As a balding, middle-aged bloke who works for the Mental Health Foundation, you might not think I have a lot in common with American singer Demi Lovato - but her new song ‘Sober’ speaks to me.
Despite our obvious differences and means of expression - you really don’t want to hear me sing! - we share the shame, confusion and sense of powerlessness over our addiction to alcohol.
In it, Demi describes relapsing into problem drinking after six years of sobriety and - as I reach my own nine-year anniversary of abstinence - her words are a warning. They warn that even long-sober alcoholics are only one drink from returning to the vortex that is so hard to escape.
The horrible situation Demi describes in her song is actually very similar to the ‘relapse’ dreams my subconscious sends me at least once a month. I have no idea how or why this still happens but clearly my mind is very keen to stay on the wagon and remains unconvinced I have learnt my lesson.
My conscious mind was trained, through Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), to think through the consequences of having even one drink. I know ‘picking up’, in Alcoholics Anonymous parlance, would lead to getting drunk and that my family would be devastated.
That would lead to self-loathing and the strong desire to block it out through more drinking and subsequent disaster. Funnily enough by the time I’ve thought through that scenario, the pint of beer or glass of champagne doesn’t look nearly so tempting.
In psychological theory they call the effect of wanting to do the right thing by your loved ones, a ‘subjective norm.’ It’s a powerful deterrent but it is not always effective on its own or for those without close ties.
Demi sings: “I don’t know why I do it very time”, but also recognises she returns to drinking “only when I’m lonely”.
Recognising triggers is half the battle, the other half is being able to address them constructively without returning to self-harm.
I know if I get hungry, stressed or don’t exercise enough, my resistance is weakened and the urge to drink is stronger. It’s not always possible to avoid these things, but by being ‘mindful’ I can try and minimise the risks and understand what is happening to me.
Getting sober after 20 years of problem drinking is the best thing I ever did and I’m healthier and happier than ever before. There is great evidence-based support available and everyone has the potential to enjoy a better quality of life.
My advice to Demi is that having got back on the wagon – and I really hope she does - she equips herself with the tools she needs to stay on it. CBT is one of those tools. Recognising and trying to neutralise triggers is another.
Demi, next time you get lonely don’t reach for a drink - call your momma instead, and listen to your nightmares.
Ed Davie is Mental Health Communities Lead at the Mental Health Foundation and Lambeth Council Cabinet Member for Health