Alcoholics use alcohol to escape – to hide from some disturbing piece of our lives we find unmanageable and prefer to drown rather than address. For many, it is a childhood trauma or a young adult betrayal like a molestation, assault or some other kind of abuse at the hands of a deranged relative or trusted person in a position of authority. For a while, the alcohol works well, pushing the memories deep down and rendering them impotent. But eventually, it stops working. Alcohol becomes fuel on a smoldering hurt that burns deep in our souls. Alcohol transitions from hiding our pain to making it unbearable.
That’s how it works, right? We are always looking for the underlying reason for our addiction. Sure, we drink too much, but that’s really more of an effect rather than the cause of our disease, right? There’s got to be something deeper – a secret – something we hide not just from those around us, but even from our own conscious selves.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to uncover the hidden trauma that led to my alcoholism. Was it the anguish from growing up with two loving parents that remain happily married? Was it the agony from having enough to eat, plenty of clothes and a safe, warm place to live my whole life? Maybe the misery of a younger sister that adored me and looked up to me was just too much torture. The most difficult thing I had to manage in my adolescent life was a cross-country move in high school. It was hard to leave good friends behind and be thrust midyear into a cauldron of established cliques and self-protective, judgemental sneering, but my grades didn’t suffer and I didn’t develop an eating disorder. It sucked, but sometimes life sucks. It hardly rose to the level of tormenting trauma.
I have been haunted by deep, gnawing concerns about what’s wrong with me that I became an alcoholic even though nothing was wrong. All addicts have a life-shattering event – a pivotal moment when alcohol becomes necessary to bury their tragic truths, right? Am I so weak and soft that a move in high school was enough to break me? Am I that frail and puny?
What about this? After years of pondering and feeling inadequate because my underlying trauma isn’t really traumatic at all, what if that’s not really the requirement for addiction that we all assume it to be? What if addiction to a highly addictive substance happens naturally because our bodies and brains are functioning properly? What if there’s actually nothing wrong at all – nothing wrong in my past and nothing wrong with the evolution of my drinking patterns?
If we can’t blame traumatic experience, what do we blame?
Chaotic Mind Syndrome
I’ve always had a very busy and restless brain. Other than when I’m sleeping, my mind bounces around from one thought to another. I’m always planning for the future or evaluating the past with a little slice of operating in the present mixed in. It’s why I struggle to enjoy a sunset or nap on Sunday afternoon or find peace in a moment of stillness. I’m not alone. Far from it. My wife takes pity on me because I struggle so to find relaxation, but lots of people live like this. I don’t mind, really. I’m rarely bored as long as I have myself to talk to, and my cranial energy keeps me from procrastinating or under-thinking just about anything. I’m not bragging. I wish I could quiet the chatter sometimes, but it’s not really a hindrance, either. It’s just how me and millions of others tick through our days.
But here’s where it gets complicated. When I added alcohol into my life, it was like turning up the burner on a pot of simmering water. My thoughts began to bubble and boil and steam and spit. My peacefully coexisting thoughts turning into molecules bashing into each other in an atomic reaction. I call it chaotic mind syndrome, and the frenetic pace of cranial activity was more crippling than it was energizing.
The chaos ensued not when I was actively consuming alcoholic beverages, but as a result of alcohol being a consistent part of my life. Just like alcohol-induced depression or anxiety, the pain comes as a delayed result of the alcohol ingestion. But guess what makes the pain go away temporarily. That’s right – drinking alcohol was the only thing that calmed the chaos. So I used alcohol to medicate a condition alcohol caused. Thus, my active mind contracted chaotic mind syndrome from the substance I used to treat the condition. No trauma. No abuse. Just a self-inflicted loop of chaos, relief and more chaos.
This, not childhood trauma, is one of the three reasons for my alcoholism.
The second cause of my alcoholism is the way my reward system processes alcohol. My reaction to drinking has been labeled, “opioid mimicry,” by Dr. Joan Mathews Larson. The intense euphoria I experience about two-and-a-half beers in is unmatched by anything else I’ve ever felt. On the few occasions that I’ve smoked weed, it just made me paranoid, and the one time I tried psychedelic mushrooms I hid in a bush outside a McDonald’s drive through for six hours. No euphoria there. In fact, no experience or substance has ever brought me the degree of ecstasy I receive from alcohol. A therapist friend of mine, Dave Friedentag, says everyone has their “thing” that elicits that level of pure, unmatched joy. For many, that thing might be meth or heroin. Since most of us never try those drugs, we don’t know what that level of euphoria feels like.
If your euphoric thing is a dangerous, addictive drug that you’ll never try, good for you. Consider yourself lucky. Because when alcohol hits you like it hits me – when your whole body tingles as you drink yourself into your sweet spot – avoiding alcohol for fear of dangerous consequences that no one has ever taught you about never crosses your mind.
If you can drink two gin and tonics and easily stop drinking with a feeling of satisfaction, alcohol isn’t your euphoric thing. If you think it’s about will power, try meth and see how that works out for you. Actually don’t ever try meth for any reason. I can’t let that advice hang out there no matter how obvious the sarcasm.
And that’s the second, nontraumatic reason I’m an alcoholic.
Brainwashing of the Most Complete Kind
The third reason I contracted this disease is all around us every moment of every day. It is a combination of ignorance and brainwashing, and our culture perpetuates it like no other lie in human history. Does that sound dramatic? I hope so, because the damage our societal promotion of a drug we consume voraciously yet never take the time to understand kills three million people a year globally.
The more I learn about alcohol and how it damages our bodies and brains, the more perplexing our cognitive dissonance is in relation to booze. We quickly and readily admit that alcohol abuse is damaging and deadly and tragic, but then we celebrate the glories of alcohol as the only option for cheering victory, commiserating a loss, reducing stress and alleviating boredom in the very same breath.
It turns out that I live here on earth where I’m inundated by unavoidable messaging about how incomplete our lives are without alcohol. Meanwhile, I co-inhabit this planet with people who find beer or wine to be essential necessities for every neighborly or family or professional relationship.
Cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, alcoholism kills. On the other hand, we place alcohol at the center of every occasion. At least it explains why we used to believe the earth was square and why conspiracy theorists think we faked the moon landing. We are only willing to acknowledge scientific fact as long as it doesn’t harsh our buzz.
We can’t promote the consumption of alcohol with the same urgent necessity of breathing oxygen without recognizing our societal culpability in the increasing epidemic of alcoholism. Actually, I guess we can. We humans are overachievers when it comes to compartmentalization. Just ask the alcoholics who suffered trauma during childhood.
So, I think that’s why I’m an alcoholic. I wasn’t driven to my disease by trauma. I was invited by rapture, a neurological chaos loop and every message I ever received about the majestic place alcohol holds in our society. And as a reader pointed out to me this week, I’m pissed off about it. I’m not feeling sorry for myself because I was brainwashed into following such a destructive path, I’m angry because my kids and the rest of the victims of the next generation have to fight the uphill battle against misinformation and a refusal to connect the dots as they try to avoid falling victim to addiction and mental illness.
I’m all for freedom, and I want my kids to make their own decisions regarding alcohol. But I want them to be educated and understand the life-crushing consequences. We tell our kids not to get in the van with a stranger no matter how much candy he dangles, then we ask them to ice-down the beer cooler for the neighborhood barbeque and watch all the role models dangle golden-amber euphoria in front of them all afternoon.
I hope meth’s your thing, and I hope you never try it. I hope you never find the soothing power of alcohol to alleviate your anxiety before it brings another wave of anxiety crashing into your life. And I hope you are smart enough to understand a basic cause and effect relationship before you join the three million people alcohol kills annually.
I think I know why I’m an alcoholic, and it has nothing to do with trauma. Likewise, my road to recovery has nothing to do with anonymity because my kids don’t deserve to be punished by my silence. If you want to find permanent sobriety while joining the larger solution to the epidemic of alcoholism, I invite you to join SHOUT Sobriety. This program designed to help high-functioning alcoholics and their families navigate early sobriety incorporates all the things I learned about removing alcohol from my life against all odds. My sobriety is my greatest victory, and I share what I’ve learned for free because I don’t think you should have to pay for freedom. Please check out the SHOUT Sobriety program, and enroll if you are ready. Societal change is brutally slow going, and we could use some more smart people on our side.