Growing up as the child of an alcoholic, in a rigidly religious home, I learned a few things about life in general. Some were unfortunate observations, like “making mistakes means you’ll be judged and treated as defective or unlovable.” And some I didn’t really understand until I was grown, like “‘Do as I say, not as I do’ is not an effective parenting style (especially for a naturally inquisitive and rebellious kid).”
My most notable takeaway, though, was that it is not ok not to be ok.
Maybe your situation was different – but for so many of us, the lesson was the same:
We should deny our truest, deepest feelings, at any cost. We should keep our emotions secret so other people don’t know we’re struggling. We should avoid being vulnerable enough to reach out for help, especially in the times we need support most.
From an early age, I learned to bury myself under heaps of shame and the weight of a thousand ‘shoulds’, hiding from the judgments of others. I felt a surreal safety there, despite the heaviness. If nobody knew things were not ok, life felt calmer — at least on the surface.
Inside, a storm was brewing that would carry through into my early adulthood and beyond. I followed in my father’s footsteps, turning to alcohol whenever I felt ‘not ok.’ On the inside, it numbed me enough to forget about my discomfort, at least temporarily. On the outside, it was a facade that made me seem normal. I blended effortlessly into a sea of pretending-to-be-ok faces.
In hindsight, it’s crystal clear to me that was a big part of my problem:
I believed I was the only one pretending. I didn’t realize that the sea I was blending into was filled with people who were just as ‘not ok’ as me.
It’s easy, in our society, to appear to be ok behind the mask of alcohol.
It is common for people to declare, “I need a drink!” in a moment of stress and be completely understood by most adults within hearing distance. It is customary for alcohol to be present at most major life events – weddings, funerals, birthdays, promotion celebrations, holiday parties – as well as restaurants, festivals, theaters, etc. It is literally everywhere we look.
Alcohol is so normalized, non-drinkers are frequently questioned for NOT drinking. Misery loves company, right? And if most everyone masks their not ok-ness with alcohol, then the simple fact that this practice is considered ‘normal’ becomes a sort of contorted stamp of approval on our ok-ness.
The truth is, when everyone is equally numbed out and unaware that we’re not alone in feeling not ok – we unwittingly meld into the collective sea of pretenders.
Even if you’re reading this and thinking, “I didn’t grow up in an alcoholic home,” you might still relate to using alcohol as a means to blend in, numb your discomfort, or deal with stress.
It’s understandable. We’ve been trained this way all our lives. Our culture reinforces these reactions and expects us not to notice that, deep down, these methods are just not working to make us feel happy, fulfilled, or even ‘ok’ at the most basic level.
Once my eyes and heart were opened to this, I felt like a massive weight had been lifted. I could let go of the shame and fear of judgement just by accepting my situation for what it was. I realized this simple truth:
You don’t have to be an alcoholic to want to change your relationship with alcohol.
It’s time to consider that there is actually a positive reason for questioning your consumption of alcohol, despite all the signs around you that say otherwise: YOU are meant for better than this. This understanding empowers us to see past our fear to the deeper truths about what alcohol really does to us, physically, mentally, and emotionally. We can reclaim control of our negative reaction patterns.
We can reclaim control of our lives.
It wasn’t until I did this, 30+ years after my first sip of alcohol, that I came to realize the following hidden realities about alcohol that I’d never heard anyone talk about. These are just a few of the science-based truths that motivated me to rethink that drink, and then give it up for good.
1. The stress relief elixir that aggravates anxiety
Though, initially, we feel a calming effect, drinking actually intensifies anxiety and irritability. We believe that alcohol helps relieve stress because it takes our mind off of our stressors, even as it’s worsening them. This study shows that alcohol literally rewires our brains to make them unable to deal with stress.
Another element of anxiety comes as a result of cognitive dissonance: When we recognize that our drinking habits don’t feel good, yet we believe that addressing them means admitting we ‘have a problem.’ The fear of this keeps us trapped in shame, prevents us from exploring alternatives or reaching out for support, and causes massive exacerbation of stress. Unfortunately, this can also keep us stuck in a damaging pattern of stress-related drinking.
2. The sleepytime tonic that intensifies fatigue
The sedative effects of alcohol naturally wear off after just a few hours. As defined by the Student Health Services Department at UC Davis, the Metabolic Rebound Effect is this process where, as the alcohol leaves your blood, your body becomes more alert and begins to rev up your metabolism. At this stage, REM sleep is disrupted. REM (rapid eye movement) stage sleep is essential to recovery, memory, and learning, as well as stress resilience.
In other words, interruption of restorative sleep cycles causes increased stress responsivity. This means we are way more likely to feel anxious upon those unplanned wakeups and have difficulty returning to sleep. We are also more susceptible to heightened stress reactions in our everyday lives. This pattern keeps us stuck in exhaustion, creating a snowball effect of stress.
3. The socializing potion that provokes disconnection
From childhood we’ve observed, with few exceptions, our parents, friends- and even people in TV, movies, and ads- appearing to enjoy moderate, “responsible” drinking. These experiences formed beliefs in our unconscious minds, teaching us that alcohol is pleasurable, sophisticated, and not only socially acceptable, but often ‘necessary’ for enjoying or enduring many situations.
However, drinking actually numbs us out, so we are not fully engaged nor present with those around us. We are not our true selves. We are not authentically expressed. Our dissociated state is, in fact, driving a wedge between ourselves and others. Yet all the while, we convince ourselves this is an effective method of connecting with them. This wreaks havoc on our relationships and inflicts pain on those who care about us most – those treasured few who love us as we really are. The long-term effects of alcohol use can also increase risk of dementia, a condition which can cause people to forget even those closest to them, devastating families.
Another thing to consider is what our behavior says about some of the people we’re allowing to take up precious real estate in our mental and emotional space. If we feel we need alcohol in order to tolerate them, maybe we would be best served to reevaluate the status of their presence in our lives.
4. The mood boosting libation that flattens our feelings
In many people’s minds, alcohol is a quick and easy cure for a bad mood. But in our attempts to bypass our emotions, drinking actually robs us of the ability to manage them. Suppressing our emotions compounds them, causing unhappiness, frustration, or anger to last longer and run deeper than if we just acknowledged and unpacked it at the onset.
There is a physiological aspect to this, as well. Alcohol does initially cause a surge of feel-good chemicals to flood the brain. This makes us feel like the alcohol has boosted our mood. In this sense, it has — temporarily. But it doesn’t take long for the brain to address this by getting to work to rebalance these levels of neurotransmitters. To do this, the brain uses a counterbalance approach, actually dropping our levels lower than they were before we had a drink, in order to return them to baseline.
Over time, the artificial ‘feel good’ stimulation our brains receive from drinking makes us neurologically unable to experience the pleasure we once did from everyday activities we enjoyed, like seeing a friend, reading a book, or even having sex. These effects are not limited to the time while we are drinking.
5. The ‘not ok’ fixer that sullies our senses
It’s hard to argue with the fact that some of the most pleasurable of all human experiences are sensory. Think of your favorite joy-inducing sights and sounds… A gorgeous sunset. The face and voice of your beloved child. Imagine a scent that instantly instills comfort or conjures a cherished memory… The mouthwatering aroma of your grandma’s pies baking in the oven, or the soothing perfume of your favorite forest or garden. Recall the sensual flavor and texture experience of indulging in your absolute favorite foods. Tune in to the exuberant feelings you receive from a fervent kiss or loving hug.
These are exactly the sensations we need to plug into when we’re feeling not ok – and yet instead, we turn to a solution which shuts off our perceptions of these. If you’ve ever witnessed someone else drinking while you are not, you’ve likely noticed their tendency to speak more loudly, have decreased reaction to pain, or exhibit difficulty seeing clearly from what would normally be a reasonable distance. These are examples of how alcohol literally deadens our senses – which means it also depresses our capabilities for pleasure and joy.
As you can see, using alcohol to cover our not ok-ness not only misses the mark – it makes life even more messy and unpleasant.
Life is too short and too precious to live it any other way than what feels right and good in the long term.
This means feeling our feelings – all of them. This might be uncomfortable at times, but it is necessary. We cannot feel the fullness of the good, without experiencing the entire scope of our emotions.
Instead of numbing, denying, avoiding this truth – YOUR TRUTH – I invite you to experiment with a new approach:
Embrace this newfound awareness.
Listen to yourself — heart, mind, soul. What are you longing for? Really??
Take the steps to create it.
Notice when you’re reaching for a drink to mask your not-okness.
Try switching that with something that makes you FEEL ALIVE
… and then keep doing it!
Cut the fluff that sucks your precious time & energy and, honestly, just feels shitty. There is no space for it here.
BE the woman who is so fiercely in love with herself and her life, she is vibrant, glowing, unfuckwithable – knowing it is ok to not be ok sometimes.