As my recovery was strengthening I became acutely aware of the extent to which my mind was actively working against me. Even after I had summoned sufficient strength to fend off the cravings I still had to navigate my way around all the noise in my head that was trying to make me drink again. This noise wasn’t trivial; it was very real, very loud, and very persuasive, and I came to realise that my mind was actively working against my decision to not drink. A part of my brain still wanted to drink and that part kept expressing itself even though intellectually I’d decided I must not, and I couldn’t stop that chatter from coming.
Even when we have enough to beat the cravings there are still other barriers to overcome including these two: our memories, and the lies our minds create. These three components; cravings, unrepresentative memory and lies, all work together to try to make us drink again. The great illusion they come together to create is that life without alcohol isn’t worthwhile, and this piece of fiction is incredibly convincing.
The self-sabotage is the consequence of a falsely formed memory that isn’t immediately obvious but is perfectly apparent once we know how to look for it. Here is how to see it:
If, in the depth of my drinking I had been told by a Doctor that I had to stop drinking for a month through some medical necessity I would have been absolutely horrified. I wouldn’t be able to rationalise this fear in any sensible or coherent way but the fear was real, and it was powerful. There is no rhyme or reason associated with this, it is exists entirely as a feeling and this is completely at odds with the experience of a normal drinker. A normal drinker would accept this necessity without any emotional response at all, but we drinkers feel an instant and enormous dread.
The way we feel about alcohol is dramatically different to that of normal drinkers and this feeling comes from a memory that is formed extremely powerfully in us, but only superficially in them.
Every time we drank in response to a craving we got that relieving “aaahhh” wash through us. This wasn’t caused by alcohol; it happened before the alcohol had been digested and entered the bloodstream. It was caused by a release of chemical called dopamine in the brain. Dopamine was released as the “reward” part of what’s known as the reward system. The reward system recognised being in circumstances that had previously yielded alcohol and launched a craving. Then when we drank in response to that craving we were rewarded by that big dose of dopamine which we experience as an immediate sense of relaxation and well-being. But the dopamine did more than just making us feel good, it has another function in the brain… it has a crucial role in memory fixation. The brain doesn’t waste effort remembering absolutely everything we experience, it only commits significant information to long term memory, and it is the presence of dopamine that signals which information is worth keeping and which to ignore. Things that are already known about are usually ignored, but in us that process is skewed.
In us the reward system has entered a runaway state that steadily increases the importance with which it recognises alcohol, and with this increase comes the increase in the size of the reward given: that is, the amount of dopamine released is greatly increased.
Every time we drank in response to a craving we got a relieving “aaahhhh, that’s good”. We get this far, far more powerfully than normal drinkers and the dopamine release that makes us feel good also forces remembering that “this was good”. This memory is fixed far more strongly in us than in normal drinkers and this memory is further reinforced every time every time we get that sense of relief on taking a drink.
We form an incredibly deeply learned memory that “drinking is good, do it again” and this causes us a great deal of trouble, but it does so in conjunction with other memories that are equally skewed in comparison to normal drinkers. Our distorted reward system causes us to over-value the benefits of alcohol, but another feature of alcoholics makes us simultaneously under-value the drawbacks. There is enormous natural variability in people, height is an obvious example, but other characteristics are not so easily seen. “Delay-discounting” is the tendency to devalue longer-term rewards in favour of immediate rewards, and research shows that delay discounting is expressed more strongly in addicts than non-addicts. We value something now far more than we value something later. A very simple example of how this works in us is that we know when we drink a lot we will get a hangover… but this has virtually no impact on whether or not we will have another drink. This is because the penalty for drinking is in the distance (time-wise) in comparison to the benefit of drinking now… and in us the outcome now is far more persuasive than the outcome later. Yes, we know absolutely that we will get a hangover if we have another drink, but this knowledge carries very little weight indeed; its significance is so small that it rarely even reaches our conscious awareness. The balance of memory supports the benefit of having a drink now far, far above the detriment that might follow. Our memory is grossly incorrect when it comes to alcohol; it is overwhelmingly biased towards remembering drinking as a good thing and memories that portray drinking as bad are given very low significance. This prevents us ever thinking that we should stop drinking once we have started and it is also the information source of our self-sabotaging thoughts.
As we start to accept that our drinking is problematic we are confronted by two completely contradictory ideas: that drinking is a good thing, and that drinking is a bad thing. Initially it is a “slam-dunk”… continued drinking wins. But as the severity of the consequences of continued drinking increase then the “drinking is bad” arguments gain weight. Bad things happen that are undeniable consequences of drinking. The number of bad things mounts, the severity of bad things mounts and the bad things happen more frequently than they used to. A rational person would recognise all of these problems, asses the merits and demerits of the position, and reach the clear conclusion that their drinking has become bad and they should dramatically change it; but we do not reach this conclusion because in us the benefits of drinking are weighted far more heavily than the disadvantages. However, there comes a point that we are unable to simply dismiss all the bad things that our drinking brings but there is also a HUGE barrier to accepting them, and that barrier is what our memory tells us. Our biased memory fights the conclusion that drinking is bad because our dominant memory tells us that it is good… but there is a very real problem with the “drinking is good” memory, and that is that it lacks facts.
All the evidence that drinking is bad is linked to event’s, occasions that something bad happened, and these memories have linked places, people, things that happened and so on. But our “drinking is good” memory lacks information; it comes only as the memory of a feeling. The “drinking is good” memory is the memory of that feeling of ease and comfort we got when we took a drink, and that is the extent of the memory… there is no associated time, place, incident etc. That memory is deeply impressed by the dopamine surge that accompanied it, but that is still all it is; the memory of a feeling.
“Drinking is good” exists only as a feeling, but it is so deeply known that it is by far the most powerful memory. But this lack of related information causes issues when the idea is challenged because the brain requires information to be orderly. Clarity of decision making is a survival advantage and the brain actively works to resolve conflicting ideas by bringing them to our attention and making us think about them. In Psychology the distress caused by simultaneously holding two conflicting ideas is called “cognitive dissonance” but we are more likely to recognise this discomfort as “worry”. Worrying is the way the brain tries to resolve conflicting information and it is the process of worrying that creates the self-sabotaging ideas.
The two ideas in conflict, “drinking is good:” and “drinking is bad” are brought to mind for resolution when the brain has spare capacity. The argument “drinking is good” immediately wins because that memory is so powerfully known that it is irrefutable. But the contrary information can’t be dismissed either so what the brain first tries to do is to minimise, justify, or negate it. If the negative outcome was the consequence of a reasonable action then that’s acceptable, so this gives rise to a whole line of “I drank because…” justifications. I drank because I was stressed, I drank because someone upset me, I drank because my life is difficult and so on. These are the brains justifications for actions which are otherwise unacceptable. I was never, ever, without a reason to drink; I always drank for a seemingly plausible reason. But all of these were actually justifications my mind manufactured to make my drinking acceptable. While they were all apparently plausible none of them was true. I didn’t drink because my life was difficult; I drank because my reward system was in a runaway state with regard to alcohol that demanded I drink. I did not drink because there was an occasion that made it necessary.
Once we stop drinking the same justifying mental processes continue, but the dissonance shifts to a slightly different pair of statements. It becomes “I want a drink” (because drinking is good) vs “I don’t want a drink” (because drinking is bad) and my brain has precisely the same problem with this conflict; the absence of facts supporting the conviction that drinking is good. And once more our brain manufactures the rationale to support having a drink. Even though we each face this challenge uniquely, and what happens occurs entirely unseen inside our own minds, the justifications our minds produce are remarkably consistent. Here are some of the most common ones;
- “Just one won’t hurt”
- “You’ve done well, you deserve a drink”
- “Maybe you weren’t that bad”
- “No-one will know”
- “You can probably control it now”
Each of these pieces of self-sabotage is generated in response to our brain demanding that we drink. While we may have made a decision to stop drinking this does not prevent the reward system from continuing to demand that we do, and our brain rationalises these conflicting demands based on the supporting information available. The deeply learned idea that drinking is good is the more powerful memory but it lacks factual evidence, so our minds find explanations that appear to resolve the conflict. But the lack of factual evidence isn’t the only flaw in the “drinking is good” memory, there is another, and that is that it is not true: the memory is real in that it exists, but it is not true.
When I first drank it was liberating, fun and wild. That continued, and I partied hard for the years that followed, but by the time I was in my mid-twenties my drinking had become automatic and the reality of it was actually no longer fun; it had simply become a part of what I did. As my brain adapted to heavy and regular drinking then fun slid away from drinking completely; I no longer found joy and excitement in drink, I only felt relief. But the memory “drinking is good” was still being reinforced by the dopamine rush I got on taking that first drink even though the following experience was actually no longer good at all… bad things would follow.
The most deeply imprinted memory we have is false; it was true once, but that was a long time ago. However, that memory kept being chemically reinforced while I continued drinking, and even though my drinking experience ended up being entirely miserable the memory that it was good continued to be reinforced. It appeared completely real and convincing. This false memory was the cause of all the self-sabotaging noise in my head, but if the memory was false, then so were the justifications! This means that none of the ideas my mind manufactured to make me drink again were valid, but that doesn’t stop them being persuasive… that memory is false, but it is completely real. It is incredibly difficult to simply dismiss the self-ambushing thoughts as incorrect because our experience is based on our memory, and our memory insists that it is true. But there is another way to look at this that does make it possible to dismiss them, and that is to recognise them as a symptom of our condition.
Normal drinkers do not get these self-sabotaging ideas. They do not get them because they have a balanced memory when it comes to drinking. I only have these self-sabotaging ideas because I have a problem with alcohol; my mind is distorted in respect to alcohol. So when I get these ideas, instead of chasing them around in my head and debating them, I can use them to defeat themselves. When I get for example “no-one will know” then this is direct evidence that I have a problem, because normal drinkers do not have these thoughts. My problem is that alcohol has corrupted my mental processes and self-sabotaging thoughts are symptoms of that.
Self-sabotaging ideas are spurred into existence by the extreme “drinking is good” memory, and this distorted memory isn’t present in normal drinkers; their memory with regard to alcohol is unbiased. While self-sabotaging ideas apparently challenge the idea that we should stop drinking their very existence proves that we must because if we didn’t have a problem then we wouldn’t have them. So instead of dissuading us from stopping drinking the existence of these ideas actually proves to us that we must.