About a year ago, I used to frequently pass a billboard claiming thousands of “stubborn” men who avoided seeing a doctor would die that year. This photo isn’t from my street, but our local billboard met with the same (funny) response:
While I don’t know about the billboard’s claim, I do know when it comes to stubborn alcoholics, even more will NOT seek out a program of recovery this year, which is why in the U.S. alone 2.5 million years of potential life will be lost, shortening by an average of 30 years the lives of those 88,000 who’ll die.* Instead, despite an inner knowledge that they’re addicted to alcohol, millions will (yet again) marshal their willpower to decide not to drink so much. Never mind how many times such resolutions have failed! Never mind that they and everyone they live with can recognize night after night that they’re drunk as usual! They’ll simply refuse to accept the fact that they’re powerless over alcohol.
The Big Book tells us, “The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”** But even more simply resign themselves to permitting the self-disgust, degradation, and pathetic caricature of chronic drunkenness to taint their inmost conscience and closest relationships for the rest of their lives.
Why? Because they believe so ardently in the preeminence of their own minds! They insist their brains have the power to enact choices of free will that, research increasingly indicates, they simply do not have. For an addict, Emersonian self-reliance means, in fact, an imprisoning cycle rather than freedom of choice.
Gabor Maté, in his book on addiction, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, explains our predicament as follows:
We may say, then, that in the world of the psyche, freedom is a relative concept: the power to choose exists only when our automatic mental mechanisms are subject to those brain systems that are able to maintain conscious awareness…
Electrical studies of brain function show that… the interval between awareness of the impulse and the activation of the… impulse is only one-tenth to one-fifth of a second. Amazingly, it’s only in this briefest of intervals that the [cerebral] cortex can suppress behavior it judges to be inappropriate. …[But] in the split second before the impulse emerges into awareness… the brain carries out what is called preattentive analysis… the unconscious evaluation of what [is]…essential or irrelevant, valuable or worthless. The cortex is primed to select actions that will achieve [these] goals…
“Those habit structures are so incredibly robust, and once they form in the nervous system, they will guide behavior without free choice.”***
In other words, before we even know we’ve thought of having a drink, the brain has cleared the impulse. The cortex may occasionally summon a “but wait!’ counter-insurgence, but more often the drink idea advances to GO and collects $200. Maté calls this condition “brain lock.” AA calls it the “curious mental blank spot.” In either case, with an internal sigh of “oh well!” we take the drink (just this one time) and tell ourselves we decided to.
Our brains are broken. They cannot be fixed.
I knew none of this when I came to AA wanting to die. When I first heard the statement, “I can’t fix my broken brain with my broken brain,” so much became clear to me! For one thing, I understood why I’d fought tooth and nail against “surrendering” to AA. Who wants to admit she can’t trust her own brain? No one.
The ego lays claim to omniscience, at least within ourselves: I know all about me. My thoughts are accurate. To admit a glitch in my thinking has rendered me unable to choose, unable to correct myself, unable even to see what I’m doing while I’m doing it – this goes against all instinct. It’s on par with admitting mental illness or, as Step 2 forces us to swallow, insanity.
Yet a deeper part of me – my soul – heard the resounding truth of that phrase. I realized I had no answers, and that AA, no matter how foreign, offered one.
I admitted I was powerless.
And do you know what happened? Miracles!
First, I quit drinking. Second, I began to see I was maladapted to living, that I’d never developed the skills and insight to “manage” life’s choices. Third, I discovered it wasn’t too late to learn.
The remaining 11 steps reconnected me to the god of goodness I’d known in earliest childhood – to the nurturing powers of Love and divine wisdom. To maintain contact with them, all I had to do was adopt the 12 steps as a way of life.
At first, mind you, that idea repulsed me, too.
Who wishes to be rigorously honest and tolerant? Who wants to confess his faults to another and make restitution for harm done? Who cares anything about a Higher Power, let alone meditation and prayer? Who wants to sacrifice time and energy in trying to carry AA’s message to the next sufferer? ***
Not early sobriety Louisa! I did these things because I had to. Today I do them because I get to – because they fill me with freedom and fulfillment. Drunk, I blathered about climbing Mount Rainier. Sober, I did it – 3 times! Drunk, I dreamed of writing a book. Sober, I wrote it – check the sidebar! Drunk, I longed desperately to be liked. Sober, I love more people than I’d ever have believed possible.
THAT is power, guys. It’s just not mine.
The most important 1st step is the one I take today, the one I re-experience every morning, every hour. My compulsion to drink is 100 times stronger than my cortex’s resistance. Alcohol kicks my ass, has its way, calls the shots, rules my mind. But luckily, it’s the same for you! Alone, each of us has no power to fight this thing. We bloat, soggy and mollified in the dregs of our lonely cups. But connected to god and fellow alcoholics through AA, we tap into a Power that lifts us above the limitations of our broken brains – to heights we never dared imagine.