And the worst possible time to “figure out” the root cause of your problem drinking is…
…the morning after.
You wake up with a groan: looks like it was a couch night. Your couch has terrible back support. What time is it? You grab your phone – the battery is dead. Cruel morning light filters through the living room blinds. Your wife is slamming kitchen cabinets. This is bad. Very bad. Your head pounds – it’s impossible to think. What happened?
Another night of bad behavior.
It’s not fair. You had been doing so well. For months! Why – how did this happen? Your wife sighs in anger. Still slamming things. God – now she’s going to divorce you. Unless you can figure out why. She’s going to want to know: why? If only you didn’t have this headache.
Pump the Brakes, Bro
If you spent the night on an alcohol bender, then your brain is in pretty bad shape come morning. If you wake up hungover (rather than drunk), the anxiety is crushing. Depression sets in. In my clinical practice, I refer to this as Post-Acute Alcohol-Induced Depression. Your thoughts are punishing:
I’m an idiot.
…a terrible husband.
…unworthy of love.
…a terrible friend.
We tend to believe our thoughts are logical and rational. Hangover thoughts feel particularly damning. Your brain, which helps you succeed at work, maintain friendships, and multi-task the hell out of your busy life, is now telling you that you are a living piece of garbage. And because you value your logical mind, you believe there is truth to these thoughts.
The problem? These are chemically-induced thoughts. In the same way your drunk brain leads you to do things you wouldn’t do sober, your hungover brain leads you to believe you are a terrible person.
If you over-value these chemically-induced thoughts, you will hit a wall pretty fast. For example, if I invest in the belief that “I am a failure,” I likely won’t take constructive action: What’s the point? I’m a failure.
Begin by recognizing how these thoughts can lead to an unproductive shame-spiral. And that the physiological trajectory is pretty clear: in the morning, you’ll swear off drinking forever. By 5pm, a drink will sound very appealing. That’s chemistry.
“What should I do?”
One way to move forward is to go through the Fuck-Up Assessment (FUA). This provides you with a structured, simple way to take action.
Notice that no part of the FUA involves “figuring out the root cause of your drinking.” Why? After all, that is what your wife wants to know. Hell – even YOU want to know. (I will address this with the Metaphor of the Well).
Back to your wife. If I had a video camera in your house, I would now see her in the living room getting into a very ugly shouting match with you. I see your hungover brain struggling to respond – how can she expect an immediate responses from you? You can’t come up with responses that fast.
Now you’re getting mad. She’s attacking you! You come to your defense.
“Leave me alone,” you say.
“You’re an asshole,” she says. “I’m telling my friends and family. I’m not covering for you anymore. You’re an alcoholic, and I should have never married you.”
“What?” you shout. “No way. What’s wrong with you?”
“What’s wrong with you?” she screams. “Why do you keep doing this?!”
Dealing with Your Partner
You managed to talk yourself through your shame-spiral thoughts. But she’s angry, yelling. The verbal assault sounds like what was going through your brain. It’s so unfair!
This is the worst time to try to figure out the “why” of your problem drinking. And yet, your partner demands a satisfying explanation. WTF?
Here’s the thing, bro: you’ve pissed your partner off. And even though she is demanding an explanation (she will say things like, “What was the trigger?” “What’s the root cause?” “Are you stressed?” “Did I do something to cause this?” “Did you talk to your mother recently?” – these are all attempts at creating an explanation), what counts right now is validating your partner’s anger.
I cannot emphasize this enough. Whenever your partner demands an explanation after a night of problem drinking, the first thing she needs is validation. You need to express that you care about her and feel bad about letting her down. She needs to hear you take responsibility for the impact of your actions.
It sounds something like this: “I really let you down. I get why you’re angry.”
Practice saying this. That’s step one.
Now, give it a try. Don’t justify, defend, or explain yourself. Acknowledge the reality of her feeling angry, scared, and vulnerable.
“I really let you down. I get why you’re angry.”
After validating her feelings, she might become more upset or start crying. Wait – why did I have you say that? Because the arc of feeling tends to peak immediately after acknowledgement (“Of course I’m angry!”) and then cool down (“I don’t know what to do. I’m scared”).
Second step: listen. Listen, nod your head, and absorb what is being said. Act interested. Ask questions. Reflect your understanding of what she’s saying. The love of your life is giving you valuable feedback! This is the time to accept a gift in rough packaging.
Third step: Apologize for not having an explanation RIGHT NOW because of the bad brain chemistry thing. Commit to figuring it out in the future. Describe the steps you will take. Once you have a good night of booze-free sleep, your brain will be back online and ready to work. The morning after heavy drinking is not the time for soul-searching.
The Metaphor of the Well
Waking up after a night of heavy drinking is like waking up at the bottom of a dark, deep well. Somewhere above, you see a pinprick of light. You don’t see a ladder out. Where are you, anyway? You can waste your energy trying to understand how you fell down the well, but this won’t solve the problem (unless you want to hang out in the well forever). Today, focus on getting out of the well.
Sometimes this means working with a trained, sensitive, and attuned counselor who can help you build scaffolding to climb out. At some point you will be out of the well, standing 10 feet away, and you’ll be able to say, “Oh yeah – it was a well!” And you’ll figure out how to avoid falling in again.
For right now, though, focus on building that ladder.
This article was republished in The Good Men Project.