If you’re an alcoholic having trouble controlling your drinking, I’m about to shed light on a subject that most people have no clue about.
Why on earth are most individuals able to stop after one or two drinks, while the “alcoholic drinker” consistently drinks more than they should, often leading to negative consequences?
I can tell you from firsthand experience, my friends, family, and coworkers never understood why I couldn’t just “drink like a gentlemen.”
They weren’t the only ones who were confused.
Most of society is ignorant on this topic, and along with this ignorance, you’ll also find a high percentage of people that lack empathy for alcoholics…and may even be disgusted by their behavior.
I wonder what these people would say if I told them that essentially, there is just one main difference between them and an alcoholic drinker, and that difference has to do with the alcoholic lacking a certain “alarm system” in their brain, which responsible drinkers are equipped with.
While there are obviously a great many deciding factors why some people can’t control their drinking – such as hypoglycemia, self-medicating symptoms of mental disorders, etc. – the focus of this article is to bring awareness to something that I believe is the “Master Reason” why alcoholics can’t use alcohol responsibly.
To properly lead up to this Master Reason, let’s take a brief walk down memory lane together, to a difficult time of my story of life…
My Drinking Pattern in California
For several years in my early 20’s living in California, I was an alcoholic of the “binge drinking” variety. I tried to control my drinking, but failed time and time again.
I had discipline in most areas of life, but when it came to drinking, that discipline went straight out the window.
I felt hopeless.
Why could my friends decide when they had drank enough, yet no matter what the situation, I almost always ended up drinking way more than I intended?
It wasn’t until I moved to New York many years later, that I learned the main reason I couldn’t control my drinking was because I was lacking specific “bells, buzzards, and whistles.”
I’ll explain more about this in a bit, but before I do, you need a little back story on how I learned about this phenomenon.
Getting out of Control in New York
When I was 27 years old, I moved to upstate New York to play lead guitar in a reggae/rock/funk band. Within the first 48 hours stepping foot off the airplane in Syracuse, New York, I had blacked out from drinking, taken ecstasy, spent about $200 on alcohol and drugs, and I was also robbed for $200 while I was passed out at the end of my bender.
I awoke with a bad hangover, and upon checking my wallet to see how much I had spent, I sadly noticed that I only had $100 left, which I needed to buy food and smokes until I found a job and got my first paycheck.
Right then, I knew I had to start doing things differently in New York.
Unfortunately, knowing what to do and actually doing it are two extremely different things.
In less than 90 days of living in New York, I found myself in a jail cell, and I was being charged with two felonies. One for drinking and driving, the other for driving on a suspended license.
This was my third DUI, and luckily, it was also the end of my binge-drinking career.
Facing a few years in prison in a state that I had just moved to was scary, and when I got the charges dropped to misdemeanors and let out of jail after just four days, something inside of me changed.
Believe it or not, since that “close call,” I have not blacked out, been arrested, or drank to the point of a hangover ever again.
My Mentor at the Deli
After I was released from jail, I lit up a cigarette and walked down the hill to wait for my friend to pick me up.
I had them drop me off at the deli where I had been working for two months so I could talk to my boss, because I found out he had a Help Wanted sign in the window…thinking I wasn’t getting out of jail anytime soon.
My boss, John, was the owner of a family deli in upstate New York.
He had taken a liking to me right off the bat, but after this incident where I came so close to really screwing up my life, he became my mentor.
He took me for a drive, and while we cruised the town, he told me about the “buzzards, bells, and whistles.”
The Buzzards, Bells, and Whistles
John told me that he never had a problem with drinking, though friends and family members of his constantly drank to excess and experienced negative consequences often.
John’s reason he was always able to stop drinking after a couple of drinks?
He told me that after a couple of drinks, buzzards, bells, and whistles start going off in his head.
These loud alarms would fire off in his brain, and they would get his attention. These were not subtle alarms. It was a loud and effective alarm system which would get John’s attention, and cause him to start thinking about all of the negative consequences that could happen to him if he continued to drink alcohol after the buzzards, bells, and whistles went off in his head.
This was a completely foreign subject to me.
Not once in my entire life had I heard any such alarms going off in my head, warning me to stop drinking “or else.”
After he explained this phenomenon to me, things started making a lot of sense. Now I realized how normal people were able to control their drinking.
Furthermore, I realized that I not only was missing this “factory installed” alarm system, but I had actually wired my brain to have a completely opposite internal noise.
Brain Research on Addiction
Even if I had to wake up early for work in the morning, this would not stop me from getting drunk the day before. A normal person would have a drink or a couple of drinks, then the buzzards would go off and tell them they’ve had enough, and they would stop.
I would have a couple of drinks, and instead of hearing the buzzards go off telling me to stop because I had work early in the morning, it was like my brain was constantly saying “GOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!”
It was “go time,” and instead of putting on the brakes, I would hold my foot down on the accelerator and floor it.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I learned why this happens.
Once a social drinker becomes addicted to alcohol, significant changes occur in their brain. Research with mice in the 1960’s revealed that addiction affects the midbrain, not our prefrontal cortex.
The midbrain is our primitive alligator brain, which is responsible for keeping us alive. It doesn’t care what is right and wrong, like the prefrontal cortex does.
After an individual has become an alcohol addict, their midbrain links “survival itself” to using alcohol. Normally, at the hierarchy of survival is water, food, shelter, sex, etc.
When a person becomes an alcoholic, the drug known as alcohol is placed above everything else in the hierarchy.
Here is how the hierarchy looks to an alcoholic:
As you can imagine, this can lead to some very poor decision-making in life.
It’s no wonder why my brain would scream “GO” after I had that first drink…it was trying to help me survive. The midbrain changes that occur when an individual crosses the invisible line from responsible drinker to alcoholic also lead to another pattern.
Now, the prefrontal cortex gets completely bypassed in the decision-making process. The prefrontal cortex is our logical brain, and we use it often when we make decisions and think about consequences.
I’ve heard numerous addiction professionals say it’s like having a car with no brakes. You may very well want to stop, but without brakes, you cannot.
So there you have it. The top reason alcoholics can’t stop after one drink is because they lack the bells, buzzards, and whistles that go off in the minds of most individuals.
Instead of hearing these internal alarm sounds telling them to stop drinking, they have a voice that says “Go!”
Social drinkers don’t understand why alcoholics can’t control their drinking. However, they can understand driving a car with no brakes and not being able to stop the car.
In the matter of alcoholics, their brains link survival itself to using alcohol, and the prefrontal cortex gets bypassed in the decision making process.
Stopping is not impossible, but it’s very difficult for alcoholics to do so. After an alcoholic quits drinking, they may still lack the bells, buzzards, and whistles alarm system for many months, years, or even life.
That’s why most alcoholics quit drinking altogether, rather than try to become responsible drinkers. I’m of the opinion that drinking is far-overrated anyways.
As the author of this blog, Chris Scott says, “Drinking Sucks!”…and I wholeheartedly agree with this statement!
Matt Finch is the proprietor of Opiate Addiction Support, which helps men and women that are dependent on opiates learn how to get off these drugs without getting sick. He is a former alcohol and opiate addict and a former Substance Abuse Counselor at an Opiate Treatment Program (OTP). Matt has since become a Strategic Intervention Coach, Speaker, Author, and Opiate Recovery Specialist.