Sarah Suzuki is an expert in the art and science of moderate drinking. Her work has been featured in the Good Men Project. She is the director of Chicago Compass Counseling, a group counseling practice dedicated to helping people in Chicago who struggle with the effects of alcohol abuse. As an individual counselor, she specializes in working with men who want to control their drinking. 

What Alcohol May be Costing Your Relationship

What Alcohol May be Costing Your Relationship

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 cabinets in the kitchen. 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 is sighing angrily. Still slamming things. God – now she is really 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.

…an asshole.

…a scumbag.

…a terrible husband.

…a failure.

…unworthy of love.

…a terrible friend.  

Because we are used to thinking of thoughts as logical and rational, these unwelcome assessments 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, rational thoughts, you seriously consider that there is truth to these statements.

The problem here is that these thoughts are chemically-induced. In the same way that your drunk brain leads you to say and do things that you would not do sober, your hungover brain leads you to believe that you are a terrible person.

If you over-value these chemically-induced thoughts, you will hit a wall pretty fast. If, for example, I allow myself to believe that I am a failure, then it is very unlikely that I will take constructive actions: What’s the point? I’m a failure. 

Instead, recognize that these thoughts are part of an unproductive shame-spiral. And that the physiological trajectory is pretty clear: in the morning, you will swear off drinking forever. By 5pm, a drink will sound very appealing. That’s just chemistry.

What do I DO Then?

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 – why is it that women can say things so easily and expect 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 is wrong with you?”

“What is wrong with you?” she screams. “Why do you keep doing this?!”

Dealing with Your Partner

Even if you have managed to convince yourself that your shame-spiral thoughts are just bad chemistry, you are now receiving a verbal assault that sounds very similar to what has been going through your brain. It’s so unfair!

After telling you that this is the worst time to try to figure out the “why” of your problem drinking, your partner now wants a satisfying explanation. WTF?

Here’s the thing, bro: you have really pissed your partner off. And even though she is demanding an explanation (she will say things like, “What was the trigger?” “What is 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 really counts right now is validating your partner’s anger. 

I cannot emphasize this enough. As paradoxical as it might seem, when she is asking for an explanation, she is actually asking for you to validate that you care about her, feel bad that you let her down, and are actually interested in her feelings.

It sounds something like this: “I really let you down. I get why you’re angry.”

Practice saying this. That is step one.

Now, give it a try. Don’t justify, defend, or explain yourself. Just acknowledge the reality of her feeling angry, scared, and vulnerable.

After you say this, 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 offering validation and 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 and ask questions. The love of your life is giving you valuable feedback, and this is the time to accept a gift presented in rough packaging.

Third step: Offer an apology that you don’t have an explanation RIGHT NOW because of the bad brain chemistry thing, as well as a commitment to figuring it out in the future. 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, however, is not that time.

The Metaphor of the Well

Waking up after a night of heavy drinking is very similar to waking up at the bottom of a dark, deep well. There is a pinprick of light somewhere above you, and no clear ladder out. Where are you, anyway? You can spend that whole time trying to guess where you are, but it’s useless to try (unless you want to hang out in the well forever). Your focus should be on getting out of the well.

Sometimes this is facilitated by 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 will be able to say, “Oh yeah - it was a well!”

For right now, though, focus on building that ladder. SS

This article was republished in The Good Men Project. 

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