If you’ve ever struggled with alcohol, you’ve heard the myths: “Alcoholics lack self-control” or “They would quit drinking if they really wanted to.”
Often, these remarks come from normies, a term used in recovery circles to describe normal drinkers. Because normies can limit their drinking without difficulty or go home happy after half a beer, they figure everyone can. Normies use their normal-drinking brains as the reference point, assuming all brains work alike.
News flash: they don’t.
Below are five things normal drinkers don’t understand about alcoholism.
5 Things Normies Don’t Understand About Alcoholism
1. Addiction changes the brain.
Normies and problem drinkers have different brains and experience alcohol’s effects differently. Moreover, these brain differences are research-backed.
For instance, picture a traffic light. Imagine this light flashing green, yellow, or red, telling you to keep drinking, slow down, or stop.
After two drinks, normal drinkers’ brains flash yellow as they start feeling the effects, but problem drinkers’ brains flash green as they start feeling better. And problem drinkers’ brains keep flashing green long after normal drinkers see yellow. One brain says, “more,” while the other says, “take it easy.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association, long-term alcohol misuse impairs impulse control and decision making. And problem drinkers lose more control as their drinking worsens.
2. Addiction isn’t just physical.
People don’t only drink to relieve physical cravings; addiction is psychological as well. And many find the psychological addiction the toughest to conquer.
Alcohol seems to meet many needs, and that list grows over time. For instance, some begin drinking to relieve stress, but later, they also drink for other reasons.
Others drink to self-medicate or cope with trauma, which is common among people with alcohol use disorder.
3. Many problem drinkers want—and have tried—to quit.
Although some normies think problem drinkers don’t know better, knowledge isn’t the problem. Instead, problem drinkers struggle to quit despite the trouble it causes.
Recovery is difficult, often taking many tries before it sticks. To illustrate, consider how hard it is for most people to follow a diet, and that “just” requires one or two changes. Recovery demands far more commitment, requiring multiple changes at once. People must change their diets, hobbies, routines, coping behaviors, and sometimes their friends and environments.
They must unlearn old behaviors while learning new ones. These changes take time.
Few normal drinkers have made similar changes and therefore don’t understand what recovery entails. As a result, normies mistake relapse for lack of desire, assuming problem drinkers “just don’t want” to quit.
However, relapse is the rule more than the exception. Research estimates that 80% of people relapse within the first year after treatment. But relapse can also be a learning opportunity.
The key is to keep trying; relapse does not mean failure. (See these relapse prevention tools and tips.
4. Addiction doesn’t discriminate.
Addiction affects people of all races, classes, colors, and creeds. Although poverty, oppression, and trauma increase addiction risk, addiction can happen to people of any background.
Research also suggests that 40% to 60% of addiction risk is genetic or epigenetic.
5. One drink is (often) too many.
Many wonder why their recovering loved ones can’t have a celebratory drink. They figure their loved one has been sober for a while; can’t she have a little fun?
Fun, yes, but alcohol, no—at least not for those with severe alcohol use disorder. While occasional binge drinkers may be able to moderate, that’s rarely true for those with severe alcohol problems.
Chronic alcohol misuse changes the brain, which can’t return to its former state once those changes have occurred.
As they say in AA, “Once a pickle, always a pickle.”
Do you or a loved one struggle with alcohol? If so, you aren’t alone. Learn more about substance use disorders and where to find help.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
NIAAA. (n.d.). Alcohol and the brain: An overview. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-and-brain-overview#:~:text=Alcohol%20interferes%20with%20the%20brain’s,injuries%20and%20other%20negative%20outcomes.
NIDA. (n.d.). What is drug addiction? https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/drug-misuse-addiction
SAMHSA (2022, September 27). Trauma and violence. https://www.samhsa.gov/trauma-violence