Editor’s note: Over the past 40 years it’s become obvious to me that world peace and paradise will have to be all-inclusive. It can’t come about until we can raise even the most lost and hopeless of human beings into a state of happiness and dignity. Among the most hopeless are “nonfunctioning” alcoholics… so they are the focus of this article. The text includes a lot of colored, underlined links to other websites with interesting information that you’re welcome to explore!
Normally, emotional satisfaction comes largely from achievements, leisure, and relationships in society. That’s what being “human” is really all about: being happy among other people… especially close friends and loved ones.
Alcohol undermines that basic sense of humanity to a greater or lesser degree… affecting different people differently.
Casual drinkers can have a glass of wine with dinner or a cocktail after a long work day to relax… with little harmful effect on their emotional lives, jobs, and relationships.
Heavy drinkers, or “binge” drinkers, can party late into the night and wake up the next morning with a head that’s aching and muddled, but clear enough to get through the day. They may be emotionally dull for a day or two, but work and relationships soon get back to normal until the next binge.
Functioning alcoholics lead a double life… holding down a job or career… achieving goals… keeping relationships together… despite heavy drinking. Life, with all of its work responsibilities and family obligations, feels like a dull, tedious chore whose only reward is getting drunk. The thought of giving up alcohol feels like a death sentence.
Nonfunctioning alcoholics can’t hold down a job or keep a marriage together and they alienate friends. They may get into fights, wreck cars, interfere with other people’s lives, pass out on the floor. As “easy targets,” they lose everything over time, and through it all, they’re unaware of their situation. They think they’re doing okay in life and it’s the people around them who have the problems. They’re ostracized by society, eventually becoming homeless, indigent, derelict… being stigmatized as beggars and stumblebums. Only about ¼ of 1 percent (0.25%) of the general population are nonfunctioning alcoholics.
This article is about that miserable minority… the guys (and gals) who walk crooked paths, sway while standing, wreak of alcohol, and often reach the point in life where they are seen by day in public places, maybe sprawled on a lawn or passed out on a park bench… and by night wandering aimlessly along city streets. They all live in numbed misery… and most of them either die in misery or “hit rock bottom” and recover into a new life in an endless commitment to abstain from alcohol.
In my early years I looked at alcoholism as a life choice. I had little empathy for “bums”…. Get a life, get a job, for godsake. Do something productive!
Today I know that telling these people to get lives and jobs and to be productive is as glib as telling someone dying of bone cancer to have a nice day.
In recent years I’ve done some research… attending open AA meetings… reading personal accounts by recovering alcoholics… perusing papers and articles from professional organizations… and I’ve become thoroughly convinced:
Alcoholism isn’t a choice; it’s a disease. A life-long, deadly disease.
First, some statistics: If your parents and/or grandparents are alcoholics, there’s a greater likelihood that you are too. The consensus among the professionals is that alcohol abuse in human affairs is about half genetically determined and half environmental (peer pressure, stressful life style, unhappy family life, accessibility to alcohol….). It’s the genetic predisposition that seems closer to the core of the disease of alcoholism. A quarter of the world population have what the media have dubbed “the alcohol gene,” but only a fifth of them (5 percent of all people) contract the disease… and of those chronic alcoholics, 95 percent can hold a job and function normally in society. It’s just 5 percent of chronic alcoholics—0.25 percent of the general population—who become nonfunctioning alcoholics… indigents… the homeless… the forgotten shadow people.
How did they get there?
Many alcoholics tell a similar story, which goes something like this:
I was quiet and shy as a kid. I always felt out of place at school, even at home. Then I had my first drink, and bam!… I was in paradise. I guzzled it like water. Quiet and shy became outgoing and fun-seeking… then wild and crazy… until I blacked out. At long last I felt really alive. Alcohol instantly became the love of my life, and nothing… no one… would ever change that. But over the years things changed, and I hardly noticed it happening. “A few beers” became a quart of vodka… always guzzled. Blackouts happened more often. I’d wake up in a ditch, half frozen, on a cold autumn morning, with no idea how I got there. I began to think less and less about the friends who’d abandoned me years ago. Even my family had gotten fed up at some point and made it clear: “You’re not welcome here until you clean yourself up.” (I learned later that that was the most difficult thing they ever had to say… but they had to protect themselves from getting pulled down with me.) The memories were like bad dreams… and I began having a lot of those. Finally my life seemed completely hopeless, and suicidal thoughts that had crept into my mind for years became more persistent. Then came that inevitable breaking point, when I knew I had a choice… to live or to die. In desperation I attended my first AA meeting, started working the 12-Step program, and I’ve been slowly, steadily finding my way back. I knew others like me who hadn’t been so lucky… who’d made the other choice. There but for the grace of God….
Not long after having their first drink, often in high school, nonfunctional alcoholics might begin to exhibit symptoms reminiscent of the symptoms of mental illness… and they are often treated for mental illness instead of alcoholism:
- Poor concentration and lack of sleep (depression)
- Hallucinations (psychotic break)
- Voices in the head, social withdrawal, lack of emotions (schizophrenia)
- Mood swings, irritability, and low self-esteem (bipolar disorder)
- Fear of being in public (social anxiety disorder)
- Violent behavior, violating rules (antisocial personality disorder)
Alcohol and the Brain
Knowing how alcohol affects the brain can help us understand what kind of drinkers we are.
First of all, the brain is fueled exclusively by sugar… glucose. Simply put, alcohol molecules are similar enough to glucose molecules to be accepted by brain cells as fuel… but the alcohol causes the neurons to misfire and breaks down the brain’s defenses.
Alcohol also interferes with the brains biochemistry by…
- … increasing the brain’s pleasure hormone (dopamine), making us feel good;
- … increasing the brain’s natural inhibitor (GABA), causing us to stumble and slur; and
- … reducing the brain’s natural stimulant (glutamate), giving us slow reactions and confused thoughts.
When we drink, if we only feel the pleasure of #1 and don’t notice our stumbling, slurring, and muddled thinking (#2 and #3), good chance we’re an alcoholic. Alcoholics feel normal while stumbling, slurring, and spouting crazy thoughts when they drink. They seem to be more attuned to their dopamine than to their GABA and glutamate.
On the other hand, if we’re out drinking and we get to the point of noticing the warning signs of items #2 and #3 more strongly than #1 (pleasure), chances are we’re not an alcoholic. When drinking becomes unpleasant, we know we’ve had enough. If that’s the case, we can probably be a casual drinker or even a binge drinker with few long-term side-effects. We seem to be more attuned to our GABA and glutamate than to our dopamine.
Alcohol, Dopamine, and Adrenaline
Dopamine, adrenaline, and other hormones seem to be a key factor in alcoholism. Some nonfunctioning alcoholics may not drink every day, but when they do, their goals and talents and dreams get swept away… and they get pulled into repetitive activities that stimulate dopamine and adrenaline—eating sweets, playing video games, watching action movies and porn, being argumentative, picking fights….
It’s not how often they drink or how much they drink that identify nonfunctioning alcoholics, it’s what happens when they drink. Many of them crave hormonal stimulation. They may go for days without drinking, but the dopamine behavior continues as “dry drunk” behavior. After two or three weeks of sobriety, their life goals and talents may begin to resurface. They may start writing a book or composing a song or looking for work or fostering a relationship that’s been simmering in the back of their minds… but once they take the next drink, it’s all swept away. The hormones kick back in.*
Unless the genetic causes of alcoholism are someday fully understood and neutralized, alcoholics will never be cured of their disease. Alcoholics are embroiled in a life-long, codependent love affair with alcohol. The last thing in the world they want to do is to give it up. Their only hope is the path of recovery—some sort of program that gives them the strength to overcome alcohol’s constant pull… the strength to stay sober.
Many medical doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists have “thrown in the towel” when it comes to treating alcoholism, since the disease often doesn’t respond well to physical or mental treatments.
The only effective, time-proven program ever devised is Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). It’s helped millions of alcoholics to lead sober lives.
Why? Because AA is a spiritual program. The 12 steps of AA gradually pierce through the mind-body illusion into the core of the human being… the spirit. It helps people to purge a lifetime of emotional wounds and to surrender to a power greater than themselves. That’s the crux of human spirituality: accepting life on Earth as an illusion, coming to terms with our savage side, fostering a connection with what is real and all-powerful, and turning our life over to that power.*
Long-time recovering alcoholics joke about the various programs they tried before AA, which include…
- The beer program (drink nothing but beer with its lower alcohol content)…
- The weekend program (drink only on weekends)…
- The move program (when your life falls apart, move).
Nothing worked until they got immersed in AA… and it’s not just the alcoholics themselves who benefitted from 12-Step Programs.
People with an alcoholic in the family know the torment that affects alcoholics and everyone close to them. They often get involved in the Al-Anon program (which spun out of AA), where they work the 12 steps and learn a great deal about themselves… and they begin to find peace of mind… often by making one of the most important and most difficult decisions of their lives—detaching with love from the alcoholic.
Having researched and studied the 12-step program of AA and Al-Anon in recent years, I’m convinced that it is not just an effective way to overcome the ravages of alcoholism, but a highly advanced path for spiritual pursuit. Whether you’re an alcoholic (or addict) or love an alcoholic (or addict)… whether you’re Christian or Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish of agnostic… finding your way into a 12-step program (of which there are many) will be a giant step toward genuine spiritual growth and understanding while living here on Earth. And through it all, your religious or nonreligious convictions will only grow stronger.
Explaining how that works in this short article would be impossible… but if ever you are blessed to immerse yourself in the 12-step program and give it a chance to work, it will all become clear.
*The hormone-driven behavior patterns of nonfunctioning alcoholics that I describe—the sweeping-away of dreams and goals by an obsession with adrenaline- and dopamine-stimulating behaviors—haven’t been clinically documented, as far as I know; they’re just my observations of various people I’ve encountered over the years.
*For some recovering alcoholics and addicts, the 12-step program alone isn’t enough. They also need a one-on-one therapist who knows and embraces the 12-step approach, and acts as a comprehensive, personal support system for the client.
Other posts on health and well-being:
Spiritual Growth: Embrace the divine; it’s where we shine - Go to the light - Healing and the human spirit - Love and good will… but what about trust? - The carnal line between noble and savage - An apology can lift the spirit