Design For Life

Design For Life: How do you know if you have a problem with alcohol?

This week, Siobhán Murray advises a 22-year-old who senses their drinking habits have gotten out of control

‘It took me until I was 38 years old to realise I was using alcohol to fill the chasm and doing myself more harm as each year went by,’ says Siobhán Murray. Illustration: Getty/iStockphoto

Dear Expert,

I’m 22, and for several years now I’ve felt that I have a problem with alcohol. When I go out drinking, I can’t stop. I always go over the top and want to keep going, no matter how stupid it is. I never want to go home. I started drinking when I was 14, myself and the lads behind the petrol station in our town. I’ve always felt the same way about it, like there’s a big chasm inside me. When I start drinking, everything just goes into the hole and that’s the end of me. Is there a time when you know you have a problem and you should just stop?

Dear Reader,

In asking your question about recognising when you might have a problem with drinking, you have actually answered it yourself!

Reading your email inspired so many memories in me. I started drinking at around the same age and can relate to the feeling you described of having a big chasm inside that needed to be filled. I didn’t really start abusing alcohol until my 20s, but I continued right into my late 30s. As I always held down a job, had children and moved up the property ladder, however, I never really thought of myself as an alcoholic. But believe me, my drinking was absolutely causing issues for me: it was a problem.

It sounds from your email that it is most certainly causing you an issue too. Without sounding patronising, I am incredibly impressed by your level of self-awareness at such a young age. I most certainly didn’t have any awareness of the negative impact alcohol was having on my mental and physical health when I was 22. It took me until I was 38 years old to realise I was using alcohol to fill the chasm and doing myself more harm as each year went by.

I am now approaching 15 years without alcohol and can honestly say it was the best non-decision decision I made. That might sound like a bit of a contradiction, so let me explain.

I didn’t set out to never drink again. I simply decided to allow myself a month without drinking to see how I felt. That month went into a second month and that became a year, which became the near-15 years I’m at now. I didn’t put pressure on myself to say “I’m never drinking again”, and equally I didn’t approach stopping drinking as a punishment.

With my work, I have seen clients who initially approach stopping drinking as a form of deprivation. They use the phrase “I have to give up”, which creates a negative mindset from the start. The fear of never being able to drink can be overwhelming, and trying to figure out how you will manage in social settings where you’re used to having alcohol may be daunting to start with.

There are so many support systems out there that can help you, and no “one size fits all”. As well as the obvious organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, a huge movement is growing around the idea of being “sober curious”.

If you like reading, The Accidental Soberista by Kate Gunn is a great book about her own relationship with alcohol and how she became sober. There is also an online programme called One Year No Beer, which you can join at any time. If you don’t feel ready to commit, you can just listen to their podcasts and hear other people’s stories. To see how big a global movement “sober curious” has become, type #sobercurious into any form of social media and find out how many young people are choosing to live a different life.

I always suggest that if finances allow, you seek support from a therapist who can help you understand why your drinking is causing you issues. Our ability to push down emotions with substances can become such an ingrained habit that we block out the reasons why we do it. Having someone help you understand those reasons can make the process of changing habits so much easier.

One thing I learnt the hard way is that willpower alone is not enough to make positive changes in life. For both myself and my clients, I always ask: why do you want to change? How will your life be different if you do? Who, if anyone, else’s life will change for the better too? What one small thing can you do today to get you closer to making those changes?

Taking a break from alcohol playing a big part in your life may seem like a huge task, especially when a large amount of our socialising is around drinking. But removing alcohol from your life can be the start of something amazing. I wish I had had your self-awareness at 22 years old – I would absolutely have given myself permission to stop drinking then and not waited until my late 30s.

My favourite person to follow on social media is. . .

Keith Walsh (@keithwalsh_walsh), for his incredible honestly in ditching alcohol, for his openness and ability to have conversations around male mental health and for being ridiculously funny in the process! Being sober is not being boring and talking about mental health isn’t depressing.

About Siobhán Murray

After working in the London music industry for many years with stars such as Elton John, Goldie and B*Witched, Siobhán Murray retrained as a psychotherapist and set up her own clinic in Dublin. In 2018 she published her first book The Burnout Solution (Gill Books), which offers people a plan for preventing and overcoming this challenging condition. For more details, see

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