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 (barely)… 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 did change, and I hardly noticed it happening. “A few beers” became a quart of vodka… always guzzled. Blackouts happened more often. I’d wake up by the side of a road, 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. Common symptoms of alcoholism (and mental disorder):
- Poor concentration, lack of sleep, loss of interest, suicidal thoughts (depression)
- Hallucinations (psychotic break and delirium)
- Voices in the head, social withdrawal, lack of emotions, memory issues (schizophrenia)
- Mood swings, depression, irritability, and low self-esteem (bipolar disorder)
- Fear of being in public, fear of embarrassment (social anxiety disorder)
- Violent behavior, violating rules, lying, bullying, irresponsible work ethic (antisocial personality disorder)
- Low self-esteem, social withdrawal, relationship insecurity, feeling the outsider (borderline personality disorder)
- Aggressiveness, self-destructiveness, suicidal thoughts, depression (conduct 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 deeply personal program… some might say a “spiritual” program. The 12 steps of AA gradually pierce through the mind-body illusion into the core of the human being. It helps people to purge a lifetime of emotional wounds and to surrender to a power greater than themselves. For some people, that’s the crux of human spirituality: accepting life on Earth as an illusion, coming to terms with our savage side, fostering a conscious connection with what is real and all-powerful, and turning our life over to that power.*
Whether “spiritual” or not (depending on one’s point of view), AA has a track record of success. It works.
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 inner growth (again, what some might call “spiritual growth”) for those seeking it. 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 or agnostic (no spiritual or religious beliefs whatsoever)… finding your way into a 12-step program (of which there are many) will be a giant step toward ultimate personal growth and understanding while living here on Earth. And through it all, your religious or nonreligious convictions will only grow stronger, but in a deeply personal way.
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
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11 Responses to The Worst of the Worst: Nonfunctioning Alcoholism
This is a very valuable posting, and will change some lives! Thank you.
The links are good.
On the neurotransmitter issue, I’ll add some info: GABA is gamma amino butyric acid, and is the neurotransmitter which creates the feeling of relaxation.
Alcohol is a GABA agonist; i.e., it mimics the actions of GABA, but does not really increase GABA per se.
I use a neurotransmitter questionnaire to help determine which neurotransmitter one is dominant in, and which neurotransmitters one is deficient in. The 4 neurotransmitters examined are: 1) dopamine, which gives the brain and body power and voltage, 2) acetylcholine, which gives the brain speed, youthfulness, and memory, 3) GABA, the relaxing neurotransmitter, and 4) serotonin, which assist with balance of all pathways, being playful and light hearted, and helps with sleep cycling.
A person’s dominant neurotransmitter state is not what neurotransmitter substance one may be excessive in, but is more about the person’s mood, personality, character, memory, and physical attributes. Dopamine dominant types are power types, acetylcholine dominant types are creative, GABA dominant people are pretty relaxed and at ease, and serotonin types tend to be very playful. If one is both dominant and deficient in the same neurotransmitter, then one can veer strongly into aberrant behavior and habits to try to satisfy the perceived and real deficiency.
Cravings for chemical substances is correlated more with deficiencies in dopamine, GABA, and serotonin.
All of these neurotransmitters can be built up by appropriate precursor nutritional supplements. In the case of GABA, one can simply take it as a supplement.
For those who are GABA deficient, they will have the drive to ingest something which mimics the GABA. They will use a GABA agonist such as alcohol, marijuana, or narcotics.
GABA is made in the body from branched chain amino acids, and so good protein choices and supplements help here.
I agree with your opening statement–that our entire human culture must awaken to our divine nature. Martin Luther King once said words to the effect that, “I cannot be the best that I can be until you are the best that you can be, and you cannot be the best that you can be until I am the best that I can be.”
Thank you Mark for all the thought and research that you put into this. I learned a lot.
Lots of important information in your comments!
I’m digesting it….
Hi to Mark and everyone reading this.
I’m writing this because I feel compelled to.
I’ve battled alcoholism most of my life.
I’ve promised my family as well as myself I wouldn’t drink anymore
so often it’s lost all meaning.
I’ve prayed about it to every god I could think of. Nothing.
I’ll spare everyone the gory details of my past and
just tell you where I am now.
I have been living in a welfare hotel for the past year. I have to
Leave on the 25 of November because the year that I’ve been
here is up and I can’t get an extension. what happens
to me from this point on I don’t know. I just know that if
things don’t change I’ll be homeless.”Again!” Do to one reason, alcohol.
I know that what is happening to me is my fault I just can’t seem to stop.
I have to say I do sober up for a little while every now and then, like I am
now and will start thinking that everything’s going to be alright and then fall off the
The things I could tell you about my alcoholism could fill a book but as you can probably
tell, I’m no writer.
Thanks for letting me share this with you… George W.
I would just like to add that I’ve been in many rehabs and hospitals. AA has never worked for me.
Many thanks for sharing your story here.
You mention that AA didn’t work for you. I’m just curious, did you get deep enough into the program to have a sponsor and to start following the steps? And how many steps were you able to do?
I’m trying to learn more about these things… like the effectiveness of various programs and treatments…..
thanks for your reply Mark,
I went through various rehabs, was in AA for a long time. worked the steps. I know all the slogans. Nothing. The only thing left for me to try is a totally spiritual approach to see if that works. Try to be guided by positive forces and influences by spirit and see what happens. Any guideness in this area on your part would be greatly appreciated. Thanks. George
If you’ve tried any of these three prescription drugs, have they worked at all for you (my interest in this is more than just curiosity and has to do with family-friend situations and some volunteer work I do…)?
Antabuse (around since the 1940s) makes people physically sick when they drink alcohol, by building up acetaldehyde, the stuff that causes hangovers.
Naltrexone (the daily pill or monthly shot) tells the brain you don’t want alcohol anymore and supposedly cuts the craving (although it can harm the liver as alcohol does).
Campral, or acamprosate, reduces craving and discourages relapse by stimulating GABA and glutamate.
I think those are the main pharmaceutical tools available today.
And then there’s the big picture. Here’s the big picture as I see it:
The God or life-source at the center of our being is one with everything, since everything has that at its core. That’s where the only REALITY is. We’re all connected to that source of everything.
Everything else, especially this wild life on Earth with all its dramas, is just an illusion.
The only way to find true inner peace while on Earth is to relinquish all the drama and pain and desire to that higher source, which is both “out there” running the grand plan of things and at the same time inside us humans at the core of our being.
Turning everything over to that higher power, coupled with a deep, intimate acceptance of its presence within us, can take a huge load off our shoulders, washing away the grief and guilt and other troubled emotions stirred up by our savage side.
Turning life over to the higher power, of course, is the cornerstone of all the successful 12-step programs, as all of us familiar with the program know.
But, then, we also know that no one quits til they’re ready. My father-in-law got off booze after reading AA’s “Big Book” in the hospital for withdrawal, without attending meetings, but he had family responsibilities that were important to him. I think that helped him stay sober… that, and eating a Hershey bar a day.
Most people seem to need a helping hand… and they sometimes say to keep trying AA until it works.
That’s about the best I can come up with at the moment. It helps me to keep in mind that there are a lot of us kindred spirits out here going through similar situations… and we’re all one… all in it together.
All the best to you,
PS, George, the best personal technique I’ve found for spiritual pursuit is heart meditation, which I describe here:
Thank you for your heart felt response. To answer your question, no. I have not tried any of the medications you listed. I knew people on the antebuse drug. It only works of you take it. The others I wouldn’t be able to get due to no insurance. I’m staying in a homeless shelter at the moment that also doubles as a church. I truly don’t wish to get bogged down in dogma once again. I feel it hinders my spiritual growth. I will try the heart meditation as you suggested. Thanks again. If there is anything I can do to help you learn more don’t hesitate to ask. Just send me an email.
Thanks George, and best wishes on your journey……..
Thank you Mark and all love and light to you and yours. I don’t mean to sound like I’m coming down on religion, I just believe that spirituality is more important the doctrine.