Stopping drinking is simple… all that’s required is that we don’t drink! But simple is not the same as easy. Stopping drinking is extremely difficult, and the reason that it is so difficult to stop drinking is that our entrapment is underpinned by mental processes that happen entirely automatically; we don’t choose them to happen, we can’t turn them off, and we can’t ignore them… none of these is within our power. It is only the rational parts of our brain that want us to stop drinking, the rest still want us to drink. Our problem is not actually with alcohol, but with our own minds. This is a fundamental piece of knowledge. The problem isn’t alcohol, the problem is my brain… and my brain is me. As much as I want to be sober at an intellectual level my brain opposes me, and it does so in four main ways:
The cravings and emotions, memories and lies that support drinking all come uninvited, and they are completely real and convincing. The compulsion to drink comes as a package of feelings and supporting ideas. To fight these I have only intellect and willpower, and that is not a fair fight. While I can fight information with other information I have no means of turning off the feelings (cravings and emotions), I only have willpower to try to resist them. It is not a fair fight. Automatic processes in my brain are evolved for the express purpose of compelling me to act in a certain ways, and in me these processes have attached themselves aggressively to acquiring alcohol. The compelling force, the craving, is extraordinarily powerful as it is the same force that makes us act in certain ways to survive. The force that compels us to drink is the same force that drives us to struggle free if trapped underwater. The cravings and emotions are without end, they keep coming as long as we are conscious, but willpower is finite. Fighting off the cravings, low emotions and misinformation is exhausting and resolve can become depleted. This is why I need to bring in outside help: I need others to maintain and lift my resolve and I need reassurance that my continued effort is worthwhile.
If I am to overcome the compelling forces, feelings and misinformation, then I need to muster all resources available to me to try and level the playing field. This series of posts is about preparing for and engaging in the fight to stop drinking and central to this effort is the crucial understanding that every single challenge I face along this path is created by me, within my own mind. I didn’t drink because I got angry with people or was frustrated by them. I didn’t drink because my life was difficult. I didn’t drink because I was anxious or depressed. I thought all of these were reasons why I drank, but actually I drank because I was compelled to by my condition… alcoholism. Most of my problems were worsened my drinking not improved by them. I had it all back to front. I am the problem: not other people, not what others have done to me, not the rest of the world, not my circumstances, not where I live, and not what I do or don’t have…. but me. I am the problem and I create all the justifications for why I should continue drinking inside my own brain. My fight is not against the bottle but with myself.
The challenges lie on four distinct fronts; cravings, emotions, memories and lies.
Cravings come entirely as feelings. They have no form, or sound, or words; they are a deep and powerful demand that we drink and they are wordless. These feelings come from a part of our minds that is old in evolutionary terms. “The reward system” developed long before self-aware, problem-solving humans walked the earth, and as such the feeling of a craving precedes anything else. But the cravings don’t come unaccompanied… they are quickly followed by ideas.
Our memory is searched for information supporting the feeling, and it finds it very quickly… “drinking is good” and “drinking is fun” are the overwhelming memories. They are false, but they are real and very deeply learned… we know these things more confidently than almost anything else. These false memories also support another set of triggers to drink and those are our emotions.
Regular drinking over an extended period causes us to become alcohol-tolerant, and several changes occur in our brain that cause us significant discomfort when we are sober. These are; lowered mood, anxiety, edginess and lack of social confidence. All of these are relieved by drinking; drinking un-does all the effects of alcohol-tolerance. Once we are alcohol-tolerant then drinking will briefly relieve our unhappiness, anxiety, edginess and loneliness… and our brain recognises this. So in addition to “drinking is good” and “drinking is fun” we also get “a drink will make you feel better”. What is different about “a drink will make you feel better” is that it is completely true; it will. A drink improves our position in the short term, but worsens it in the long term as it makes our alcohol-tolerance more pronounced along with all the changes that come with it. A drink may make us feel better now, but we will be even more depressed, anxious, fearful, jumpy and socially insecure when we next sober up.
The last force opposing us is the lies that come. As human brains evolved they developed self-awareness and problem-solving thinking. One of the requirements of problem-solving is organised information and our brain actively works to make information orderly. Unresolved, unsatisfactory or contradictory information is brought to mind to be thought on further and clarified… and that is the purpose behind worrying; unsolved problems keep being brought back mind for us to think on them further to find resolution. When we decide to stop drinking we throw two ideas into direct conflict. On one side we have the incredibly strongly formed memory that drinking is good, and on the other side we have the reality of our position; that drinking is bad. Our minds move to resolve this conflict, but the overwhelming weight of evidence in our memory is that drinking is good, so our minds produce reasons why we should drink in order to prove this point and resolve the conflict; our minds actively lie to us.
All of the things driving me to drink are generated within my own mind… every single one. I am the problem. Other people do not make me drink, neither do events around me: I do it. I make the cravings, I make the emotions, I believe the memories and I create the lies; nobody else… me. Just as all the demands that I drink are made in my own brain so are all the reasons I should carry on drinking, or start again if I’ve stopped. Nobody else does this; I do. All of this is fabricated inside my own head. But not only are all the objections and barriers to stopping drinking created by me, I am also the only solution. There is no medical remedy for alcoholism; the only remedy lies in what I do for myself. Ultimately the only person that will lift that drink to my lips is me, and I am also the only one that can prevent it.
Understanding the breadth of problem is enormously instructive; it allows me to separate issues created by my addiction from issues arising out of my daily life. When I can do this then I know which thoughts and feelings to fight or reject as false, and which to accept as real. Understanding the problem allows me to make my efforts effective rather than pursuing all the misdirects and falsehoods that alcoholism presents. There is no medication that will cure my problem. The problem is the way that my brain is working so the solution lies in changing the way I think, and this is perfectly possible. Just as the brain learns to work in certain ways it can learn new ways… and this is the actual challenge… to re-train my own brain.
Here is a way of visualizing how a learned response or behaviour works in our brain. Imagine a field full of tall corn. On one side is an entrance gate, and on the far side are two exit gates. There is a beaten path through the field to one of the gates on the far side. So the quickest way through the field is to take the beaten pathway. If I want to get to the other gate I have to push through the corn and find my way towards it. It is harder and much slower to get there and I might not even find the gate I want at all. The beaten path is the quick way to cross the field, but if I forge a new route and then persist in always using it, then over time my new path will become increasingly straighter and wider and faster. Given persistence my new path through the field becomes quicker than the old one, as the old one will start to grow over, and it becomes the easy way to cross the field. But it only takes a few trips down the old path to fully open it up again and make it the quicker route once more.
This is how neural pathways through the nerve cells of our brain work. They will always prefer to take the quickest route, but with some effort and persistence a new route can be established that eventually becomes the quickest route, and the old one becomes disused. But it only takes a couple of passes down the old route to re-invigorate it to its former speed.
The corn field metaphor is a useful illustration of our challenge in re-training our brain. When we decide we must stop drinking then we aim to exit the field through the other gate, not the one we’ve been using up to now. Even though the existing route across the field is far easier we must persist in order to make the new route more attractive to the brain than the old one. Until we do then the old route remains the more attractive one to our brain. It is hard to keep using the newer and slower mental pathways, and re-traversing the old route very quickly makes it a fast and direct path once again. If we are to successfully stop drinking then we need persevere with not drinking, not matter how much our brain encourages otherwise, until the new pathways are faster than the old ones.
The process of changing how our minds work is not easy and it is not fast. We can do some things that get immediate returns, but most take time before our effort starts to show results. As long as we can gather the presence of mind to do so we can directly challenge the lies that our minds produce and the false evidence coming from our memories. But cravings and emotions are beyond our immediate influence; they come from parts of the brain that we have no direct control over. We can’t directly see what’s happening in these parts, so we also can’t directly see any changes we are making. That doesn’t mean that our efforts aren’t achieving results, only that we can’t directly see those results, but once we know how to look for them then we can detect them.
Re-training our minds requires us to discourage the thoughts and behaviour that aren’t what is wanted and praise the ones that are. This is how we would train an animal, or teach a child, and it is precisely what we need to do to ourselves. When we do this consistently then the unwanted mental pathways fall into disuse and newer ones become the quickest routes through our brains. To do this we need to know what it is we need to encourage, and what it is we must discourage. We need to be able to divide what’s happening in our heads into thoughts that occur due to our addiction, and thoughts arising out of everyday life. With a little fore-knowledge and practice we can recognise when the call to drink is coming from cravings, we can recognise false memories from real, and we can distinguish the lies from truth. I found it useful to target the corrections by naming the part of my brain it was directed at. I didn’t want to change my whole brain, only the parts that weren’t behaving the way I wanted, so I gave it a name. I called the problem parts of my brain (my alcoholism if you like) Eric. There was no reason for this name, it was utterly random, but many people name their addiction; wolfie, wine-witch, gorilla, monkey and so on, and it helps. It gives us a point on which we can focus our determination and it lets our brain know which parts we are admonishing and which parts we are not.
The weapons I have to fight my addiction are my own intellect and willpower but these are unimpressive in comparison to those of my addiction: cravings, emotions, false memories and lies. The key to successfully overcoming alcoholism lies in using the limited weapons I have to their maximum possible advantage, and this is most effectively achieved though understanding, planning and preparation. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan, and a plan backed by action becomes a reality. So the path forward is:- Decide – Plan – Do
Building a plan that keeps me focused on what matters, and reminding me of what to expect will help me maximize the return from my effort. But beyond that I also I need a deep commitment to actually stopping drinking… otherwise failure is assured. The path ahead is hard and anyone who says it isn’t doesn’t understand the problem. Without a deep commitment to stopping drinking the effort will yield nothing… millions of years of evolution will see to that. Any doubt that stopping drinking is completely necessary is guaranteed to be our undoing; it will completely sabotage our effort. So the very first part of any serious attempt to stop drinking is to secure that commitment to stop; it is the foundation on which all recovery is built.