LSD, Alcohol and Football

Alcohol and football have been cellmates in this country for as long as anyone can remember. Although we hear more nowadays about “drugs” and footballers, my personal suspicion is that drink is and will continue to be the footballer’s tipple of choice.

The side-effect, of course, has been the loss of many great players to the bottle. Some during their careers, some after.

The situation isn’t helped by the state in this country (or in any country) of treatment for heavy drinking.

Treating heavy drinking is hard. One of the primary characteristics of heavy drinkers is a predilection to run away from their emotions. Yet, recovery from heavy drinking needs more insight and reflection than practically any other compulsive behaviour. If you’re drunk, reflection just isn’t possible.

Treating heavy drinking is screwed up by inadequate thinking on the subject. Debates around ill-defined ideas like “alcoholism”, “addiction”, etc. need, as I’ve said before, a brutal encounter with Occam’s Razor. Heavy drinking just isn’t that complicated. This isn’t the place to go into it in more detail – all that matters for now is that over-complicated attitudes towards drinking obscure and obstruct effective treatment. Effective treatment must consist not only of stopping harmful heavy drinking, but doing something effective about the emotional drive behind it. Talk of “disease” and “taking one day at a time” and “battling the booze” or “fighting your demons” – comes from the failure of attempted treatment, not from research or neurological evidence. I wrote about this at much greater length a few years ago, and if anyone wants to read what I had to say, I’ll put the pieces up as separate pages on this site.

This post is really about some genuinely exciting (and football-friendly) research that’s been rediscovered and is covered by today’s Independent:

A single dose of the hallucinogenic drug LSD is an effective treatment for alcoholism – according to research led by a British doctor more than 40 years ago.


Erika Dyck, professor of the History of Medicine at the University of Alberta, said: “The LSD somehow gave these people experiences that psychologically took them outside of themselves and allowed them to see their own unhealthy behaviour more objectively, and then determine to change it.

“Even interviewing the patients 40 years after their experience, I was surprised at how loyal they were to the doctors who treated them, and how powerful they said the experience was for them – some even felt the experience saved their lives.”

The research was carried out in Saskatchewan where Humphry Osmond and his fellow British psychiatrist John Smythies had gone after they became disillusioned with the state of psychiatric research in Britain.

They reasoned that a single large dose of LSD might have the same effect as experiencing delirium tremens which they had noted often marked the turning point in a drinker’s career.

In one study, two-thirds of the alcoholics stopped drinking for at least 18 months after receiving one dose of LSD, compared to 25 per cent who stopped after group therapy and 12 per cent after individual therapy.

Those are spectacular, unprecedented results. For a point of comparison, long-term studies of the use of nicotine patches, aimed at the comparatively straightforward problem of smoking, rarely register a success rate above 10-12%.

What’s so attractive about this study is that it demonstrates a means by which you can give drinkers mental room to reflect – easily. What’s more, the treatment has an attractive, positive side to it. British men, who might find a group therapy situation unattractive, and who might feel uncomfortable confronted with the job of introspection and self-examination, given the option of LSD instead – with all of the possibilities “tripping” has to offer, let’s be honest – could well go for it.

One of the principle moans this site has is the sheer stupidity that the UK brings to its ideas about sports psychology. Always getting it mixed up with psychotherapy and psychiatry.. and unwilling to act when psychotherapy and psychiatry are really called for. (Read Paul Gascoigne’s two books of autobiography for an account of an intelligent, warm, well-meaning man utterly messed about by overweening mind “professionals” who talk down to Paul forever whilst doing nothing for him at all – nothing, and it’s still going on.) Tony Adams’ Sporting Chance Clinic is a major step in the right direction – but where drinking is concerned, it’s still labouring under old, overcomplex ideas.

Reality check time: LSD is not going to be introduced as a treatment for heavy drinking, for footballers or for anyone else. It’s illegal, and, like sports psychology, is something the British are incapable of discussing in an adult fashion. (Older readers will remember that same giggling tone from the early days of sexual equality in the workplace, that time when, whatever the 1975 law said, women had yet to gain real acceptance from male colleagues).

The Independent says:

But, according to the NHS, there is no evidence to suggest LSD does any long-term damage to the body or mind.

Yet I find this, on the NHS website:

Taking acid is risky because each tab can contain very different amounts of acid. Research shows that a single tab can have as little as 25 micrograms of acid in it, or as much as 250 micrograms – this is enough to cause serious side effects.

Psychological health problems are the most common side effect of taking acid. A bad ‘trip’ can feel like being trapped in a nightmare, often played over and over. A ‘trip’ is the name given to the hallucinatory effects caused by some drugs . Flashbacks can occur at any time after taking acid, sometimes even after many years. A flashback is a sudden, vivid memory of a bad trip and can be very frightening, and can sometimes cause mental health problems. There is no way to prevent flashbacks occurring.

And yet, and yet. We have so little to offer drinkers, especially drinkers from our own, psychologically-phobic culture. Perhaps its worth the risk, just for the chance of saving someone who, without seeking insight into themselves, will never be suited to treatment that demands insight into oneself – how often do you get the chance to beat Catch 22?

3 Replies to “LSD, Alcohol and Football”

  1. When I came back to England in 93 after ten years in Italy I was shocked by what a grip the drinking culture had taken. Anything for a laugh! Other countries are not like this. I’ve thoght about it long and hard but come to real conclusion on the why of it. Do you have any thoughts on this?

  2. None that withstand too much scrutiny. Drink does seem to be taking up some of the slack left by the decline in smoking. And there are fewer societal taboos around drinking than there used to be. But I don’t really know why drinking is increasing.
    The paradox is that although – compared with France and Italy – it can seem as though the English just “don’t know how to live” – drunken weekend violence hides a deeper non-violence. Compare violent crime figures in the UK with those for e.g. Holland sometime – the contrast is quite surprising.

  3. It may be linked to affluence and what seems to be social stability. And boredom. And the absence of the certainties of dogma. The national anthem should be Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life. I’m convinced it says smething important about us. I just don’t know what.

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