Who Wants to be an Alcoholic?

The social stigma of being an alcoholic prevents many from coming into recovery and treating their illness. And it is an illness but it takes time to realise that – a physiological, psychological, emotional, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual disease. It is as profound an illness as one can have.

It is the only illness that actively tells you that you do not have it!

How cunning, baffling and powerful is that!?  

In fact stigma, particular prevalent in the UK as compared to the US, helps kill alcoholics.

We all have ideas of tramp on park benches supping on bottles of alcohol when we think of alcoholics.

I know I did. When I went to my first meeting I thought I would be greeted by park tramps with strings holding their trousers up with food encrusted beards, no teeth and hygiene problems.

I wasn’t greeted by anyone like this.

I was greeted by a teacher, a lawyer, a counsellor, a business man, a builder, a nurse, an actress, among others.  Alcoholism effects every area of life, no strata of life is immune, there are recovering alcoholics everywhere.  The second man to have stepped on the moon is in recovery for alcoholism!

These shiny AA people were not drinking and some had not drank for decades!

Imagine not drinking for ten years and more? I could not imagine ten minutes…but now I am coming up to my tenth birthday in AA.

 

“Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics. No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows” (1)

Neuroscience has demonstrated repeatedly how the brain is taken over by the actions of alcohol and other substances which leave the brain severely restricted in it’s choice of behaviours. Self will has become so compromised we barely have any!?

We become so comprised in our own ability to make decisions that we are often “without mental defence against” drinking.

Alcohol via the alterations in stress and reward (survival) systems in the brain means our illness has literally taken over our brain and calls the shots, does the thinking which leads to the drinking.

We have a thinking disease as well as drinking one by the time we get into recovery.

It is the thinking of this illness, which we mistake for our own, quite understandably, as these thoughts are happening in our own head, that tells us we do not have an alcoholic problem, we do not need to go to an AA meeting, or when we have gone, that we do not need to stay, that we are different to the people at the meeting – that they need this recovery thing not me. I can work this out myself.

Why does it do this?

Why is it constantly chittering away between our ears. It has to be us, surely? Our thoughts can’t have been taken over like some 1960s episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk and crew are struck down by some thought virus??

If you are new to recovery don’t bend your head over this stuff!

All you have to do is twofold. Get to a meeting and see if your experience of drinking tallies with those there and two, watch out for that motivational voice of alcoholism trying to get you far away from these people.

This is my test to see if you are alcoholic.

This voice of the illness is similar to the voice of OCD and other anxiety disorders which talk to us in thoughts which are contrary to our well being and health. Why?

Because our survival networks in the brain have gone so haywire that these conditions think they are helping us survive by suggesting certain actions which we previously used to reduce distress, i.e.compulsive behaviours, but which take us increasingly into even greater emotional distress and unhealthy behaviours.

They are like an Olympic coach training us to get chronically unwell.

They persist because they have ingrained in our brains unfortunately, possible forever. They are the torturous whispers of our neural ghosts!

They refuse to die but in time these voices become more manageable, the volume on them can be turned down or ignored altogether.

Turning down the distress signal that feeds them is at the key.

You are not alone – “Every natural instinct cries out against the idea of personal  powerlessness.” (2)

This powerlessness led me to surrendering. Paradoxically to win this war we must first surrender.

Surrendering to the idea that I may, possibly, be an alcoholic.

Acceptance of this possibility is the first step.

 

References

 

  1.  Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. New York: A.A. World Services.
  2. Twelve steps and twelve traditions. (1989). New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.

 

Self Diagnosing Alcoholism

For those reading who feel they may a problem with alcoholism I will attempt to help you self diagnose.

I personally came into recovery via AA after my local doctor/GP, stated quite unequivocally that he thought I was an alcoholic. I was with my wife at the time.  The scales fell from our respective eyes.

Oh that’s it!? It wasn’t my troubled childhood, the premature death of my parents, my various difficulties with anxiety, depression, panic attacks, etc etc. It was because I was an alcoholic!

I have no doubt that the above factors contributed to the severity of my alcoholism but the other psychiatric issues I now consider to have been substance induced disorders which have either dissipated in recovery or have been treated in some way by a 12 step recovery?

Regardless of GP’s diagnosis of alcoholism I still need to self diagnosis.  I could not recover from alcoholism based on someone else’s diagnosis, however helpful. I had to identify myself as an alcoholic. Acceptance of this condition was the first step in recovery for me and countless others.

In the early days acceptance is based on acceptance of a destructive relationship with alcohol.

How do we define this relationship, this alcoholism?

There are various definitions of alcoholism mainly centring on  continued use of alcohol despite negative consequences. The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymmous (1) simply states  “If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic.  “.

This useful useful article (2) discusses the “loss of control over drinking” concept, which academic studies have failed to prove or disprove in laboratory settings.

I believe this loss of control can occur spontaneously or over several drinking episodes. It is not an all or nothing phenomenon like the “allergy” concept of the Doctor’s Opinion in the Big Book. It is variable.

The return to uncontrolled drinking can take one drinking session for some or a number of drinking sessions for others.

“The loss-of-control phenomenon is the essence of any addiction and certainly of AD.

This refers to the inability of the AD person to predict with any degree of certainty how much he or she will imbibe from one drinking episode to the next.

Clinically, once the drinking episode starts, the AD person will be unable to stop in the middle of the episode without a very great struggle. Useful questions at interview include asking 1) whether patients feel compelled to continue drinking or find it very hard to stop drinking; 2) once they start, whether they find themselves drinking more than they wanted to or had planned to; and 3) whether they make rules to attempt to control their drinking through external means.

It is important to distinguish the loss-of-control phenomenon from craving. The former has to do with the inability to stop drinking once started.

The loss-of-control phenomenon occurs within a drinking episode. Forms of craving occur between drinking episodes. The loss-of-control phenomenon continues to be a scientific puzzle.

Despite ongoing research inquiry over many years, neuroscience has yet to define the CNS changes underlying the loss-of-control phenomenon that characterizes dependence.

Clinically, however, longitudinal studies of abstinence make it clear that once the control of drinking behavior departs, it does not return in most cases (3).

It cannot be relearned or reconstituted. In this sense, a diagnosis of dependence signals a permanent condition—including a permanent risk of uncontrolled drinking. “

 

 

  1. Alcoholics Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition. New York: A.A. World Services.
  2. Beresford, T. P. (2007). What is addiction, what is alcoholism?. Liver Transplantation13(S2), S55-S58.
  3. Vaillant GE. The Natural History of Alcoholism, Revisited. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1995.

A Brief History of Controlled Drinking – the Irrationality of Science

In a recent blog a few days ago I challenged some of Gabrielle Glaser’s “evidence” in her article   “The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous “, which purported to demonstrate the so-called effectiveness of “controlling drinking”.

Glaser cited the following in her article

“ To many, though, the idea of non-abstinent recovery is anathema. No one knows that better than Mark and Linda Sobell, who are both psychologists. In the 1970s, the couple conducted a study with a group of 20 patients in Southern California who had been diagnosed with alcohol dependence.

Over the course of 17 sessions, they taught the patients how to identify their triggers, how to refuse drinks, and other strategies to help them drink safely. In a follow-up study two years later, the patients had fewer days of heavy drinking, and more days of no drinking, than did a group of 20 alcohol-dependent patients who were told to abstain from drinking entirely.”

I responded to this as follows

” What Glaser failed to mention was that in a subsequent study (4) 10-year follow-up of the original 20 experimental subjects showed that only one, who apparently had not experienced physical withdrawal symptoms (thus possibly not alcoholic), maintained a pattern of controlled drinking;

eight continued to drink excessively–regularly or intermittently–despite repeated damaging consequences;

six abandoned their efforts to engage in controlled drinking and became abstinent;

four died from alcohol-related causes;

and one, certified about a year after discharge from the research project as gravely disabled because of drinking, was missing.

Why did Glaser failed to mention this research, a follow up study to the one she mentions and cites?”

The authors attempted to justify this choice in a statement that seems to clearly demonstrate their bias: “we are addressing the question of whether controlled drinking is itself a desirable treatment goal, not the question of whether the patients directed towards that goal fared better or worse than a control group.. .” (Pendery et al., 1982, 172-173)

The interesting aspect about her article for me (and most worrying) was that it highlighted a controversy that goes back to the 1960s – can alcoholics ever control their drinking?

In this blog we will address the origins of this “controlled drinking debate” and demonstrated how it is a castle built on sand.

The original study which supposedly demonstrated so-called controlled drinking or asymptomatic drinking in it’s alcoholic participants did no such thing.

So we now have an ongoing debate about controlled drinking when it has continuously been based on dubious research, bogus findings and bad science.

It is the researchers that Glaser champions that could be accused of irrationality.

The methodological madness started way back in the 1960s.

 While scattered reports of controlled drinking outcomes had occasionally appeared in the scientific literature before 1962, most commentators date the beginning of the controlled drinking controversy to the publication that year of a paper entitled “Normal Drinking in Recovered Alcohol Addicts.” In this paper, D.L. Davies, a British psychiatrist, reports that, in the course of long-term follow-up of patients treated for “alcohol addiction” at Maudsley Hospital in London, 7 of the 93 patients investigated “have subsequently been able to drink normally for periods of 7 to 11 years after discharge from the hospital.” (Davies, 1962, p. 94).

At least two different studies have challenged the findings of Davies:-

“Evidence suggests that five subjects experienced significant drinking problems both during Davies’s original follow-up period and subsequently, that three of these five at some time also used psychotropic drugs heavily, and that the two remaining subjects (one of whom was never severely dependent on alcohol) engaged in trouble-free drinking over the total period”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4010292

“A subsequent follow-up of these cases suggested that Davies had been substantially mislead”

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7956756

So four decades of research into controlled drinking were inspired by a study which did not actually demonstrate controlled drinking in the first place!

In addition to the Sobells, Glaser also mentioned the Rand Report of the 1970s.

“In 1976, for instance, the Rand Corporation released a study of more than 2,000 men who had been patients at 44 different NIAAA-funded treatment centers. The report noted that 18 months after treatment, 22 percent of the men were drinking moderately. The authors concluded that it was possible for some alcohol-dependent men to return to controlled drinking. Researchers at the National Council on Alcoholism charged that the news would lead alcoholics to falsely believe they could drink safely. The NIAAA, which had funded the research, repudiated it. Rand repeated the study, this time looking over a four-year period. The results were similar.”

The first Rand Report was attacked as being methodologically weak  – e.g  it suffered from sample bias (80% of subject dropped out).

The Rand Corporation did a follow up 4 years later.  This time they reported that a smaller figure of 14% of the sample  continued to drink in an unproblematic manner  but other researchers reanalyzing the data arrived at a corrected estimate of 3-4% of the sample were drinking in a nonproblematic manner.

3% is somewhat less than the 22% – why does Glaser not cite these other follow up studies again?  It is difficult to accept any of her arguments as  she picks only studies that support her biased arguments.

jaywalker-t-shirt-men-s_design

It was also noted that alcoholics can often be expected to drink in a non problematic manner for brief periods. In my own experience, I have often heard of alcoholics share about a relapse and state that they thought they had their alcoholic problem licked as they started off drinking in what appeared to be a controlled manner only to find in a matter of weeks that their alcoholism had progressed far beyond it’s original severity prior to the relapse. In other words it can take a relapse some weeks to kick start into even more profound alcoholism than previously.

Researchers need to spend more time around alcoholics to observe what we have learnt through very painful experience, instead of theorising about this reality from academic ivory towers.

As the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states in Chapter 3  “Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics. No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows. Therefore, it is not surprising that our drinking careers have been characterized by countless vain attempts to prove we could drink like other people. The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death. We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed. We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals –usually brief—were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse, never better.”