We have problems; everybody has problems. But for we alcoholics issues that keep recurring present a double jeopardy. Yes, problems cause non-alcoholics the same distress and discomfort as we experience, but for us that distress also leads us back towards drinking: distress and unhappiness are major drinking triggers. We often bring this distress on ourselves unwittingly by dwelling on the past. This brings back guilt, shame, anger, fear and resentment but that pain is entirely manufactured by ourselves within our own minds.
We can prevent hurting ourselves like this by either not thinking about these past issues, or by changing how they impact us, and this post and the post following are about that. If we can bring to acceptance these issues from our past then we can re-visit them without incurring suffering. Accepting issues that we can’t change is a major way we can improve how we feel about ourselves. We can stop our past from hurting us… and the relief we get from that is enormous.
Before looking at how to accept things (coming in the following post) it is important to first understand why it matters so much to our recovery that we do.
“Drinking is fun”, “drinking is good”, “a drink will make me feel better” are carved into our minds in the biggest font size there is. They are memories that have been reinforced every time we experienced that “aaaahhhhh!” from the first sip of alcohol. That immediate wave of ease and comfort that sweeps through us is not caused by alcohol, but by a naturally produced brain chemical called dopamine. The dopamine is released as a reward for securing alcohol and it gives us an immediate sense of ease and well-being. But it also has a very important second effect: it stimulates remembering the specific detail that drinking alcohol was an experience that was pleasurable and should be done again. That memory “drinking is good” is further reinforced every time we get that dopamine rush from taking the first drink. Over time this memory becomes so dominant that the very first suggestion the brain gives us whenever we need relief from any distress or unhappiness is that having a drink will make it better. As far as we are aware this isn’t even a lie: it is the truth according to the memories that we have. What is missing in us is the other side of the coin. We don’t identify all the down-sides of a drinking as being in any way significant. Normal drinkers have both the pro’s and con’s of drinking in equal measure, but we don’t. We only have the ideas that drinking is good; the down-sides command far, far less significance. This is why for us it always seems a good idea to drink, even when a normal drinker would decide it is not.
“A drink will make me feel better” is the brain’s first suggestion to whenever we are down or distressed. It comes immediately and powerfully. The more problems we have, and the more miserable we feel, then the more we are presented with the “solution”; that a drink will make it better. Unfortunately, our brains omit to also tell us that this is only a momentary relief, and that drinking will in fact make us more troubled and more unhappy in the longer term.
Other people will benefit from being un-burdened by distress and unhappiness, but for us it is of great importance. If we are persistently unhappy or distressed then we are just as persistently being told that having a drink will make us feel better. This corrodes our resolve to not drink. If we do nothing to change this position then we risk our resolve being depleted to the point that we relent, and we drink again. If we don’t reduce the burden of distress we are enduring then we greatly increase the likelihood that we will resume drinking.
But problems don’t go away on their own, and problems like company. These are two important facets of how the brain works.
An unresolved problem never goes away. The brain needs information to be orderly and resolved. This mechanism is primal, and intended to improve our chances of survival. For example, do you run from a snake, or do you stay still? Being undecided could be fatal. Finding solutions to unanswered questions is a core function of the brain. When an issue is unresolved then we are given a feeling of slight distress to draw our attention to it. This is done so that we concentrate on it in order to try and solve the problem. The brain uses unoccupied time to work on these problems. While we are fully engaged in something that requires our concentration, then the brain holds these problems back, but when there is processing capacity available in the brain then it brings problems to the fore and invokes a feeling of anxiety to make us concentrate on them. This is an entirely automatic process. If we have unresolved problems then they are going to keep coming back until we find a way to close them. These problems will be presented to us when we have idle-time in our brain; typically when we are alone or not specifically engrossed in something else. We dwell on the problem, and we become anxious about it.
The second feature of the brain that compounds this is the way that the brain tries to find a solution. It does this by trying to find similar experiences to see if what can be learned from one will help the other. It pulls out memories where the circumstances are similar, but it also pulls up memories where the emotion is similar. Dwelling on one guilty memory will draw into consciousness other guilty memories; problems are gregarious. If we start dwelling on one problem then we will draw in in other problems to join it.
As the problems churn in our mind they re-create the emotions associated with the event, and soon we drive ourselves into feeling both depressed and distressed; anxious, fearful, angry, frustrated … “poor me”. As we do this our mind responds with the known remedy… “a drink will make you feel better!” and a craving is triggered. Dwelling on our problems makes us feel down and distressed and it starts us thinking about the remedy, alcohol! This calls in images of drinking being fun, and we feel that we are missing out on that fun. The “fun” is an illusion, but that is nevertheless what we get. We do not get images of hangovers, our head down a toilet, saying and doing unspeakable things… no, we get told how good it is. It is these constant reminders that “drinking is good” and “drinking is fun” that corrodes resolve. We know intellectually these are lies… false memories, but it takes effort to confront the lies and our ability to do this is not infinite… it gets worn down. This is why it’s so important to close off as many issues from the past as possible:
When we dwell on old issues we are going to become depressed and distressed and this will initiate cravings. Our brain responds suggesting that a drink will make things better and we get associated images of good times and feeling good. This in turn challenges our resolve to not drink.
When we dwell on old issues we trigger drinking cravings and we deplete our resolve. All of this happens completely automatically when our brain has some spare capacity. This is why it is so important to close off as many old issues as possible. The fewer we have, then the less there is to ruminate on that will bring us down. Our burden is smaller, our mood is lighter, and our resolve is firmer.
So what problems should we try to “accept”?
The “Serenity Prayer” adopted by AA neatly determines precisely what we should try to accept, and what we should not. As the name suggests it is written as a prayer but the three ideas it presents are repeated here in a form useful to everyone, regardless of whether or not they have a helpful god-concept.
– Examine your problems and divide them into two groups
– Accept those things that can’t be changed
– Change those things that should be changed
There is simple and powerful wisdom in these ideas; they are a way of bringing calm to our lives and relief from the past as long as we divide the issues correctly. But we will get no relief by struggling to change something that is un-changeable, and we will get no relief from trying to accept something that we should change.
Identifying the problems that most trouble us is straightforward… our brains tell us exactly which they are; they are the ones that keep coming back time and time again. Jot them down as they jump in to occupy your mind. Examine them one by one to see which ones lie entirely outside of your sphere of influence; if you have no ability whatsoever to change them, then dwelling on them further only causes pointless distress. If we can remove the distress from these issues then our past will no longer haunt us and acceptance is how we do this. Once we have truly accepted an issue then when we bring it to a position where it is emotionally neutral, and if we do happen to recall it, then it no longer hurts.
All unresolved issues that trouble us need to be brought to closure. But some are harder or more reluctant to close than others… and some of these need extra work first. If we are significantly troubled by things we’ve done to other people, or we hold particularly deep anger or resentment towards someone, then we may well need to do something more to these before it becomes possible for us to accept them. The remedies for these instances are amends and forgiveness respectively. These can be difficult to achieve and a post specific to each will follow.
All other issues should be accepted, but this is easier said than done. Yes, accepting them so that they no longer bring bad emotions with them when they are recalled is a great benefit if we can do it, but how do we actually achieve this? How do we manage to accept these things that have haunted us for so long?
… Continued in “How to accept things we don’t want to”