The Three Reasons I’m an Alcoholic

Alcohol is Everywhere
Denver City Bus Outside the Kid-Friendly Nature and Science Museum

Alcoholics use alcohol to escape – to hide from some disturbing piece of our lives we find unmanageable and prefer to drown rather than address. For many, it is a childhood trauma or a young adult betrayal like a molestation, assault or some other kind of abuse at the hands of a deranged relative or trusted person in a position of authority. For a while, the alcohol works well, pushing the memories deep down and rendering them impotent. But eventually, it stops working. Alcohol becomes fuel on a smoldering hurt that burns deep in our souls. Alcohol transitions from hiding our pain to making it unbearable.


That’s how it works, right? We are always looking for the underlying reason for our addiction. Sure, we drink too much, but that’s really more of an effect rather than the cause of our disease, right? There’s got to be something deeper – a secret – something we hide not just from those around us, but even from our own conscious selves.


I’ve spent a lot of time trying to uncover the hidden trauma that led to my alcoholism. Was it the anguish from growing up with two loving parents that remain happily married? Was it the agony from having enough to eat, plenty of clothes and a safe, warm place to live my whole life? Maybe the misery of a younger sister that adored me and looked up to me was just too much torture. The most difficult thing I had to manage in my adolescent life was a cross-country move in high school. It was hard to leave good friends behind and be thrust midyear into a cauldron of established cliques and self-protective, judgemental sneering, but my grades didn’t suffer and I didn’t develop an eating disorder. It sucked, but sometimes life sucks. It hardly rose to the level of tormenting trauma.


I have been haunted by deep, gnawing concerns about what’s wrong with me that I became an alcoholic even though nothing was wrong. All addicts have a life-shattering event – a pivotal moment when alcohol becomes necessary to bury their tragic truths, right? Am I so weak and soft that a move in high school was enough to break me? Am I that frail and puny?


What about this? After years of pondering and feeling inadequate because my underlying trauma isn’t really traumatic at all, what if that’s not really the requirement for addiction that we all assume it to be? What if addiction to a highly addictive substance happens naturally because our bodies and brains are functioning properly? What if there’s actually nothing wrong at all – nothing wrong in my past and nothing wrong with the evolution of my drinking patterns?


If we can’t blame traumatic experience, what do we blame?


Chaotic Mind Syndrome

I’ve always had a very busy and restless brain. Other than when I’m sleeping, my mind bounces around from one thought to another. I’m always planning for the future or evaluating the past with a little slice of operating in the present mixed in. It’s why I struggle to enjoy a sunset or nap on Sunday afternoon or find peace in a moment of stillness. I’m not alone. Far from it. My wife takes pity on me because I struggle so to find relaxation, but lots of people live like this. I don’t mind, really. I’m rarely bored as long as I have myself to talk to, and my cranial energy keeps me from procrastinating or under-thinking just about anything. I’m not bragging. I wish I could quiet the chatter sometimes, but it’s not really a hindrance, either. It’s just how me and millions of others tick through our days.


But here’s where it gets complicated. When I added alcohol into my life, it was like turning up the burner on a pot of simmering water. My thoughts began to bubble and boil and steam and spit. My peacefully coexisting thoughts turning into molecules bashing into each other in an atomic reaction. I call it chaotic mind syndrome, and the frenetic pace of cranial activity was more crippling than it was energizing.


The chaos ensued not when I was actively consuming alcoholic beverages, but as a result of alcohol being a consistent part of my life. Just like alcohol-induced depression or anxiety, the pain comes as a delayed result of the alcohol ingestion. But guess what makes the pain go away temporarily. That’s right – drinking alcohol was the only thing that calmed the chaos. So I used alcohol to medicate a condition alcohol caused. Thus, my active mind contracted chaotic mind syndrome from the substance I used to treat the condition. No trauma. No abuse. Just a self-inflicted loop of chaos, relief and more chaos.


This, not childhood trauma, is one of the three reasons for my alcoholism.


Opioid Mimicry

The second cause of my alcoholism is the way my reward system processes alcohol. My reaction to drinking has been labeled, “opioid mimicry,” by Dr. Joan Mathews Larson. The intense euphoria I experience about two-and-a-half beers in is unmatched by anything else I’ve ever felt. On the few occasions that I’ve smoked weed, it just made me paranoid, and the one time I tried psychedelic mushrooms I hid in a bush outside a McDonald’s drive through for six hours. No euphoria there. In fact, no experience or substance has ever brought me the degree of ecstasy I receive from alcohol. A therapist friend of mine, Dave Friedentag, says everyone has their “thing” that elicits that level of pure, unmatched joy. For many, that thing might be meth or heroin. Since most of us never try those drugs, we don’t know what that level of euphoria feels like.


If your euphoric thing is a dangerous, addictive drug that you’ll never try, good for you. Consider yourself lucky. Because when alcohol hits you like it hits me – when your whole body tingles as you drink yourself into your sweet spot – avoiding alcohol for fear of dangerous consequences that no one has ever taught you about never crosses your mind.


If you can drink two gin and tonics and easily stop drinking with a feeling of satisfaction, alcohol isn’t your euphoric thing. If you think it’s about will power, try meth and see how that works out for you. Actually don’t ever try meth for any reason. I can’t let that advice hang out there no matter how obvious the sarcasm.


And that’s the second, nontraumatic reason I’m an alcoholic.


Brainwashing of the Most Complete Kind

The third reason I contracted this disease is all around us every moment of every day. It is a combination of ignorance and brainwashing, and our culture perpetuates it like no other lie in human history. Does that sound dramatic? I hope so, because the damage our societal promotion of a drug we consume voraciously yet never take the time to understand kills three million people a year globally.


The more I learn about alcohol and how it damages our bodies and brains, the more perplexing our cognitive dissonance is in relation to booze. We quickly and readily admit that alcohol abuse is damaging and deadly and tragic, but then we celebrate the glories of alcohol as the only option for cheering victory, commiserating a loss, reducing stress and alleviating boredom in the very same breath.


It turns out that I live here on earth where I’m inundated by unavoidable messaging about how incomplete our lives are without alcohol. Meanwhile, I co-inhabit this planet with people who find beer or wine to be essential necessities for every neighborly or family or professional relationship.


Cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, alcoholism kills. On the other hand, we place alcohol at the center of every occasion. At least it explains why we used to believe the earth was square and why conspiracy theorists think we faked the moon landing. We are only willing to acknowledge scientific fact as long as it doesn’t harsh our buzz.


We can’t promote the consumption of alcohol with the same urgent necessity of breathing oxygen without recognizing our societal culpability in the increasing epidemic of alcoholism. Actually, I guess we can. We humans are overachievers when it comes to compartmentalization. Just ask the alcoholics who suffered trauma during childhood.


So, I think that’s why I’m an alcoholic. I wasn’t driven to my disease by trauma. I was invited by rapture, a neurological chaos loop and every message I ever received about the majestic place alcohol holds in our society. And as a reader pointed out to me this week, I’m pissed off about it. I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I was brainwashed into following such a destructive path, I’m angry because my kids and the rest of the victims of the next generation have to fight the uphill battle against misinformation and a refusal to connect the dots as they try to avoid falling victim to addiction and mental illness.


I’m all for freedom, and I want my kids to make their own decisions regarding alcohol. But I want them to be educated and understand the life-crushing consequences. We tell our kids not to get in the van with a stranger no matter how much candy he dangles, then we ask them to ice-down the beer cooler for the neighborhood barbeque and watch all the role models dangle golden-amber euphoria in front of them all afternoon.


I hope meth’s your thing, and I hope you never try it. I hope you never find the soothing power of alcohol to alleviate your anxiety before it brings another wave of anxiety crashing into your life. And I hope you are smart enough to understand a basic cause and effect relationship before you join the three million people alcohol kills annually.


I think I know why I’m an alcoholic, and it has nothing to do with trauma. Likewise, my road to recovery has nothing to do with anonymity because my kids don’t deserve to be punished by my silence. If you want to find permanent sobriety while joining the larger solution to the epidemic of alcoholism, I invite you to join SHOUT Sobriety. This program designed to help high-functioning alcoholics and their families navigate early sobriety incorporates all the things I learned about removing alcohol from my life against all odds. My sobriety is my greatest victory, and I share what I’ve learned for free because I don’t think you should have to pay for freedom. Please check out the SHOUT Sobriety program, and enroll if you are ready. Societal change is brutally slow going, and we could use some more smart people on our side.

SHOUT Sobriety

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  • Reply
    Verelle Roocke
    June 12, 2019 at 6:39 am

    Hi, your post is incredibly insightful and I absolutely concur with your 3 reasons for becoming dependent on alcohol as I know they are the same for me. I saw my parents drink to cope with their stressful jobs and financial and marital stress and deny that they had a problem (when clearly their minor arguments and irritability were the result)- but nothing terrible happened to me as a kid. I have tried other drugs and although briefly exciting and despite at times attempting to develop a dependence on them- they just didn’t cause the same ‘rush’ or as you say, euphoria the 2nd-3rd glass of wine did/does. And I have tried really hard since the age of 16 to drink as much as anyone- enjoy all manner of alcoholic drinks at appropriate occasions in all situations, to fit in, to be cool, for whatever stupid reason I thought was neccessary and I feel totally pissed off that now I am struggling to NOT drink even when I don’t want to , even when my body (early breast cancer at age 48) tells me I must NOT drink and even when as a doctor myself, I tell people every day of the harm it does them! It’s taken me a year or two, a marriage that has dissolved through alcohol fuelled fights and poor behaviour, to acknowledge how much of a problem this really is for me! and when I try and explain it to friends living the same life-how I get denial and reassurance that its ‘normal’. It is really scary! Thanks for your brave posts, your book list which I am working through and your insights into your personal experience- it has come at perfectly the right time for me. Keep up the great work – and sobriety! Verelle.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 12, 2019 at 7:01 am

      Thank you for your deeply personal feedback, Verelle! Just like you tell me my post came to you at just the right time, your comment to me is very timely and much appreciated. I do need encouragement to keep going, and you provided a ton of that to me today. Thank you!

    • Reply
      Mark McSweeney
      June 12, 2019 at 9:50 am

      Matt, I could relate to every single word you wrote.

      Sometimes I would try really hard to identify that bad trauma in my life which would explain things, but I could find none. Not any of the “B” (Bad) trauma like abuse, emotional or physical…so I had to settle on blaming everything on “A” trauma (Absence of the good things people need to grow into a healthy, mature adult)—those things I should’ve received such as positive words of affirmation, visible expressions of love and feeling valued, life lessons learned, being shown how to do things, being required to learn to do hard things…. those things were not there, so they became the scapegoat. But I had parents who came from a generation where those things were just not done a lot. And for my parents’ generation alcohol was ever-present, at all family gatherings, parties, sports events, holidays, restaurant meals, every visit of every kind. And for me 2-3 beers was about what it took to start feeling that euphoria. I rarely went beyond a 6-pack—at that point, a pizza or big meal took away the desire for more—but if beer/wine wasn’t available at an event, there was an uneasiness, a feeling of deprivation. I have always had a restless and overactive mind, full of too many meaningless facts and trivia—the creation of the internet and smart phones has not helped that. I could never relax much on a vacation, or fully enjoy a sunset, or the stars at night in a beautiful clear sky. I could always completely relate to CS Lewis when he wrote “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

      It is good to not have the cravings for alcohol, or feel the deprivation if it was unavailable….5 years for me this Saturday.

      • Reply
        Matt Salis
        June 12, 2019 at 1:05 pm

        Mark…dude…what a great comment. I LOVE the CS Lewis quote. I’m also impressed that while you identify what your parents didn’t provide for you, that you let them off the hook for that. It took me a while to let go of the influence my parents’ relationship with alcohol had on me. I had to realise that they didn’t know any better because almost no one knows about this disease of hushed whispers and shame. Anyway, I’ll think of you this Saturday – congrats on the five years, my friend!

  • Reply
    Trace Nuttall
    June 12, 2019 at 6:44 am

    Good morning Matt,
    Fantastic article! So many truths and epiphanies for me.
    Look forward to catching up with you.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 12, 2019 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks, Trace. I know we’ll talk soon, and I look forward to it!

  • Reply
    Jay Wilson
    June 12, 2019 at 8:45 am

    Loved 99.9%, but you keep doing this wrong with your shots at aa: ‘Likewise, my road to recovery has nothing to do with anonymity because my kids don’t deserve to be punished by my silence.’

    Nothing in aa says YOU have to be anonymous about YOUR alcoholism. My kids know about mine, they know I am active in aa as part of my recovery. They see my aa book in my Jeep everyday and I share things i learn with them. So do my family and close friends. If you’re going to bash, learn first and be accurate in your bashing.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 12, 2019 at 8:54 am

      I completely, 100% understand that in AA you are welcome to share your story. What about my article makes you think I don’t understand that, Jay? I get tons of emails from people who can’t imagine being open about their recovery. Those are the people I am trying to help get over that hump.

      I’m glad AA is working for you. Truly I am. I’m here for the many for whom AA is not a good fit.

  • Reply
    June 12, 2019 at 11:57 am

    Hi Matt, great article, as usual. I hope Jay reads my response also because it’s to both of you. Jay, I’m so happy to hear you are sober and that AA is helping you. I went to AA for more than 5 years. I’m one of those people it was not a good fit for. I did everything I was asked to do, attended meetings religiously, had a sponsor, did the steps etc., etc. I had a successful professional and personal life (as I did before I began attending) and I was sober. But I never enjoyed going to AA. It just wasn’t for me! It can’t be a surprise that it doesn’t fit for everyone! After I stopped going to AA I reached a point in my life where I needed help again. I was fortunate to read some of Matt’s articles and his ebook, Guide to Early Sobriety. Then I began reading books about alcoholism that Matt had recommended in his ebook. Wow! That’s what I had been looking for! I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I’m so grateful for a new approach to sobriety that fits me!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 12, 2019 at 1:11 pm

      Thanks, Cathy, for your continued feedback. I appreciate our consistent communication. It is great having you as a part of my support system!

  • Reply
    Arlene Prunkl
    June 12, 2019 at 1:29 pm

    Great article, Matt! I too spent years trying to identify my early childhood trauma. All I could ever come up with was that there was a ton of pressure on me to be a “perfect” child, straight As, clever in everything I did academically, push, push, push myself to overachieve and be a perfectionist in all aspects of my life — all because I had a sick sister who never had any pressure put on her to be anything but healthy. So my parents inadvertently put all the pressure to achieve on me, the eldest. Other than that, I never had any childhood trauma, wasn’t abused, my parents didn’t drink (much at all), I was never a part of the “bad” crowd as a teen, etc. etc. I can thus identify so clearly with your three reasons: 1) I too have chaotic mind; I’ve always called it “swirling brain syndrome”; 2) I believe I have lower level of dopamine than the average brain and alcohol totally makes up for my lack of pleasure circuitry (or did alcohol damage that pleasure circuitry so much that I needed more and more of it to fill the void; which came first? Will science find that out too?); and 3) society is overflowing with booze and completely sends mixed messages about it.

    I am really enjoying your writing. I ordered the first book on your list. The only thing I can’t relate to in your writing is God. I’m an atheist/humanist, and I’ve recently joined SMART Recovery. AA totally doesn’t work for me because of the God thing, and I’m glad you hardly mention God at all. The God thing just doesn’t gel with science, and I’m all about science.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 12, 2019 at 3:15 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Arlene. To me, it is fascinating that your experience aligns with the three reasons for my alcoholism. The most interesting to me is the number of emails I have received today relating to chaotic mind syndrome or swirling mind syndrome as you call it. Amazing. This is clearly a real thing that needs more study. Thanks again, and I hope we stay in touch!

      • Reply
        Arlene Prunkl
        June 12, 2019 at 3:27 pm

        I’m sure we will, since I’ve signed up for your blog. 🙂

  • Reply
    Brian Stafford
    June 12, 2019 at 3:59 pm

    Matt: Been meaning to write since the post about getting Belligerent Drunk. So, let’s see if I can capture my thoughts concisely here.
    I had my head nodding “Yes” as I read about your experience @ the Indy 500 this year. That same weekend, I noted how my wife and one of our best friends got together for fun and catching up and *EVERY* thing we did that day involved or revolved around alcohol. We didn’t get crazy, no one drove drunk, got arrested, or blacked out, but from sampling a new brew, to enjoying beer with dinner, to having a beer while throwing bean bags with friends, to stopping by the mega-liquor store in Boulder just to check out their dizzying array of choices, it seemed like we knew no other way to do it. This is the same crew that will just as likely meet up for a 30 mile bike ride, 5 days in the backcountry, hitting hot yoga classes, and other productive activities, but when we’re not being productive…..well, there’s really no choice involved. We all know the go-to, and it is accepted, endorsed, and celebrated like it is a fact of life.

    This latest post really brings it all home. I have no idea how you boiled down ALL this into the 3 big points you make, but they are just spot on. I can’t even add anything to the discussion, because you nailed it: what’s your trauma? Don’t forget these are chemicals. And Advertising in America in 2019. It is such a powerful combination that I’m guessing everyone of us that has struggled with the drink can relate to.

    Lastly: Bro, your writing is getting sooooo good. This isn’t to say that it was bad before, but your style is *really* coming together. Sharp, critical, unashamed, bold and intelligent…’re just really getting a noticeable style that I don’t see anywhere. Unique would be the word, simply. From my vantage point, when I point friends and family to your material, or recite something you’ve noted [giving you full credit, of course (-: ], there is a sense a true value. Not a bible-thumping, righteous attitude, nor a “trust me, I know the way” preaching, but a smart human that is embracing what it is all about:
    Living the examined life to be your best self so you can serve others.
    Big props man, I wish you continued growth and success.
    I still miss your bread, but we’re coping.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 12, 2019 at 8:10 pm

      Wow, Brian! What a thoughtful, insightful comment and compliment to make me blush big time. It is really nice of you to write those things. We’ve got to get together soon and catch up. You miss the bread, and I miss seeing you and hearing what you are up to, too. Thanks again, my friend, for reading and thinking and contributing and making me feel valued!

  • Reply
    June 13, 2019 at 12:15 pm

    This is spot on…thank you for sharing.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 13, 2019 at 2:08 pm

      Thanks for your feedback, Kyle! I’m glad it resonates.

  • Reply
    Pat MacMillan
    June 17, 2019 at 11:47 am

    I have read most of your essays on your experience with alcohol. They have helped me understand my dad’s alcoholism and my potential alcoholism. However this one is brilliant – so true, so true! Thanks for helping me understand my dad a little better – 15 years after his death at the age of 85. He quit at age 65 because of diabetes – whatever it takes, right? It was a gift to have those years without his drinking even though we had his depression full time, it was more steady and manageable. Episodic drinking in a parent is hard for a child to understand. Is dad jeckel or Hyde today? But I knew always that he loved me and provided for me. And now I see his alcoholism more clearly – he was a social drinker and his friends drank. I could be a social drinker but my friends don’t drink. And for the last 25 years thankfully I am actually allergic to the bear and wine produced in this country.
    Thanks again for your sharing and analyzing with great courage, but I still miss your bread!!
    All the best to you and family.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      June 17, 2019 at 1:26 pm

      Thank you, Pat! I’m so glad this resonates with your experiences with your dad. My family is so important to me, so that kind of feedback warms my heart.

  • Reply
    Cornelius S Murphy
    August 9, 2019 at 1:38 pm

    Nice work again Matt; and as Brian said, your writing is really, really good. I think I mentioned to you during our phone call that, of all the articles and books I’ve read on this subject, the article that my friend Jennifer sent me from the ELEPHANT JOURNAL entitled The Alcoholic Lies that we are all Guilty of Believing was the one that got my attention above all and lead me to your GUIDE TO EARLY SOBRIETY and then to the 10 books you mentioned that are worth reading . . . and perfect for filling the WITCHING HOUR. Thanks again Matt and I’m looking forward to more reading.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      August 9, 2019 at 6:16 pm

      Thank you, Neil. Thanks for reading, thanks for the feedback and thanks for the reminder that we are all in this together.

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