“One Christmas, I nearly relapsed. I did not wish to relapse, in fact I would rather put a gun to my head and blow my brains out! Nonetheless, I was indeed about to relapse. It seemed urgently inevitable.
The emotional distress I had suffered all over Christmas, prompted by sad unresolved feelings about my deceased parents’s had built up, aided by a few bitter arguments with my frustrated wife, into into a sheer, blind terror.
Somehow I had the sense to shakily climb the stairs to the top of the house to tell my wife that I was in trouble.My wife’s facial expression quickly flickered from hurt to heightened concern. She could tell by my quivering voice and ashen complexion that I was in trouble. I shakily walked over to sit near her. Out of the corner of my eye I could see a bottle of white spirits, which glowed invitingly with some spiritual lustre.
My attention seemed ‘locked into’ this bottle of spirits. Somewhere there was voice in my head saying “You could drink that, soon get rid of this terror”
My wife had been trying to talk to me, get through to me. I looked at her. I recognised her face but couldn’t remember her name or the fact she was my wife. My wife and I couldn’t remember her name!!? What the ….? I was consumed with a rampant rampaging terror that flipped by guts. Hallucinatory terror.
I was going to drink the white spirits. I have never drunk white spirits during my active alcoholism but had heard of plenty of alcoholics who had, and their wife’s perfume and many other such unthinkable liquids. It had, via these accounts, become a viable option. Something I could drink if need be!
It seemed like this was one of those moments.
“What do you normally do?” was all I heard. What? “What do you mean, what do I normally do….?” I hesitantly replied in a hushed almost child-like voice. “When you are like this, what do you normally do?” her voicing becoming more urgent . I could see the white spirits glisten and almost feel it evaporate, on my tongue, harshly as it deeply burnt my chest with a warm reassuring heat, move glowingly outwards from there in little dendritic branches of smoothing warmth and the whispering promised of blessed relief and good cheer. When alcoholism whispers sweet nothings it is sweeter than your lover.
“You better drink it” sounded in my head. I couldn’t remember what I normally do, or who was this asking this I head was jumbled and terrified. “You’d better do it”, the internal voice insisted. All I could feel was huge surges of stress chemicals pulsating through my veins like little scuttling manic spiders, speeding through my veins, up and down the insides of my legs, my limbs, scurrying frantically.
For some inexplicable reason, I thought, or a thought occurred to me “once I would have thought this a massive craving!” but now I felt I knew better. This wasn’t an appetitive craving, I didn’t fancy a wee drinky winky, wouldn’t that be nice.
I knew this was a stress based urge and nothing to do with desire. Nonetheless, I would kill for a drink, but paradoxically I didn’t even want one!? It wasn’t for pleasure but to escape this escalating aversion.
I knew somewhere, and know more now, that the stress chemicals swirling around my nervous system were activating my reward (or survival) brain systems. I knew it because I had read about it. Many, many times. Enough times. Stress and emotional distress activated the inner beast.
Massive amounts of stress and distress cuts off the action outcome memory, the explicit memory, the remembering of knowledge of what I would normally do in this type of situation, the “what do you normally do in this situation?” my wife had implored me to recall. It was completely cut off, I couldn’t get to it, access it. It might as well have belonged to someone else.
In there, in that explicit memory, was my wife’s name and other life saving stuff like what I normally did when faced with inevitable relapse, apart from staring at a bottle of spirits and salivating!
Stuff like the tips of recovery that I had learnt so proficiently that they were ingrained in my explicit memory, for occasions such as this one!?
Some of this recovery memory had become habitualized in my implicit memory too, thank God. It was this memory that had prompted me to climb the stairs to my wife’s help on my uncertain legs. To automatically ask for help. This was implicit recovery.
The very memory I could now not access now was explicit, because the excessive stress had cut if off. The what to do now I have asked for help memory. I knew this from my research as well. The “flight or fight “mechanism, a cascade of noradrenaline, the actions of chronic stress on switching explicit to implicit memory from the action outcome to the stimulus response, to the compulsive automatised, you see it and then you do it, memory. The stimulus response memory.
The distress was the stimulus and drinking to alleviate it would be the response. Your life can depend on this memory, like when fleeing an approaching tiger, so it does not ease it’s grip on your mind too readily or easily. This is the memory with no insight of future negative consequence. It acts now and too hell with the later consequences. The “let’s deal with this now!” memory, not later.
The “what I usually did as a chronic drinking alcoholic during extreme moments of distress”, a compulsive action hardwired into my brain. I drank alcohol previously at such prompting. It had become a unpremeditated, compulsive reaction to distress. It was how I survived back then. But then was now.
Not only did it shut off my escape route via my explicit memory and knowledge of how to get out of this life threatening crisis but it locked me into “your life is in danger, act without thinking, just do the thing your have normally done over the past 25 odd years” routine.
It showed me fleeting images of doing it before, drinking, in case I had forgotten, floating airy glimpses of the people I did it with and where, when, and whispered to me that this this person was actually the real me. Not this quivering sober fraud, in this torturous alien sober reality. That I was kidding myself.
The response was positively motoric. Get up and go over there and…drink! Lots! I could feel my legs stiffen and steal themselves.
Drink, although you would rather kill yourself than drink. Where was the choice there in this? Where had it gone, disappeared with my explicit memory no doubt? As my wife further implored me to do something, the voice in my heading was now screeching orders at me “Drink now!” “Drink now or you..will, die!!!” Drink for God’s sake, drink!!”
So it wasn’t to be a case of I will relapse because “hey one will not hurt” sort of reasoning, rationalising and justification. I was being implored to drink because my life was at risk if I did not!! I could die. I could die if I didn’t!
How badly is an alcoholics reward/survival system hijacked…usurped when this brain is imploring him to do the very thing that will kill him? And in order to help, save him from this nightmare, help him survive like some psychotic caregiver would suggest. How far down the road from full cognitive control over one’s behaviour had I gone.
Answer: about as far as I could go! How much stress surges through the alcoholics brain to close down the mnemonic survival kit. When you can’t access your “recovery” survival kit, the old alcoholic one kicks in! The alcoholic self schema overrides the recovering alcoholic schema.
I slumped to my knees and implored through tear blurred eyes for help from somewhere. I gave in profoundly, I was beat. I surrendered. The stress retreated like waves scuttling away from a beach. All action stations became deactivated and the red swirling light in my head and the honking siren turned off. I was emotionally traumatised but still sober.” An abbreviated excerpt from “How Research Helped Save My Life”
I had given up on the idea that I, my self, could solve this terrifying dilemma. The answer was outside of my self, my survival network, it was in letting go. Letting go of the distress and all the brain regions it was activating; memory, attention. emotion, reward/survival. It is regions that make up the self that are taken over in the course of alcoholism. The self can no longer be fully trusted in matters such as these. It needs to escape to brain regions outside of self or to the helping arms and reassurance of someone who knows how to help, and external prefrontal cortex of reason. One armed combat with the self will end up in crushing defeat. At certain times we are beyond our own mental control.
This ancedotal evidence highlights why research is essential to the effective treatment of alcoholism and addiction as it clearly shows the neural mechanisms implicated in relapse in chronic addiction. Altered stress systems (and their affective manifestation of emotional distress) hijack memory systems. In “offlining” the prefrontal cortex and the explicit memory of the hippocampal region it makes it very difficult to access “recovery tools” and prevent relapse.
It is only in clearly understanding these mechanisms can we seek to prevent the very high level of relapse in these clinical groups. We have to fully understand the problem before we can effectively deal with it.
We have shown via this “case study” how one can almost relapse when one has no desire ever to drink again, we have shown how it is emotional distress that precipitates and prompts this type of relapse.
We have seem how the “self will” is greatly limited and the regulation of self usurped by the impact of stress systems on reward/motivation, attention, affective and memory systems. Systems all essential to regulating one’s behaviour.
Thus treatment may find it more profitable in addressing measures to alleviate distress, increase stress and emotional coping strategies and improve the emotional regulation that is key to recovery.