Tag 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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What’s the Point of “Bill’s Story”?

Pledges inscribed on the flyleaf of Bill and Lois’ family bible:

  • October 20, 1928:  To my beloved wife that has endured so much, let this stand as evidence to you that I have finished with drink forever.
  • November 22, 1928:  My strength is renewed a thousand fold in my love for you. I will never drink again.
  • January, 1929:  To tell you once more that I am finished with it.  I love you.
  • September 3, 1930:  Finally and for a lifetime, thank God for your love.

On Christmas day, 1930, Lois’ mother died. Bill was drunk for days before, too drunk to attend the funeral, and drunk for days after. Lois began work at Macy’s for $19/week to support the two of them.

Anyone familiar with the Big Book of AA knows that in its opening chapter, “Bill’s Story,” co-founder Bill Wilson offers his personal narrative of “what it was like” while he was a prisoner of alcohol, “what happened” when his drinking buddy Ebby visited (miraculously sober), and “what it’s like now” – or was like for him and Lois, flourishing in the early days of AA at the time the book was published.

Bill and Lois

Lois and Bill later in life

Standard “homework” for an AA newcomer embarking on the 12 steps is to highlight the passages in “Bill’s Story” to which they relate – at least, that’s how we do it in Seattle (and I expect all over the world).  Sponsees of mine who were sure they’d have zilch in common with some dude of a different race, class, gender, and era writing in terms they consider archaic, are surprised to find Bill puts into words experiences, pains, and terrors they’ve suffered but shared with no one.  Identification – that’s how the program works.

It starts from the get-go: “War fever ran high” he opens – each of these four words flashing icons of addiction.  Bill drank when things were awesome: “I was part of life at last, and in the midst of the excitement I discovered liquor.” And he drank when they sucked: “I was very lonely and again turned to alcohol.” By the end of the first paragraph, we can guess Bill drank like we did.  By the end of the first page, we know he turned away from the foreboding doom he felt reading an alcoholic’s tombstone and focused instead on vast faith in his own “talent for leadership” his ability to choose wisely.

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Right there, folks, is the enigma of alcoholism in a nutshell.  Even as we increasingly realize that booze is killing us, we place increasing trust in self-will and self-knowledge, which amount to paper swords in our gladiator’s fight with this powerful, thought-twisting, brain-sabotaging snake.  Why?  Because the curious mental blank spot can override our resolve at any moment.

Though there must have been hundreds of times when Bill rallied all his resolve to quit drinking and found himself shit-faced soon after, his story specifically names five of them.

 1.  Self-will: “Nevertheless, I still thought I could control the situation, and there were periods of sobriety that renewed my wife’s hope.” [Referring to the bible inscriptions]

Blank spot: “Then I went on a prodigious bender, and the chance vanished.”

2.  Self will: “I woke up.  This had to be stopped.  I saw I could not take so much as one drink.  I was through forever.  Before then, I had written lots of sweet promises, but my wife happily observed that this time I meant business.  And so I did.”

Blank spot: “Shortly afterward I came home drunk.  There had been no fight.  Where had been my high resolve?  I simply didn’t know.  It hadn’t even come to mind.”

3.  Self-will: “Renewing my resolve, I tried again.  Some time passed, and confidence began to be replaced by cocksureness.  I could laugh at the gin mills.  Now I had what it takes!”

Blank spot:  “One day I walked into a cafe to telephone.  In no time I was beating on the bar asking myself how it happened.”

4.  Self-will: “It relieved me somewhat to learn [in the hospital] that in alcoholics the will is amazingly weakened when it comes to combating liquor… Understanding myself now, I fared forth in high hope… Surely this was the answer  self knowledge.”

Blank spot: “But it was not, for the frightful day came when I drank once more. The curve of my declining moral and bodily health fell off like a ski-jump.”

5. Self-will: “No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found in that bitter morass of self-pity.  Quick sand stretched around me in all directions.  I had met my match.  I had been overwhelmed.  Alcohol was my master.  Trembling, I stepped from the hospital a broken man.”

Blank spot: “Fear sobered me for a bit.  Then came the insidious insanity of that first drink, and on Armistice day 1934, I was off again.  Everyone became resigned to the certainty that I would have to be shut up somewhere, or would stumble along to a miserable end.”

But instead of drinking himself to death, Bill receives a visit from his old drinking pal, Ebby, who tells him of the Oxford Group and opens the door to freedom – as the rest of the chapter swiftly summarizes.  Because the focus here, at the book’s beginning, is on defining the problem.

The point of Bill’s story is that we can’t fix ourselves.  No matter how disciplined in other respects, our minds cannot combat our alcoholism, which resides in the mind.  No amount of decision, resolve, moral fiber, determination, or even dedication through the deepest love for a partner can come to our aid at the junctures of the curious mental blank spot, when these thoughts don’t “even come to mind.”

Repulsed by the Oxford Group’s religiosity, Bill did indeed drink himself back into the hospital after Ebby’s first visit, but NOT after Ebby’s hospital visit, because at that time Bill had a white light experience (¶ 13) that not only struck him sober for the remaining 36 years of his life, but empowered him to persevere in the difficulties of co-creating a program that would save the lives of millions of fellow alcoholics.

God alone can relieve our addiction, if we ask.  I’m not talking about a god named in any religion,spiritenergy though such gods work fine for some, which is cool.  For me, god is the life force, an energy which flows not only through the matter of our bodies but between and among every living entity – animal or vegetable.  Cut off from it by ego and hostility, our spirits languish and we find ourselves puppets of addiction.  Yet it’s right there – an energy of immense love and intelligence that we can tap into if we sincerely open to it.  It’s living you right now.  It’s living the planet.  You can write it off as “shit happens” or…

You can start where you are.  Whether you’re hungover as hell right now or sober but in pain, you can ask it for help and guidance.  You might start like this: “I don’t know what you are, but I know that I hurt, and that I need you.  Help me.  Please guide me toward goodness and love and light.  I will look for you in the depths of my heart.”

I guarantee you it will answer.

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What (most) Normal Drinkers Will Never Understand

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. 🙂

-Louisa

 

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.

addict brainThe 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 we 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.

 

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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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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 part of 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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Filed under AA, alcohol damage, Alcoholism, Drinking, Recovery, Sobriety

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