Phillip Larkin – This Be The Verse
Looking back on my own childhood it is easier now to observe the fertile ground from which my genetic seeds of alcoholism started to flourish. I have long maintained that growing up in a dysfunctional family environment did not create my alcoholism but certainly did not help. A family environment were emotional expression was limited and veered between sentimentality and outright anger.
It is difficult to see how I learnt the essential adaptive skills of emotional regulation then; how to identify, label and express emotions freely without sanction, verbally, and non-verbally. For me emotions where something you cut off, experientially avoided, resisted. The more you did not let them get to you the tougher you were mentally somehow. Emotions were strangely dangerous things almost.
Emotions, having them, made you weak! People who indulged in them were weak.
I also grew up with a father who was a boxer and alcoholic (abstinent, thank God, via the local Church) who insisted emotions had to tolerated like a man, like some tough hombre in a 1950s Western. I had a host of uncles and a Grandad who agreed and they all set out to toughen me up. I even had boxing matches with cousins at various homes to show how I was progressing!
When I started drinking I found that this tough guy routine was greatly enhanced. Alcohol made me bullet proof. I drank and grew up to manhood in one go. Or so I thought – I didn’t realise that I stayed at that emotionally impaired 14 years old for nearly three decades later.
The worst effect on my emotional regulation skills was my relationship with my mother who struggled with valium abuse most of her adult life. This meant she was emotionally distant a lot of the time. Wose than that, she mixed mawkishness with being cold as a stone. It was an insecure attachment. You were never sure, emotionally, where you were at with her. It made me insecure, anxious and eventually very very angry. Cold blue angry.
But did this also have an effect on my ability to processing emotions. How could maternal emotional deprivation have an effect on my emotional processing skills? Andd how could this emotional processing difficulty affect the amount I craved alcohol??
I recently came across this article (1) which looked at this very question. I refer widely from it here.
Attachment theory is a widely used framework for understanding emotion regulation as well as alexithymia, and this perspective has also been applied to understand alcohol use disorders. One hypothesized function of attachment is the interpersonal regulation of affective experiences (Shaver & Mikulincer, 2007; Sroufe, 1977).
One hypothesized function of attachment is the interpersonal regulation of affective experiences (Shaver & Mikulincer, 2007; Sroufe, 1977). In the development of alexithymia, attachment theories stress the importance of significant others in childhood (Krystal & Krystal, 1988; Nemiah, 1977; Taylor et al., 1997). Evidence suggests that alexithymia is related to dysfunctional parenting (Thorberg, Young, Sullivan & Lyvers, in press).
Insecure attachment is associated with alexithymia and both harmful drinking and alcohol-dependence (Cooper, Shaver, & Collins, 1998; De Rick & Vanheule, 2006; Thorberg & Lyvers, 2006; Thorberg, Young, Sullivan, Lyvers, Connor & Feeney, 2009). In addition, alcohol abuse has been hypothesized to be a consequence of alexithymia (Taylor, Bagby, & Parker, 1997).
Research on alexithymia (1) has found significant positive associations between alexithymia, difficulties identifying feelings, difficulties describing feelings and alcohol problems (Thorberg, Young, Sullivan, & Lyvers, 2009; Thorberg, Young, Sullivan, Lyvers, Connor & Feeney, 2010). Individuals with alcohol-dependence and alexithymia report more severe alcohol problems compared to those with alcohol-dependence alone (Sakuraba, Kubo, Komoda, & Yamana, 2005; Uzun, Ates, Cansever, & Ozsahin, 2003). They also have poorer treatment outcomes (Loas, Fremaux, Otmani, Lecercle, & Delahousse, 1997; Ziolkowski, Gruss, & Rybakowski, 1995).
Individuals may use alcohol to escape feelings of rejection and establish a “secure attachment base” (Hofler & Kooyman, 1996), given alcohol’s stress and anxiety reducing effects.
In this study (1) results highlight the importance of alexithymia and difficulties identifying and describing feelings as related to preoccupation, obsessions and compulsive behaviors regarding drinking in those with alcohol-dependence. Or in more simple terms between alexithymia and craving. In this study 32.4% of this alcohol dependent groups were alexithymic. This is less than previously reported prevalence rates of 45-67% (Thorberg et al., 2009).
In this study (1) alcohol-dependence severity, alexithymia and insecure attachment were associated with more intrusive and interfering cognitions, ideas and impulses about alcohol, including an impaired ability to control these thoughts and impulses. This cognitively based “craving” as measured by the Obsessive Compulsive Drinking Scale (OCDS; Anton, Moak, & Latham, 1995), which is designed to assess obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior toward drinking.
Hence there was a demonstrated relationships between alexithymia, craving, anxious attachment and alcohol problems in an alcohol-dependent sample. Higher levels of alexithymia led to a stronger desire for alcohol that was partially explained by an underlying mechanism, anxious attachment. One possible reason for this it may reflect an impairment in affect regulation.
Findings of the RAAS-Anxiety scale measured insecure attachment as related to a current or previous relationship, these findings may suggest that worries about being rejected, not cared for or unloved lead to an increased craving for alcohol.
One explanation for this mediational relationship may perhaps be that increased relationship stress is associated with a fear of intimacy and anxious attachment that leads to increased craving and perhaps a stronger attachment to alcohol. In other words, the alexithymia of insecure attachment may cause a stress dysregulation which prompts craving particularly as craving is a consequence of dysregulated stress systems. Stress dysregulations is also implicated in increased or more chronic alexithymia as suggested by George Koob in various articles. This has also been observed in other studies – this relationships of negative affect (anxiety, negative mood and emotion) with both alexithymia and craving (Sinha & Li, 2007).
To summarise, the results of this study support important relationships between alexithymia, difficulties identifying and describing feelings in relation to alcohol craving. These relationships extend to significantly higher levels of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors in relation to alcohol use and alcoholism severity amongst individuals with combined alexithymia and alcohol-dependence, compared with alcohol-dependence alone. This study identified anxious attachment as a potentially important mechanism, in the relationship between alexithymia and alcohol craving.
References De Rick, A., Vanheule, S., & Verhaeghe, P. (2009). Alcohol addiction and the attachment system: an empirical study of attachment style, alexithymia, and psychiatric disorders in alcoholic inpatients. Substance use & misuse,44(1), 99-114.