NOTE: Hi folks. At this time of summer, I’m hiking and camping all over the place, so I’m reblogging an oldie but goodie for this week. I’ll be back in a few with a new post.
Alcoholism is a physical, mental, and spiritual disease. That’s what we learn in AA.
Alcoholism is just a lack of self-discipline. That’s what most of the world thinks.
Alcoholics can exert all the self-discipline in the world and still end up drunk.
That’s absurd. If they really kept up their self-discipline, if they really stuck to their guns, they could stop or moderate.
Only accessing a power greater than themselves – aka god – can keep an alcoholic sober one day at a time.
That’s just religiosity couched in a cultish slogan.
Sometimes it’s frustrating to live in a world that doesn’t “get” my disease. My blood family and normie acquaintances assume the mind works according to certain principles. The notion of the Curious Mental Blank Spot (p 24) is foreign to them and to almost anyone who hasn’t been utterly stumped and defeated by it. Thank god I’ve been both, though to get there took about 4,000 attempts of rallying resolve that I would drink with moderation, then finding myself plastered – again. It took the admission that I’d run my life into the ground despite countless advantages, to the point where I no longer wanted to live.
I’d still have clung to alcohol as my true friend if the stuff hadn’t quit working for me. When it no longer brought about the magical transformation that had made it a staple of my life – taking away my nervous, self-conscious unworthiness and replacing it with sociability and confidence – only then did I become willing to consider the counter-betrayal of checking out AA. “Alcoholism made only one mistake,” goes the saying: “It’s the same for all of us.” Not exactly the same, but close enough that I could learn from other sober drunks the hallmarks of alcoholic thinking, feeling, and experience.
The main hallmark is not drinking. I’ve had several partners who matched me drink for drink for years on end. But as soon as they made up their minds to exert their self-disciple, it took. They could stop. They had brakes. Mine might work for a few hours or even days, but then along comes that Curious Mental Blank spot. My resolve gets greased with coconut oil. Thoughts of an hour or even a minute ago can find no traction. They become meaningless.
What’s the Curious Mental Blank Spot? We like to think the conscious parts of our brain determine our actions – the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, which hosts thoughts and decisions. But there’s a little lizard living in the basement of our brains – the amygdala – that generates basic survival impulses like fear and anger. Alcoholism seems to live here. Like a vine that winds its way front and center, it’s able to circumvent even the most determined resolutions of the frontal lobe, hitching a drink to the basic drives of being alive. Drinking becomes an impulse, almost like sneezing, that you act on without a rational choice.
The experience goes like this. You’re all set to not drink today. You’ve made up your mind, and it’s just not an option. You’re going to drink healthy stuff, maybe exercise, busy yourself with – you should have a drink. You know what? A drink is a great idea. Why not just relax, enjoy just one or two, like a little get-away to Maui that nobody needs to know about? Eh? You faintly sense there’s something wrong with this thinking. Wasn’t a drink what you weren’t going to do. Yes. And the reason you weren’t going to do it was… was…
Here something happens similar to flipping through an old fashioned Rolodex and recognizing not a single name: Let’s see it was here somewhere: Not good for my body – who’s that? Always make a fool of myself – do I know him? Swore to my loved ones – might have met briefly, but…no. None of these ring a bell. Meanwhile, here’s your amygdala holding out a frosty, aesthetically perfect image of your favorite drink. It asks, What are ya, a pussy? You gonna let these cards you don’t even recognize tell you what to do? Just do what you wanna do – THIS!
It makes so much sense. The idea of abstaining for any reason seems absurdly far-fetched, while the idea of drinking rings every cerebral bell of recognition for a natural, sensible, sound idea. So, you decide, “Yes.” All it takes is a millisecond of assent and that genie is out of the bottle again, running your life.
As I once put it in an AA meeting: “My frontal lobe is my amygdala’s BITCH!”
Equally preposterous to the normal drinker (or active alcoholic) is the solution – asking the help of a higher power. Only once we quit thinking that we, ourselves, have the means to quit drinking, when you give up reliance on self and sincerely ask a higher power for help, something shifts. Some change happens. Suddenly, we’re able to weather those Curious Mental Blank Spots with just enough resistance to avoid saying yes. Do this long enough, and eventually the constant obsession to drink is lifted.
I’m still occasionally struck by the Curious Mental Blank Spot, instances in which I still don’t recognize a single reason not to take a drink, even after decades of sobriety. “You’re in AA!” -whatever! “You’d lose all your time!” – Who gives a fuck? While I’m struggling with these confused thoughts, something steps between me and that image of a flawless, aftermath-free drink my amygdala is advertising:
“How about we just wait five minutes and see if all this is still true?” It’s not a thought that comes from me. But within thirty seconds, in my experience, my conscious mind is back at the wheel, and I retract in horror from the idea of drinking. That is, the window of blindness, when I could have assented and released the genie, lasts only that long.
It may seem unlikely, but that’s pretty much the scenario experienced by millions of alcoholics meeting in 170 nations all over the world. When we do the things suggested in AA’s program of recovery, that mediating influence – which I call god – restores us to sanity.