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