively after a couple of cocktails.” “Life is boring without a drink. It makes everything more fun.” “Alcohol helps loosen everyone up. It makes the party run smoothly.” These are some of the many reasons why people drink. They are so common and so ‘normal’ that we wouldn’t think twice about them. But it is worth a re-think.

Marion is a senior administrator for a community organization. She was experiencing mild depression and put it down to the difficult work dynamics she was dealing with. We addressed these issues but still the low mood remained. Marion eventually conceded that alcohol was contributing to this depression.

“I’m not an alcoholic by any means. I only have one drink a night. But you know, I have it every night. I could stop. But I don’t. It’s too comfortable. I look forward to that glass of wine at night. It adds a little spark to things. It helps me chill out.”

Marion decided she was going to stop this habit just as an experiment. She found that very quickly her desire to get fit returned, she went back to the gym and the depression lifted. It also lifted the lid on some deeper issues but now she had the energy to deal with them. She wasn’t ‘comfortably numb’.

I have lost count of the number of people who discover similar things about their drinking. Alcohol is sneaky. One or two drinks a night might seem harmless but it is enough to cause negative mood changes and it is enough to cover up feelings that need to be dealt with. Alcohol promises sparkle and warmth but it doesn’t actually deliver quality of life. It slowly sucks it away.

Focus: Alcohol in a Relationship

Andrew and Karen sought counselling because of their frequent and escalating fights. As their therapist I helped them uncover issues that were contributing to their disagreements. Both of them faced the problems and began to make positive changes. I remained concerned however because it became clear that the fights always happened when they had been drinking.

Like many couples, they both had a drink every night and on weekends Andrew especially would over indulge. He saw nothing wrong with this because he was not an ‘alcoholic’ so how could drinking be to blame. Even Karen didn’t want to emphasize this issue.

Andrew had a difficult family history that he had never dealt with. He used alcohol to numb the pain from this past although he wasn’t aware that this was what he was doing. When drinking he became aggressive and mean. Karen for her part had come from a family where her stepfather was an aggressive man. She had never dealt with the fear this aroused and she was repeating this pattern now with Andrew.

If you have been drinking when you have a ‘discussion’ with your partner then you put the relationship at risk. The rational, compassionate side of your self gets numbed and the bullying or cruel side gets to take over. Any damage or pain you have denied or buried will be channelled out via the alcohol-fuelled state. Harsh words get spoken and damage is done to the relationship. Let this happen too many times and the relationship gets worn down.

While Andrew and Karen learnt to manage difficult issues while sober, fights would still arise when Andrew drank too much. With some gentle persuasion they came to see the link between the two things. Fortunately Andrew was finally able to admit to his drinking problem and their relationship repair is a work in progress.

Why We Use Alcohol

There are a few reasons why we use alcohol but they all boil down to the same thing. We want to avoid the emptiness inside. We have lost touch with the fire within our deepest self so we pour alcohol in to fill the void. Instead of joining with our own soul we invite in the ‘spirits’ of the drink.

We are empty because we lack self-love. We are empty because we trade presence and self-awareness for distraction and numbness. And we are empty because we can’t be intimate with the other hurting human beings around us. Modern life for all its comfort and wealth has not delivered satisfaction and wellbeing. The kids having drunken fights in the streets are just crying out more loudly. The rest of us have learned to hide our pain within relationship difficulties or decreased work performance.

Alcohol will not help you manage the stressors of life. If you are using it to help manage or buffer some situation then what is this really saying about your capacity for self mastery? If life feels too dull without alcohol what is this saying about your quality of life? Can some substance in a bottle really be a substitute for meaning and satisfaction?

Most people are not alcoholics. Many do not abuse alcohol. But if you were to be completely honest you might find that you are using alcohol as a crutch. It might not be an addiction because you could stop whenever you wanted. But you might be using it as a drug. It is a drug if you are using it to medicate (usually unconsciously) an uncomfortable emotional or spiritual state of being. Only you can determine whether you have crossed the line. And it’s a very fine line, a mere thread. Only total honesty will reveal the truth.

We all have choices in life. Yes it is ‘normal’ to have a drink or two every night. But better to be honest about what this is really about. If you decide you want to live life with more depth you might choose differently.

To stop drinking you will need to have the courage to feel the uncomfortable emotions that might arise. You might have to speak out about relationship issues. And you may have to adjust the circumstances that are causing stress in your life. But in doing this many people find a new level of motivation, and life satisfaction results. They get closer to their true self and develop personal strength and self regard. You can walk through life on crutches or you can walk freely with clarity and grace. The choice is yours.


* Names have been changed to protect client confidentiality

Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist working in private practise in Melbourne, Australia. Tel: 0417 103 018

See her full website at

This article was first published in MiNDFOOD


Cynthia Hickman Psychologist



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