science of us

The Book Newly Sober People Love to Give to Each Other

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When she was 35 and working as a marketing executive, Annie Grace was also drinking two bottles of wine a night. She’d taken breaks from drinking to have children, and she was able to abstain during the work week if she wanted to, but she still felt like alcohol played an outsize and destructive role in her life. And so she did some research, changed how she thought about drinking, and stopped entirely. Grace then wrote a book for others interested in doing the same thing: This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness, and Change Your Life. The book works “by ending the conflict between your conscious desire to drink less,” she writes, “and your unconscious belief that alcohol is beneficial.” It came out in 2015 and has become something of a word-of-mouth phenomenon since (a recommendation from a friend is how I found out about it, too). The book’s Amazon and Goodreads review sections are populated with comments like: “This is probably the most important book I’ve ever read,” “This book has SAVED MY LIFE,” and “I bought this book by accident. It has changed my life more than any other book, therapy, counselor, class, doctor, or addiction specialist ever did, combined.”

Concrete numbers are hard to come by, but Grace has estimated that she’s helped somewhere in the realm of 4,000 people stop drinking. More than 50,000 people are currently enrolled in her online programs, and Grace eventually left her marketing job to run the website This Naked Mind and its weekly podcast (with roughly 1.6 million total downloads). Late last year, Grace, now 40, followed This Naked Mind with her second book, The Alcohol Experiment, a “30-day alcohol-free challenge to interrupt your habits and help you take control.”

I stopped drinking myself a few years ago, although I liked her books so much I almost wished I hadn’t, to see if they could help me change my mind all over again.

Why do people like alcohol?
I think it’s a huge cultural thing. From a very young age, when our parents present it as something that we can’t have ‘til we’re adults, it turns up the allure like 100 thousand percent, and suddenly we absolutely want it. And then we see everybody doing it, because it’s been so ingrained in our society. And then I think it’s really confirmed by our own experience, because alcohol, when you first drink it — alcohol is an interesting substance, in that it’s both a stimulant and a depressant. And so for the first 20 to 30 minutes after we drink it, it acts as a stimulant. It gives us that tipsy, euphoric, kind of high feeling: It artificially stimulates our pleasure systems, and it feels good. That’s pretty quickly countered when our blood alcohol content goes down, at which point it becomes a depressant. Those mood swings don’t feel good, but we don’t necessarily associate them with alcohol, and so we think, “Oh, it was a stressful day” or whatever, and we reach for the next glass.

I think this whole cultural thing is very much confirmed by the neurochemical addictive quality of the substance. Any addictive substance is going to stimulate a pleasure part of your brain and artificially release high levels of dopamine. Dopamine’s a learning molecule, and it says, “Do that thing again.” And it becomes very quickly a habit that’s ingrained.

In your opinion, what would be the ideal cultural role that alcohol might play in 20 years or 50 years? Or, what would be a long-term goal of your work?
I think for people to just have a more mindful approach. And maybe we take baby steps. Obviously it would be amazing if we looked at alcohol the way we look at cigarettes, where we’re aware of the negative health implications before we’re told it’s fun — sort of like how the first thought we have now about cigarettes, now, is that they’re not healthy. That would be amazing, but I think that’s a little too long term, realistically.

I think just in the shorter term, and I’m very hopeful we can get there, very quickly, is to make it so that you’re not set apart if you don’t drink, or if you question your drinking. Questioning your drinking is as simple and easy as questioning your sugar intake, or questioning how much you’re going to go to the gym. “Would I be a bit happier not drinking?”

This ties in to the conversation around the word “alcoholic,” which is sort of a delicate topic but which I know can put people off. It put me off for a long time.
Yeah. Because in our culture, if we question our drinking, the main question is: Am I an alcoholic? Or: Do I have a problem? And those are, for me, very fear-based questions that can inhibit growth.

And so often we’ll just keep drinking until something really bad happens. But I think a goal would be for us, culturally, to be able to ask a simple question: Would I be happier drinking a bit less alcohol? And to be able to ask it at any point, without any judgment, without inner judgement, without the inner fear, and certainly without any cultural or societal judgment.

I really like that idea of questioning alcohol intake in the same way we’d question our sugar intake.
I do think an alcohol problem manifests a lot like type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is the kind you’re born with: From birth, or from whenever, you know you’re going to have to take insulin no matter what. But type 2 is the kind that develops as you expose yourself to a certain amount of toxins — sugar — over a period of time. And so you develop symptoms, and then you have to take insulin no matter what. I think an alcohol problem manifests like the one where you expose yourself to the toxin.

Because nobody is going to become alcoholic if they never have a drink of alcohol.

I think, on one hand, the term “alcoholic” can be very empowering. I have a very good friend, she’s sober with AA, and she came to the realization that she was an alcoholic. That realization for her was incredibly empowering, because then she knew she could not drink again in safety, and it gave her the entire foundation for her to build her sober life upon. And it’s a thing that she’s very tied to — that term, because she considers the fact that she can say, “I am an alcoholic,” one of the cornerstones that saved her life. And so it’s very important and powerful for her.

I think the harm comes when we use the term “alcoholic” in society in general. That same friend came up to me and was like, “Annie, I have learned this about myself, and you’re just not an alcoholic.” And she categorized my drinking as slightly different than hers, because I wasn’t necessarily doing some of the same things she was doing. And because I could take a break from drinking, like when I had a baby. But she was like, “Annie, you’re not an alcoholic.” And I really took that to heart. And that made it harder for me to quit drinking, ultimately.

Is there a clinical definition of alcoholism?
According to the CDC, for excessive drinkers — so for women that’s eight drinks a week — only 10 percent of them actually fit the specification of being clinically addicted to alcohol. So if we’re going to use the term alcoholic, only 10 percent of heavy drinkers fit that alcoholic designation. Whereas for the other 90 percent, the alcohol dependence certainly involves some physical aspects, but it’s much more of an emotional and psychological addiction.

In other words, a much bigger percentage of our population, beyond those who fit that classical designation of “alcoholic,” are struggling with alcohol. And for that large percentage, they’re still on the path to addiction, they’re still even on the path to physical addiction, but they’re kind of on the sideline. It’s kind of like — well, to make a really bad analogy, if you’re becoming obese, obesity itself is a symptom, although you have to have a heart attack in order to get treatment. Or you have to be diagnosed with diabetes before you become treated.

I know you’ve written more about how the word “alcoholic” can act as a barrier for some people. They’re like, “Well, I know I’m not an alcoholic, because I don’t look like what we typically see on TV, etc., as alcoholics, so maybe rehab and AA aren’t necessarily for me, but at the same time, I’m still concerned about what’s going on.” And it’s that middle path that isn’t necessarily clear.
Yes. The definition of alcoholism also focuses the effort of sobriety on a minority of excess drinkers while ignoring millions who also really struggle with drinking.

Another aspect of this is that it gives people a huge false sense of security. An “alcoholic” is very firmly the person — the person is the problem. That’s not often said overtly, but “an alcoholic” is a specific human being with a condition, whereas alcohol by nature is addictive to all human beings. Studies have shown that with enough exposure in the right circumstance, anyone is going to become addicted to alcohol. You weren’t addicted before you drank, and you can’t become addicted to it if you don’t ingest it, so like the idea that it’s “us” and “them” really puts this false sense of security on the people who don’t consider themselves alcoholic. And it then necessitates hitting something like rock bottom, because if you think, “Okay, well I’m not an alcoholic, and I don’t need to go get treatment, then I don’t need to reconsider my drinking.”

If I’d waited until I had a really negative experience, until I felt like I was a real “alcoholic,” my drinking would have spiraled way, way further out of control. I saw the train that I was on, and I wanted to get off that train WAY before it got to the destination. It was such a terrifying place.

Yeah. The whole idea is like, giving people permission to opt out while they’re in the gray zone, instead of like, thinking they have to stay on the ride until they get into the red zone.
That’s totally it.

I know you’re familiar with Allen Carr and his Quit Smoking/Quit Drinking books, and I was wondering what other things you’ve read that changed the way you think about alcohol.
Allen Carr, yes. Also The Addictive Brain by Thad A. Polk. There’s also a book called Alcohol Explained, by William Porter, and I think that’s really good. And then ironically this book called Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection, by John E. Sarno, which informed how I think about a lot of this, and which I mention in This Naked Mind. And then I’ve gotten a lot from other things, like psychology writer Kelly McGonigal, she’s got two books — The Willpower Instinct and The Upside of Stress — that are really interesting. Not for alcohol specifically, but more for overall, about habit change.

For people who are drinkers and who may come across your books or this article, is there like a single sentence or thought that you want people to know about alcohol?
This is going to sound pretty cliché, but that it’s not your fault, and you’re not alone.

When I was questioning my drinking, I felt like I didn’t fit in, in part because of that one friend who’d become sober herself but deemed me not an alcoholic. And I wasn’t really ready to admit my own problem either. I felt very alone in it, although as soon as I wrote the book [This Naked Mind], people started coming out of the woodwork. Thousands upon thousands of people who were saying, “This is what I struggled with, too.”

People who didn’t call themselves alcoholics but who nevertheless struggled with drinking.
My mother-in-law was like, “I’ve never even seen you be drunk?” People I know were like, “What are you talking about, that doesn’t make sense?” My tolerance, I was pretty proud of it, ironically. But at that time, I felt very much like I was the only one questioning this, and that everyone else was on this happy-go-lucky path. And then even my boss, who originally had been like, “Why aren’t you going out with the rest of us from work?” — even he was like, “Wow, I thought you were keeping it together, now that you’ve given permission, we can all put it down,” and it was just this kind of revolutionary thing. But basically, if you’re questioning this, probably everybody in your social circle is questioning it, it’s certainly not just you.

And I think the other really important thing is that we stop this cycle of thinking like, “Okay, well, I’ve made one bad decision, so fuck it, I’m going to keep on making bad decisions, because what’s the point?”

The truth is that alcohol is addictive to any human beings that are made up of blood, flesh, bone, and cells. That’s the bottom line. It’s controversial to say it’s an addictive substance, but it’s the truth. It is an inherently addictive substance, and with the right level of exposure and in the right circumstances, any person will get addicted to it. Understanding this fact gives people a lot of freedom.

And then a third thing is that there is hope. For a long time, I felt very stuck between not wanting to be drinking as much as I was, but not having any idea how to undo it. And I could take a break — I could stop drinking Monday through Thursday, and then just drink on Friday and Saturday, but I’d feel miserable the whole time during the week. I’d feel deprived, I’d feel like I was missing out. I’d feel like I wasn’t having a good time. But once you get your thinking straight about that, the whole world changes. Everything else opens up.

If you go into sobriety without changing any of your thinking about alcohol, thinking, “Okay, but drinking is still awesome, everybody still loves it, and I’m the only one who doesn’t get to do it, poor me,” then sometimes you have to have, like, a decade of sober fun experiences to convince yourself otherwise. A decade of, “Oh, this concert is actually fun,” “Oh, this vacation is actually fun,” “Oh, this is actually good.”

But you can go into sobriety with a totally different mind-set. You can go into sobriety thinking, “I dodged that bullet, I feel bad for all the rest of you.” Maybe not that intense, but certainly I’ve had pity on people who are still trapped. I’d see them trapped and I’d remember where I was, and I’d be like, “Oh, I know that feeling, I’m so sorry.” But you can have a totally different experience if you have a mind-set shift around alcohol, 180 degrees.

Conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

The Book Newly Sober People Love to Give to Each Other