Alcoholism is a disease that officially kills around twenty people a day in the UK. But the official figures don’t tell the full story.
They don’t account for alcohol-related heart disease, strokes, suicides and many other proximate causes of death. Death certificates don’t record these as alcohol deaths, though effectively they are.
My brother, for example, died two years ago from “problems arising from septicaemia”. But the actual reason he died was that he drank, and heavily, against doctor’s orders while on antibiotics, thus negating their healing effects. He was a very high-functioning alcoholic lawyer in Hong Kong, highly successful on the outside, but emotionally stifled and fearful on the inside.
Nor do the official figures take into account deaths from falls, driving and other alcohol-related accidents.
And that’s before we get onto drugs, prescription and illegal. So it wouldn’t be a wild estimate to say that in the next 24 hours at least fifty people and maybe many more will die from addiction in London alone. An invisible war zone.
(And all this, of course, is before we take into account the misery alcoholism causes both to the alcoholic and those close to them, until the often blessed release of death).
A renewed sobriety
So why has it taken me so long to stop again, even after ten years of sobriety when I saw all the benefits of it?
Alcoholism is a disease of utter genius; the only disease I know of that tells you that you don’t have it – denial. (Or, in my case, it told me I was cured, another form of denial).
It is a disease of perception then. My perception about my ability to drink alcohol was wrong, it was an illusion.
In tandem with that, alcoholism is a disease of separation.
Once the perception malfunctions, the ego slowly cuts off the alcoholic from other people and from reality itself. It has to, because other people and reality tell the alcoholic the truth, that he is wrong. So the ego must separate him from reality and from other people.
It is this separation that then accounts for the alcoholic’s illusion that they are ‘special’, among other illusions they possess. And many alcoholics are special, just as many normal drinkers are, though not in the way they think.
Treating alcoholism with alcohol
Confusingly, alcohol is initially used by alcoholics to treat alcoholism.
It is the only way they can get away from themselves, their misperceptions, their deep fears, their restless, irritable and confused discontent with life. But these selves are their egos which aren’t capable of handling life well emotionally; they are not their True Selves which can handle anything.
Normal drinkers take a drink to rest, relax, repair.
That’s why alcoholics drank too, at the beginning. But sooner or later, after a few drinks, over time alcoholic behaviour develops. And then in drink, the world immediately seems a better place, a place in which they are more at ease, a place they can feel part of.
They feel that they gain in ‘power’, they perceive rightly or wrongly that they are loved, liked, wanted, needed. The world is suddenly a fantastic place.
In drink, they feel they are the centre of attention, at the centre of the world itself, which is what their egos tell them. Some are charismatic which attracts others, the many good people who actually do love and care for them, a truth they sometimes fail to see.
Others still, however, sick people like the alcoholic, with their own compulsive needs, ‘care’ for them only for their own ends, while exalting their own perceptions of themselves (their egos) through appearing and actually believing that they care.
Alcoholism is a disease that is extremely self-centred because it is obsessive.
The most important thing to an alcoholic in the grip of drinking becomes alcohol. And the self-endowed prestige of an alcoholic, their self-regard and self-confidence
They are all about the ego, while self-esteem is about the True Self.
They drink because they misperceive they are not good enough as they are, and the more and longer they drink that perception, of course, becomes self-fulfilling because an alcoholic is finally nothing, let alone not enough. It is the ego that tells them they’re not enough and then the ego that proves it.
Alcohol becomes like an abusive parent or schoolteacher, both the source and the comforter of pain. And they become as addicted to beating themselves up after a binge as they are to getting into that state in the first place. What a cycle.
Alcoholism is a disease of More, to beat back fear, real or imagined, to fill their ever-widening emotional hole (or God-shaped hole, as the Franciscan Richard Rohr more correctly calls it) and the ever-widening break in reality between who they really are and who their egos tell them they are. But for an untreated alcoholic More can never be enough.
There can never be enough of anything; booze, love, sex, success, money, power, prestige, possessions… – which of these depends on the needs of a particular alcoholic.
With me, it was mainly booze and, from perceptions of abandonment, the need for love, as well as from past trauma and the abiding shame of childhood abuse – all things that fuelled my alcoholism.
There can never be enough for an alcoholic without recovery, that’s the central point. “One drink is too many”, as the AA book says, “a thousand not enough”.
And, finally, when alcoholics are in the grip of alcohol, they drink because they physically crave it. It possesses them, overwhelms them and consumes them. It is everything, all there is.
It becomes their lord and master, their god, it is the only thing in existence they must have, no matter what the consequences are to themselves or others. And they no longer know even what they’re doing. All judgement is lost. (For an alcoholic in the grip, just knowing he can have a drink in ten minutes when the shop opens brings enormous relief).
And it’s for this reason that, in order to recover from alcoholism, an alcoholic must not just stop drinking but must also change. In effect, they have ‘made’ alcohol their god (‘choose’ would be the wrong word). But while still fighting this reality to the gates of hell, they refuse absolutely to admit they are powerless over alcohol – that they have handed their power to alcohol, that alcohol is, in fact, their god.
They misperceive that it is they who are in control of alcohol, until they sincerely take Step One and admit defeat whole-heartedly and, with complete humility accept that they are powerless over it.
So they’ve already ‘allowed’ one god into their lives to rule them. You would think, then, that it shouldn’t really be too difficult for alcoholics to admit there might be another, better god that can conquer the god of alcohol, and to find that god. If only it were that easy. But it’s not.
For alcoholics are too afraid, arrogant-in-their-fear or too scornful to give up the ‘power’ they erroneously believe they still have. They entirely misperceive that they are in control, failing to see that they’ve given up their power to alcohol already. That is their great illusion.
And so, in order to save themselves, alcoholics must change their perception.
Fear is at the root of so much in alcoholism; fear of reality, which is fear of the Now, and fear of the future, while they constantly regret their bad actions in the past. Living in the moment is difficult. They can do that when they’re drinking but even then it’s false.
Active alcoholics live almost permanently in fight or flight mode. This often means they are in almost permanent trauma that may come from the deep past, as in my case. And trauma brings with it
It has long been thought that alcoholism is a genetic predisposition for alcohol. It has been established, for example, that alcoholics process alcohol in the liver and pancreas at between one-third and one-tenth the speed of non-alcoholics. And it is the acetate in alcohol that creates
In my case, it is probably closer to one-third than one-tenth, explaining my ability to drink for long periods of time before disaster strikes. But disaster always eventually and inevitably strikes.
It is now thought, however, that it is trauma that is inherited and the subsequent shame that trauma induces.
My maternal grandfather, for example, had PTSD from the First World War. He became an alcoholic and died from it at the age of forty-six. My brother was also an alcoholic and also died from it, at the age of sixty-two.
But in both
My grandfather was ejected from the family home several years after the First World War because, as an active alcoholic, he was seen to be a danger to my mother when she was a child.
So the epigenetic thesis is that my mother ‘inherited’ that trauma, in addition to having her own trauma from my grandfather’s behaviour, as an active alcoholic, towards her and my grandmother. And then I inherited both his and her trauma, as well as other, added trauma from my father’s background. And
Like shame, which is acknowledged to be ‘carried’ down epigenetically, it now seems that trauma can be inherited and, like a snowball rolling down the generations, it increases in size with the addition of further trauma.
The six most scary words in the language to an alcoholic are “I don’t know” and “Please help me”. Their unchecked egos cannot take either.
A poor man
A Chinese fable is most instructive. An old man, poor and decrepit, lives in a village with one son and a broken-down horse. One day the horse runs away. The neighbours come round and say How Terrible, How Terrible.
The old man replies, “I don’t know”. But of course, it’s terrible, they say, you’ve lost your only horse! But the old man repeats, “I don’t know”.
The neighbours go away irritated that the old man can’t see how terrible it is.
A few days later, the horse comes back bringing thirty wild horses with it.
The neighbours come round again and say How Fantastic, How Fantastic. But the old man says, “I don’t know”.
But of course, it’s fantastic, they say. “I don’t know”, is all the old man says and they retreat in irritation again. A while later, the old man’s son breaks his leg and can’t work their plot of land.
Furious now, the neighbours leave. Some days later, the Chinese army arrives and conscripts all the young men for war, except the old man’s son whose leg is broken.
The neighbours are round again saying How Fantastic, How Fantastic. But the old man just repeats, to their exasperation
Active alcoholics crave knowing what’s going to happen and fear not knowing.
They are like the Chinese neighbours, all highs and lows, extremes. They project into the future with no evidence.
For them, defensive assumptions about people, things and the future are facts. And they try to escape the past, though it fills them with resentment against their own behaviour and the behaviour they perceive in others, and they fear the future.
They cannot be in the present for long periods, they cannot be without foreboding and regret.
Little to do with alcohol
Confusingly again, alcoholism has little to do with alcohol.
That’s just what kills them.
Alcoholism cannot, of course, be addressed without a person being completely abstinent from alcohol and all other mind-altering substances.
The actual wreckage caused by an alcoholic is caused by alcohol, sure, but getting smashed is a symptom of the disease of alcoholism, not the disease itself.
There’s nothing wrong with alcohol except to an alcoholic who uses it in a vain and foolish attempt to escape his or her alcoholism.
So being just a symptom of the disease and not the disease itself, putting down the drink is only the beginning. It is putting down the symptom.
The core issue is not just about being abstinent, it is about fundamental change, about being what is called in AA ’emotionally sober’ – about treating their underlying restless, irritable discontent, about reconfiguring their inability to handle their emotions like other people, about their perception that their thoughts and the feelings arising from their thoughts are who they are.
Recovery is about undergoing a vital psychic change.
The active alcoholic ego leads alcoholics to think they’re the centre of the world, though their True Self knows this not to be true.
They thus become victims, filled with anger, sentimentality and self-pity.
“You don’t know what it’s like!” “You don’t understand!” But how could a normal drinker understand?
Their misperceptions overwhelm reality.
A friend of mine told another friend about 35 years ago, “He’s the best writer I know who hasn’t written anything”. That was all I needed! I didn’t have to risk failure by actually writing, something my rampant though fragile ego, unchecked by my True Self, couldn’t possibly tolerate.
Another friend said to me once, “If I could go to a party and just know that all the women want to have sex with me, I’d be quite happy to go home alone”. A true addict. But, of course, for an alcoholic/addict, it’s the one woman/man/job/success/ pile of money/possession/ prestige/power that they can’t have that is all that matters.
So what is a psychic change? Or, as AA calls it, a ‘spiritual experience’?
Before AA existed, a man called Roland Hazard, who was the heir to Firestone, was dying of drink. He visited every top alcohol doctor and psychiatrist in the US, all of whom pronounced him incurable.
At the end of the year, Jung said he was ready to go out in the world. A few days later Hazard was drop-dead drunk in Paris.
In terror, he returned at once to Jung. But Jung told him there was nothing more he could do for him, or that any human power could do.
(At the end of his life, Jung said that only a vital psychic change could treat an alcoholic/addict, but that he couldn’t say this until his death was imminent because he would have been laughed out of his profession. A doctor in the US in the 1930s, who’d worked in alcohol clinics for 30 years said the same thing, but also only at the end of his life because he too feared being laughed out of his profession).
Hazard somehow got the message, however, that no human power could save him, particularly his own. And he had a ’spiritual experience’ – or psychic change.
He passed on the message to another man who in turn passed it on to the founder of AA – and so on.
Today there are over two million recovering or recovered alcoholics and counting.
A few alcoholics can stop drinking without a psychic change. We call them dry drunks and we observe that they have all the signs; restless, irritable discontent. They cannot take criticism, they bristle and bridle, they are self-righteous, arrogant, fearful and resentful – and they are miserable.
I personally would rather die of drink than be like that. They are not useful role models in any AA room. (An alcoholic can, of course,
A Spiritual experience
Actually recovering from alcoholism requires a ‘spiritual experience’ or ‘psychic change’. That is what Jung and the doctor came to know and what was eventually proved by the founders of AA and those who came after them.
A spiritual experience is not necessarily some dramatic burning bush incident (though it can be and is, of course, just what alcoholics would like – that specialness, that uniqueness). It’s more often a slow process, ‘educational’ as Thomas Merton described it.
It is firstly a full concession to their powerlessness over alcohol and the unmanageability of their lives, and
A sponsor once suggested to a sponsee that he use a chair as a higher power.
Why? the man asked. Because it’s less foolish than you are, was the reply.
But this type of example doesn’t last long, in my opinion. Toothbrushes, chairs and trees don’t last. They are like a foundation built on sand. So other alcoholics like myself find something in the eternal, the infinite, the unimaginable (that can have no image); a Creative Intelligence, perhaps, or god as in Everything, or The Source, or a religious God, or Universal Consciousness, or the Great Spirit as the native Americans call it…
Alcohol was once everything in the life of an alcoholic who was in the grip, but with complete surrender it became nothing.
Whatever higher power an alcoholic chooses, it must be everything. Like God, it is either everything or it is nothing.
For me, this power is something that personally captures the utter mystery a man might have felt a million years ago when he looked up at night at the cosmos; awe, wonder, amazement and a firm, sixth sense knowledge that I am a part of it, just a part.
In other words, it is the spirit, a sacred connection that I’ve always felt. “Like knows Like, God knows God, Goodness knows Goodness”. It is a recognition, then, of something I’ve always felt. And of something, I believe, that most of us have felt. But in my case and, I suggest,~~~~~~ case it was ignored, avoided and then crushed by alcoholism.
For me, it is the Spirit in me that knows and wants the Great Spirit. For spiritual cognition is really this recognition. Once felt, there is a yearning for that connection, abused, suppressed and denied though it has been.
(It is not unlike the alcoholic’s recognition of the solution to their drinking at their first meeting. They may ignore it for years, but the yearning for that connection and that solution never goes away, no matter how suppressed it is. And if they’re lucky, they come back to it).
It is this, the soul’s or spirit’s connection to literally everything, that I feel and have always felt in my True Self. And given that alcoholism is a disease of separation, such connection is vital, it is the vital psychic change. It is not just life-saving, but life-affirming. In my case, I just call this power ‘faith’.
I don’t need to know what it is. Faith, as in the path and the destination. Faith that contains both surrender and the subsuming of my will to that faith. It is knowing that, whatever happens, that is the right thing to happen. It is everything that is not my ego. And it is to
Of course, alcoholics are not all exactly the same.
“Make me a channel for thy peace…”, as the St. Francis prayer begins. What that means is a channel outwards, a channel that freely gives that peace to other people, not a channel inwards which is just an expression of Mine and of More.
The Spirit is already there, but it needs that channel to be cleared of defects in order to flow freely to others. In AA’s case, this is in the help one alcoholic can give to another. But in all of
Alcoholics are different from each other, yes, but they are exactly the same in terms of the final, deadly effects of their untreated alcoholism.
In my case, I’m what they call in America a ‘periodic’ alcoholic, which is no less of an alcoholic but one who has been able to drink from time to time for fairly long periods before meeting the same, inevitable outcomes; a terrible, obliterating and life-threatening binge.
The habit of prolonged drinking without immediate consequences only softened and deepened my illusion that I could drink, and so delayed my recovery.
In ten years of sobriety, and even in the times of abstinence or apparently normal drinking, there have been periods of deep congruity with my True Self, when I behave as I really am, but only for that to be smashed by the inevitable build-up of alcoholic behaviour and then the consequences of drinking. That is why I can never drink, because it will always, eventually, end in the same way.
AA is a spiritual program. It does not, as you sometimes hear in AA meetings, have a spiritual aspect. In all the twelve steps, only in Step One is alcohol even mentioned – the acceptance of alcohol’s total control over the alcoholic. The rest
A surrender to something greater than herself and which makes sense to ~~~~~– in other words, a god of her own understanding – is what she needs to replace the god she didn’t choose, alcohol, which nevertheless rules her life, even though she refuses to, or cannot in her delusion, see that. It is a straight choice; spiritus contra Spiritum or Spiritus contra spiritum – alcohol against the Spirit or the Spirit against alcohol.
On religion, the founders of AA were so concerned about peoples’ aversion to organised religion that they wrote a chapter titled ‘To Agnostics’ which reassures angry or fearful alcoholics that they don’t have to turn their power over to a religious God, but only to a ‘higher power’, a god of their own understanding. (One AA circuit speaker in America said that, as an agnostic, he came to realise that the whole chapter could be rewritten in just three words – Change Your Mind).
Open-mindedness is essential, along with honesty and willingness.
It’s true that many people are deeply antagonistic towards organised religion for personal reasons in their childhoods, perhaps, or because they see in some of its actions all kinds of human fallibility. But that ignores the true message.
It is like characterising AA through its members who are dry drunks, rather than characterising it through the recovered alcoholics – and then dying of drink because of this misperception.
Anyone who feels aversion to the Christian religion, for example, only has to read the 1st Century teachings of Christ to see that characterising the Church as just a band of greedy, war-mongering, power-crazed and abusive men is totally wrong, in the sense that it is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And similarly with any other organised religion. If a religious path is chosen, it is the deep message of a religion that must be found, not its human form.
Some alcoholics choose a Buddhist path. To me, Buddhism is an experiential science that is thousands of years old, not a religion, and as such it is an invaluable treasure trove for the understanding of human behaviour. All religions and Buddhism are, in fact, a treasure trove for the alcoholic.
At their source organised religions simply teach love for our fellow man and therefore to the god which is in them. “God loves everything because God is in everything”.
I have great respect for sincerely religious people without, to date, feeling the need to align myself with one religion or another. Nevertheless, when I go into a church, as I sometimes like to do, what I feel is not the autocratic authority of the church, or its misdeeds, but the surrender and devotion of the people who have prayed there, I feel their need and their hope for help in their troubles, which
~~~~~ has clearly never worked Step One properly, just as I failed to work step 1 for twenty years, even with ten years of sobriety in between. She has not surrendered, she has not in her heart admitted complete powerlessness. Maybe she doesn’t know how, maybe she thinks she has, as I did, maybe she’s just fighting in desperation or stubbornness to drink a while longer, maybe she can’t give up her god yet. Her god is so comfortably familiar, after all, and losing it is frightening, change is frightening, particularly profound change.
But if she is able to be open-minded, willing and honest, if she is able to truly admit defeat, if she can see she is not controlling her life but that it is being controlled by alcohol, and if she can see that recovery is not just a matter of life and death, but that a good, fulfilling and beautiful life awaits her, then she has an excellent chance of recovery.
The obstacles to her changing her relentlessly downhill trajectory are, I gather, that she is intelligent, beautiful, independently wealthy – in other words, all the things her ego props itself up with. But she doesn’t have to wreck any of that before she can recover.
She doesn’t have to become hideous from alcohol, or get
She can do it now.
But she needs to switch her perception. Firstly, instead of using up all her failing courage in the pursuit of drink and death, she can use it to find life, self-fulfilment and love. She can be the person she really is, her True Self.
We are all, all of us who are human, wounded. St Augustine called this wound ‘original sin’, or inherited sin, a concept that was then twisted and
If we turn away from our wounds, however, we let them fester in blame, resentment, anger, fear and shame, and our lives become rotten too. She must look her wound of alcoholism in the face with courage, accept that she is beaten, and then surrender. She must be brave and ruthlessly honest in order to let the Light in.
Many, if not most humans share many of the fundamental, root problems alcoholics have. (If I’m successful, powerful, rich, admired, have the man or woman I want, the car, the house, the job, the prestige etc. etc., I will be happy and admired). It’s all about the future…will, will, always will…Will, Will, Will.
For many years I was afraid to face honestly the AA mantra “A Day At A Time
But active alcoholics are different from most humans in one crucial respect; they are lousy at dealing with these same problems, probably for epigenetic reasons and they can’t drink. They are somehow ill-equipped and this is likely to be due to trauma and shame, followed by their physical differences in absorbing alcohol. Their subsequent fears and separation overwhelm them. Non-alcoholics can go through life in states of anxiety or worse, but because they don’t come to death’s door they don’t have an overwhelming motive to deal with those things. Some think it’s normal to be anxious and fearful. ~~~~~has a great opportunity.
To appeal to ~~~~~, it might be worth thinking about insulting her. “You don’t have the courage to get sober”. Her ego will be confused and she’ll be angry. But it might be the kick she needs. Alternatively, it might send her out drinking in a ‘Fuck You’ attitude.
It is impossible to recover if she doesn’t humble herself and surrender. Maybe her vanity can initially be used. “You can be mentally, emotionally and spiritually healthier than people who aren’t alcoholic”. She might think that’s great, the prospect of being better than everyone else. (And then she’ll find when properly sober and in recovery that being better than other people is another illusion and isn’t the point at all – it is the opposite of the point).
Like me, ~~~~~ has an allergy to alcohol. If she had an allergy to shellfish, she wouldn’t eat shellfish. That is the power of her illusion.
She can make this journey from Fear to Freedom only through humility, open-mindedness and willingness, only through resigning her will to a power greater than herself, only through clearing the blockages in the channel of the
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