The Risks in “High Risk Drinking”

Al Heystek

Thanksgiving Eve is one of the biggest drinking nights of the year. Some folks will just tip a few back, while others will participate in many more leading to “high risk drinking.” In my last article, I outlined the 4 Types of Drinkers. Type 3 (a Binger) and Type 4 (a Dependent) share a common trait: they both drink large amounts of alcohol. And will likely be doing so this week. Yet for many men this activity causes serious issues. The primary risk is alcohol’s link to violence. The secondary risk is more subtle, yet also creates deep impacts in men’s lives and those around him: the link between alcohol and emotional numbing.

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Primary Risk: Alcohol and Violence

We know that alcohol is a contributing factor to homicides; suicides; fatalities and injuries in car accidents; aggravated assaults; child abuse; sexual assaults and domestic abuse. Most of this violence is committed by males. And while a shameful number of women and girls are victims of male violence, most victims of male violence are boys and other men.

It’s important to state that alcohol does not directly cause violence, as many commit serious violence, yet do not drink. And there are those who drink, yet do not commit acts of violence. But it’s clear that for men with a tendency or vulnerability to act out in abuse or violence, alcohol makes it likely that some form of violence will be expressed while drinking.

Men with a propensity to violence, typically see an increase with alcohol consumption. They really have two issues to address: their violence and their drinking. When talking to these men, they usually make the connection with how alcohol contributed to acting out in abusive manner. They require a tandem accountability: a recognition of a tendency to be abusive or violent and the vulnerability they have for alcohol to bring that out. These men often come to an important understanding: they have a dual vulnerability. Their anger and aggression can become ramped up with they are drinking, particularly when consuming large amounts.

Some of our clients decide to stop drinking altogether because they don’t want to take any chances in the future with dangerous or abusive behavior. Other men make a commitment to only drink small amounts (such as 1-3 drinks per occasion) because they believe this will significantly reduce problems connected to their drinking. These strategies may work for someone who is a Type 3 (Binger), but fail for those who are a Type 4 (Dependent). Therein is an important distinction between the two groups.

Ultimately, many men make the connection between alcohol and violence. For these men alcohol likely contributes to:

  • decreased ability to make good judgments
  • lack of foresight about consequences
  • acting aggressively and even violently
  • reduction of ability to understand how my actions are hurting others
  • feelings of guilt and shame about their actions

While it is obvious to many men that high risk drinking can contribute to their violent behavior in a specific situation, it is not so easy for them to see how abusing alcohol can have a deeper impact on their psyche and ability to connect emotionally.

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Secondary Risk: Alcohol & Emotional Numbing

High risk drinking over time can contribute to the reduction of a man’s ability to be in touch with his emotions.  Emotions are already a difficulty for many men because male social training teaches them to suppress emotion. High risk drinking further numbs a man’s capacity to feel. This can be very subtle and at times quite challenging for men to understand. High risk drinking numbs a man’s ability to be in touch with his emotions and increases his tendency to be self-centered, entitled, and disconnected to the feelings of others.

In therapy, I use this metaphor: it’s like learning to ride a bicycle. Most of us easily recall training wheels or a parent holding on until we could balance the bike ourselves. We remember the fear and the exhilaration of going around that first curve, being able to balance the bike without help, and enjoying the freedom of leaning left and leaning right. We remember how it gave us confidence and independence. I liken high risk drinking to keeping the training wheels on the bike. The abuse of alcohol over time can inhibit the man from experiencing a wide range of emotions: sadness, hurt, fear, anxiety, happiness and joy. It’s not just the negative emotions that are dulled – it’s the positive emotions as well.

Along with the bike metaphor, I also use the analogy of the Two Minute Drill. Football teams practice offensive plays in practice to prepare themselves for an end game situation when they need to score, yet have little time and limited/no time outs. Teams prepare for this intense situation by practicing these plays over and over again so when the actual situation occurs, they can effectively manage the stress and difficulty. When I ask men which team will be better prepared to handle these stressful situations – the team who has practiced just a few times or the team who has done the drill several times – they invariably respond the team who practiced it more often. The same is true for emotions.

High risk drinking reduces a man’s ability to feel, to identify, and to express emotions. Dealing with conflicts and being connection to one’s emotions is essential to relationships. If a man has a pattern of high risk drinking his ability to navigate day to day conflicts is compromised. He quickly becomes defensive or angry.  And if there is a serious conflict or major stress, his inability to manage his emotions could result in a significant crisis. This is what we often see in our counseling practice. This is the place most men find themselves in when they finally seek help or are required to participate by a court due to their actions.

When men begin to examine how their high risk drinking has limited their ability to practice dealing with e motions during conflict, they begin to make the connection. Like the team who rarely practiced the Two Minute Drill, a man who has a pattern of high risk drinking has compromised his ability to respond to conflict in a healthy way. Often this results in hurting his family physically or emotionally.

While high risk drinking can directly influence behavior in a specific situation, it can also contribute to the numbing of emotion over time resulting in self centeredness and lack of understanding of others close to him. This knowledge can move men toward considering a reduction in their drinking or even taking up abstinence.

The Men’s Resource Center offers a variety of individual and group therapy options for those who are prepared to reduce or eliminate their drinking. learn more…

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Al Heystek, MA, LPC, MDiv

Al is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has worked professionally with men’s issues since 1994. He has been a therapist with the Men’s Resource Center at Fountain Hill since 2002. Prior to that Al worked for OAR, Inc. in Holland, Michigan as a therapist in both outpatient and residential men’s chemical dependency programs. Al also worked for Gateway Foundation, an Outpatient Treatment center in Chicago and prior to that was on a ministerial team for 10 years in an urban ministry in Chicago.  Al is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.
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