Episode 57: Alcohol Explained

This episode of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast features an interview with William Porter, author of Alcohol Explained. William lives in London, England with his wife and two young children. He is currently a lawyer and previously served with the 4th (Volunteer) Battalion of the Parachute Regiment.

Alcohol Explained is a compelling examination of alcohol addiction, helpful to anyone who is coming to terms with a drinking problem or has a friend or loved one struggling with alcohol addiction. What follows is a summary of the book that William was kind enough to write which includes links to his website and reviews of the book. 

Alcohol Explained

By William Porter

My object when writing Alcohol Explained was to explain alcohol and alcoholism from a chemical, physiological, and psychological standpoint.

So did I achieve my objective? That is not for me to say, it is for the alcoholics and problem drinkers the world over to say. It is they who will be the ultimate judge. And I genuinely believe that it is for them to judge, not for the so-called experts on addiction (unless they themselves have been addicted). It is the alcoholic who knows most about the phenomenon of alcoholism and who is best placed to judge if I have hit the mark or not, after all, it is they who have lived and breathed this curse for however many years they have suffered it. An ‘expert’ on alcoholism who has never suffered from alcoholism is like a person trying to write a travel guide for a country they have never visited.

Alcohol Explained does not touch on the spiritual side. It does not argue for or against the existence of God; this discussion is simply not addressed. This is not to say the book is only for atheists; it is simply for anyone who believes that spirituality and religion need not be the answer to addiction. So yes, it is for the atheist, but also for the person who believes that if there is a God, he (or she) doesn’t solve our problems for us, but rather has provided us with the potential for great intelligence, empathy, understanding and perception, and left it up to us to use these to solve our own problems. We tend to turn to God when we are confronted by something we don’t understand. A few thousand years ago we saw God everywhere. If the crops failed, it was God; if a baby was born with a caul on its face it was God, if there was an eclipse it was God. Now we know there are other explanations for these phenomena other than God directly causing them.

God steps back further and further into the shadows as we shed the light of understanding more and more onto the universe we live in. Will we one day shed light on the entire universe, and find there is no place left for God to hide? If we do ever get to this stage will we find God or nothing? Who knows, and frankly who cares? This theoretical place is so far away that if it happens at all, it won’t be in our lifetime, or our children’s, or grandchildren’s or great grandchildren’s lifetimes. All we need to do now is to open our minds to the possibility that things we do not understand now may be capable of explanation without recourse to the spiritual.

Alcohol Explained is not a doctrine you have to follow or a set of steps or instructions you need to accept and work through. It is not a personal testimony designed to inspire you to a life of sobriety. It is simply information. It is science, observations, and conclusions. And by science, I am using the Oxford Dictionary definition of the word: “The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

So what is the response to the book so far? This you can read for yourselves. The website for the book contains some feedback, and both the US and UK Amazon sites have reviews on the book (they both have different reviews, so it is worth looking at both of them). What I will say is that every review is a genuine review, there is not a single review or a single piece of feedback from someone I know; these are all reviews from people who have independently read the book and very kindly taken the time to leave feedback.

If you are interested in reading further, the first five Chapters are available for free on the website. You don’t have to put in an email or anything to get to them; just open a page and here they are. There is also a section on the website entitled ‘Additional Content.’ When I wrote Alcohol Explained I wanted it to be as short and concise as it reasonably could be, I couldn’t cover everything because the book would become too long and unwieldy. I tried to include what I thought were the keys points needed to get a good overall understanding of alcohol and alcoholism. It was not an easy call to make, and even now I am far from sure that I have got it right. Be that as it may, the Additional Content section of the site contains both additional chapters that didn’t make it into the book, and chapters that made it into later editions (placed on the website so that people who have earlier editions of the book don’t need to buy extra copies).

Between the first five chapters and the additional content, you should get a fairly good idea of what is in the book. If you find something in the first five chapters and the additional content that is interesting or useful then, the chances are that you will find something interesting or useful in the rest of the book. If you think it is all a load of old rubbish then, frankly, the rest of the book doesn’t get any better, and you are better off saving your money. However, I hope you do find something of use to you. I found the book incredibly difficult to write, and very nearly didn’t bother. If you do find anything in there of use, anything at all, then as far as I am concerned the effort was worthwhile.



Episode 57-Alcohol Explained

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  1. Andrea L. August 19, 2017 at 4:13 pm - Reply

    I am a new AA member only 4 days sober but 1st time in my life trying to get sober after 20 years of drinking but two years of binge drinking. My husband listened to this podcast with me and I think it helped him to understand why I believe I am an alcoholic when he didn’t think so. We place greater emphasis on logic and science as we do in hoping a higher form of intelligence with help me through this. I plan on using both secular recovery and AA in my quest to remain sober. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Beth May 8, 2017 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    This was my first podcast ever… I LOVED the author and ideas so much that I bought the book. I am reading it feverishly now, as this is just the kind of material I have been missing to help me with recovery. Thank you AA Beyond Belief and Mr. Porter as you have both made a huge impact in my future.

    • William Porter May 9, 2017 at 10:06 am Reply

      Thank you so much, I am so glad you found both the podcast and the book useful.

    • John S May 8, 2017 at 8:38 pm Reply

      I’m very happy to read your message Beth. I’m also very impressed by the book and William. When you have time, you should check out his other writings in his blog.

      • Beth May 13, 2017 at 3:01 am Reply

        Thank you too, John S. I enjoy your podcasts each day now 🙂 You are a very sensible person. I am still reading Alcohol Explained as I really am enjoying it. I plan to re-read it once I finish. I am glad to know you have a website as well and will pop over there now 🙂

  3. Joe C May 4, 2017 at 11:22 am - Reply

    Fantastic discussion, in the podcast and the discussion here that follows. William, your book has been my “to read” list since it came out. I think this podcast got it closer to the top of the pile.

    For you, William and others, your comments made me think of another substance-use disorder author who prefers the scientific look at addiction. Marc Lewis is a neuroscientist and a professor. His new book, The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is not a Disease challenges a well worn groove in addiction language about the disease of addiction. Marc’s first book looked at his own drug addiction as a tell-all as both an addict + a breakdown of what’s going on in brain-chemistry. It works, it really does.

    Here’s a link to an interview I did – part of a radio show that included my Marc Lewis interview (starting at the 12 minute mark).


    Marc’s teaching in the Netherlands right now. Anyway, thanks everyone.




  4. Dan L May 3, 2017 at 7:59 pm - Reply

    Hello William;

    Thank you for making the first five chapters available for free reading.  I had a wonderful feeling of confirmation of my confirmation bias upon reaching the end.  Many people do not care why they are alcoholic and that is okay for them.  I had a career based in science and my late father was a psychologist so I found that for me to commence meaningful recovery I really wanted to know what was wrong.  I did not take to the spiritual baggage of AA very well at all although I have been able to use AA effectively for my own purpose.  This business of a “spiritual malady” and a “disease” did not fit what seemed to me to actually be a psycho-emotional dysfunction or more properly a disorder.  It simply seems that between five and ten percent of the population have the ability to train themselves to be ethanol addicts.  The solution is to train to be sober.  This requires care and patience and support from other people since it is other alcoholics in recovery who have the solution to the problem.  I had removed it from my “tool-kit” by becoming alcoholic in the first place.  I had first lost the desire and then the ability to sober up on my own.

    Knowing what I was up against and the knowledge that it would take time, patience, hard work and most importantly help from others made the journey possible.  It was not some mighty architect of the multiverse who would rescue me in return for prayer and whatever else She wants.  (Apparently god can be swayed by sappy and flattering hymns and dramatic shows of piety.  At least I think that is the case.)  In order to sober up I had to overcome my own addiction which had become my persona.  I saw myself as nothing but an appetite for ethanol.  I was assured if I did my best I would succeed since I was fighting both sides of the struggle.  So my obsession was not “lifted” by some telepathically summoned divine intervention.  It was something I pounded out of myself with a stronger obsession with becoming useful and sober and a human being once again.


    • John S May 3, 2017 at 9:03 pm Reply

      I’m glad you liked this Dan. I enjoyed talking with William and I think the book and his blog will be helpful to a lot of people. I like his spirit of not only going through the trouble of researching so he can understand the addiction process but to also take the time to share that information and in so doing to help others.

      This was so much fun. I just love doing these podcasts and I consider myself very fortunate to have this opportunity.

  5. William Porter May 3, 2017 at 11:13 am - Reply

    Hi Steve,

    The interview did centre around the physical effect of alcohol, but that is just one Chapter in a book of (now) 26 Chapters. I completely agree there are far more factors at play than just this, but unfortunately we couldn’t cover them all off in an hour’s interview! For my own part I would still be drinking now if this was all I had on the subject.

    The genetic debate is an interesting one and you’re quite right to raise it, there are loose relationships between genetics and drinking but none are definitive, I think it was the genetics lab of the University of Utah that articulated the currently accepted view that someone’s genetics will never doom them to become an addict, and I think it was Polk in ‘The Addicted Brain’ that said no one can become alcoholic without repeatedly drinking alcohol.

    I completely take your point that there are personal factors at play. We all have a different reasons to pick up a drink and drink it, but I do think that the physical, physiological and psychological effect of those drinks on us both in the short and long term is universal enough for us to understand the phenomenon; as the AA adage goes, look for the similarities and not the differences.

    Thank you for taking the time to listen to the podcast and leave a comment, all the best.

  6. Steve K May 3, 2017 at 9:09 am - Reply

    William you have clearly done alot of research into the physical effects of alcohol upon the nervous system in general. However, in the podcast, you seem to lack an appreciation of other causal factors involved in the development and degree of addiction people experience.

    What about genetic predisposition in relation to developing addiction in regard neurobiology, metabolism and the various character traits that make some more prone than others. Developmental problems (neglect, trauma, attachment styles etc) and social environment influences also play an important role in why some are more vulnerable to addiction than others. Addiction is a complex condition and generally regarded by most researchers as the result of both nature and nuture, not nature or nuture.

    I had problems with alcohol misuse right from when I first started drinking due to emotional and relationship difficulties and what seemed like a physical sensitivity. Psychologically and emotionally I abused alcohol and drugs in order to cope and change the way I felt. I never really needed alcohol physically in relation to withdrawal and dependency, but relied upon it emotionally and psychologically, to the extent of developing a compulsive obsession with the stuff that took me years to break. I think we are all a unique combination of nature and nuture influences to a degree, and the reasons for my alcoholism are not necessarily the same as the person sat next to me in an AA meeting.

    Well done on completing your book and getting it published.

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