Sam Holstein

Why Alcohol Is the Problem, Not You

Why Alcohol Is the Problem, Not You

People who are regular drinkers who read my articles about alcohol tend to have the same sort of thing to say: “Well I’m glad you quit alcohol and your life is better, but you must have had a drinking problem! I mean, only people who have drinking problems need to quit to have better lives.”

It’s a line of reasoning that goes something like this:

  1. Alcohol is just a thing. It’s people who choose to use alcohol.
  2. Some people choose to use alcohol to the degree that it damages their life. Some people use alcohol in moderation and are just fine.
  3. The people who choose to use it until it damages their life may be called “problem drinkers,” while those who use it without damaging their life may be called “healthy drinkers.”

Here is my argument that no, you are wrong — I did not have an alcohol problem (any more than anyone else does, at least), and, more generally, we should stop referring to people as “having a drinking problem” because there is no such thing as a “healthy drinker.”

Alcohol is Not Just a Thing, It’s a Dangerous and Addictive Drug

The scientific consensus is that it is terrible for your mental health, physical health, so on and so forth. It’s carcinogenic, it’s bad for your heart, it erodes your liver, it causes anxiety, it causes headaches and stomach problems, the list goes on and on and on.

I could cite these claims, but these are widely understood. Google “alcohol health effects” and official pages from the CDC itself will educate you on every link.

Not only is alcohol terrible in these ways, but there is also no condition in which alcohol is a good thing. It doesn’t “help you loosen up” in social situations, or “take the edge off” after a hard day, or any other malarkey people say. It’s basically all bad.

Alcohol is Addictive

There is a scientific consensus that alcohol is addictive, which is to say, we are biologically driven to consume more and more, regardless of its effects on us.

Our brain has certain neurological pathways that are only supposed to activate when we eat well, have good relationships, etc. Alcohol short-circuits those pathways and makes us feel good in the absence of actual good. Our brains begin to crave alcohol at the expense of things we actually need.

Everyone is familiar with the trope of the drug addict jonesing for a hit, but by the time you know you’re having drug cravings, you’re already in way too deep. Most drug cravings feel like totally normal urges — hey, wouldn’t it be so nice to go unwind at the bar after work?

Everyone Is a Little Addicted

Everyone in our society is exposed to alcohol, so we all have the “taste,” which is to say, we have been exposed to its pleasurable addictive properties. We all think a drink after work is a decent way to unwind.

In a society where no one was ever exposed to alcohol, no one would ever think “I just need some kind of drugged liquid to unwind after work.” People wouldn’t live without alcohol and think something is missing. In fact, we’d be a lot better off.

We don’t live in that world. We live in a world where alcohol use is so natural that people think it’s weird if you don’t drink poison occasionally.

Everyone Who Uses Alcohol is Damaged By Their Use

As we just discussed, alcohol is not an inert thing. It’s an inherently attractive poison, and we’ve all been exposed and culturally conditioned to use it. It’s like a giant societal whirlpool sucking us into alcohol use.

Not everyone gets sucked in the same way. Some people get less pleasure from the drug and more sickness, so they naturally drink very little of the poison. Some people are emotionally suffering and the feeling of pleasure from the poison is one of the few reliable ways they have to feel good, so they drink a lot. Some people evolved a parasitic relationship with alcohol, and now, their brain requires alcohol to function.

You might say these people have “a problem” with alcohol. After all, some people drink relatively little and don’t suffer many consequences. But moderate drinkers are still suffering consequences proportional to their alcohol use. It is still causing cancer, destroying their liver and heart, upending their emotional health, and emptying their bank account. Just less so.

And in a society where everyone is a drinker to some degree, the damage from drinking becomes so normalized we see it as part of the wear and tear of life. People think their moderate drinking has no consequences because everyone’s suffering the same health problems and no one thinks “maybe it’s the booze that’s doing it.”

My grandfather has abstained from alcohol since he was in his twenties. He didn’t quit because he had “an alcohol problem,” he quit because he realized early that it’s just poison. He’s in his eighties now, and he’s still living his best life, despite a heart valve replacement and diabetes. He takes OK care of himself, but he’s not a health nut. He just hasn’t accumulated the damage that decades of “healthy drinking” does, and his body is rewarding him for it. He’s my elective sobriety role model.

For some people, alcohol is a big problem. For others, alcohol is a small problem. But for everyone who uses alcohol, alcohol is a problem.

Whether you end up with a big or small alcohol problem mostly comes down to luck.

There is no invisible line dividing the “alcoholics” or “problem drinkers” from the “normal, healthy drinkers.” There are only “drinkers,” and all of them suffer.

It’s Not Your Fault You Have an Alcohol Problem…

We shouldn’t stigmatize people based on the size of their alcohol problem because the cards are stacked against us. Many people start drinking as teenagers and alcohol is so common that it’s impossible to socialize as an adult without everyone expecting you to have a drink or two. Just a handful of tiny mistakes early in life can easily careen someone down the path of a big alcohol problem.

All in all, whether you end up with a big or small alcohol problem mostly comes down to luck.

And accordingly, whether you’ve solved your alcohol problem (or at least made it smaller) has a lot to do with luck too! Not everyone experiences cravings in the same way, nor are we exposed to the same situational and environmental factors. It’s easier to quit drinking if you don’t have a whole host of friends hassling you to come out to the bars at night.

…But It Is Your Fault If You Haven’t Solved It

One of the unfortunate responsibilities of adulthood is recognizing that even if most of your problems aren’t your fault, it’s up to you to solve them anyway. That goes for alcohol as well. Alcohol will continue to cause problems in your life, big or small, until you don’t allow it to anymore.

In Conclusion: “Healthy Drinkers” Don’t Exist

If you’re reading this article and you do drink regularly, you may feel a little attacked. It isn’t my intention to make you feel bad. I don’t even necessarily want you to quit drinking! But I do want you to see we are living under a mass delusion that alcohol is an innocent substance when it is, in fact, a highly dangerous and addictive drug.¹

There is no “healthy” use for highly dangerous, addictive drugs. All use is problem use. Every drinker suffers health difficulties, financial strain, and emotional upsets to the degree that they drink, whether a little or a lot. The only way to escape the problems of alcohol is to stop drinking alcohol.

We aren’t the problem because we are hurt when we drink poison. It is normal to be hurt by drinking poison. The poison is the problem.

By all means, keep drinking poison in moderation, but don’t make others feel inferior because they don’t want to drink poison anymore.

1: I haven’t even “quit drinking” the way Alcoholics Anonymous defines it. I still use cannabis, I still go to bars and use cannabis while my friends drink their fill, and if a friend of mine insists their drink is good, I still have a taste. My sobriety is less of an ironclad commitment to quit and more of a recognition of the fact that alcohol is poison, which makes me naturally not really want a drink in the first place.

I want the same for you; don’t burden yourself with the notion of “quitting,” just learn to see alcohol for the poison that it is, and your desire to drink alcohol may fade on its own.