"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -that our lives had become unmanageable."
I'd like to share a little bit about what I learned and experienced while working the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous. You'd think this step would come easily to anyone who has suffered enough to end up in AA but that wasn't the case for me. I was certain that I could control my drinking eventually. I believed that by healing my emotional wounds and developing my spirituality I would no longer have the desire to drink too much too often. I envisioned a life in which I would be satisfied to share a bottle of wine with an old friend or have a couple of beers at a BBQ without experiencing the desperate craving for more. I thought there was an opportunity for special occasion drinks without the daily obsession.
I used to think AA's first step made many of us sicker than we truly were -it told us we were powerless and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Oh sure, there were the really hopeless types who didn't stand a chance without complete abstinence but those of us who hadn't hit rock bottom and had the will and intelligence could, if we wanted, learn to drink responsibly. For the most part I considered alcoholism a mental illness -not a physical disease. Certainly a person could become physically addicted to alcohol if used to excess but I wasn't someone who would suffer from tremors, hallucinations or seizures if I didn't drink -that only happened to real alcoholics. I thought the physical component of alcoholism didn't apply to me.
The Disease of Alcoholism
Today many of my attitudes about alcoholism have changed. There may be no blood test or gene marker to diagnose alcoholism but I have come to understand that there are physiological differences and genetic factors contributing to the disease. Children of alcoholics adopted into tea-toddling homes still show an increased incidence of addiction. Research also shows that alcoholics (and children of alcoholics with no drinking experience) metabolize alcohol differently than the general population. Their livers change alcohol into acetaldehyde at twice the normal rate, while the subsequent conversion of acetaldehyde into acetate is abnormally slow. The build up of acetaldehyde combines with neurotransmitters to create opiate-like substances called THIQs which create feelings of euphoria while at the same time causing the brain to stop/slow down the production of its own natural neurotransmitters. This process creates the intense cravings that alcoholics experience when they have a drink. Over time it can also lead to clinical depression.
So, I've learned that there is some science behind this disease concept and it has nothing to do with emotional or spiritual health. Don't get me wrong, I do believe that emotional and spiritual illness play a big part in addiction -otherwise the 12 step program of AA wouldn't be effective. I've simply come to accept that there is a physical component to powerlessness as well. I now understand that I don't need to drink to excess before I am physically addicted to alcohol -my body metabolizes alcohol in such a way that I develop the phenomenon of craving with the very first drink. That is another thing I've come to understand -the difference between craving, obsession and compulsion.
Craving, Obsession and Compulsion are Not the Same!
Obsession refers to my preoccupation with alcohol. I used to waste a lot of time and energy trying to control my drinking. I'd plan to drink only a certain amount at a time or only a few nights each week. I thought about how alcohol was ruining me and yet the next drink couldn't come soon enough. Thoughts of alcohol -the regret and the longing -consumed me. Those equal, but opposite desires -to drink and to be sober -are common to the alcoholic mind.
Compulsion was the irresistible impulse I experienced when confronted with an opportunity to drink. Despite all my sincere promises to quit drinking I wouldn't be able to conjure a single reason not to get drunk. I'd go on auto-pilot and be drinking before I even considered what was happening.
Craving is my body begging for more when I've had a drink. Once those first few drinks are in my system I will find a way to drink more come hell or high water. It doesn't matter if it means leaving early, paying double, walking for miles, lying, stealing, manipulating, begging or borrowing -I will find a way to continue drinking once I've started.
AA seeks to treat the obsession and stop the compulsion but it can never take away the craving -that's the physical part of the disease. The good news is that I can avoid cravings as long as I learn to deal with the obsessions and compulsions.
It's a Complicated Thing
I think the hardest thing for alcoholics and non-alcoholics to understand about this disease is that it is not always predictable. Even alcoholics can go through dry periods when they don't drink too much or at all -especially early on in the disease. This pattern is similar to many relapsing-remitting disorders such as multiple sclerosis or fibromyalgia. Similarly, some alcoholics never progress beyond a certain level of dysfunction while others drink themselves to death at a young age. It is absolutely not true that all alcoholics will end up hopeless, homeless drunks if their disease isn't treated; some will remain quite functional. Again, this is not unlike many other diseases such as arthritis or heart disease. Progression, none-the-less, is the usual outcome.
Alcoholics vs Hard Drinkers
To further complicate matters some people who drink quite a lot aren't necessarily alcoholics. Hard drinkers may binge and/or drink frequently but they don't suffer the preoccupation, compulsion and cravings that alcoholics do. Hard drinkers will cut down or quit drinking completely if their drinking starts to have negative consequences.
An Unmanageable Life
Unlike hard drinkers, alcoholics usually continue to drink as their life falls apart around them. They may promise to cut down or quit but they often break their promises. This is part of the unmanageability of alcoholism. However, I want to point out that despite popular belief, step one is not a two part step. A lot of people misquote the first step as saying, "we admitted we were powerless over alcohol and our lives had become unmanageable" but the step actually reads, "we admitted we were powerless over alcohol -that our lives had become unmanageable." The unmanageability step one is referring to is the powerlessness over alcohol. It is true that many alcoholics suffer in their relationships, finances and careers but some do remain quite functional. You do not have to lose your job, family, etc. to claim an unmanageble life. Powerlessness over alcohol is the unmanageability. If you can't control when or how much you drink then you are no longer the manager of your life -the booze is.
The Alcoholic Mind
It's absolute torture wanting to do something you don't want to do. I want to get drunk and I never want to drink again. I'm of two minds. This is common alcoholic thinking and I've begun to recognize it as such. When I'm angry, restless, irritable, discontented or bored my alcoholic mind says, "a drink would help" but the truth is that getting drunk would be a short-term solution to a long-term problem. My alcoholic mind also says, "this time it's going to be different -I won't let it get out of control" but my rational mind knows better.
"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." (AA Big Book -Chapter 3)
I've finally come to the conclusion that I am an alcoholic and I don't want to try controlling my drinking any more. That way of life was utterly unsatisfying and left me feeling ashamed, remorseful and lonely. I was wasting my gifts and destroying my health in exchange for fleeting moments of intoxicated contentedness. There is no good reason to live as a slave to addiction. True contentedness doesn't come in a bottle but alcohol lies to me. It tells me I will be happier, more fulfilled and sociable if only I would control my drinking. The reality is, if I think about it honestly, I can never imagine a day when I will be able to have a glass of wine or two without wanting another bottle or two. Above all else that conviction reminds me that I am an alcoholic.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I think it's important for me to explore the reasons I drank so much. It's not enough to say, "I drink because I'm an alcoholic." The physical aspect of the disease kept me drinking once I had started but it was the spiritual/mental/emotional part of the illness that led me to the bottle in the first place. There is an underlying restlessness and dis-ease that permeates my entire state of being. A quiet but ever present anxiety and loneliness gnaws at me. When I drank all of my angst melted away. I felt connected to myself, my God and other people. My chattering mind was silenced and I became capable of living in the present moment. In many ways getting drunk can be a spiritual experience. This experience isn't guaranteed though. Sometimes I drank myself sober without achieving the solace I was seeking. Other times I threw myself a pity party and became overly emotional, or I'd become aggressive and destructive. You can't predict what will come to the surface when you have poisoned yourself with alcohol. Lowered inhibitions, loose morals and poor judgement accompany the euphoria and I was more likely to wake up the next day with a sense of remorse than relief.
Getting sober isn't a problem for most alcoholics. Unless they are utterly polluted with booze they don't need to enter a detox program to get sober. Many alcoholics get up and go to work five days a week without a drink in their system. The challenge is staying sober. Some people seem to be able to quit drinking through sheer willpower. Most 12-steppers don't like to hear this but it's true. Not every alcoholic needs therapy, AA or a spiritual conversion to change their path. Sometimes the negative consequences of drinking are enough motivation to keep an alcoholic sober. However, I'm not one of these people. History has shown me that I am somewhat lacking in the willpower department and need more intervention. I want to treat the underlying spiritual illness so that I can live a richer, fuller life. AA's principles are a roadmap for recovery that just make sense. The 12 steps may not be the only way to stay sober -but they are a damned good one!