Alcoholics Anonymous teaches its members to view alcoholism as a biological disease which is incurable, therefore alcoholics must be constantly on guard and expect a lifelong battle with addiction. That’s a pretty depressing diagnosis.
It’s useful to note that the “bible” for Alcoholics Anonymous (which outlines their famous Twelve Step recovery program) was written before anyone had an understanding of the psychological factors that cause people to drink to excess. If you’re an alcoholic, I have some good news for you: things really aren’t as grim as the founders of AA believed.
If you’re going to get a better understanding of why you drink, you need to start by assuming your mind has strategic reasons for what it pushes you to do. In other words, you’re not drinking just because you happened to get stuck with a bummer package of genes. If you think back over your life, you weren’t born with an insatiable craving for alcohol. There was a time that you never drank, and never cared a wit about drinking. Then one day you tried it, and in doing so, you presented your mind with an interesting new option.
The human mind is extremely impressive in its ability to both analyze the contents of everything you ingest, and to keep records of what causes what for future reference. It is your mind that pushes you to move from the occasional drink to drinking to excess. When your mind does this, it isn’t malfunctioning, it is being strategic. It is using an available tool to put a patch on a major psychological problem that it is feeling unable to solve. Being the clever thing that it is, your mind would prefer to solve its problems once and for all instead of having to fuss around with surface patches. But minds that turn to alcoholism do so because they don’t see a better option available to them at the moment.
Suppose your car gets a flat tire in the middle of a long road journey. The ideal solution would be for you to purchase a whole new tire, but often in life we can’t afford to do what is ideal. Before you can get a new tire, you must first find a store that sells the tire you need. Then you must have enough money to purchase the tire. If you have the money, but you can’t find the store, you’re stuck. If you find the store but don’t have the money, you’re still stuck. And as long as you can’t get a new tire, the best you’ll be able to do is try to patch the old one. Maybe the best patch job you can manage is very weak and keeps failing on you. But as far as you’re concerned, any patch that allows you to get a few more miles down the road is better than nothing.
To a stressed out mind that is short on resources, alcoholism feels like that crummy tire patch: it’s better than nothing. Just trying to get you through the day in one piece feels like a very challenging task to a stressed out mind. When your mind orders your body to ingest large amounts of alcohol, it understands what’s going on. It knows how the chemical will affect your brain and body, and even though many of the effects of drinking aren’t very pretty, to a stressed out mind, the benefits of getting drunk often seem to outweigh the costs.
The more stressed your mind becomes, the more desperate it will be for relief, and the more attracted it will be to any tool that will help it get a break, even a short one. Alcohol helps minds de-stress in two main ways. At first, drinking can help your mind push stressful memories further into its mental archives. This is the happy phase of getting drunk: the part where laughs come easy and you feel temporarily freed up from having to give a darn about anything or anyone. After that phase comes the second stage: the part where your mood takes a dark turn. Depression wells up from within, erasing the memory of your short lived joviality. You feel very irritable and hostile. You’re quick to lash out with biting sarcasm and vicious insults. While no one likes a “mean drunk”, to your mind, this second phase is as helpful as the first. In this second phase, you no longer feel restrained by social norms and moral obligations. Your mind feels free to vent some of the extremely negative emotions its been storing up for years.
Overwhelming fear and intense emotional pain are the primary causes of stress for minds that turn to alcoholism as a coping method. Humans instinctively express fear and pain as anger to appear less vulnerable to themselves and others. All of that hostility you spew all over others when you’re drunk is actually your mind’s way of trying to vent some of its pain and fear. Just as a volcano can avoid a full blown eruption if it can keep its internal pressure levels down by venting off hot steam, your mind is scrambling to keep you from a full blown psychological breakdown when it starts venting off pressure in the form of angry outbursts. It’s an exhausting process, and since your mind was already feeling tired before you lifted your first glass, it is going to end up knocking you out at some point to give itself time to recuperate. When you pass out into a drunken stupor, that’s your subconscious shutting down your conscious so it can try to recalibrate and prepare itself to get you through another day. In the harsh light of morning, facing the world often feels too overwhelming to your stressed out mind, so it quickly pushes you to seek out a fresh supply of that numbing chemical and you repeat the process all over again.
The important principle I want you to understand from this explanation is that alcoholism has nothing to do with a lack of self-control. It has everything to do with too much psychological stress. Your mind is turning to alcohol out of desperation. It knows that excessive drinking is a crummy solution that is doing damage to your physical body, and your mind really cares about the health of your body. But desperate times call for desperate actions, and when your mind feels boxed in and out of options, getting drunk can seem like the smart thing to do.
Addressing Core Issues
It is a desperate need for stress management that causes you to feel chained to alcohol and incapable of drinking without getting drunk. Just as a starving man isn’t going to take one bite of a sandwich then calmly walk away from the rest of a resource that feels critical to his survival, your mind isn’t going to let you walk away from a substance that seems to be helping it get some relief. To get you unchained from alcohol, we need to work on giving your mind better options: to help it deal with the root of its stress, and that means dealing with some traumatic beliefs.
Traumatic beliefs are theories and perspectives that make you feel extremely upset. For example, most alcoholics have a very low opinion of themselves. A man can’t feel comfortable in his own skin when he secretly hates himself and sees no value in who he is. Self-loathing often starts with a very upsetting experience that we go through which we end up blaming ourselves for. Take the soldier who feels horrible for accidentally shooting his comrade in arms or for leaving his buddy to die on the battlefield. When the soldier reflects on his behavior, instead of being fair and considering his actions in context, he is brutal and merciless and comes up with a very dark assessment of himself. He then uses that assessment to curse and punish himself countless times. All of that internal anger drains his resources and causes him to act like a real jerk in his relationships. As he drives those he loves away from himself, he blames himself for that, too. Soon the man has a long list of excuses for why he is justified in hating himself. He privately thinks that he is unforgivable scum who deserves to suffer in life.
Imagine trying to take a walk with a large thorn jabbing into your foot. The constant pain would make normal movements impossible, wouldn’t it? In the same way, your mind can’t function normally in an atmosphere of self-loathing or amid intense shame and fear. The beliefs and judgments that are fueling these negative emotions need to be adjusted if your mind is going to find any relief. The good news is that once your mind does start feeling less drained, it will stop feeling such a strong need for chemical crutches.
A Compassionate Approach
You can’t cure alcoholism with an emphasis on shame. Alcoholics who try to stop out of guilt for the damage their addiction is causing usually end up relapsing later on. This is because guilt and shame only heap more stress on a mind that is already feeling exhausted. Remember that to your mind, excessive drinking is a tool for relieving intense psychological distress. Is a stressed out person going to respond well to being yelled at or lectured or told what a failure he is? Of course not. When someone is already upset, a gentle, compassionate approach is what is needed.
Different Minds Use Different Methods
The world is full of stressed out people, but they’re not all alcoholics. Why is this? The simple answer is that different minds naturally gravitate towards different coping methods. Just as you naturally have different preferences in colors and foods than someone else does, minds naturally have different preferences in stress coping methods. Rather than view your alcoholism as a disease, it’s better to see it as evidence that your particular mind tends to look for stress relief through chemical substances. Other minds turn to sexual activities. Some turn to adrenaline spiking sports. Some prefer physical violence. Some vent their distress through artistic creations such paintings, sculptures or songs (ever notice how many songs on the radio are talking about emotional pain?). Some minds turn to workaholism. Others decide the world outside is too scary to face. The point is that you’re not diseased, you just have the kind of mind that turns to chemical substances for help in dealing with stress. This doesn’t make you worse than anyone else. Your mind’s strategies are just as valid and logical as the strategies used by other minds.
The Right Motivations
If you’re going to have a chance at succeeding at overcoming your addiction to alcohol, you need to start with the right motivation. You need to decide you want to get better for your own sake, not just for the sake of the people you are hurting. When you try to kick your addiction because you feel so guilty about the pain you’re causing your spouse or kids, you’re using a motivation of shame, and that has very little chance of success. You deserve a better quality of life, and you should be the main one you’re trying to help by pursuing help with your addiction. Of course it would be fabulous for you to stop hurting other people, and that is certainly a desirable side effect of you getting better. But we can’t thrive in life by discounting or devaluing ourselves.
Once you understand that your mind is pursuing alcohol in an attempt to get relief from overwhelming stress, you can see that your focus needs to be on fixing the root cause of your stress. Too often alcoholics focus on not drinking, but that’s the wrong focus to have. You can’t fix addictions by trying to change your behaviors. You have to focus on addressing the psychological needs and stresses that are fueling those behaviors. Deal with the core issues and the craving for alcohol will naturally fade away: this is the great secret to overcoming stress-based addictions.
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