The Fanatic in the Attic

When I first came into recovery the thing that really killed me was realising that my thinking was haywire – that I was generally wrong about everything.

My ego was devastated by this newly apparent reality.

I had long prided myself in always being the smartest guy in the room often dismissing other people’s views on things. Generally I always thought I was right about practically everything and what I did know was hardly worth knowing.

I found out my dismissiveness was linked to my insecure attachment. I ended up being intolerant, arrogant and dismissive of others. It kept others at arm’s reach because I didn’t trust them.

The echos of childhood can reverberate for decades afterwards.

So finding out I was often completely wrong about stuff was devastating?

How could I be so wrong about stuff?

Especially I had built up over a life this façade always being right?

My counsellor asked me once “Would you rather be right or happy?

“Right of course” I replied.

I was rarely right about anything in the first months of recovery.

I could not grasp why I was so often wrong, how I kept completely misperceiving events or mistinterpreting people, their facial expressions, their tone of voice.

I would recount something to my sponsor,  he would listen and then give the version of events that actually occurred.

I despaired that I had turned into a cretin somehow?

When at wit’s end, this former intellectual genius was illuminated one day.

One day after group therapy in treatment – where 10 complete strangers take  seeming delight in telling you who are really as opposed to who you think you are – I was walking in a local park when I suddenly had this revelation that my thoughts were always leading me to a place of emotional pain.

It was as if my thoughts were out to get me, had sort of stopped  working for me and had decided to work against me instead.

My thought seemed to blame me for everything as if they were trying to get me to go ”to hell with it, let’s have a drink!”

The thoughts seemed to be the voice of a really negative self schema, mixed with my alcoholic voice that just wanted out of this strange alien world of sobriety and thought it would hassle me until I succumbed.  A world full of people who scared me, whom I did not trust.

I did not know how the hell to cope with this world sober and it scared the hell outta me.

The thoughts were fraught, negative, self loathing, they seemed to contain fragments of the reasons why I drank in the first place and the reasons why I drank years after.

There was a maelstrom of unresolved issues and negative ideas of self mixed up in a strange brew with the motivation voice of my addiction which just wanted to drink.

It was no wonder I drank, with this discordant cacophony of mangled thoughts and harsh voices blaring way.

When I rang my sponsor, with news of this revelation , he was so delighted for me.

At how I had managed to disassociate me from these thoughts. He said these are the thoughts of your illness.

I imagined these voices coming from an alcoholic on a park bench who alone and skint with no means of getting more alcohol. Whinging and criticising, desperate and self loathing, life hating…

This had been my illness constantly jibbering away,  trying to demoralize me..

He told me the 12 steps would help deal with these thoughts although they never go away completely.

It was such a breakthrough in early recovery. It is one of the main reasons I am alive today.

I had realised there was this addicted me, living upstairs like a fanatic in the attic, which was distinct from the new, recovering me that would have to try my best to ignore it.

This has become easier as recovery has progressed.

My illness and it’s lies, it’s quite convincing chatter lives in ME, the parts of my brain that deal with self, especially motivational parts of the brain.

Hence I have to be careful of wanting or desiring stuff as the thoughts and the chatter get turned on again. If I turn my will, my thoughts over to my HP then serenity prevails.

I have to be aware of Me. Me. Me.

I have to be aware of thoughts which have me, mine, or I in them.

If my thoughts have me, mine or I in them then I am lending my ear to my illness again.

This stuff is a difficult thing to come to terms with – it is similar to egodystonic thoughts in OCD sufferers –  thoughts in conflict with a person’s ideal self-image – but when you do grasp this you are well on your way to recovery!

 

 

 

 

Intolerance of Uncertainty and Distorted thinking About the Future

Another common area I feel addiction has with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is intolerance of uncertainty (IU).

In fact it is also associated with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)- there is actually a high co-morbidity  (at least around 40% comorbidity) with addiction and PTSD and it is one so-called co-morbidity that does not naturally dissipate like some others months into recovery such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Depression (the 14% rates of depression and GAD in recovery people are the same as for a normal population) but remains and often makes the symptomatic manifestations of addiction more severe, especially the tendency to engage in “fight or flight” reactions” to uncertainty and ambiguity.

I will blog more on this co-morbidity in later blogs.

The study we cite today in fact looks at IU in addicts who have suffered trauma (1).

Intolerance of uncertainty is a term that refers to a certain way in which some people perceive and respond to situations that are uncertain, and it has been found to be associated with the experience of PTSD symptoms.

Individuals who respond to uncertain or unpredictable situations in this way are considered to have an intolerance of uncertainty. People who are intolerant of uncertainty may begin to experience constant worry about what could happen in the future.

One study (1) demonstrated that negative emotion regulation strategy and intolerance of uncertainty can significantly explain the craving beliefs in addicts (especially those who have suffered a traumatic experience).

This result is consistent with that of Asadi Majareh, Abedini, Porsharifi and Nilkokar (2013) and Nasiri Shushi (2011).

Nasiri Shushi (2011) revealed that there is a significant difference among substance abuse and intolerance of ambiguity and tolerance of uncertainty in two groups of drug abusers.

The other results of this study showed that addicts have less tolerance of ambiguity and tolerance of uncertainty. In the implications of these results it should be expressed that tolerance of uncertainty is associated with cognitive features and addicts when they are faced with difficult situations act in very low levels of performance in terms of decision-making.

Studies carried out to investigate the characteristics of drug abusers suggest that they use substances to regulate a wide range of cognitive events. Undoubtedly unpleasant emotional states, particularly anxiety, depression and stress in addicts are associated with the cognitive consequences.”

The authors suggest that “Drug abusers are not able to tolerate the unpleasant situations and uncertainty in the stressful conditions and their sensitivity leads to mental and emotional problems, therefore, they more turn to substances to regulate their own cognitive experiences (Spada, Nikčević, Moneta, Wells, 2007).

The results of a study showed that individuals with lower tolerance to ambiguity find the ambiguous situations threatening… Many of them may find the substance use in the face of difficulties the only solution and therefore are not able to think or consider other solutions.”

“….While, those with high tolerance to ambiguity in face of unpleasant situation and uncertainty try to find a good solution to get rid of this condition as soon as possible…those with a low tolerance to ambiguity and uncertainty cannot find an appropriate solution…and consequently turn to undetected compromise strategies such as the use of the substance (Ahmadi-Tahoorsoltani and Najafy, 2012).”

I can relate to this study. As I still suffer from intolerance of uncertainty (IU) in recovery, and some years into recovery, it is safe to assume that I suffered form IU in addictive addiction also, if not more so?

For me dealing with an uncertain future can still provoke anxiety. In recovery groups, like AA, we often hear sensible suggestions such as do not “project into the future”, which basically means do not attempt to control future events by thinking about them because this is not only impossible but also anxiety inducing.

The main reason why I think me and other alcoholics cannot project into the future and reasonably reflect and deliberate possible outcomes is because we may have an intrinsic impairment in this regard.

We, or some of us, especially those who have suffered trauma in earlier years, may have IU, like OCD sufferers.

The number of times I rang my sponsor in early recovery to help me with projecting into the future was legion.

Having some one else to talk and share with helps us recruit the pre frontal part of the brain so that we can either see the sense in not not projecting into an unknown future or get help in reasoning through what is likely to occur then.

The difficulty I had and can still have is that my projection into the future is still negatively biased, it is still prompted by distress based cognitive distortions.

As we will see in later blogs these types of cognitive distortions proliferate across a wide range of addictive disorders such as eating disorders which we consider in our next blog.

Among this cognitive distortions is catastrophic thinking which is also distressed based. I will also blog on this at a later date. My head can still run away with itself and convince itself about something which is patently not the case. It can persuade me that this is person or that is doing this or that for these reasons. All of which on reflection are usually nonsense. For me this is like a type of delusion. It is a part of my condition that my head can trick me into believing a whole range of ideas that are delusional. Sometimes I realise this only weeks and months later.

And some people wonder why we turn our lives over to a power greater than ourselves!!?

All this distorted thinking is distressed based.

Which means there is chronically excessive stress chemicals like glucocorticoids being synthesized and whirling around one’s brain. If you give some one enough glucocorticoid there is a good chance they will end up in psychosis. In the 1950s glucocorticoids were used as an anti depressant until people started ending up in psychosis.

Ultimately when we engage in this negatively biased and distorted thinking we have potentially taken the first steps in a walk to relapse because that will eventually seem a whole lot better idea than psychosis?

These cognitive distortions (and there are many)  may even be at the heart of this condition of addictive behaviour.

They are also the consequence of an impaired ability to process emotions (and to avoid) them and thus regulate them. This leads to a tendency to fight or flight which only leads to an heightening of this anxiety, and an increased proliferation of distressing thoughts about future possiblilities, all of which can seem to become more and more catastrophic. How much these thoughts are specifically linked to trauma has to be further explored by research.

For me IU and thought action fusion, especially in early recovery caused as many problems as so-called defects of character. The only difficulty is that they are not mentioned in AA literature, or the Big Book. That does not mean that they do not exist simply because they were not discussed as psychological manifestations commonly known to alcoholics in the 1930s.

They are however known now, which is why I write this blog. To add to our sum of knowledge about this strange illness…

That is not to say having a reassuring sponsor and taking inventory cannot deal with these issues. It is useful however to be aware of them and to realise that not every one in recovery has suffered traumatic incidents. Those who have can have additional requirements in terms of recovery.

I always found it comforting to have a sponsor in the early days who was there and who could also relate to the trauma side of my alcoholism and addiction. It helped soothe me when I could not self soothe. Helped me realise I was not alone in this, that I could recover like this other trauma sufferer could. We can do stuff we can’t do alone.

Ultimately with such an impaired ability to see things reasonably and to make decisions rationally it is imperative to evoke a cardinal recovery rule for me, Accept, Let Go and Let God.

The most profound way to regulated emotions. To Let it Be.

I also used a thing I borrowed and rephrased from Jeffey Schwartz, a leading expert on OCD, how suggested OCD sufferers when in the grip of some obsession to say to themselves “It’s not me it’s my OCD”.

So if your head gets into a downward spiral over some event your head distorts into being and likely to happen in the dark, threatening, Gothic never never world of the future, say to your self “It’s not me it’s my illness.”

In the UK it is called the fanatic in the attic.

It does the thinking for you, if you allow it. Guaranteed.

 

References

Fizollahi, S., Abolghasemi, A., & Babazadeh, A. THE ROLE OF EMOTION REGULATION, DISSOCIATIVE EXPERIENCES AND INTOLERANCE OF UNCERTAINTY IN THE PREDICTION OF CRAVING BELIEFS IN DRUG ABUSERS WITH TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCE.