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.
No, says the rest of the world. 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, says the rest of the world, in a cultish slogan.
Sometimes it’s frustrating to live in a world that doesn’t “get” my disease. My blood family and casual acquaintances assume the mind works according to certain principles. The notion of the Curious Mental Blank Spot (see Ch 2, 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 with every fiber of my being that I was not going to drink (or would drink with moderation) and 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.
But I still would have clung to alcohol as my only friend, determined to manage my drinking, 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 was I willing to consider the counter-betrayal of checking out AA. “Alcoholism only made 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 people the hallmarks of alcoholic thinking, feeling, and experience.
The main hallmark is not drinking a lot. 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, during which I was able to act on my resolve. But then along comes that Curious Mental Blank spot. My resolve is greased with coconut oil. Thoughts of an hour or even a minute ago create no traction. None. They become meaningless.
In terms of a rough, cartoon image of the brain, what happens is this. 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, powerful resolves of the frontal lobe, connecting a drink to the basic conditions of being alive. Drinking becomes an impulse, almost like breathing, that you act on without a rational choice.
The subjective 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. 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 know there’s something wrong with this thinking. A drink is 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 one” – might have met briefly. No, 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 you, 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. It makes perfect sense. The idea of abstaining for any reason seems absurdly far-fetched, while the idea of drinking rings every 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. When you quit thinking that you, yourself, have the means to quit drinking, when you give up using your resolve and sincerely ask a higher power for help, something shifts. Some change happens. Suddenly, you’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.
In my case, after 19.5 years’ sobriety, I am 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. “You’re in AA!” seems so stupid. “You’d lose all your time!” – Really?! Who gives a fuck? But in my case, something steps between me and whatever image of a flawless, aftermath-free drink my amygdala is advertising. A cloudy thought wades to the front of my mind: “How about we just wait five minutes and see if all this is still true? The drink won’t vanish in five minutes, will it?”
Within thirty seconds, in my experience, my conscious mind is back at the wheel. That is, the window of blindness, when I could have assented “yes” 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 restores us to sanity.
There are people in my AA meetings who claim to be atheist. That’s fine, but ideas of what constitutes god are amorphous. I don’t believe, either, in what they think of as God – an omnipotent humanesque boss figure. I certainly don’t believe in religion (though teachings of some figures, including Buddha and Jesus, contain tremendous wisdom). I believe in the very same thing most of these alleged atheists believe in: the power of love; the power of goodwill. If they didn’t believe in connection to other human beings (which is love & goodwill), they wouldn’t come to meetings. If they’re sharing, they’re seeking even more connection, to be heard by others, to participate. And in that feeling, they’re seeking the help of a higher power, whether they call it that or not.
I believe without a doubt that I was graced in all the life events that forced me to AA. I still am graced by events that lead me along the path of spiritual growth – as described in my addiction memoir. The lessons I hear in AA meetings match seamlessly with those I hear in IANDS* meetings, brought back from the other side by those who’ve had out of body experiences. Nothing is more important than loving kindness. Even casual slights hurt people, malevolence is poison, and each resentment you hold against others sticks to your spirit – a filth like diarrhea all over your skin, as one IANDS speaker experienced it in her NDE. And by contrast, the goodness of helping others glows through us like the Light.
We’re here to love, which cures all our afflictions – including alcoholism.
Feel free to share! ↓