What a strange title. Is that what you're thinking? Of course alcoholics should try to control their drinking ‒ shouldn't they? After all, their overuse of alcohol is causing them and everyone around them a lot of pain.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy. Not if you're addicted to alcohol. What many people, and indeed, many alcoholics don't understand, is that once you're addicted to alcohol, your ability to control your drinking goes right out of the window.

Of course, you kind of know that experientially, if you're an alcoholic or have been around one. Alcoholics always have, one (or several) too many drinks. But the major mistake that both alcoholics and their loved ones make is believing that controlling alcohol can somehow be learned again.

People believe that if only the alcoholic exercised a bit more willpower, thought of their family, or made a massive effort, they should be able to cut back or control their drinking, shouldn't they? The short answer is no. The long answer is also no – and that this inability to control alcohol use has everything to do with science and nothing to do with willpower.

Some people's bodies process alcohol differently than others'. Think about it this way. Some people have an allergic reaction to nuts while others don't. Some people can eat loads and never seem to put on weight, while others only have to look at a cake and they gain 5lbs. People are built differently.

In the case of severe alcoholics, the brain is built differently, and so no matter how long and hard they try to control their drinking, their brain will always react in the same old way, producing overwhelming cravings to have another drink.

But, you may say to yourself, this person wasn't always like that! Once upon a time, they weren't quite so crazy and did exert some kind of control over their drinking. I'm sure they did, to some extent. But, over time, if you continually drink, you're also building a strong behavioural pathway in your brain. And it's one that fills the brain with certain chemicals it can't ignore.

Just as you may have a certain song that will always have the power to make you sad if you listen to it, an alcoholic has a certain reaction to alcohol now that can't be unlearned.

There are many things that can be 'unlearned' in life, but the complex and compelling mix of brain reactions that occur when an alcoholic has a drink isn't one of them. And that's why severe alcoholics can't control their drinking – they can only choose recovery through abstinence.

One final point: not everyone who drinks heavily is an alcoholic. An alcoholic means someone is addicted to alcohol and has the brain chemistry to go with that. If someone has the ability to consistently choose how much they drink, even if they 'like' going overboard, they're not an alcoholic. People like that can cut back or moderate, or choose to give up drink altogether.

But if you, or someone you know, can't stop drinking after the first drink is taken, they're an alcoholic. The good news is, abstinence is achievable no matter how severe an alcoholic is. You just need to know how to do it. Check out my books for help with overcoming alcoholism and achieving a happy, abstinent recovery.

by Beth Burgess, Therapist and author of The Recovery Formula and The Happy Addict.

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