Category Archives: Drinking

What’s Normal Drinking?

Suppose I give you an algorithm to figure out whether or not you’re a normal drinker.  I tell you to take the number of drinks you’d consume on an average Tuesday, multiply it by a rough estimate of times you’ve “had too much” and divide that by the number of drinks that would qualify as a “binge” for you; next add the number of times you’ve felt utterly disgusted with yourself the morning after.  If the square route of this number is less than 3, you’re fine – go ahead and drink!  If it’s over 3 – sorry!  You’ve got a problem.

Here’s the real test:  Did you read that whole paragraph, dude?  Did you even consider trying to estimate some of those numbers?  Then, guess what?  You are sooo not normal!  Not only do normies – people with a normal relationship to alcohol – not even have numbers for most of those inputs, they don’t give a rat’s ass about how much they drink or whether they get to.

Try the whole thing again substituting “strawberries” or “croissants” for drinks and you’ll see through a normie’s eyes:  “Take the number of strawberries you’d consume on an average Tuesday…”  Who cares?  Eat ’em or don’t – it doesn’t matter!

Alcoholics love to marvel at normie behaviors like not finishing a drink or leaving half a bottle of wine in the fridge for weeks, behaviors that strike us as incomprehensible.  But getting a handle on how weird our thinking is – why we see normal as strange – is not so easy.

“The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great illusion of every abnormal drinker.  The persistence of this illusion is astonishing.  Many pursue it to the gates of insanity or death.”  (Big Book p. 30)

Before lasting sobriety, we keep trying and trying to find a way to drink normally.  But the effort itself precludes normalcy.  For instance, here’s a story from my Big Book study group, just after we read the above passage.  Dana – a repeat relapser who works from home – spoke up:

“The trouble is, I can control and enjoy my drinking for a long time. I’m really careful.  I’ll drive in the morning to the gas station near my house and buy just one of those little airplane bottles of Jack [Daniels].  I’ll drink it in the car and fucking enjoy the hell out of it.  Then I go home and get the kids off to school; I’m nice and not grouchy.  I’ll get set up for work, go have another little bottle, work for hours, chat with clients – I’m great. Before the kids get home, I’ll zip out and have another.  Maybe one before dinner and bed.  NEVER do I have two!  I’m just calm, smooth, efficient – doin’ my thing for weeks and weeks!  But then one day, I’ll get bombed and mess everything up.  Then I come back to AA.”

About ten of us made up the circle that day, but the room fell silent.  We all looked somewhat grave, considering Dana’s routine, each in our own world.  To buy just one little bottle every time did seem like terrific control!  To me it was like someone able to walk on a super-slick surface, keeping her balance and never slipping.  Who was I to say Dana shouldn’t walk there?  My mind clutched at the fact that she eventually binged with enough damage to come back to the program – which had to be bad.

A few of us asked about logistics.  Dana answered confidently.  I recall feeling a subtle mix of jealousy – Dana was able to drink! – and fear that I might decide to try something like that.  But most of all, I recall a fuzzy, confused inability to think, as though my mind were stuffed with wool.

Then Nora, another group leader, inquired tentatively, “How far is the gas station?”

“Five minutes,” replied Dana.

Nora’s forehead knitted. “And you make five or six trips?”

“About an hour out of my day, yeah.”

Nora spoke haltingly: “So isn’t… alcohol controlling you, rather than… you controlling alcohol — ?”

As if starting to awaken from trance, we all shifted, glanced at Nora on the brink of something.

“That’s true,” said Dana.  “I never thought of it that way.  I guess I’m not really the one calling the shots!”

Suddenly I could see it – Dana’s system was madness!  She was a puppet yanked by addiction to run back and forth, jump through hoops, throw away money, arrange her entire life around her addiction so she could function in the world.  At that moment, everyone, including Dana, saw it.

Brantly, our third leader, spoke up animatedly:  “This is not how people behave, you guys!  Doing absolutely anything, arranging our whole life to maintain a buzz because we can’t do life as life?!  That is crazy.  For normal people, alcohol is not the answer, so getting it’s not a question!  That’s why we need meetings, why we need the steps and god – because our brains make the insane sound totally normal!”

We were all laughing by this time, at ourselves, at ten people’s incredible alcoholic blindness to the obvious.  Brantly held up his phone: “I don’t need an app to tell me it’s been 5,057 days since my last strawberry!”

Here’s the bottom line.  If you hope desperately to find a reason you’re not an alcoholic, you’re an alcoholic.  If you point proudly to periods when you’ve drunk normally, you’re not normal.  Normal drinkers may hide from life in other ways, but not through booze, so they simply don’t care. We for whom alcohol has been a lifesaving magic carpet are incapable of not caring.  Hence the fabulously ironic saying, “If I were a normie, I’d drink every day!”

Step one is the realization, an acceptance to the marrow of our bones that no way out of this maze exists on human terms.  Our faulty minds will always, always “choose” drinking — by however contorted a logic.  We can’t not drink.  Our relief must come from a higher power.

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Reasons I Wasn’t an Alcoholic

04Julesshakespear73Writing the final exam for my college Shakespeare course, I had to close one eye to read the questions, since I was seeing double.  Not puking also required an occasional surge of resolve, and I had the spins.  All unfortunate.  What concerned me most, though, was my handwriting: it looked more as if a third grader were reflecting on Shakespeare’s intent than a college junior – one who adored his plays and knew many lines by heart – at least, ordinarily.  That exam pulled my final grade down to a B despite many A papers.  I think about it every time I see my transcript.

What was wrong with that picture?  About three hours.  That’s all I needed to sober up. Wisdom acquired?  For an 8:00AM exam, one should stop drinking, not at 3:00AM, as I had, but probably closer to midnight.  Having learned that lesson, I’d manage better next time.  It was a mistake – not a problem.

When a couple years later I drank a fifth of 151 in a few hours and passed out so deeply, nothing could wake me, that was clearly because no one at the housewarming party had warned me about 151 – that you had to drink it slower!  Who knew?!  Another mistake.

When, at my wedding celebration, I hovered a couple of steps behind Michael Dukakis, governor and guest of honor, imitating his every gesture and doubling over with laughter (I might have peed my nylons just a little), it was simply a shamewine_cheese my in-laws lacked a sense of humor!  Though, okay – I might have had a bit much.  But the bride gets to make a mistake, right?

When a few years later I attended a wine and cheese graduate school function with my (new) partner, told inappropriate stories, shattered a fancy wine glass, and passed out face down on the floor of an upstairs room, it was just – whoops! – another mistake.  Good thing I wasn’t lying in my own vomit, because I was a pretty classy English professor!

So I learned to do better next time!  Well, actually, um, not next time, but the time after that.  I learned I really didn’t like getting falling down drunk, so the next time I… got falling down drunk, I didn’t like it again…once it was over, so next time I wouldn’t do it – til I did.

What those people who claimed I had a problem with alcohol failed to realize was this: I loved alcohol.  I adored it.  It fixed me, it fixed you, it fixed the world – so everything could be okay.  How could that be a problem?  I just kept fucking up on the amount, was all.  I just kept overdoing a good thing.  But it was a good thing!  That I knew.  No one was going phase me with this “Louisa, you’re an alcoholic” bullshit.  Maybe I was one but so what?  It was my way.  Nobody has the right to tell you to change that!

So, fuck ’em, I said.

Besides, I could list off a million reasons I wasn’t an alcoholic.  I…

  • Didn’t drink hard booze after I turned 26 – except when I did
  • Didn’t drink in the mornings – except when I started before noon
  • Didn’t lose my job or house – only chose to downsize
  • Didn’t get a DUI – because the cops appreciated my doe-eyed apologies
  • Didn’t black out and wake in strange places – just miraculously back home
  • Didn’t suffer DTs – just shook wildly, maybe a smidge of amorphous terror

As the years rolled by, however, and I continued to make unfortunate mistakes despite my lack of a problem with alcohol, a few liabilities did crop up, so my phrasing had to change a bit, like this:

  • Though I occasionally collided with door frames, I did so reminded of life’s bittersweet irony
  • Though I occasionally fell down, it really didn’t hurt
  • Though I attended keggers in my mid-30s, I did so from a worldly, intellectual perspective
  • Though I hit a car head on, I’d slowed down so much it hardly did anything
  • Though I cheated on partners, I did so secretly so it kind of didn’t happen
  • Though I might enjoy a glass of white wine while I cooked dinner, or perhaps a beer at lunch or while journalling, gardening, vacuuming, folding clothes, building a fence, watching TV, doing the dishes, clipping my nails, or taking a shower, I didn’t drink all the time
  • Though I hated myself, that was my business – and a fine reason to drink more

I could have gone on like that forever, with an answer for everything.  I don’t know why I didn’t.  I guess gradually the old threadbare idea that I’d manage better next time wore thinner and thinner.  At the same time, the prospect of any next time, any next anything, grew increasingly dull and even disgusting.  Though I think what actually defeated me, what drove me to break down and hit bottom and finally say ‘uncle,’ was that last point: hating myself.  The hate grew so intense – such white hot, pure acid, unmitigated and inescapable hate – that I simply could not stand to exist another day – drink or no drink.  So it was suicide or… what the hell, AA.

Meeting snowflake

Those of you reading this sober may know exactly what I’m talking about.  Some reading just a tad hungover may experience a twinge of recognition and whip their Monopoly-style NOT-THAT-BAD card from a back pocket.  No one can diagnose another person’s alcoholism.  But a word I discounted back then was honesty.  Today I know honesty is not a true/false prospect; it’s a matter of excavation.  And digging takes courage.

On January 29, 1995, whatever it is I call god removed my mania for drinking.  I’ve not had a drop since.  What could be more miraculous?  Deep down, just under our hearts, we can all sense our source, our core, our truth beyond knowing.  I used to drink to bury mine.  Today, with the help of my fellows, I strive to live by it.

 

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The Power of Powerlessness

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:

Stubbornness

 

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.Broken Brain

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.

So I gave up.Step1

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.

Mount_Rainier_from_northwest

Mount Rainier: click to enlarge:  14,411′

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.

 

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* http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm
** Alcoholics Anonymous p. 30
*** In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Chpt. 26

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Prescribed Relapse

Doctor with Stethoscope“I’m happy to tell you the surgery went quite well, so you’re going to be on the mend!  Obviously, you’re going to have some pain from this, so what I’ll just do is ruin your life, happiness, and relationships by giving you an opiate.  Sound good?  So… you’ll start off taking it according to these directions I’m jotting until, of course, your brain’s addictive wiring trumps your reason – haha, just like the old days! – and you find yourself helplessly abusing it.  Eventually, I’d like to see you transition to your drug of choice.  When you do that is up to you, but within a couple months, you should find yourself back in full-on relapse.  Okay?  Does that sound good?  I’ll just call it in now.”

If only doctors actually said this, we alcoholic-addicts might have a better chance of protecting our sobriety from the pain management substances that work fine for normies (i.e. non-addictive people).  The trouble is that, even today, the vast majority of doctors don’t get recovery.  They see before them a reasonable and sane person who, they assume, will self-administer a prescribed drug reasonably and sanely.

What they don’t get is that we’re different. Our brains are forever like a duplex we share with an insatiable lunatic who is temporarily napping.  Rap on its door with an opiate and – no matter how intently we self-manage the dosage – once that beast wakes up, all bets are off.  It’ll rage, it’ll bust shit up, it’ll burn the whole damn house down, motherfucker.  Because that beast has a hold on us more powerful than anything that well-meaning doctor can possibly imagine.

It’s more powerful than reason, than resolve, than all things human.  It’s run our lives before, and it’s psyched to do it again.

I remember the first time I raised my voice at a vicodin2medical authority – my very kind dentist, a British woman – when I was about four years sober.  She’d just extracted one of my molars, and I’d just declined pain meds.  I remember the room we were in when she insisted, because it seemed to shrink and turn more yellow and seal off every doorway connecting me to AA.  I could feel the excitement rise in my chest: Meds!  Something GOOD!  There was hope!  Something really delightful perched just on the horizon!  Sure, I’d take ’em sensibly!  Of course!

…And I can’t say where it came from, but that small counter-voice, that love for the gift of sobriety and all the goodness it nurtured in my life – that sprang up in me, too.  They fought.  So by the time the words came out my mouth, sloppy from novocain, they were way too loud, too urgent, and too emotional.

“No!  I told you, I’m an alcoholic!”

“Yes, I know.  But this is a very safe drug – Vicodin.  You’ll be fine.”

“No, I won’t!  I’m sober and I want to stay that way!”

I remember the look of distaste on her face, that this normally calm and socially appropriate patient was going off on her.  She tried again, emphasizing the small dosage, but by that point tears spilled from my eyes and I had just one tremulous, throaty word for her: Ibuprofen.  Ibuprofen.  I’ll take ibuprofen…

And I did.  End of anecdote.

I’m not blaming doctors.  They’re rational; it’s we who make no sense!  That’s why the onus is on us to keep out of our lives what docs assure us is safe.   They don’t get Obit Hoffmanthe “curious mental blank spot.”  They haven’t heard the heart-rending shares of misery, helplessness, and loss sometimes dragging on for years – all triggered by a sensible prescription.   I have a huge number of friends in recovery.  And in contrast to the one alcoholic I know who successfully manages back pain with meds her partner doles out, I know at least a dozen who have relapsed catastrophically – not counting those who have died.

I was Facebook messaging with one of them yesterday.  He’s a wonderful guy traveling the country, working odd jobs, and trying to stay off heroin for more than a few months at a time.  But failing.  He had a week.  Here’s what he messaged:

Yah know, if I’d of known what I would become after a few Vicodin, I’d a shoved them up my doctor’s ass!!  I was never into opiates as a kid. But eight years into sobriety I hurt myself really really bad, and I guess I needed them. But in hindsight, if I had a choice between acute pain and becoming a heroin addict, I would have probably chose the pain. But whatever.  It’s done.  It’s over, right?” 

Maybe.  Maybe not.**

When we want to drink or use, only god can help us. But when someone else tells us it’s not a problem, we can use our brains.  Remember: the doctor is going to offer you prescripsomething so legitimate, so routine, so neat!  The prospect of those little pills fucking up your life will seem so overly dramatic!  What I do is this: I picture a set of balance scales with two big pans.  On one side I put the prospect of perturbing my doctor, making a stink, sounding like an uncooperative bitch, no one getting it, and, quite likely, some physical pain.  On the other side I put every blessing I’ve won back sober, every person I love, every friend who needs me, my self-respect, my inner dignity, my body’s health, my spirit’s channel to god – and every beauty and joy of this life.

Then I bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Don’t you dare fuck with my sobriety!”  But it’s right there – that sense of defending what I love.

If your pain is such that you’ve absolutely got to take some meds, agree to a prescription of five pills.  Maybe eight.  Then call someone for each goddam pill you take and say, “It is 4:00, and I am taking a percocet now.”  Draw up a chart to keep exact track of what time you dosed, whom you called, and whom you’re calling next.  Stay in touch with your sponsor.  And as soon as you can, switch to ibuprofen and get the pills out of your house.  Do nothing alone because – remember – you’re not really alone: there’s that beast in the duplex, and you’re making a racket.

I recall the sadness I felt flushing the three remaining Vicodin I’d been given post-surgery.  The magic was gone.  Now there was just me… and my stupid old life.  It took about five minutes for gratitude to return: the vial was empty, but my future was full.  I was sober.

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**Rob died of overdose less than a year later.

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How Alcoholism Fucks Up Your Brain

A brief overview

I usually focus these posts on the spirituality of the 12 Steps as brewbama path  of recovery from alcoholism and codependency, but today I’ve decided to look at a little medical research on this disease. You already know that chronic alcohol abuse causes brain damage – some of it permanent. Whether your brain can rebuild itself with prolonged abstinence depends upon the severity of the damage as well as correlated factors such as genetics, nutrition, and your life habits in sobriety.

Alcoholism Shrinks Your Brain
This is an indisputable fact. Prolonged abuse of alcohol shrinks all areas of the brain, causing the condition known as “wet brain.” All wet brain really means is that, as the brain tissue shrinks, the vacated areas, known as ventricles, fill with fluid to compensate. It doesn’t mean you become a drooling idiot. (My father developed it late in life and remained quite sharp.) Rather, the condition simply indicates that all functions of your brain have been compromised, so that you’re less aware, less physically able, less emotionally engaged, and less intelligent overall than you would be with a healthy, non-alcoholic brain.

But, hey, no big! The buzz is worth it, right?
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MRI Alcoholic Brain
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Why Does Alcoholism Shrink Your Brain?
Here we encounter competing theories. To quote an article from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (what a bunch of party-poopers!):

According to one hypothesis, shrinkage (i.e., atrophy) of the cerebral cortex and white matter, as well as possible atrophy of basal forebrain regions, may result from the neurotoxic effects of alcohol… Alcoholics who are susceptible to alcohol toxicity may develop permanent or transient cognitive deficits associated with brain shrinkage.[i]

What is “neurotoxicity”? It’s medi-speak for toasts your brain cells. They don’t necessarily die, but the dendrites connecting them are damaged or lost, so the cells occupy less area.   But hey – at least they’re still kind of there, right?

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Gray Matter Volumes

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As you can see, when it comes to brains, plump is better. The graph on the right may seem a little confusing if you’ve gotten bombed enough times – or, heck, even if you haven’t. The straight line represents a normal brain. The blue line shows shrinkage of regions in a young alcoholic brain, and the yellow line shrinkage in an older alcoholic brain. (By the way, who the hell drinks only 20 gallons of alcohol in their whole life? Seriously? Even 625 gallons wouldn’t be nearly enough for my addict!)

Parts of the Brain Most Vulnerable
Everybody knows that when you’re fucked up, you temporarily lose coordination, short-term memory, and sound judgment. But who cares? Not much of a price to pay for not hating yourself for a bit, right? Of course, getting hammered also fries your behavioral inhibitions, emotional intelligence, and the ability to accurately read social cues – none of which can even compare, obviously, with the tremendous relief of no longer feeling terrified to converse with other human beings because you’re suddenly irresistibly hot and charming.

That said, it only makes sense that prolonged exposure to alcohol would eventually damage the parts of the brain responsible for those very functions.

Neuroimaging studies of living brains point to increased susceptibility of frontal brain systems to alcoholism-related damage… The frontal lobes, connected with all other lobes of the brain, receive and send fibers to numerous subcortical structures. The prefrontal cortex is considered the brain’s executive—that is, it is necessary for planning and regulating behavior, inhibiting the occurrence of unnecessary or unwanted behaviors, and supporting adaptive “executive control” skills such as goal-directed behaviors, good judgment, and problem-solving abilities.

In other words, the motherboard of your brain starts to malfunction. drunk-people-grin  As alcoholism progresses, this can lead to the chain of bad choices that screw up an alcoholic’s entire life. Because it only makes sense that as self-restraint abates and good judgment declines, egotism and selfishness jump in to take up the slack.

 Disruptions of the normal inhibitory functions of prefrontal networks often have the interesting effect of releasing previously inhibited behaviors. As a result, a person may behave impulsively and inappropriately – which may contribute to excessive drinking.

In other words, the more you injure your brain by drinking, the more likely you are to say, “aw… fuck it!” and drink more. Other excellent ideas include hooking up with other sick people, engaging in unethical/destructive behaviors, and royally screwing over the people you love.

Because actually, you only kind of love them. To be honest, loving them is only a vague memory. Why is that?

Alcoholics may seem emotionally “flat” – i.e., they are less reactive to emotionally charged situations… Impairments in emotional functioning that affect alcoholics may reflect abnormalities in [the right 48_Withered_Heart_16oo_by_WoodrowShigeruhemisphere or] other brain regions which… influence emotional processing, such as the limbic system and the frontal lobes.

How many alcoholics know that feeling of not being able to feel?  When my grandmother died, when my husband walked away, when my partner shut the door on my begging – I knew I ought to feel something, but I didn’t. Not much more than, “Hmm… that sure sucks!” Who knew my limbic system was screwed up? Really, by the end I could feel only one thing: when I was pouring the drink, when I was chopping the lines, when it seemed I was winning the conquest, I felt, “YES!”

Alcohol directly stimulates release of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is important in emotional expression, and of the endorphins, natural substances related to opioids, which may contribute to the “high” of intoxication and the craving to drink. Alcohol also leads to increases in the release of dopamine (DA), a neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation and in the rewarding effects of alcohol.

The trouble is, the brain recognizes this overload of pleasure transmitters and tapers its production of each as a result. In other words, you feel like shit without a drink; in fact, severe neurotransmitter imbalances my cause you to develop “seizures, sedation, depression, agitation, and other mood and behavior disorders.”

The brain, of course, isn’t the only organ on the team to get fucked by alcohol. Every organ in the body suffers, but hardest hit is your liver. We all know the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the bloodstream gets compromised as alcohol overtaxes it. But did you know this?

These damaged liver cells no longer function as well as they should and allow too much of these toxic substances, ammonia and manganese in particular, to travel to the brain. These substances proceed to damage brain cells, causing a serious and potentially fatal brain disorder known as hepatic encephalopathy, which can result in mood and personality changes, anxiety, depression, shortened attention span, and coordination problems, including… hand shaking[ii]

I think I might’ve had a spot of that…

Well, that’s about the end of my rollicking review of alcoholic brain damage. Missing from this account, of course, is the self-destructive spiritual illness that makes us not give a shit whether we’re killing ourselves, because life’s worthless anyway.

The good news is that studies also show all these physical processes can be reversed by long-term abstinence, while the spiritual malady – thank god! – can be cured via the 12 steps.  A healthy body is really just the means to an end – usefulness and the joy of living, which we’ve been granted in sobriety.

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[i] Except where noted, quotations are taken from “Alcoholism and the Brain: An Overview,” by Marlene Oscar–Berman, Ph.D., and Ksenija Marinkovic, Ph.D. See http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh27-2/125-133.htm
[ii] http://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Hangovers/beyondHangovers.htm

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Psychic Change

Toward Alcohol

When we hit bottom in our drinking careers, we’re pretty much forced to change.  We’re truly sick and tired of being sick and tired; we recognize, however faultily, that our way is not working.  We become teachable.  That is, we’re desperate enough to try out AA’s approach even though it feels foreign, artificial, and disorienting.

For me this meant giving up the belief that I knew everything.  I’d always felt sure I could perceive the lay of the land in a snap and choose the best course, which I then acted on with chutzpah and a dash of fukitol.  Drinks made me feel better, so I frickin’ took ’em.  Certain designated figures, also known as cool people, carried what I craved, so I chased ’em.  Responsibility and integrity felt cumbersome, so I shrugged ’em off – free to follow my whims wherever they might lead!

And where was that?  Loneliness so lethal I wanted to scream for eternity and futility so rampant I wanted to break and trash and burn every fucking thing that ever touched my life – that’s where my knowing everything took me.

12 stepsAA – the supposed solution – seemed as silly as a cake walk.  The 12 Steps, anyone could see, held no more wisdom than a hopscotch grid, and yet all these AA dolts claimed that if you sincerely played hopscotch, if you landed in each arbitrarily chalked off square, you’d bust through to frickin’ Narnia or something – whatever they meant by this “4th dimension of existence.”

But since a U-turn could lead me only back to the hell, I went ahead.  I gave up control, followed directions, did the dance.  And I commenced to change – to heal and grow and behold countless unexplored and rich possibilities hitherto invisible to me.

From somewhere inside me, I began to sense a direction besides my thoughts.  They – my thoughts – were still as dumb and which-way as ever, but this new chord, this voice within – it began to lead me instead of them.  Guidance I heard and talked about in AA aligned with this voice, but did not constitute it.  Rather, I had “tapped an unsuspected inner resource” previously drown out by all the fears, demands, and clutter spewed by my ego.

I’d experienced a psychic change.  I’d begun to develop a spiritual life that edged out my craving for booze.

Toward Life Itself

“Our liquor was but a symptom,” says the Big Book, of our messed up approach to life.  If we merely take away the faulty solution of drinking, life hits us full force and feels unbearable. The lasting solution is to live on a spiritual basis which flows in tune with reality rather than fighting it.

Spiritual evolution is not a matter of content.  That is, it’s never a matter of learning X, Y, and Z, passing the quiz, and graduating.  Rather, it’s a habit of cultivating open-mindedness and reaching for growth.  In other words, the conditions for continuous growth are the same as those that freed us from compulsive drinking: I elect not to buy into my thoughts, not to obey my ego, not to fall for the idea that my way is right.  Only by turning away from these easy-to grab reflexes can I open myself to another voice – the more fundamental guidance of a higher power.

second-handDay by day, growth happens at the juncture between what I’m exposed to and how I react to it.  In that immediate crucible, I make more tiny choices than can possibly be noted, but collectively, they coalesce into a “gear” for my outlook.  I plop into good-ole self-pity or reach for seemingly impossible gratitude – though I may end up somewhere between.  What matters is whether I ask my higher power to guide those tiny choices, and whether I commit the incremental shards of my awareness to pursuing that guidance.

Growth can’t happen when ego takes over.  The world becomes scary, because if what I’ve decided is supposed to happen doesn’t, I’m gonna be screwed. There’s never enough, so I lock into my plans.  I get tunnel vision – which means I’m sealed off from potential good outside my will.  I consign myself to stagnation.

The openness of faith reminds me life is always a collaborative effort – mine and god’s.  Sure, I still plan and take action, but with built-in acceptance of whatever plays out.  Even if things fuck up and fall apart, I’ll still be okay.  My “enough” originates not from stuff or status, but from the power of god’s love flowing through me, the strength to generate and nurture and delight.

Jess and Chip

Jesse & Chip (by permission) 1 month post-flood: “The joy of living [they] really have, even under pressure and difficulty.”

Consider some dear friends of mine who moved to Wimberley, TX, last year only to lose everything they owned in a recent river flood.  One day things were dandy, and next their home was was missing two walls and contained only mud and somebody else’s overturned couch.  They had no renters’ insurance.  Can you imagine that?  I mean, can you really imagine losing everything?  Yet these are two happy and thriving, not only because they’re sober, but because they live on a spiritual basis.  They don’t lament.  They have their precious lives, their energy, their love – a flow that’s providing all they need to rebuild what was lost, even as they pitch in to help neighbors… or support a faraway friend (me) processing a painful break-up.

The psychic change to living on a spiritual basis means we accept life’s uncertainty, taking our best shot and leaving the results to god.  Failure’s fine.  It happens.  Floods happen.  Betrayals happen.  We can only keep listening for the voice within and trying to follow it toward good actions and good people, but with no guarantees.  Because, while it’s true we each reap what we sow, it’s also true we’re  scattering seeds from an unmarked, mixed bag. What will take root and flourish depends, we know, as much on the rain and sun as our work. Yet we do it anyway – and cheerfully.

Millet- sower

The Sower, J. F. Millet, 1850

 

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Filed under AA, Alcoholism, Drinking, Faith, God, Happiness, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality, Twelve Steps

People, Places, and Pain

Recently, someone I trusted betrayed my confidence deeply.  Or rather, I just found out about it last week.  Before then, I’d have said such a thing could never happen – and I’d have staked my life on it.  In a way, I did.  Maybe some day I’ll write about the specifics, but right now I’m too shocked to have any perspective.  I haven’t slept more than a few hours at a time all week; my heart pounds so I feel each beat; I have no appetite.  Sure, it’s great to drop five pounds in a week, but not with shaking hands you have to hide from clients or sinking guts that weigh down every breath.

I’ve often heard in the rooms that placing one’s faith in people, places, and things is a recipe for pain.  But how can we avoid doing just that?  Part of my loving – or feeling I love – inevitably involves dependence.  I trust that a friend or loved one honors me as I do them, and pretty soon I’ve hung my well-being on their actions without even realizing it.  In the same way, I rely on the places and things I love to provide me security.  I get attached to my body’s health.  These elements should all stay put just as I’ve arranged them.  I want to know my happiness is safe, that I can depend on the world to take care of me.

Natori, Japan

But it isn’t, and I can’t.

When illusions get ripped away, we realize that everywhere we make a home for ourselves in the world, we simultaneously become exposed.  We begin to think that home is part of us, of our being – our identity – and that we can shed our skin there in perfect safety.  But people are flawed.  They fuck up.  They decide, at times, that it’s a grand idea to be immensely selfish, throwing us under a bus.  Other “homes” are just as impermanent.  Diagnoses drop bombs on our health.  Jobs end and take financial security with them.  Sweet kids become addicts.  People move away.  Houses burn.  Earthquakes happen.  Nothing stays put.

When I am most in pain, I turn to god.  And god, I have found, is  there for me most when pain has torn open my heart.  I can feel it.  It doesn’t exactly empathize, because pain is not part of its realm.  But it loves.  Even when everything has gone to shit, god loves as always – the way the sun rises each morning, the way the ocean waves curl over and thunder up the beach, the way the spring grass sprouts through winter’s dead mat of straw year after year after year.  “I’m here.  I love you.”  That’s what it says.  But if I listen closer than I want to, it’s also saying, “All is well, if you’ll only let it be so.”  It’s talking about acceptance.  About humility.  God is in what is.  So when I fight what is, I’m fighting god.

Do I think about taking a drink?  Wouldn’t that fixDrinker silhouette everything?  Wouldn’t it calm my heart from slapping against the inside of my sternum?  Just cop a decent buzz and I could quit giving a shit.  Then I could vent my hurt as outrage and lash out about what a worthless piece of shit the person who hurt me was.  That anger – wouldn’t it  jack up my sense of power, raise me on towering flames of righteousness so I could smite?  Then maybe I wouldn’t have to feel this intense vulnerability, this loss, this pain… pain… pain….

Sure, that might happen temporarily.  But when the drunkenness retreated, I’d have nothing.  I’d have lost not only the person I trusted, but myself.

I hadn’t gone to one of my Near Death Experience (NDE) meetings in months, but when I asked last week on Facebook if someone would go with me, a Tennessee friend who’s had an NDE as well responded: “I’m in town; let’s go!”  At that meeting, the makers of a TV show came down front and announced they were interviewing NDEers.  So, as one of them passed my aisle seat, I handed him my card.  I didn’t think much of it.

NDEYesterday I was sitting with my pain, my journal open in my lap, staring into space.  The phone rang and one of those TV researchers asked if I would tell her my NDE story.  It takes a while, because I’ve had 14 paranormal after-effects as well, but she assured me she had all the time in the world.  So I told it again for the for the first time in years.  The story’s scattered through my addiction memoir and I’ve presented it to Seattle IANDS* and at the Seattle Theosophical Society, but there’s no call to tell it in daily living.

When I got to the part about my huge 9th Weird Thing, I explained:

“That’s the moment when I got it.  I mean, before then I’d believed god was real whenever I was feeling spiritual or something, but otherwise I’d set that aside and  believe in my own mind.  But this thing was so inexplicable – it was all the proof a person could ask for.  I knew then god is with us in every tiny thing that happens.  And something changed in me.  I was sobbing and I prayed, ‘Okay – I know you’re real!  I’ll never you doubt again!'”

“That’s so cool!” exclaimed the woman.  She was busy taking notes.  And in the little stretch of silence that followed, something nudged me: Hear yourself.  Sitting there, I remembered that the 9th Weird Thing really did happen.  I remembered all my weird things – that they had actually happened to me, that I really lived them, and that no material view of the world could explain them.

What I’d prayed fervently a few nights before was this: “Let me know you’re with me.”  So it came about that I spoke the very words I needed to hear.  Plus there was a deeper message wrapped up in that “hear yourself,” saying also, “heal yourself.”   It went something like this:

There’s a home at your core that’s always safe, because you and I inhabit it together.  Make that home your true one.  Spend time there, spruce it up, make it strong.  Because there, sweet child, even as the world falls down around you, my love will carry you, and you’ll be okay. 

Today, I know that’s true.

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*Seattle IANDS = Seattle branch of the International Association for Near Death Studies

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Filed under Alcoholism, Drinking, living sober, Near Death Experience, Recovery, Sobriety, Spirituality