When fighting your neural ghosts make sure to surrender!!

When I was in early recovery, in the first weeks and months my brain would continually trick me into thinking I was not an alcoholic and it did this via a combination of  stress and memory.

The process went like this – first I would have an intrusive thought about alcohol and drinking which I did not want and had not consciously put in my own head. Which used to annoy me! So what was it doing there then? I must have put it there right? why else would it be there?

So I must still have wanted to drink?

I would find this thought very threatening, frightening and upsetting. I would try to get rid of it by suppressing it, pushing it out of my consciousness. The problem was this didn’t work.


In fact, it made the situation a whole lot worse. The intial intrusive thoughts about drinking would then proliferate and there would be other thoughts about drinking; where, at what time, who would be there. I would then have a visual read out of all these scenarios. In the bar, the sunlight streaming through the window, the golden glistening pint of lager in the summer sun matched only by the pearly white smile of the beautiful buxom bar maid slowly pulling my pint, looking at me longingly etc. in a busy atmosphere, full of happy your attractive people laughing and enjoying themselves. people dancing and hugging. Sweet music drifting acorss the bar. You get the picture.

Delusion! This was nothing like the last bar I drank in a can assure you!! It was however the image my brain was evoking partly via memory association partly by motivational embellishment.

I have an alcoholic brain which wants me to drink. It uses, still, memories from the past, to whisper sweet nothings. It never casts images across my feverish mind of violently vomiting, bent over the downstairs toilet, or me staring through half blind eyes at my severely jaundiced face in the bathroom mirror. Or being thrown out of various bars onto the hard concrete pavement outside, on my head. Or the tears and violent rows. And the distress and confusion on loved ones’ faces.

No my alcoholism never accesses these images. Ignores them completely. Instead, as my alcoholic brain wants nothing more or else than to drink, it sends memories like neural ghosts into my head to cast a spell of delusional images and suggestive ideas, mainly promoting the idea of how good it was.

This is why in AA it is said we should wind the tape forward a bit to the disgustingly horrible reality of our final drinking. The constantly wretching and living in isolaton in our alcohol induced psychosis and the shivering terror of delirium tremens.

We have a inner voice of alcoholism that quite simply lies. Distorts our memories. The motivational voice of our alcoholism is a pathological liar. It only wants to drink because it is like a psychotic carer who thinks that drinking is the thing to do when we are in full of stress or in emotional distress. It automatically says hold one I have a solution to this distress, DRINK!

This is what the brain has become hardwired to do when distressed enough.  it is a habitual response of our implicit memory which then recruits our explicit memory which paints the picture of why drinking would be such a good idea.

I have a distress based illness, so I do get distressed from time to time. Sometimes over the most innocuous things sometimes.

Not as badly as in early recovery.  No, things have improved beyond belief since then.

The neural ghosts of my motivation were like intoxicating sirens in early recovery. My impaired reward systems implored me to have liquid release. Both combined to conjure an alternative view of myself from that of my recovering self, which was still in it”s infancy. They seemed to have control of my brain!  I suddenly had a problem beyond my own will power, I couldn’t resolve these things under my own steam.

The thoughts would come and I would suppress them and the thoughts would multiply and then the memories would all chain link  and pretty soon I would have an Amazon warehouse store of memories, all providing evidence against those guys in AA, who were not telling me truth about me being an alcoholic, They were wrong…sure I liked to drink, especially given by traumatic upbringing and all?

All these thoughts and memories floating across my mind like edits in a movie to show me as a drinking person who wasn’t an alcoholic. Not many disorders go to such profound trouble!!

I would fight these images, memories and thoughts to such an extent my brain would quite simply end up paralysed, my brain felt like it had become locked and there was nothing I could do about it. It had frozen into a terrifying inertia. Stalemate. No resolution apart from increased suffering.

Fortunately whatever I had learnt in AA even in the early days would rescue me. I had learnt to habitually grasp at something close to hand, my mobile phone. After a few puzzling moments of indecision I realised I could get help from somewhere. Ring my sponsor!!!!

I had to use someone else’s head to help me with my head, my newly recovering alcoholic head. I needed a recovered head who knew what I was going through and could help me through it! I felt all fragile like a jaundiced chick.

Recovery is tough in the early days, let’s never forget that! Life without a sponsor and right from the start is a key to surviving this alcoholic possession by these deluded memories and these neural ghosts.

This is the most vital period, to keeping those who need help in recovery. Saying someone doesn’t want it enough doesn’t cut it for me anymore. Better to show them what they are missing, namely a solution to their problems. Who ultimately doesn’t want that?

If you have never trusted anyone in your life, like me, this is the time to start if you want to recover. Trust at least one person on God’s earth. One, that’s all. This is the start to a new world in recovery. A world beyond your alcoholic brain’s comprehension.

Anyway, remember that in the feverish brain of a person in early recovery who ends up engaged in this neurobiological possession, thought straightjacket and fighting for his or her life against a mnemonic Hydra when it is the last thing they should be doing, the only way to win is to give in. Surrender!

Ultimately, how we appraise and react to naturally occurring alcohol or drug related thoughts and associated memories  will determine if this process of “craving” is activated. If we use strategies such as acceptance of these thoughts as transitory then the thoughts will not affect this process and if we “Let Go and Let God” then the distress which initially activates this process will not do so. How we react to our thoughts and accompanying distress (as they appear be be coupled) will determine whether the mental obsession mentioned above will be provoked.

Also see Cognitive Craving Part 3  and Part 4


  1. carrythemessage · June 25, 2014

    This is fantastic, Paul. I haven’t read a description of the alcoholic mind / obsession like this one. It bears forth exactly what it was like for me when everything seemed to be seen through the distorted lens of “what would be best right now” and of course it was always “a drink”.

    It’s funny that I have heard the opposite about the “play the tape” idea. It’s along the same lines of a diseased mind can’t heal a diseased mind. For me, playing the tape through stopped at those romanticized thoughts. It was like the tape was caught in a loop. It was hanging around others like me where I could see truly where the drink would take me. or I just had to look at the metaphorical faint outlines of where the hospital band or handcuffs bore down on my wrists to see where things would go.

    It wasn’t until about 2-3 months when those thoughts started to dissipate. Of course they would try now and then, and at about 6-7 months they quieted down even more. But make no mistake, they will always be there. Disguised, yes, and sometimes not so subtle, they will be there.

    What you say about accepting that these are transitory is very much in line with my experience. They come, they pass. It’s my reaction to them that determine the outcome.

    thank you for this – this was fabulous.


  2. alcoholicsguide · June 26, 2014

    thank you Paul, for this brillant comment on the blog. This is a main reason for doing this, to connect with others in sharing our understanding of this profound disorder.
    I was similar to you in that after 3-4 months the direct thoughts about alcohol began to dissipate and continued to do so thereafter. I will discuss in later blogs how my illness continually changes it’s approach, e.g.

    now a few years in recovery it is quite simple compared to before or more obvious – now, for me, I have a distressed based impulse control disorder which as I have become more ambitious in recovery e.g. doing a PhD, it wants me to do more and more and more, work me into the ground. So I have to look out for some balance otherwise I get worn out doing too much. It can be like having obsessive compulsive symptoms sometimes.
    So my alcoholism is more obviously behavioural rather than cognitive, less thoughts about alcohol and more about world domination. More motoric. I have always joked that if it wasn’t for the drink I would have taken over a small country by now! It is another phase in recovery, new challenges, new awareness and adaption accordingly.
    At the heart of my alcoholism is still a problem with emotional dysregulation. I still find it difficult labelling and processing emotions (I still get overtired without realizing, forget to eat, think I am getting depressed when I am simply tired) and need the help of my wife and sponsor to walk me through my emotional experience and I have always kinda been like this even as a kind I think..
    I need to verbalize to process emotions. One of many reasons why AA works as it allows us to talk out our problems and in doing so find a solution.
    I still use a short term gain over a longer more beneficial one in decision making which is based on what I call distress signals – a tendency for “fight or flight” thinking I call it.
    My emotional dysregulation runs hand in hand with impaired stress systems which means any balance I achieve is managed and temporary, i.e. through working with others, the steps prayer, meditation, letting go etc, it does not occur naturally. This for me is why this illness is progressive because this excess stress in the brain can grow dopamine branches in the brain which constantly make drink a priority option when distressed, even if this is murmur these days rather than the loud insistent voice of early recovery. My alcoholic mind still has a tendency to seek balance by fixing feelings such as PC overuse.
    I learn more about my alcoholism all the time, it’s amazing all the good research out there waiting for an alcoholic to connect with some of it. “Let’s me friendly with our friends!” as Bill Wilson suggested. I think he would have.
    I hope my research will help others in early recovery especially to understand a bit more what is going on in their alcoholic brains, to take some fear out of recovery and insert some rationality instead. Understand the processes of this illness and of recovery. We like to know how it works! Just to understand what is going on. I want on pass on freely what I wish someone had told me in early recovery and sometimes since. We should never rewrite the BB but we can add to the sum of knowledge. I have blogs on how it worked (AA from a neuroscientific point of view) to come.
    thank you again,

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