The Crux of the Problem: Obviously

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The Crux of the Problem:  Obviously

So we shall describe some of the mental states that precede a relapse into drinking, for obviously this is the crux of the problem.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 35)

This is one of the most key statements in the Alcoholics Anonymous book.  To even begin to look at this statement, we have to look at the word “crux” in a bit of detail.  According to merriam-webster.com the word “crux” is defined as:

1:  a puzzling or difficult problem : an unsolved question

2:  an essential point requiring resolution or resolving an outcome <the crux of the problem>

3:  a main or central feature (as of an argument)

Notice that the exact words used in the Alcoholics Anonymous passage are used in #2 as an example.  So to be the “crux” of the problem means that “the mental state that precedes a relapse” is “an essential point requiring resolution”.  To be the “crux” this mental state is also a “main or central feature” of the problem as well as being a “puzzling or difficult” problem in and of itself.

Something that I find interesting about this statement is that it needs to be stated at all.  It seems perfectly obvious, but it is put out there as if it is a huge change of mindset for many in recovery.  In fact, it often seems to be such a huge change of mindset.

The idea here is that the big problem in a relapse is not the relapse itself, the big problem is what was going on in your mind at the time you were sober and trying not to use that makes you or allows you to use when you should be able to soberly stop yourself.

If a person keeps being barely saved from having consumed poison is the real problem poison in that person’s system or that the person repeatedly makes a conscious decision to take in poison.  In this example, isn’t just saving the person from the effects of the poison just a Band-Aid put on a symptom but doing little to solve the real problem (since the person has a history of just taking in the poison again).

In the same way, isn’t focusing on abstaining from alcohol and drug use and simply fixing the stuff you have done in the past while using drugs or alcohol just a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem.  Isn’t the real “essential point requiring resolution or resolving” what is going on in your mind when wanting to remain sober and while still abstinent that makes you suddenly do the thing that you most want to not do and know has the potential to be the most destructive force in your world. 

In other words, what kind of fool is surprised by anything a person is capable of after he/she is drunk/high?  After a person has chemically distorted his/her thinking it would seem logical to assume that his/her actions would also be twisted or distorted.  If a person desperately does not want twisted or distorted actions that result from this twisted or distorted thinking why do the one thing most likely to case all of that.  That is the real problem not the twisted thinking and actions that happen after you take something that you know will cause twisted/distorted thinking.

All of that being said, what is going on in our heads before a relapse?  If you interpret the information found in the Alcoholics Anonymous book there are two categories described:

  1. Thoughts that we are not supposed to be having that we repeatedly have
  2. Thoughts that we should be having that we sometimes don’t have

 

The first one, “thoughts that we are not supposed to be having that we repeatedly have” is described best in the like this:

The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker.  The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 30)

In other words there is this weird idea in the back of our minds that there will be a way to use or to be intoxicated that will somehow not count as a relapse.  There is some magic formula that will allow me to take some magic “feel good” stuff while not having any negative consequences.

This is the idea behind sentences that begin with things like:  “This does not really count because…” or “Well, this is not the same because…” or “My problem is _______ not ______ so…” and on and on.  There are also ideas such as:  “Well, since I have been sober ______ amount of time, I should be fine if I use a little now” or “Well, it’s a special occasion so a little won’t hurt” etc.

Just speaking from a logical perspective, it’s not only the fact that you could destroy yourself (again) that is the problem.  The real question is, why would you take the risk?  If there is even chance that you might destroy yourself or your life, what is so valuable in relapse that the risk is worthwhile. 

In the most extreme cases, we are talking about a person who has lost everything to using and had no hope.  Then this person rebuilds his/her life through a process of abstinence and some painful work in recovery.  This person gets a deep understanding that using means possibly losing everything again and possibly even more this time.  Then in a moment the person decides:   “This time it’s okay because…” Then no matter how much the person should see that the risk of loss is far greater than whatever it is that’s gained the person still thinks it will be okay.  Even to the point of having some unlikely reason as to why it will be okay.  “This time is different because…”

This is (especially from an outsider’s perspective) an unreasonable train of thought.  It is thinking something that makes no sense and that should probably not be though.  This is “the great obsession” that sucks us in like a black hole.    According to merriam-webster.com the word “obsession” is defined as:

: a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadly: compelling motivation <an obsession with profits>

So this “great obsession” is a persistent, disturbing preoccupation with the unreasonable idea or feeling that it is somehow there is a safe way to use. 

Let’s be clear:  There is no such thing as kinda using or kinda sober or kinda abstinent.  You are either abstaining or not.  You are either using or you are not.  “Just a little” does count.  Whatever you use may not be exactly the same as before, but you are either using or you are not.  If you are seeking sobriety, any using at all is the enemy, no matter what reason or excuse you have.

The problem is that PRIOR TO USING our brain has a section that keeps trying to convince us that there is a reason or a way to make using not count.  That little voice in our heads and in our hearts is this “Great Obsession.” 

The Second one “thoughts that we are not supposed to be having that we repeatedly have” is best described in these passages:

But even in this type of beginning we are obliged to admit that our justification for a spree was insanely insufficient in the light of what always happened. We now see that when we began to drink deliberately, instead of casually, there was little serious or effective thought during the period of premeditation of what the terrific consequences might be.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 37)

These moments in time where a person cannot seem to muster up any serious or effective thought of what the terrific consequences might be have a name:

They had said that though I did raise a defense, it would one day give way before some trivial reason for having a drink. Well, just that did happen and more, for what I had learned of alcoholism did not occur to me at all. I knew from that moment that I had an alcoholic mind. I saw that will power and self-knowledge would not help in those strange mental blank spots.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 42)

They are called “Strange Mental Blank Spots.”  They happen “during the period of premeditation” which means that this phenomenon also happens prior to using.

But, let’s slow down and look at this concept.  In spite of all of the information and advice a person might get on various things a person should do to remain abstinent or sober most people ignore all of that and use one very simple method:  Whenever a craving or temptation arises the person forces him/herself to think of all of the reasons he/she should not use and that consciousness of what could be lost and pain might be caused will be enough to repel the person.

The trick that gets people obsessed with this method of remaining abstinent is that it will work much of the time for a majority of us in recovery.  The fact it works most of the time convinces us that it works all of the time. 

A person using this defense who relapses often comes up with some reason why he/she relapsed and then convinces himself/herself that the same defense system should be put up.  

Think of an ancient city that was protected by a large wall.  When most armies would come to attack it they would not be able to get around the wall.  But there was this one army that would come once in a while and somehow could just cut a hole in the wall, march right in and start killing and destroying.

If the government of that ancient city kept rebuilding the wall exactly the same way, because it worked most of the time, wouldn’t they be fools.   The fact it worked most of the time did not make it good defense system if once in a while it would fail completely.

This is the idea of the “Strange Mental Blank Spots.”  If your only defense is to force yourself to think of reasons not to use at moments when some part of you desperately wants to use you will have success sometimes, but at other times you will feel like you had no defense system at all.

Now lets relook that passage that describes the “Strange Mental Blank Spots”:

They had said that though I did raise a defense, it would one day give way before some trivial reason for having a drink. Well, just that did happen and more, for what I had learned of alcoholism did not occur to me at all. I knew from that moment that I had an alcoholic mind. I saw that will power and self-knowledge would not help in those strange mental blank spots.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 42)

There are moments where the urge to relapse is so strong that you will not be able to force yourself to think about consequences, losses, pains, etc. at all.  If this is your only defense system you will be doomed in those moments.

So, what we have discussed so far is that a serious alcoholic/addict has a hidden obsession (often hidden from himself/herself) with the idea that there will be a magic way of getting intoxicated without any consequences.  Then, with the ability to lie to yourself about there being any consequences there come strange phenomenon of not being able to force yourself to consider the consequences (the ones you are trying to convince yourself are not there).  Once you convince yourself of the first lie and then stop fighting the lie with the second; YOU ARE DOOMED TO RELAPSE!

So the “crux” of the problem or “the mental state that precedes a relapse” and that is “an essential point requiring resolution” are described as “The Great Obsession” and these “Strange Mental Blank Spots.” 

The real problem is even simpler than “the mental state that precedes a relapse.”  The real problem is that you cannot trust your own brain or thoughts before you relapse to stop you from relapsing.  If you cannot trust your own brain and your own thoughts then your defense system cannot be based on what you can think or force yourself to think.  Recovery must be more than forcing yourself to think a few things or it will fail.

This is a big part of what it is to be POWERLESS.  In other words, this is a huge part of what you must understand to truly work Step 1.

1.       We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 59)

Stay Sober My Friends…

Wade H.

Crazy Talk, The Great Obsession

Crazy Talk, The Great Obsession

Unlike most of our crowd, I did not get over my craving for liquor much during the first two and one-half years of abstinence. It was almost always with me. But at no time have I been anywhere near yielding. I used to get terribly upset when I saw my friends drink and knew I could not, but I schooled myself to believe that though I once had the same privilege, I had abused it so frightfully that it was withdrawn. So it doesn’t behoove me to squawk about it for, after all, nobody ever had to throw me down and pour liquor down my throat. (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 181)

Things you can't do at the Scenic Overlook
Things you can't do at the Scenic Overlook (Photo credit: maveric2003)

Crazy Talk, The Great Obsession

Unlike most of our crowd, I did not get over my craving for liquor much during the first two and one-half years of abstinence. It was almost always with me. But at no time have I been anywhere near yielding. I used to get terribly upset when I saw my friends drink and knew I could not, but I schooled myself to believe that though I once had the same privilege, I had abused it so frightfully that it was withdrawn. So it doesn’t behoove me to squawk about it for, after all, nobody ever had to throw me down and pour liquor down my throat.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 181)

For some of us who are in recovery this rings very true to each one of us.  For others of us who suffer with these kinds of cravings, we are not familiar with the idea because our cravings are disguised as what we believe to be logical thoughts.

In other words some of us are having deep cravings to relapse but we keep telling ourselves that the “crazy-talk” going on inside our head is really sensible reasoning.  Thoughts like: 

“That person uses and seems to be doing fine, I just need to use like them.” 

“If I change to _______ it is not what I normally use so it doesn’t count.”  

“I cannot handle life like this; I just need a little to mellow out.”

“I cannot handle life like this; I just need a little to help me focus.”

These and similar thoughts are the proverbial “devil on your shoulder” trying to talk you into self destructive craziness.  Anytime we find ourselves listening to that voice or pondering what it has to say, you are well into the kind of cravings we are describing here.

For some of those around us, we may even seem to be more fun or somehow better when using.  These people may even try to help us find reasons or ways that we can use safely.  They become (whether knowingly or unknowingly) the voice of the devil on our shoulder.   Look at this passage:

He enjoys drinking. It stirs his imagination. His friends feel closer over a highball. Perhaps you enjoy drinking with him yourself when he doesn’t go too far. You have passed happy evenings together chatting and drinking before your fire. Perhaps you both like parties which would be dull without liquor. We have enjoyed such evenings ourselves; we had a good time. We know all about liquor as a social lubricant. Some, but not all of us, think it has its advantages when reasonably used.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 110)

The fact is, if you find yourself in recovery, in jail, in a hospital due to your using, being told by recovery or psychological professionals that you have an alcohol/drug problem, you have legal, social or family problems that others tell you are because of your using etc. you can never safely use. 

All of the ways we looked at before that disguise the craving or if you are just fighting an obvious craving, the focal point is should not be what the reasons, reasoning or feelings are to use.  The focal point is one question:  Can I ever use safely? 

Let’s focus on the idea of comparing ourselves to other people that use and seem to still function reasonably or who in some cases seem to function perfectly.  There are many reasons a person could give why this may just be appearances or that these people are only functional in some ways etc., but these arguments have little to do with the real point that is being missed.  It doesn’t matter if that person is the smartest rocket scientist on the planet who smokes crack for breakfast, drinks moonshine for lunch, shoots heroin for dinner and is a tenured university professor in the evenings while smoking methamphetamines during class breaks.  That is them!  The point is you are not that person.

This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 30)

All of this is tied to Step 1 of any Twelve Step program:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 59)

Part of recognizing that you are powerless is the idea that you are not like that person or any other person:  YOU ARE YOU!  EITHER IT IS SAFE FOR YOU TO USE OR IT IS NOT!  No matter what you see others doing, no matter what ideas you can come up with that make this time or this way different, no matter what someone else is telling you makes it safe for you; EITHER IT IS SAFE FOR YOU TO USE OR IT IS NOT!

Despite all we can say, many who are real alcoholics are not going to believe they are in that class. By every form of self-deception and experimentation, they will try to prove themselves exceptions to the rule, therefore nonalcoholic.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 31)

Neither does there appear to be any kind of treatment which will make alcoholics of our kind like other men. We have tried every imaginable remedy. In some instances there has been brief recovery, followed always by a still worse relapse. Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 30– 31)

All of us at this level of using have a problem:  WE ARE DRAWN TO BEING INTOXICATED.  We have a particular way of getting there and type of “high” that we prefer (A.K.A. our drug of choice) but our true love is the “high”.  There are different reasons, and different preferences, but we have one thing in common:  the deep, compulsive desire to be intoxicated. 

Whenever we give in and use something that can get us intoxicated we are in terrible trouble.  No matter what the reason, no matter who else can do what with no problem, no matter if it is your preferred “high” or not, no matter if it is strong as what you usually drink/use and on and on.  In recovery a key rule to remember is:  YOU ARE EITHER SOBER OR YOU ARE NOT!  There is no “kinda sober” or “partially sober” or “almost sober”:  EITHER YOU ARE OR YOU ARE NOT SOBER.

If you are at the more advanced levels of alcoholism/addiction then any time that you are under the assumption that you can control your desperate desire to be intoxicated you are convincing yourself of a lie.  That is a complete breakdown of Step One in your recovery.

In the original Twelve Step materials (the Alcoholics Anonymous book) the authors described this as “The Great Obsession”:

The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.  (Alcoholics Anonymous pg. 30)

This terminology is a great description.  The word obsession is defined at Dictionary.com in these ways (Obsession @ Dictionay.com):

  • the domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc.
  • psychiatry – a persistent idea or impulse that continually forces its way into consciousness, often associated with anxiety and mental illness
  • Compulsive preoccupation with an idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety.
  • A compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion.

The big persistent idea that continually forces itself into your consciousness and dominates your thoughts is the ridiculous illusion that there will be some way to use that will somehow not be destructive to you.

I had some discussions today about things like drinking when that is not your “drug of choice” and how smoking marijuana is not destructive like other intoxicating substances so it should not count (“after all you don’t hear about people killing people on marijuana…”).  It is not the various arguments that are the sign of a problem or the truth/lack of truth of the arguments that is the problem:  it is the fact that a person in recovery is having to try to justify some reason for getting high that is the evidence of a problem.  If it really wasn’t a problem then first off you would not be in recovery, discussing recovery, etc.  Second if these things were really a problem than the obvious thing to do, considering that several people who call themselves experts say it might be a huge risk, if you could really take whatever or leave it would be to leave it all alone just because it is too much risk with too little to gain. (Yet many of us can find the small group of people and experts who have some theory that you can somehow use safely and we run to that with desperation and a sense of relief – another sign of a problem).

I love the arguments for marijuana.  The question I always ask is what would you do if all the marijuana you smoked had no THC and did not get you intoxicated at all.  Most people hate that idea at the core of their pot smoking beings.  The real reason almost all people use marijuana is to get a high.  If you are an alcoholic/addict in recovery then that is the worst possible scenario.  Picture a recovery program with classes all day and group sessions at night and all of the people there are drunk and high.  It might be quite entertaining, but probably not really productive.

The real problem here is not if some people can drink/use safely, the real question is if you can drink/use safely.  If you are in recovery the answer is NO!  The point is to stop using and you want part of your recovery to be using.  You can’t love Mary-Jane, Capt. Morgan, and recovery at the same time.

If other people can use safely then that’s good for them; YOU AIN’T THEM!  It’s you that cannot use safely.  Even the need to argue about what you can use and not use is a part of the craving and the insanity that we all need to be free of.

 

Stay Sober My Friends…

Wade H.