Everybody seems to love this book, so why not start with it. I did not love this book. To say that I was underwhelmed by this book would be something of an understatement. I can’t quite decide whether it’s deliberately disingenuous, or just very, very naive, but he does say up front that he isn’t an addiction specialist, or a scientist, or a psychologist, so I guess there’s that. He also says that the book ‘won’t work twice’ because the whole strength of it seems to be on presenting ‘facts’ simply and repetitively so that you feel like you have taken the blue pill (or the red pill. Whichever pill the guy takes in the Matrix. Look, I’m a book person, not a film person, okay?) and woken up from a society-wide delusion that alcohol does something for one.
Except that several of his arguments are so weak as to be laughable, and his analogies dubious, and for me, that meant that the otherwise valid points were lost because he’d lost credibility. Which is a shame, because he is genuinely fantastic on the fact that alcohol doesn’t do the things it is trumped up to do; it doesn’t make a crappy occasion fun, and it doesn’t give you courage, and sober life is true life. I agree, and I don’t think those things can be said enough.
He talks a lot of sense about the fact that alcohol is so accepted that we come to believe that there is something wrong with us if we prefer not to imbibe, and that this doesn’t follow through to any other drug out there. I do wish that he’d stop drawing an analogy to heroin, because although it’s an easy target…well, come the fuck on. It’s not analogous. It’s a much, much more hardcore drug, for a start. I mean, not that I’ve ever taken heroin, but would I be right in understanding that one cannot, really, function when high? I mean, alcohol is a gradual thing – one can be tipsy, one can still talk, work, take care of children up until a certain point. Heroin, not so much. And he’s trying to say that it is only alcohol for which a syndrome exists (“alcoholic”) which is considered to continue to one’s entire life. As in, a person who has given up drinking is still an alcoholic and always will be, whereas a person who has given up heroin is an ex-addict, who is fine. I don’t think that’s true, and I’m pretty sure that it’s accepted addiction wisdom that any sort of drug addiction is vulnerable to relapse, even years and years after the physical drug has left the system.
But yes, I agree that alcohol enjoys a strangely elevated status in our society. Even putting aside hard drugs, look at coffee. Well, caffeine, technically. Mild, socially acceptable, legal drug. Venues specifically designed for consuming it. Mild physical withdrawal symptoms when people come off it. Jokes about needing a shot to get up in the morning. And yet, you say to someone ‘oh, I don’t drink coffee’ and what you’re likely to get is “…oh.” And that’s it.
Talking of which, that’s one of the parts I found hardest to swallow. Vale talks a lot about the fact that the physical traces of alcohol stay in the system a maximum of ten days after the last drink, and more commonly only 72 hours, and thus one is completely clean and back to normal after this time. He asks why a standard rehab is 30 days if the drug is out of the system earlier. He talks over and over again about this idea that once you’ve stopped drinking, you are an entirely normal person with entirely normal brain function, but that your psychological addiction is caused by the erroneous assumption that alcohol is fun, or gives one confidence, or is ‘necessary’. I did find the point that the alcohol itself creates a need for the alcohol, not just physically but in the sense that one gets used to using alcohol for confidence, stability, you name it, and so it becomes true that one needs alcohol to experience those emotions.
(Again, though, I wish he’d stop using the example of children to bolster his argument that one can be uninhibited without alcohol. Has he ever actually been around children? They are a hot mess of irrational neuroses and a complete lack of risk assessment skills. Children are not a good example of anything social! I mean, really; the prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped, the hormonal mix is different, you absolutely cannot compare the way that children approach a situation with the way in which an aspiring-sober person does. If I thought for a second that giving up alcohol would make me behave like my five year old, I’d be screwing the cap of the nearest bottle of wine with one hand as I typed this. Ditto my sober 15 year old self. Eeeeeesh.)
BUT, and here’s where I really take issue with the guy. “Drinkers are only hooked on what they have been brainwashed to believe alcohol does for them. The chemical effect of alcohol creates the illusions which seem to confirm all this brainwashing. All we have to do is remove the brainwashing, then the addiction is automatically removed”. Well. Okay then. So Vale doesn’t believe that alcohol (or other drugs, presumably) affects the way that dopamine is released in the brain, or that repeated alcohol/drug use changes the structure of the brain, or that the pleasure receptors take a year or more to return to normal. Nope, the drug creates the effects, but the brain springs back to absolutely completely fine as soon as you stop drinking. Yeah, no.
He also says, early on, that he doesn’t believe that everybody who drinks any amount of alcohol is hooked, but that “anyone who fears life without alcohol and drinks on a regular basis is hooked”. However, he also says that “most people who regularly drink alcohol are not in control of their drinking. They are hooked”. Later, he talks about why some people ‘seem’ to have no issue drinking normally, and basically argues that – and this is where he really, really lost me – the idea that some people can take alcohol or leave it is a “mass delusion”. And that “the only reason why people do not drink more and more is because they are forced not to drink, either by themselves or society”. Basically, alcohol is addictive. Everyone is addicted or at least has a natural tendency to take more and more of the drug. But because we have a higher consciousness, society restricts that intake, and some people feel more restricted than others.
Some people, for example, don’t want to spend too much on alcohol, so they don’t. Or because it’s unhealthy and tends to encourage weight gain, people restrict their intake to avoid that. One can’t go to work drunk, so there’s a restriction against drinking in the morning. Many addicts, he says, “go all week without a drink because of restrictions, whether it’s work, their children, having to drive […] and many simply accept it and crack on with their lives”. Yeah…now, I’m not an addictions specialist, but i am pretty sure that this is not addiction. Surely? People who happily, easily, accept that drinking is sometimes inadvisable and therefore just don’t do it and don’t mind not doing it. Not addicts, right? I mean, he’s pretty explicit here:
“There are only two reasons why people do not become heavy drinkers:
1.They are not physically strong enough to cope with that amount of poison at one sitting.
2. They have more restrictions in their lives that prevent the natural increase”.
WHAT THE I CAN’T EVEN, as the kids say. So this argument is that basically everyone is an addict, but some of us control it to the point where we maintain sensible, moderate drinking habits without minding this (‘happily crack on’), and those moderate drinkers are separated from the heavy drinkers by their relatively higher restrictions.
So that would mean that people in the public eye, people in high pressure professions where a lot is expected of their performance at work, people with young children, people who are poor, and people who drive a lot are unlikely to be alcoholics. Whereas people with no children, no familial responsibilities, who have unlimited funds and a casual job or self-directed study, who don’t care about their health and catch public transport, they’re the heavy drinkers.
I think Vale is confusing addiction with ‘being a student’, to be honest. And this part of his argument is such utter, total nonsense that I have to question his whole approach. Is Vale, in fact, someone who drank heavily and irresponsibility in his late teens (which is when he refers to himself as drinking the most), then just…grew up? And has assumed that everyone basically has this sort of brain wiring?
Maybe it doesn’t matter. There is a lot of good in this book. I think it’s absolutely true that the use of alcohol creates the illusion that one needs alcohol. Reading sober blogs, this plays out again and again; people facing events that they associate entirely with alcohol (New Years’ Eve, scary work presentations) and finding that they’re not that different sober. The societal stuff is huge. And mostly, the message Vale is selling is a powerful one; you can not drink, and not feel deprived, because you’re not losing anything positive. To that end, it’s an important book, and I’m glad for it.
But, still. It’s kind of a marshmallow of a book. Good sugar hit, no substance. Makes me want to trawl through PubMed addiction literature.