Free will and free fall: Alcohol myopia

What happens to our sense of free will – or control over our choices – along the journey of a troubled relationship with alcohol?

For many who have misused alcohol, like me, it’s free will that lights our first spark of intrigue for the stuff. Alcohol is part of our coming of age. In adolescence or early adulthood, we’re drawn to the first real experience of autonomy, or ownership of our bodies and minds, that drinking creates. That feeling presents a stark contrast to what we’re used to and what we may have come to resent, a sense of being “owned” by our parents or guardians, and by a society that has set so many inflexible rules throughout our lives.

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But alcohol can prey upon that thrilling sense of free will, causing us to develop myopia, or a limited capacity to perceive and react to things in our environment. It urges us to behave without inhibition, with sometimes grisly effects on our physical and emotional well-being. In the long term, our self-image can take a blow. We may lose confidence and respect for ourselves, as well as the very sense of autonomy that alcohol excited in us in the first place. These losses can cause us to drink more often and more heavily in a desperate attempt to self-medicate, numbing our emotional pain and discomfort, mourning the shrinking of our once-expansive identity.

What is alcohol myopia?

In this post, I’ll explore a fascinating theory of alcohol’s effects that helps to explain this dramatic change in so many drinkers. Reading about it brought up some unpleasant memories for me, but has also been illuminating, prompting me to reflect on exactly how alcohol impacted my mental faculties and drinking behavior. 

The theory of alcohol myopia suggests that alcohol narrows the range of what we’re able to perceive. When we drink, we zoom in on prominent environmental cues, paying less attention to subtle ones. You can think of it like tunnel vision, or nearsightedness, where we focus on things, people, words, and other stimuli in our immediate environment, but pay little attention to factors like context, the feelings of others, or how we’re being perceived. 

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Alcohol also impairs our emotions, judgment, and decision-making. We’re less able to regulate our reactions or to think through the potential consequences of our behavior. For instance, we may partake in risky sexual behavior because we’re more tuned into the quest for passion or pleasure than the less immediate presence of health risks or emotional impacts. Or we may initiate a physical or verbal fight with a stranger, hyper-focused on a single remark that triggered an emotional response rather than the full scope of what was said. We’ve all seen situations where a drunk person just can’t listen to reason, unable to drop some small frustration, letting things escalate and becoming more and more belligerent.

Myopia has three major effects on our cognitive processes, or how we think. First, it causes self-inflation. When we’re drunk, we ignore our flaws and have a heightened self-image, bordering on narcissism. This can lead us to act with a dangerous level of confidence and in ways we would not when sober. Second, alcohol creates a sense of relief from stress and anxiety. Though that feels great and benefits us to a degree, a certain amount of stress and anxiety is adaptive. When we drink too heavily, we lose the capacity to pay attention to things that might otherwise worry us, including present risks.

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Finally, myopia leads to excessive behavior. Our brain’s frontal cortex isn’t working as it should to regulate urges that are normally considered socially unacceptable. For some people, these urges lead to aggressive responses like rage, physical destruction, or sexual assault. Other drinkers simply become more talkative, flirtatious, or adventurous – though at some level, even these behaviors can become problematic.

Myopia and free will

For a time, we may process our excessive drunken behaviors as acts of free will and empowerment. I certainly had a feeling of boundless autonomy as I stomped around my college campus and the bars, parties, and concerts I attended after graduating. I felt I was in control (or could be most of the time), ignoring my wake of destruction. That sense of autonomy was driven by my inflated self-image (which often plummeted the next day) and was given free rein due the relaxed boundaries created by my relief from stress and anxiety.

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A big ego feels great when you’re drunk. I thought I was extremely funny, magnetic, and unique. In reality, I was often loud, careless, and rude. Alcohol’s myopic tunnel-vision effect made it difficult to recognize the difference. I was observing and responding to a limited range of things in my environment, overlooking other factors that were not as evident but were often more important.

My Hyde

Over a period of more years than I’d like to admit, I came to recognize that I was stuck in a pattern of alcohol use that caused me to tumble out of control every few months. My drunken sense of free will would mask my true identity, like Hyde overtaking Dr. Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story. The warm and wonderful feeling of independence that initially prompted me to drink turned into a distinct, tunnel-visioned, destructive force that disembodied itself and acted on its own behalf, often without my knowing. What started as a shallow expression of free will eventually stole my deeper, inner strength and self-determination.

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At times, I caused emotional pain to close friends and family, offended people, or degraded myself. If I couldn’t remember how things got out of control, I’d reconstruct the events using snippets of others’ recollections, text messages, and other piecemeal evidence. I longed for a linear cause-and-effect understanding, an excuse, vindication. It wasn’t there.

I wouldn’t wish the shame and remorse I felt on anyone. These feelings compounded over time into one giant shame-monster that took a lot of time and therapy to defeat. It got to the point where I didn’t care about myself or think I deserved anything different, and I was afraid to look in the figurative “mirror.” At times, I was utterly disgusted with who I’d become.

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That may have been a distorted and melodramatic reaction to my mistakes, which weren’t that horrible in the grand scheme of things or compared to the difficulties others have faced. But these negative experiences are subjective and deeply personal. This is how the mind reacts to repeated abuse and injury, thanks to our complicated psychologies. We all have unique anxieties, traumas, and things we’re stuck on from our developmental years that make the shame beast uniquely challenging for each of us.

The guilt and self-loathing I experienced also created a vicious cycle that had me drinking more because I had low self-esteem – alcohol’s ultimate coup. I wanted to drown out my very sense of self, right along with the painful memories – to give in.

Reviving the will

I’m happy to report that it’s possible to escape this dreadful game of tug-of-war in emotion and behavior, and that the feelings of shame and damage are reversible. There’s a way out of this dark tunnel of myopia, and once we’re outside of it, we recover the ability to see the things that alcohol obscured.

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For some, freedom comes from quitting alcohol entirely. For others, moderation may work. Either way, when we take control, we regain that sense of excitement and empowerment we had when we seized independence in our formative years. We gradually rebuild trust in ourselves as we continue along this new path, redeveloping a sense of dignity and self-respect. 

Eventually we recognize that we are, in fact, empowered by the new tools we’ve worked to find and hone. These can include anything from a recovery program to introspection, therapy, meditation and mindfulness, new hobbies, creative pursuits, or the outdoors. 

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Our tools may even rekindle passions from before we first drank, bringing us in tune with the person we were meant to become and strengthening our newly reclaimed sense of free will. For me, that meant writing for pleasure and learning a new musical instrument. I had largely given up on these pursuits after college, and it wasn’t until I quit drinking that I was able to invest enough time and mental energy to pick them back up again and take them seriously. I can’t thank my sobriety enough for the sense of empowerment these tools have restored in me. 

I rarely feel tempted by alcohol these days. I’m confident that the only way for me to truly stay in control, and to experience genuine free will, is to reject it. Instead, I must hang onto and refine these tools of healing, which have restored the much-loved, reclaimed and refitted vestiges of my past.

–Dana G

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Refocusing the narrative of memory

As we progress through alcohol sobriety and work to improve other areas of our lives and ourselves, adjusting what we choose to focus on from the past can be healthy. It can also be difficult, as we’re conditioned to think that anyone who gets sober after a history of heavy drinking must have a serious personal problem and a sordid past full of regretful behavior. Some recovery groups encourage making amends with those we have “wronged.” Sure, many who drink too much have wronged or offended plenty of people – and apologies can have great benefits all around. But we don’t need to beat ourselves up forever.

Because we stigmatize alcohol problems so deeply in this society, shame can be a powerful, but often unproductive part of the recovery process. Focusing exclusively on bad memories related to alcohol can be unhealthy and lead to toxic shame. A certain degree of repressing positive drinking memories may be healthy and protective up front, but eventually, it can be more useful to put bad memories in context by recalling good memories as well.

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The bad stuff

Sometimes I focus far too much on the negative aspects of my drinking days – on things I regret having done or just feel uncomfortable about. I know this is partly protective, a way for me to feel secure in my decision to quit drinking. It keeps me from dwelling on what I’m missing out on. It also makes me more committed to improving myself and pursuing meaningful change.

But it can also expose feelings of residual shame when they should no longer have a place, causing me to feel generally uncomfortable in my own skin and unable to move forward in my life. A sense of toxic shame, or negative self-judgment to the point that it becomes “a paralyzing global assessment of oneself as a person,” can creep up on me. Having these feelings arise when I’m not expecting it – usually when I’m anxious or frustrated about other life challenges – prevents me from developing the self-esteem and confidence I know I ought to have.

When left unchecked, shame can lead to harmful beliefs such as perceiving yourself as a failure, a bad person, or unlovable, and that you don’t deserve to be happy. It can cause “feelings of deep inadequacy, lack of worth and the need to hide,” and over time can contribute to the development of depression, other mental health issues, and substance abuse.

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I’m a strong believer that reflection and introspection are imperative to understanding our own psychologies. But scrutinizing our past behavior so much that we punish our prior selves is not productive. My heaviest drinking took place in my late teens and early twenties – a time when most people are still developing their sense of identity and leap at immediate rewards, disregarding risks and long-term consequences. They have a uniquely strong need for social connection and validation, as well as a sense of invincibility.

With alcohol being a flawed catalyst in this process of coming-of-age, these developmental factors can mix one volatile cocktail. There was nothing all that unique in the way I drank during and after college, and there’s no reason for me to feel ashamed of it long after stopping. Only distress can come from atoning forever in my now-sober mind.

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The good stuff

By over-focusing on negative experiences with alcohol, we may also be fooling ourselves. For most of us, there were good times, too. Those positive experiences played a part in the development of who we are today. If we ignore them, knowing we aren’t being completely honest with ourselves, we might become doubtful and disillusioned by our decision to give up alcohol. That can put us at a greater risk of lapsing back into drinking.

I occasionally find myself feeling deeply reminiscent of alcohol’s original pull – the sense of euphoria and connection it brought, and a fiery (yet often destructive) way of feeling alive that is utterly remote now. That nostalgia can come on with surprising vividness, as if I’m experiencing it all again. In a way, it’s invigorating, like seeing an old friend or having a childhood memory come back clearly.

But in another way, it’s tremendously painful – like the hallucinatory shimmer of a mirage that I know will fade in the dry desert heat. I’m reminded of a sense of excitement and abandon that I’m not sure I’ll ever experience to the same degree. For better or for worse, the feeling passes quickly.

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Nostalgia is natural in the recovery process, but “euphoric recall” or selective memory can be dangerous, causing us to forget the negative effects that once weighed heavily on us. It’s absolutely something to be cautious about. For my own healing, however, I think it’s important for me to allow certain positive feelings and associations with alcohol to exist – to recall that not everything alcohol brought me was terrible. I’d rather not delude myself, for I’ll know I’m doing so and eventually resent myself for it. I can only put my history in context with who I am now by letting all of it – the yin and the yang – simply be.

Negative experiences with alcohol have imprinted on my memory and contributed to my decision to undergo a massive change and healing process. A certain healthy level of shame and regret made that possible. At the same time, many elements of my personality, my humor, and my outgoing nature were fostered in the hands of alcohol. By remembering that, I don’t have to feel so remorseful of years “wasted” drinking. Those years were part of my life, too. And I can’t change them. So I might as well acknowledge what good they brought me.

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The full circle

When it comes to alcohol, the negative ended up outweighing the positive for me. But I can’t discount the fact that I had a lot of good experiences, spending a large chunk of my formative and most exciting years under the influence of alcohol. I’ve come to understand that it’s perfectly healthy to grieve the loss of some once-cherished parts of my life and my identity that involved alcohol. And, contrary to popular opinion, I can do that while recognizing that the other side of alcohol’s capricious coin caused me significant distress. It resulted in my decision to quit drinking and catalyzed the development of the fuller and more conscious person I am now.

Though doing so can help in the initial months or even years after quitting, putting any good memories and thoughts about alcohol off limits forever can feel disingenuous and build temptation. In order to openly reflect on positive alcohol-related memories, one has to be at a certain point beyond strong cravings, wary of the dangers of letting the positives outshine the negatives. But if it becomes possible for you to do so safely, reflecting on the good can be rewarding, healing, and help you to create a fuller picture of how you became who you are today.

–Dana G

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Breaking down stigma

Oddly, the easiest thing to write about right now is a topic that brings me perennial frustration. And no, I’m not talking about COVID-19, politics, or where half my socks go when I do the laundry. I’m talking about the way society treats alcohol misuse and pigeonholes sobriety, and how that prevents people from cutting back or seeking treatment.

I want to explore the stigma surrounding alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, which are grouped together into Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5). Dictionary.com defines stigma as “a mark of disgrace or infamy; a stain or reproach, as on one’s reputation.” Well, that’s intense!

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Widespread stigma creates a feedback loop of shame and discomfort for those suffering from AUD. Because people often assume that one would only choose to quit drinking due to a severe problem, this generates stigma towards those living a sober life. Sobriety, or even seeking help, becomes something a person feels guilty about, complicating what can otherwise be a very positive experience.

I would argue that the stigma around alcohol-related problems is associated with stigma in the U.S. and many other countries surrounding mental illness more broadly. Anything we diagnose or label suddenly becomes bad and serious, a thing to fear. But applying a label to the thing that most challenges us can help us find the appropriate methods to overcome it.

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Why we drink and why we quit

Consuming alcohol – for pleasure, relief, celebration, condolence, social bonding, and pretty much any other reason under the sun – is the norm in this society. So, where does the stigma come from? And why must so many people hover uncomfortably at the tipping point between socially sanctioned heavy consumption and AUD before realizing they might be better off quitting?

I believe each of us has developmentally unique reasons for the way we drink. That’s why not everyone has a problem with alcohol, and why recovery can look a lot different among individuals who do. But we’re in a society powered by the alcohol industry that pressures many young people to drink long before their minds and bodies are fully developed. Many of us go through high school (and maybe college) with a heavy mix of drinking, blacking out, and making mistakes that can lead to accumulated regret and shame.

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Some people grow out of heavy drinking, whether it’s right after high school or college, as they age into their thirties, or later on – or after something they consider their “rock bottom.” Maybe it’s when they start a family or reach a new decade or milestone. It may be for health, mental health, interpersonal relationships, or perhaps a unique combination of personal reasons. They may seek support or assistance with maintaining sobriety through tools like counseling or recovery groups. Behavioral patterns can develop quickly, are often rooted in other ingrained problems, and can be hard to break.

Despite all its turbulence, drinking alcohol (heavily) is still the norm and quitting is frowned upon. Alcohol is embedded into everything we do and celebrate. We laugh off the development of serious drinking problems, skirting the issue with swagger and finding solidarity in alcohol memes and merchandise. Stigma is a dangerous thing – it prevents people from admitting to and addressing inner traumas or turmoil.

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The history of social norms surrounding alcohol

Alcohol is part of a social contract that evolved from nomadic cultures. It was extended to strangers to demonstrate hospitality, establishing the beginning of the social relationship. And not much has changed since. Because alcohol represents and fosters human connection, to say I’m not drinking is to say “I’m not in communion with you.”

What’s more, we have a beloved antihero archetype in our culture of the heavy drinker. America loves a scoundrel. The cycle of sin and redemption excites us. Stories often deal in binaries, in good guy vs. bad guy. So we translate those labels to anyone who has admitted to having a problem, deeming any deviation from the recovery path to indicate failure while we continue to sip our own drinks.

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The earning of “chips” or tokens in AA based on accumulated time sober plays into this, as well. When we count the days someone has stayed sober and treat returning to alcohol as a “relapse”, saying things like “why did you fall off the wagon?” or “what made you give that all away?”, we aren’t helping. First, we’re assuming the person had a major issue with alcohol, when they may have quit for less serious reasons, or reasons they want to keep private. Second, we’re making the person feel terribly ashamed and acting like anything they’ve gained from their time sober has now been lost.

It’s more accurate and productive to think of reverting to alcohol consumption after a period of sobriety as a “lapse” – not a “relapse.” Contrary to popular belief, a person doesn’t suddenly lose the wisdom they’ve gained and can often pick up where they left off. Many people lapse several times before maintaining sobriety. In doing so, they may even learn something about themselves and their relationship with alcohol, their emotional regulation and triggers.

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In addition to affecting how we treat sober people, the archetype of the alcoholic antihero allows us to allay any discomfort we have towards our own alcohol consumption by projecting it onto a character who is presented as unconventional, rugged, and dark. We’re not that dark, we tell ourselves. Perhaps we revel a little in the character’s debauchery. We know how good it feels to lean into the hedonic life, but we know when to stop and come up for air.

Our limited rhetoric for alcohol use and sobriety forces us into an “all or nothing” mentality when it comes to consumption. Because of this, quitting seems to require an irreversible commitment and confronting a huge shame-beast that most aren’t ready to tackle. Approaching sobriety with a more mellow attitude can be tremendously easier, more subtle and joyous. Also, many people can cut back and moderate their alcohol consumption. Abstinence is not the only option.

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How to combat stigma

Stigma can make weddings, work travel, dating, parties, and holidays highly unnerving for those who’ve quit drinking. From interacting with people who are walking on eggshells to thanking those who offer backhanded compliments, it becomes the sober person’s job to seem so normal that everyone forgets they aren’t drinking and is comfortable with the elephant of their sobriety.

Even the well-intended “I’m proud of you” is sometimes housed in stigma. Depending on how (and from whom) it’s delivered, it can have underlying implications that the sober person overcame what was a truly disgusting habit that must have brought them deep shame. That may or may not be true. Either way, it isn’t something of which they need to be continually reminded.

A better way to interact with a sober person is to treat them as not all that different from oneself. For instance, it isn’t “too bad” they can only drink a soda. Maybe they like soda and it’s helping them feel at ease! You can tell a sober person that their mocktail looks tasty. It’s okay to be enthusiastic and still sip on one’s own drink of choice.

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Don’t talk to them about how hard it must feel to be surrounded by people who are drinking or make a show of protecting them from pressures or the urge to drink. That forces us into an unnecessary, awkward position of defending our comfort level, which isn’t everyone’s business and may fluctuate. Asking if they’re okay is a thoughtful gesture, but if your friend tells you they’re fine, don’t push it. Thinking that everyone is worried about you can be distressing and annoying.

A sober person can still dance, laugh, joke, and hold conversations. They may seem to introvert themselves a little at times, especially as other people become more drunk and talkative. Let them do their thing – it’s easy to get overstimulated and overwhelmed in crowded drinking environments, and sometimes sober people just need some time (or caffeine) to adjust before diving back in.

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If you have friends who are sober, try not to exclude them. You can still invite them to events with alcohol, and they can decide whether they’re comfortable attending. You could also occasionally propose a hangout that doesn’t involve alcohol. Something creative or educational, maybe. There are a lot of ways to support sober friends without making them feel different or like you’re tiptoeing around a monster who’s about to flip. Your friend may be much more in control of their life than you think.

Stigma subverts public health and prevents people from seeking treatment options. It leads to prejudice and discrimination, threatens jobs and relationships, and pushes people into secrecy. It compounds feelings of shame and self-loathing through which people who drink heavily or have quit are already suffering.

It’s a dark entity that has no place in recovery, but it’s ubiquitous. The only thing those of us who care can do is to slowly change attitudes through the way we act, the example we set, and the words we use to empower the people around us. So, if you care, do what you can to break down stigma in your social circles.

–Dana G

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