Making Progress: Exorcizing the Demon

The Exorcist

October is scary movie season for me. While watching The Exorcist a couple of weeks ago, it struck me how far we have come in the treatment of mental illness. The movie was made in 1973, and having the possessed girl talk to a psychiatrist was the absolute last resort. Psychiatrists were seen as kooks. The preferred treatment option, before talk therapy, was to drill into her skull and remove part of her brain.


I guess that is less an example of how far we have come, and more evidence of how recently we have been completely ass-backwards as it relates to mental health.


Of course, The Exorcist is a fictional movie about demonic possession, and no amount of talk therapy was going to help Linda Blair’s character, but you get my point. Mental health treatment was a lot like, “Ready, fire, aim,” for a very long time.


Our collective historical management of the biggest mental health crisis of them all – addiction to alcohol – would also make a compelling horror movie plot. Since the publication of The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939, we have treated alcoholism as a spiritual deficiency. I wonder if Linda Blair is available to star in the movie version.


We have since learned that addiction is a neurological disease that results from the hijacking of brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. We have also learned the trauma (often childhood trauma) and a lack of self-esteem are extremely common underlying drivers of addiction. In addition, we now understand that the list of dopamine-jolt-giving substances and activities to which we can become addicted is quite literally endless. But since alcohol has one of the greatest propensities to make us act like lying assholes, alcoholism earns the spotlight.


The point is, we are making progress. Lobotomies seem pretty rare these days, the stigma associated with talking to a professional about that which haunts us is almost gone, and people who write books about the correlation between dopamine and addiction are best sellers (see this summer’s release Dopamine Nation as an example). Are we actually starting to understand?


Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded in 1980 with ambitious and admirable goals. They succeeded in reducing drunk driving incidents and saving lives. But the message, just 41 years ago, missed the mark. They encouraged people to take a cab, walk, or call a friend when impaired by alcohol consumption.


Go ahead and drink to excess. Get plastered. Make an ass of yourself, destroy relationships, sleep with people you wouldn’t have a conversation with sober, vomit all over yourself, waste money, violate both your self-standards and municipal codes about public decency…but just don’t drive a car. All of that other shit will make for a good joke between you and your friends in the morning.


Even as I criticize MADD for missing the point, I acknowledge that the founder, Candice Lightner, was smart enough not to bite off more than the organization could chew (a lesson I have still yet to learn). She knew she couldn’t stop people from drinking, so she made it her life’s mission to take the car keys out of their drunk hands. She succeeded, and I applaud her.


This is another example of progress. Driving drunk used to be on the list of acceptable intoxicated indiscretions alongside sleeping with a coworker or passing out at the dinner table. Collateral damage. Undesired, but excusable. Now, drunk driving is considered a shameful act of weakness and negligence (no matter how good you think you are at it in the drunken moment).


Overindulging and ignoring your family, however, is still acceptable and widely practiced, yet rarely spoken, behavior.


We are making progress. A few years ago, there were a half dozen nonalcoholic beers on the market. Now, the NA beer category is so saturated that it would take months or years to sample them all. We are moving forward.


Watching our culture change away from the centuries old practice of using alcohol to celebrate, mourn, entertain, stress relieve and everything in between feels a lot like watching the Colorado River cut the Grand Canyon a little deeper.


And watching TV commercials featuring a bunch of twenty-somethings pulling cans of Coors Light from their bathrobe pockets to wash down leftover pizza while watching Sunday football is a stark reminder of how far we have yet to go. Nursing a hangover while eating whatever was left on the coffee table when they passed out last night is still a scene so admirable that Big Beverage is willing to pay millions of dollars to convince you that you are hip and cool if you relate.


I can’t relate. Not anymore.


I’m proud to be a leader in the soberevolution. Right now roughly 70% of Americans drink alcohol on a regular basis. I want to see that number under 50% in my lifetime. I want to bask in the glory of the sober majority.


I’m not sober because I have to be. Actually, that is the reason I got sober. It was undeniably time, and I entered sobriety kicking and screaming. But I stay sober because I want to be.


Desire will be a huge factor in the sober majority.


It isn’t enough to want to not feel bad. We’ve got to want to feel good to get over the hump of permanent sobriety.


Try to wipe clean all that you know about our society’s long and illustrious history with alcohol. Without preconceived notions, consider this: Do you consider drinking poison until you blackout, regurgitating all over yourself, and spending the night with your face pressed against the cold tile under an often-missed toilet rim to be occasionally acceptable behavior?


If so, maybe you should consider a lobotomy.


If you’d prefer to keep your brain intact, but recognize the need to stop poisoning it with alcohol, we hope you’ll join us in SHOUT Sobriety.

SHOUT Sobriety

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