What was the function of alcohol?

If you really want to protect yourself fully against drinking again, it's worth spending a bit of time working out what the function of alcohol was - why were you drinking?

I'm not suggesting that you've necessarily got a huge unresolved trauma, but it's likely that you were using alcohol to try to solve a problem. And as a solution, it failed - as it always does.

It might be a straightforward answer: it might be that you drank to gain confidence, and that drinking then went on to provide you with some comfort and security. These gains will only have been short term, and the negative consequences of alcohol will probably have actually made you less confident, less comfortable and less secure.

It might also be that simply by not drinking for a while, these matters will, without much thought, resolve themselves. Some drinkers just find themselves in unhappy circumstances, and have used alcohol to obliterate their ennui or their misery. In these instances, there are obvious clues about what to do. You'd need to find alternative ways of feeling OK about yourself, of relating to other people, and of soothing yourself. Or you'd need to alter whatever it is in your life that you're fed up with, rather than just masking your unhappiness.

On a more sophisticated level, I've often thought of alcohol as something that infantilises people. Regular heavy drinkers have had the way they think distorted by alcohol. Drink has often been the most valued attachment for them, and they start to behave more and more immaturely. Many long-term heavy drinkers become narcissistic, arrogant, unpleasant and impossible if they don't get what they want - not unlike a truculent teenager. A hideously drunk drunk can behave like a toddler in the 'terrible twos'. And sadly an incoherent and incontinent drunk who has to be undressed, cleaned up, and put to bed is more like a newly born baby than an adult. There are two things going on here: drinking stops you from developing emotionally, and can unravel your maturity like it's a ball of wool.

What's the solution? I think that often people need to catch up emotionally when they've stopped drinking, to do the growing up that's been inhibited and undone by drinking. But why would someone let this happen to them in the first place? Sometimes this infantilisation is a by-product of drinking, but I think sometimes it's also the primary gain. It's been a way of abrogating adult responsibilities, and maybe it's been a way of getting someone else to look after you.

There's another, similar, theory I like about drinking - that the gain for the drinker isn't the getting drunk, but the forgiveness they get afterwards from those closest to them, from the ones they've hurt most. This has been beautifully explained by the father of a therapy called transactional analysis, Eric Berne. He has the drinker's message as "look what you made me do", or "see how bad I've been; see if you can stop me!". There's a big task here for the drinker in learning how to perceive themselves, their needs and their relationships differently, and in behaving differently. If they're still in a relationship, some professional help as a couple might improve things.

There are many other common patterns. Drinkers who get drunk to express themselves, who can only vent their feelings to those closest to them when intoxicated. Again, this doesn't work, as who has ever had a constructive argument with someone who's drunk? With other drinkers, it's almost the opposite: they drink to dissociate. Alcohol helps them to separate their connections to their thoughts, feelings or their sense of identity. This process is a common psychological reaction to trauma. Alcohol can be used as a way of inducing this unhelpful and damaging strategy.

This section is only scratching the surface. It might be that you can work a lot of this stuff out on your own; equally you may have been doing some deft and nifty footwork by using alcohol to avoid things that you find uncomfortable or difficult, in which case I'd recommend finding a skilled and experienced professional to help you untangle it all. Again, if this is going on while you're drinking, then concentrate on finding someone who can help you to stop. Once you've stopped for a while, you might want to move on to a non-alcohol specialist counsellor or psychotherapist.

And finally, don't get too hung up if you can't find a reason why you were drinking. Concentrate instead on the present, and your reasons to not drink.