While I consider here some of the more severe experiences of alcoholism, I believe even the garden variety binge/heavy drinker will share aspects in common with the alcoholic and their use of alcohol as a distraction. The alcoholic and troubled drinker share a common internal struggle relating to the regulation of emotion, both can recognise just how unhappy life can feel inside and the need to fend off troubling thoughts. The socially acceptable binge drinker and alcoholic in reality occupy different ends of the same scale and hold mutual their emotional needs from drinking; to fend off anxiety, to fight boredom, to bury feelings of low self esteem and fill internal voids.
Alcoholism is a form of self-cure, an attempt to quench something within, for many these are deep feelings of loneliness, and the hope (the fantasy) that accompanies all addictions is a wish to feel satiated. Addictions are therefore attempts to keep one from their appetites, a wish to end appetite, something which paradoxically leads to insatiable appetite and revelation of need. Addictions provide an illusion, which is a defence, against the experience of unsatiated appetites. Such illusionism parallels how alcohol is everywhere, an all-pervading ubiquitous presence which strangely causes one to lose sight of it – alcohol is both there and not there. I think alcoholics suffer a similar illusion both being aware and unaware of their addiction every time they drink.
“there are instantaneous in every alcoholics drinking where the illusion hiding their addiction fails, it’s like a flash of clarity and you are aware of how your drinking is driven from a place of deep need and the bond holding you to the bottle is fathomless. Earlier in my drinking career these moments of awareness felt inconsequential, glitches in the matrix. Over time these moments illuminated my addiction so clearly; the lost home, the night on the psyche ward, rehabilitation, suicide attempts; to keep drinking meant my being confluent with my addiction – I had become an alcoholic. When you stare at your addiction for too long, you not only start to see the drinking for what it is but start to feel the depth of yearning that underlies every addiction. These are the very feelings I had sort to suppress, so when the illusion hiding my addiction waivered I would do what every alcoholic does so well – lie to myself that I had a problem with drink!“
The increasing awareness and acceptance of problem drinking has come from the disease concept of alcoholism which is now well established. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism likens alcohol dependence to a medical illness through the disease model. It makes alcoholism comparable to other diseases, like cancer or diabetes, and considers aspects of family history and heredity in the development of alcoholic illness. The disease concept has certainly made addictions more understandable and therefore increased acceptance. However, I feel the medical model has a tendency to exaggerate the physiological aspects of drinking and in so doing overlooks the psychological and relational aspects of alcoholism.
“As an active alcoholic I never could absorb this notion that alcoholism was an illness equivalent to other diseases. I never truly considered having an illness, accepting this would have meant viewing my addiction, and myself, with an unfamiliar eye of compassion and kindness. The truth was I felt immense shame and guilt about my addiction; I wanted to conceal it, keep it veiled. To expose the deep need that I had to drink would have been immensely shaming and psychically damaging – I needed my addiction and the secrecy of my desires. The tangible signs suggesting to me I had alcoholic disease, such as my physical symptoms of withdrawal, were relayed back to me and absorbed as personal failures, reminders of my weakness, my neediness, my lack of moral fibre. Shame had become bound to my alcoholism and carried a valency that deepened an inherent shame I held for myself, my needs, my appetite and my struggles. Over time my alcoholism had become so entwined and knotted with the sense of who I was I could no longer see myself without it, without realising it I’d started to rely on the bottles shameful reflections of myself, both to keep my internal world familiar and to keep me drinking.”
Identifying drink as the problem of alcoholism is a persuasive choice; the problem is in some way an external one, the object of obsession the only issue. This way of thinking has blurred the internal problems of need and yearning that are the real sources of an addiction. The disease concept highlights a variety of family difficulties as risk factors in developing alcoholism; (a) an alcoholic parent or parent that has other psychological problems, (b) both parent’s abuse alcohol and other drugs, (c) conflicts leading to aggression and violence in the family. Spend some time in a rehab or AA meeting and you will hear stories of people raised in such disorganised and abusive families. As I have sat and listen to such abusive histories, the relational deprivations brought me to tears, I simply wondered how they made it this long and prey the AA programme could provide enough emotional healing to stop the suffering underlying their compulsions. However, many alcoholics are spared such abusive upbringings which place the genesis of addiction in less obvious experiences.
Alcoholism is a defence and adaptation found to replace something expected, something innate that is about our very humanness – an entitlement and inborn expectation for gratification and dependency to another. Put more simply addiction is about failures in the attachment between a child and their parent, when the bonds that unite mother and child eternally are compromised in some way. Alcoholism is symbolic of these failures; an attempt to replace that which was missed, booze becomes a reliable source, a trusted foundation providing the natural soothing missed in human relationships. If the soul of alcoholism is the loss of this entitlement, the not wanting to feel that something so precious has been denied, becomes the heart of alcoholic disease.
To give up any addiction means giving up on the hope of ever feeling the fulfilment that is borne from attachment and bonding, created by the satisfying of our most precious human dependency needs. For this reason alcoholism is so hard to give up on, it means losing hope and experiencing the deep pain of a paradise lost.
“The alcoholic’s rock bottom is the only means to leave the intoxication that prevents feeling the hurt of such a paradise lost. The living through a rock bottom, and the telling of the experience, is the right of passage every alcoholic must go through on their way to recovery. My descent to the bottom was a slow and insidious fall, in the early days I was truly unaware of the devastating path I was on but as my addiction progressed drinking turned into something insidious, an actively self destructive, Fuck It, process. Hitting bottom was a deeply traumatic event, something so intensely terrifying that I felt my will had been broken. In the final years my drinking binges had become so intense, weekend drinking sessions had turned into weeks, drinking was always to black out and my spirit was so damaged at the end I could no longer tolerate the transition from drunk to sober, the sense of shame was crushing, my body ached and shivered, my liver swollen. As I hit rock bottom I was terrified, my spirit and resolve were smashed, I suddenly realised how I was bound to the wildness of my addiction, that I could not stop it. As I felt my will and resolve braking suicide revealed itself to me, paradoxically thoughts of killing myself made me feel secure, they gave me a beacon of hope and a belief of a way out. I think it can only be the mind of an alcoholic that sees hope in their desire to sacrifice themselves; illogically I truly believe that the series of overdoses I took in my rock bottom saved me.”
Alcoholism creates a sense of anchorage, an internal illusion of a secure base that allows addicts to drift deeply into their addictions, rock bottom seems to be the only way an alcoholic can momentarily break the illusions of addiction and clear enough psychological space to observe themselves with any clarity. The collapse faced in the rock bottom is possibly the most acutely painful moment of recovery, just take some time and listen to early recovering addicts and you will be filled by their deep sense of appreciation.
As alcoholics crawl from the wreckage of the rock bottom, looking back they find themselves amazed that they have escaped their addiction, feeling a deep gratitude to have survived that particular crash. However, as the dust settles, looking forward becomes a baffling cross roads of choices and having to contemplate not only some of the deepest questions surrounding human need and yearning but questions surrounding personal identity and the emergence of who you really are. These are the hardest periods of recovery, the pain that is felt is chronic and choosing a new path means having to experience the scare of change, resting in a place of not knowing and using relationships in place of substances. Although, it is worth remembering that this is a time and place of potential, possibility and new hope.