Lawyers & Liquor: How To Change Your Relationship With Alcohol
As Auckland re-entered level 3 lockdown many of us filled our shopping trolleys with comfort food like crisps, flour for baking, chocolate and enough alcohol to see us through a week at home. It is fitting that I’ve collaborated with Simone Barclay, founder of Think Straight to explore how to change your relationship with alcohol, if this is something you’ve been thinking about.

Simone is an expert in this field. She holds a MSc in Psychology and has been working with people who want to change their relationship with alcohol for more than 15 years. She offers her clients insight and compassion, drawing from her own recovery from alcohol dependence over 20 years ago.  

She also understands lawyers – she is married to one – and many of her clients are legal professionals. She is aware of the high-pressure, high-performance environment that creates a perfect storm for problematic drinking patterns.

PoP: What are the common barriers and triggers people face when they are thinking about changing their drinking habits? 

SB: One of the primary reasons people balk at the notion of changing their drinking habits is alcohol’s ubiquity in our society. In reality, we don’t get together just to consume alcohol, any more than we go out to dinner just to eat food. When alcohol is a feature of almost every social occasion, the thought of abstaining seems, to many people, like they would be cutting themselves off socially and professionally. 

Additionally, there’s a widely held misperception about anyone with an ‘alcohol problem’ and this creates a fear of being labelled an alcoholic. Again, the reality is quite different. People change their drinking habits for myriad reasons – only one of which is an existing or potential dependency issue. 

Unfortunately, because of the stigma around being labelled an alcoholic, it’s often only after some regretful alcohol-related event – maybe a DUI or social faux pas – that people will start to genuinely reflect on whether their drinking is serving them. I advocate taking action when that concerned voice in the back of your mind first makes its presence felt. At this point, the steps necessary to creating a healthier relationship with alcohol can be much more achievable. 

PoP: What would you say to the lawyer who is concerned that taking steps to change their relationship with alcohol might mean they can never enjoy a drink again?

SB: Whenever anyone begins to think about changing their relationship with alcohol, they almost inevitably jump directly to this extreme scenario. It is important to remember that total abstinence is only one option on a continuum of alternatives and is only mandated for a very small percentage of people.  

I’d reassure them that seeking help means they will have control towards reaching their desired outcome, rather than having abstinence thrust upon them. I encourage focussing on choice: it’s down to the individual to clearly identify the positives and negatives of their alcohol consumption and choose the outcome they want to achieve. Success is dependent upon the steps toward change being voluntary and geared towards a desired outcome.  

PoP: What is the key to tackling problematic drinking and what are some traps to avoid? 

SB: I believe you need to be honest with yourself and develop the capacity to truly and fearlessly evaluate the role alcohol is playing in your life, and accurately appraise the costs and benefits. I say fearlessly because very often, an evaluation is clouded by what we ‘fear’ the outcome will be. ‘Will I have to give up entirely?’, ‘What will people think?’, ‘Will I be able to have fun socially?’ or ‘Will I have the confidence to network effectively?’ These are just a few of the concerns which are natural, but may cause someone to minimise the true costs of their drinking and so justify minimal, or even  no change. 

Making a note of these anxieties as they arise is really valuable. It gives us information on what may be driving problematic behaviour and about the misgivings which can sabotage successful change. In almost all cases, most fears dissolve upon close scrutiny. Getting professional help with this can be vital.

I also believe it’s important to avoid setting lofty goals when in an ambitious frame of mind. This mood too often fades, leaving us with seemingly impossible resolutions that are subsequently abandoned. It’s also important to remember that ambivalence is a normal part of any change process. We frequently vacillate over whether we want to change at all, what form that change should take and about the right time to begin. If we are tackling smaller, more manageable goals the likelihood of regressing because of ambivalence is reduced.

PoP: How can someone create new drinking habits or break old ones?

When it comes to drinking, research suggests that three months is the timeframe needed to establish physical and psychological equilibrium, which is why I typically recommend beginning with three months alcohol-free. This period is a time to re-set and a chance to develop a relationship with drinking which is much more mindful and focussed on the outcomes we want. 

This period is also a great opportunity to identify key triggers, as well as reactions and emotions which have been previously moderated by alcohol consumption, such as stress, frustration and fatigue. It provides time to start building effective strategies to mediate these emotions and also gives you a chance to address other issues that arise, including misconceptions around the benefit of alcohol use. For example, many people have a few drinks because it helps them get to sleep. However, alcohol-induced sleep is extremely non-restorative and actually interferes with our body’s ability to rest and recharge. Similarly, stress relief is a common driver for alcohol consumption, yet alcohol actually increases anxiety and inhibits our capacity for effective problem-solving by anaesthetising the brain’s frontal lobe. What becomes apparent to many people during this three-month period is that developing functional stress-management and sleep-inducing strategies is vastly more beneficial than having a few drinks.

PoP: When is it best for people to seek external support, rather than trying to tackle behaviour change around alcohol alone? 

SB: Getting help with this issue is never a bad idea but I believe there are two situations when it’s critical:

1.     To work through issues that arise as a result of making the change. So often alcohol isn’t the real problem – it’s used as a solution. When you take the solution away, the original problem remains, in all its glory. It may be something as simple as boredom, underlying anxiety or more complex emotional matters. Whatever it is, getting professional assistance to unpick the issues and tackle them directly is going to ensure they don’t remain as a driver to return to old drinking behaviours. 

2.     When several unsuccessful attempts to change behaviour have already been made. It’s very easy to develop a sense of futility and of being ‘stuck’ in the problem. The mistake many make is to try the same strategy over and over, each time vowing to ‘try harder’ and each time adding to the growing sense of frustration. There’s an old adage that doing the same thing over and over, while expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. It can certainly feel like insanity because what seems so straightforward in many areas of life is a lot more counter-intuitive when it comes to using the drug alcohol. A professional can help explain the science behind successful alcohol-related behaviour change and provide the support you need to reach your goals.

For a confidential free chat about my mentoring & coaching services, please contact me HERE.