When I first drank it felt great. I could join in, I was sociable, I had fun, I was relaxed and I felt like I was somebody. I liked it. Drinking was good, so I did it again.
I drank to get the same feelings as I did the first time, and I did this again and again, but soon when I drank I didn’t get the same result… I got slightly less. My body got better at cleaning away alcohol, so I had to drink faster and I had to drink more to get the same effect.
So I drank faster and I drank more.
Over the years I slowly drank more and more. The change was so slow it was imperceptible but I drank more, I drank more often, I drank too much more often, and the spaces between the times I drank too much grew smaller.
As my drinking slowly changed I changed with it.
My brain changed to offset the changes caused by large and routine doses of alcohol. My brain was being made artificially happy. It was getting more happiness than it ordered, so it lowered the amount of the happy chemicals it produced. It changed everything else it was getting too much of too.
This made me less happy, less sociable, and less relaxed whenever I was sober. A drink would fix this but I now had to drink enough to bring these back up to normal before I could even start to get happy.
I was unhappy whenever I was sober. I was lonely whenever I was sober, and I was restless and anxious whenever I was sober. I drank to lift myself from being unhappy, lonely and anxious… which was every time I was sober. So I drank whenever I was sober.
The more I drank the more my brain changed. Eventually I couldn’t drink enough to get happy. I couldn’t stop shaking until I drank, and I couldn’t be sociable until I was already drunk.
When I first drank it felt great. I could join in, I was sociable, I had fun, I was relaxed and I felt like I was somebody. But it didn’t stay like that.
I drank for fun but it made me unhappy. I drank for friendship but it made me alone. I drank for relaxation but it made me anxious. I drank for confidence but it made me afraid, and I drank for comfort but ended up in despair.
I chose none of that.
My brain never told me to not drink. My brain only ever told me that a drink would be good or that a drink would make me feel better. My brain lied to me.My fight wasn’t with the bottle. My fight was with my own brain. Some days it still is.
I write about alcoholism and recovery under the name Stan West.
I have three books on the subject and these are available for free download from my blog: https://lyingminds.sixboats.co.nz/links/
I knew for a long time what happened if I didn’t drink in the evening… I wouldn’t sleep. But what I didn’t realise was that this only showed me one of several changes that had occurred in my brain and body as they adapted to a daily assault of alcohol.
What follows is a description of what happens to us when we drink heavily over an extended period and then suddenly stop.
Alcohol in the brain changes how we feel and it acts as a sedative. Alcohol changes our mood in two ways; we get happy and we become more socially confident. The happiness is caused by an increase in dopamine, and the social confidence comes from an increase in serotonin. The slowing down in the brain comes from changes in two other chemicals; GABA and glutamate. When we drink we get happy, and if we drink enough we will become so socially confident that we will dance on tables to show everyone what great dancers we are. Unfortunately, just when the alcohol is making us feel great it is also slowing down mental function… and we stop being able to do complicated things quickly enough to complete them successfully, things like maintaining balance and speaking clearly.
Anyone who drinks enough will experience these effects. But when we drink heavily AND regularly then some changes start to occur in our brain and our body, and it is these changes that cause us so much trouble.
The simplest change happens in our stomach and intestine. Alcohol is broken down there by an enzyme, and when we drink often then our body produces more of this enzyme. This means that our bodies process away alcohol more quickly, and we have to drink more to get the same effect. We drink more, and we drink more quickly. But it is the changes in our brain that cause the real trouble. Our brain recognises that it is getting more dopamine and serotonin than it ordered and it regulates down the amount of these. This makes us less happy and less socially engaged when we are sober. Our brain also reacts to the daily slowing caused by our drinking by increasing brain speed and by increasing our alertness level. This makes us feel restless and on-edge when we are sober. Drinking returns all of these things to their normal levels, so we now drink to escape feeling ill-at-ease and down. Drinking more causes these adaptations to become more pronounced until we feel miserable, lonely, anxious and jumpy with a racing mind when sober… alcohol returns these to normal levels, but we need to drink more to achieve this. Eventually though we end up depressed, isolated, and anxiety-ridden, consumed by thoughts about our problems and we can no longer drink enough to get happy… we pass out first.
These are the adaptations that occur when we drink heavily over an extended period, and these adaptations are still present when we stop drinking. When we stop then the reason for these changes is no longer present. When we don’t dose ourselves daily with alcohol we suddenly feel these changes fully;
• our mind churns and churns, • we are so restless that we can’t sleep • our heart is pounding ready to respond to some emergency and this makes us hot • we feel miserable • we feel alone
This is what happens when we stop drinking. But these changes are not permanent. Just as they built up slowly over time they reverse themselves out. The first of these to return to normal is sleep. Our “flight-or-fight” mechanism stands down from high-alert; our pulse slows, the overheating stops and we become able to sleep again. These happen somewhere between one and three weeks. Our minds slow down after that and our mind stops racing, and the last changes; lowered mood and sociability drift back upwards, but much more slowly; this happens over months not days or weeks. These are the physiological changes that are caused by alcohol. These will correct themselves once we stop drinking, but the psychological damage we have done persists; we have to work at those to set them straight again.
If you have just stopped drinking then you should know that sleeplessness, a racing mind, restlessness, and overheating are perfectly normal and to be expected; they are your body reacting to the sudden lack of alcohol and they will right themselves in due course. This is normal and it is what should be happening; you are healing… keep going!
Thank you for this post. This is a whole book condensed into one clear article. I found it particularly helpful to learn that some changes happen over the course of months. I was a fairly outgoing social person before I began regularly dousing my brain with liquid insanity. I do feel like I’m starting to regain some of my real self. Knowing that I’ll eventually heal is comforting. Thank you for taking the time to share this.
Hi @aprilsfool That is remarkably perceptive of you; yes, it is a synopsis of a part of a book. It is called “Alcoholism in a nutshell”. It is written so that people can understand the beast they are fighting and not be suddenly surprised by the challenges it throws at us: forewarned is forearmed. It is written to help people who are trying to stop drinking and anyone is most welcome to download a copy of the eBook from my blog, here: https://lyingminds.sixboats.co.nz/links/
Oh my goodness DaveH your timing on posting this is spot on – you made me cry (from relief that someone gets how I’m feeling) ….I’m only day 4 today and I feel all of of the above …..I’ve had a crap nights sleep, my head feels like it’s in a vice and very foggy…… and emotional 😭. And I have to carry on today (family all coming round for an Easter dinner celebration) pretending to everyone around me life is good and hide this raging internal war that is going on inside . I think I will re read your post a hundred times today, thank you thank you 🙏
Thankyou @daveH for this informative post with such vital information. So importmant to be reminded of how our brain reacts to the onslaught of alcohol consumption!! How do I save this post for later reference anyone??
@Annie do you see the outline of a star under Dave’s profile picture in this post? Click on that and it will fill in. By doing that you will have saved the post to ‘my favourites’. Look under the text box at the top of the webpage where you can write a new post. You’ll see ‘all members’, ‘my favourites’ and ‘mentions’. Click on ‘my favourites’ and you should see Dave’s post saved.
Love this Dave! What I know now though is that when I was drinking daily (and a lot) I wasn’t sleeping. I was passing out. I would literally be gone in about 3 seconds. My husband was always amused at how quickly I could “fall asleep”…but then awaken suddenly 3-4 hours later and be wide awake for the next several hours. I’m finally sleeping at night. I am tired from the day and genuinely fall asleep. I don’t sleep well but I’m hoping it improves. Beats waking up with a hangover any day. ox