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June 15, 2019

Alcoholism is a Disease: Let’s Treat it with Science, not just Willpower & Meetings.

 

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I did the math. If I’m lucky enough to live to be 90 years old, I will take over 750 million breaths in my life, and my heart will beat over three billion times.

My body will digest food when I eat, attack bacteria and viruses when they enter my system, and I will blink to keep my eyes moist millions of times and all without me even knowing that it’s happening, except for the occasional moment of introspection, such as this.

And my story will be repeated billions of times over my life span without conscious, active participation by the people with whom I share the earth with.

All of these impressive and life-sustaining involuntary actions keep us trodding along despite our best efforts to thwart through poor diet, lack of exercise, unnecessary risk-taking, inadequate sleep, and excessive stress.

Two things are true about our survival in spite of ourselves: Our bodies are uber-powerful, powerful enough to keep our little lifeboats afloat no matter how much we churn the waters. And, all this incredible life-giving force is exerted at a subconscious level and is based on patterns and rhythms grooved permanently into our brains.

So, why does it surprise us when we can’t muster enough willpower to easily break addiction?

Why are we so arrogant as to think that we can just walk away from a substance that our brains have associated with survival for years or decades?

We aren’t in charge of our heart rate. We don’t control our breathing or eye blinking. So, why do we think we are any kind of match for the power of our subconscious minds?

I am an alcoholic, and on every one of the half dozen or so times I’ve tried unsuccessfully to quit drinking, here’s how the failed effort played out: I drank too much and caused some measure of turmoil in my life resulting in debilitating anxiety and depression. I woke in the morning and sat in my bathroom with my sweaty, pounding head in my hands, and worked feverishly to muster the commitment to never, ever drink again. I was weak, but I was resolved. I was ashamed, but I was determined.

But here’s the problem and the reason my decision to quit drinking was meaningless: it was never my decision to make.

I never thought to invite my subconscious brain to my little Monday morning bathroom meetings, not that I would have had any clue where to send the invitation, though anyway. When the decision-maker isn’t in the room, the strategy is worthless.

I wasted a lot of time beating myself up for my weakness and lack of willpower. I now understand that my self-flogging was about as useful as blaming myself for the Great Depression or the sinking of the Titanic.

I now understand the link between alcoholism and hypoglycemia. I know about neurotransmitter hijacking and depletion through alcohol abuse, and I’ve learned about transference of our brains’ reactions to alcohol to our reactions to sugar.

If our brains learn a behavior and associate it with survival, that’s something that can’t be unlearned. Patterns can change over time and new strategies for survival can be adopted, but the idea that we are going to give an order to the thing that is going to remind our heart to beat three billion times is absurd. It’s like screaming into the wind if the wind is a hurricane and we are mute.

Do you want to know what’s so frustrating about the inept way we fight addiction as a society? Save a few scientists and a handful of recovery warriors, no one knows this stuff.

It is the equivalent of fighting cancer with prayers and offers to buy the victims a cup of coffee. Alcoholism is more deadly and more pervasive than cancer, so why doesn’t the disease of addiction receive the same research dollars and experimental treatments as cancer? Why are we convinced that a long list of apologies and a pledge to not extend our strategy beyond a single day is the way to defeat a poison that attacks our brains, livers, hearts, skin, and all of our other vital organs. Since alcohol is a leading cause of cancer, I bet the cancer scientists would be relieved if we actually spent some money trying to defeat alcoholism.

The rising cost of healthcare and covering all of our citizens is a heavily debated topic in the United States. The massive barrier to health care for all is the gargantuan associated cost. Consider this: the cost associated with excessive drinking in this nation is over a quarter of a trillion dollars. That’s trillion with a “t.” It is literally an unimaginable sum of money, and that money reallocated would surely make providing health care for all Americans more reasonable.

I’m not suggesting prohibition or any other legislative option. Been there, done that.

What I am suggesting is education for abusive drinkers, “normal drinkers,” and non-drinkers alike:

>> Let’s take some of what we’ve learned in the last decade or so about neuroscience and share it with the masses, so we can stop viewing addiction as a character flaw and destigmatize the affliction.

>> Let’s stop treating alcohol like a harmless right of adulthood and start educating our young people about the most statistically dangerous drug they will ever face—largely because it will be in their face every day of their lives; in marketing campaigns, at social events, and features prominently as a staple of the American success story.

>> Let’s put the science into our treatment programs so that people understand how nutrition affects their attempt at recovery, instead of telling them to eat ice cream to mitigate cravings—thus ensuring that the sugar-fueled craving comes roaring back the next day.

I believe cancer will be cured in my lifetime. We are maybe a handful of breakthroughs away from celebrating that miracle. But we don’t even necessarily need a scientific breakthrough to defeat alcoholism. The brain chemistry research has already uncovered enough to design treatment based on the modern science of addiction rather than a book written 80 years ago.

I have good news and bad news for anyone trying to get sober.

The good news is, your success has nothing to do with mental fortitude or willpower. So, you can stop flailing yourself for failing to control the uncontrollable. Every time you feel your heartbeat or take a breath, be thankful for the awesome strength of your subconscious and stop trying to defeat it with your puny powers of determination.

The bad news is, the treatment you need isn’t as easy to get as it should be. And a huge factor in the challenge you face is the misinformation about alcohol and alcoholism recovery you have been fed your whole life. You don’t have a spiritual problem, you have (mostly reversible) brain damage. It’s not a problem at all, it’s a disease.

I beat my alcoholism, and it was the hardest thing I’ll likely ever do. The treatment I needed wasn’t centralized in one place as the solution to a medical challenge should be. So I scraped and I clawed and I researched and I learned my way sober. You bet your ass I prayed a lot along the way, too, but I think God wanted me to educate my way out of my jam and share what I learned with others.

So that’s what I am doing.

I wrote an ebook (see link below) about all of my experiences in the first year of alcoholism recovery, and I’m giving it away for free because I don’t think we should have to pay for our freedom. I hope you’ll download it and read it if you want to know what worked for me.

A major requirement to winning any battle is to avoid getting caught in your own cross fire. Let’s stop fighting pointlessly against our own brains, and hope we make it to our three billionth heartbeat and beyond.

The solution to this epidemic is out there. Let’s just stop looking for it in church basements.

 

~

For more, check out my free ebook: Guide to Early Sobriety

author: Matthew Salis

Image: Cristian May / Flickr

Image: walkthetalkshow / Instagram

Editor: Julie Balsiger

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Mark Anderson Jun 26, 2019 8:40pm

I, like many it looks like, have taken offense to your comment “Let’s just stop looking for it in church basements.” That is where we found the freedom to our disease, that is what has worked for us. Not only will I continue to look for it in church basements I’ll continue to share it in church basements.
AND, I appreciate your passion for the work you’ve done. All the experiences and writing you’ve done have obviously given you the ability to see your disease in a way that helps you deal with it. There is no substitute for and I hope you keep doing the work that makes you heal and continue to have MORE freedom the the ties that bind you.
Please encourage others to search for healing and share with them what’s worked for you when asked. The power that we offer someone suffering from this disease is hope. Hope that they do not need to live in the disease and there is another way to live. Not your way or my way, it’s their way as they learn to live it. We share our experience as a guide to others cuz its worked for us. We are experts on our own path not anyone else’s. Encourage, help, share, guide and love with the knowledge they are on their path with their own Higher Power.

catpelkey Jun 18, 2019 4:53pm

HI Matt, thanks for another great article. I’ve read all the responses and see that many people support your efforts to include new information, brain chemistry for one, in recovery whether they’re in AA or not. Some do not support it. I was sober in AA for 5 years, many years ago, and it ultimately didn’t work for me. I couldn’t relate to the meetings, but I’m so glad for the people who can! I have been relapsing for the past month after 2 months happy, sober and reading your articles, ebook and many other books on the topic of alcoholism. So I have this disease, like all of you reading this, and now I have 24 hours sober. If you are an alcoholic do you remember those first sober 24 hours? Do you remember how awful you felt? So sick, disappointed in yourself, embarrassed by things you did or said yesterday (if you didn’t have a blackout and can remember yesterday)? You feel shaky and, if you feel real bad, you’re thinking about having a hair of the dog (or maybe the whole dog, depending on the extent of your hangover)! But I’m not taking that drink today and I got rid of my cravings because I read your Guide to Early Sobriety for the 5th time. Yep, 5 times. Until a month ago each time I got cravings I reread the book and the cravings disappeared. A month ago I chose to drink instead. I’m so grateful that you wrote that book, Matt, because I know it’s something I can always depend on to quickly help me out.

Erin O'Connell Jun 18, 2019 10:44am

Thank you for this article! I can’t wait to read the ebook, and I subscribed to your blog. AA has not been right for me. I’ve been white-knuckling my sobriety for 74 days now, surviving on sheer willpower and the occasional testimonial from the “one year, no beer” Facebook page. I have had a problem with alcohol since college. I quit long enough to carry children and raise them for a few years, but the last two decades of my life have been riddles with the addiction. I used it mostly as a way to numb myself to the stress of life; being a single parent, teaching, and trying to manage by myself. There was another great article on EJ recently on empaths and alcohol, and I know that’s another connection I have.

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Matthew Salis

Matt Salis lives in Denver, Colorado, with his wife and their four kids. He is a writer, a speaker, a high school soccer coach, an addiction survivor, and an enlightenment explorer (sounds more exciting than an alcoholic in recovery). Matt loves to listen, fight the stigma, get people all wound-up, and be moved to tears. You can read about his alcoholism pre and post sobriety on his blog, and if you are interested in learning about how he navigated early sobriety, check out his free program called SHOUT Sobriety.