the first step

Nothing is 100% black or white in addiction but the evidence in the research on one thing is very clear; people that maintain regular contact with a recovery group of one form or another are FAR more likely to achieve lasting sobriety than those that don’t. That’s one line of evidence. Another is what I noticed from recovery meetings; that people who stopped going picked up again. I not only saw this many times for myself it was also one of the messages that was constantly repeated… “Keep coming back”. That advice is well founded.

Several things combine to make relapse more likely if we try to get sober on our own. As we chalk up more and more sober days then our resolve drops. This isn’t very well covered in the literature but is due to something that I call “distance from despair”. The technical term for this is ‘Fading Affect Bias’ or FAB. This is the psychological phenomenon in which memories associated with negative emotions are forgotten more quickly than those associated with positive emotions. When we first set out to get sober we are usually driven to do so by desperation; our lives have become so appalling that something simply MUST change. This gives us the special boost of strength often called “the gift of desperation” that allows us to put down the bottle. But there’s a real problem with this… it doesn’t last. The gift of desperation only gives us that extra boost while we are desperate, but once we stop drinking then that desperation fades. Over time our hopelessness falls away as does our fear, anxiety and depression. This also means that the urgency of our cause fades and with that our resolve drops. This happens while the challenge is still quite severe. We can be still experiencing cravings big enough to be troublesome and this drop in resolve also allows all the lies churning in our head more space to do their damage. “Maybe you weren’t that bad”, “You’ve beaten this, you can probably control it now” and so on all further break down our resolve once we stop pushing them away. The fundamental problem is that our resolve to stay alcohol-free drops away faster than problem drops in intensity if we don’t do things that keep our resolve in good shape.

Another way to look at this is that we are fundamentally unlikely to succeed… the deck is stacked against us. The problem is 100% in our own minds. Alcohol itself has no power over us whatsoever; everything that makes us want to drink is manufactured inside our own heads, and it is generated entirely automatically. All the urges to drink, all the mood changes, the memory bias towards drinking being a good thing rather than a bad thing and all the misleading lies telling us why drinking again would be a good idea… all of this is manufactured inside our own minds. Not only is this all created internally it is all done entirely spontaneously, without our permission and in spite of our deliberate decision that this is NOT what we want to do. But this doesn’t just come as unbidden ideas it is also accompanied by dopamine, and dopamine in this context has the express purpose of directing our behaviour. Our brain is actively working against us. It does this entirely automatically and this self-sabotage is completely effortless on our part. On the other side the will to fight this off is limited by our resolve which is finite; fighting off the calls to drink can be exhausting and this effort depletes our resolve. Our resolve is finite but the forces acting to make us drink again are unlimited AND they have that chemical dopamine doing the very that it is evolved for… to drive the very behaviour that we so urgently don’t want. So even our ‘best game’ does not actually level the playing field and that is why the “gift of desperation” is a game-changer: it gives us abnormally elevated resolve that is superior to the challenge.

So what does all of this show?… that our ability to win through is determined by maintaining our resolve at the abnormally high level we have while boosted by the “gift of desperation” and THIS is why other people are so important. There are three pillars on which our determination is built… that it is necessary to stop drinking, that it is possible, and that it is worthwhile. Our mind will constantly challenge these three ideas in any way it can and this wears down our resolve. However, we can do something simple that tops that resolve back up again… we can stay in conversation with people that have achieved it. This simple thing confirms that our course of action is necessary, possible and worthwhile. We get tips from them on how to maintain our progress but far more importantly they top-up our will to do so.

We need external support to beat this in the long-term because our own resources will almost certainly prove to be insufficient. We can’t do this alone because in the long-run our own resources will be overcome if we don’t have some way to keep them replenished, and we get that replenishment from other people. The research shows that it doesn’t seem to matter where this external input comes from as long as we get it. So staying connected online can be just as effective in this respect as belonging to an in-person group. There is that saying in AA: “keep coming back”. But it doesn’t matter WHERE we keep going back to to top up our resolve. What matters is that we do so.