The Anatomy of Alcoholism

Many different types of people become alcoholics, but all alcoholics are ultimately alike. The disease itself swallows up differences. The personality changes that go with the illness of alcoholism are predictable and inevitable. Alcoholism can destroy the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental life of the sufferer.

Early drinking is characterized by a mood swing in a positive direction. It creates a warm and fuzzy feeling, and may even lead to giddiness. When the effects wear off, the drinker feels normal. It does not take long to learn how to set the amount and select the mood. As the typical social drinker gets deeper into the booze, getting drunk begins to have a very different effect. Heavy drinking creates a sort of undertow that drags the drinker below normal and into pain. At this point, booze is often consumed simply to not feel pain. In other words, to get back to some degree of normal. This is the beginning of harmful dependence.

This dependency has a rising emotional cost. There is typically a significant and progressive deterioration of the personality of the alcoholic, and often even a visible physical deterioration. Ultimately, the alcoholic’s whole emotional environment is torn up and destroyed. There is an emotional cost for every drink. The carefree days are gone. Of course, the alcoholic is dimly aware of this fact. For some reason, the rising cost is willingly paid. This is proof that dependency on booze has become truly harmful. Of course, the drinker fails to comprehend the increasingly clear signs of destruction by alcohol.

The alcoholic is learning to live more and more by way of rationalization. Intellect will blindly defend against reason, against intervention, and will hide disintegration, right up to the edge of the abyss. Eventually, the alcoholic will be completely out of touch with his or her emotions. Internal dialog will become the audio of an increasingly impenetrable defense system.

The tragedy is that rationalization works. This form of defense continues to operate ever more successfully as the disease progresses. As time goes on, the alcoholic’s behavior will become increasingly bizarre, and the innate and unconscious ability to rationalize will be practiced to the point of perfection. The alcoholic finds it increasingly difficult to accept blame. Time passes, and the condition worsens. Over a period of months and years the alcoholic’s self-image continues to wane. Feelings of self-worth sink low, and excessive drinking continues. Eventually, emotional distress becomes a chronic condition. The drinker feels distress unconsciously even when not drinking. The mantra is I’m just no damn good.

Mood swings and personality changes are evidenced while drinking. The otherwise kind person becomes angry or hostile; the usually happy person becomes sad and morose; the normally gentle person becomes violent. Alcohol causes the guard to drop, and chronic unconscious negative feelings are exposed. The drinker becomes truly self-destructive. All this drinking and emotional distress may lead to a vague but poignant feeling that a problem exists. There is a general malaise so strongly felt that desperate measures to escape are proposed or actually attempted. Geographical cure, new job, divorce.

Continued excessive drinking and accompanying behavior bring on chronic fatalistic feelings. If the course of the disease is not interrupted, the end of all this is suicide, either slowly with alcohol, or in a direct or deliberate manner. We need to remember that as emotional distress mounts and deterioration of the personality accelerates, these negative feelings are not clearly discernible. Quite the opposite, they are more and more effectively hidden.

You may wonder if you have a drinking problem. Ask yourself the following questions. Have you ever drank in the morning? Have you ever drank alone? Have you ever drank a fifth a day? Have you ever felt remorse after drinking? Do you have a growing anticipation of the welcome effect of alcohol? Has it moved from anticipation to preoccupation?

There is another principle to be applied when examining whether you are an alcoholic. Is there evidence of a growing tolerance to alcohol? Does it take more and more for you to get the same welcome effect? Do you sneak drinks in the kitchen before bringing other drinks in to the living room or the den? And to what lengths are you willing to go to get that extra amount of alcohol? The degree of ingenuity used to get more becomes the scale for determining how dependent you are on alcohol. All instances of harmful dependency that turn up in the behavior patterns of the alcoholic at this stage of addiction indicate a growing anticipation of the welcome effects of drinking, an increasingly rigid expected time of use, and a progressive ingenuity in obtaining larger and larger amounts of alcohol.

Rational defenses and projection set in. Why is it that the alcoholic cannot see what is happening to him or her? The answer is, simply, because they can’t. The reason alcoholics are unable to perceive what is happening is understandable. As alcoholism develops, self-image continues to deteriorate, and ego strength ebbs. For many reasons, alcoholics are progressively unable to keep track of their own behavior, and begin to lose contact with their emotions. Their defense systems continue to grow, so that they can survive in the face of their problems. The greater the pain, the higher and more rigid the defenses become; and this whole process is unconscious. Alcoholics do not know what is happening inside of themselves. They’re victims of their own defense mechanisms.

As emotional turmoil grows in chemically dependent people, rational defense activity turns into real mental mismanagement, which serves to erect a secure wall. The end result is that the alcoholic is cut off from increasingly negative feelings they have about themselves. They are unaware of the presence of such destructive emotions. Not only is the drinker unaware of the powerful highly developed defense systems, they are also unaware of the intense feelings of self-hate buried inside them. Moreover, the problem is compounded by the fact that these defenses have now created a mass of chronic free-floating anxiety, guilt, shame, and remorse. In other words, the alcoholic no longer starts drinking from the “normal” point (where they could always start before), and swing up in mood to feeling great or euphoric; rather, they must start from where they feel depressed or pained and drink to feel normal.

Alcoholics drink because they are alcoholics. As a Chinese proverb says, “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.” At this stage, the drinking pattern becomes thoroughly unpredictable or compulsive. The alcoholic quits, then resumes, and does not know why he or she starts drinking again. The resumption is at the level of chronic emotional deterioration. Conditions worsen with each new episode. The drinker is trapped in a deadly downward spiral.

Chemically dependent people have two factors progressively working together to draw them out of touch with reality. First, there is their defense mechanisms. Second, there is their distortion of memory. Either one of these alone would seriously impair judgment. The time inevitably comes when the alcoholic cannot see that he or she is sick. In reality, they are acutely ill with a condition that will ultimately lead to death, and which will seriously impair their constitution emotionally, mentally and spiritually during the final months or years.

Treatment for acute alcoholism is not merely concerned with putting the drink down; it also has to do with restoration of adequate ego strength to enable the drinker once again to cope with life. Therapy for acute alcoholics must address the whole person. The alcoholic suffers emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually. Often, treatment involves physicians, clergy, psychologists, sociologists, pathologists and psychiatrists. If the whole person is not treated simultaneously, relapse is inevitable. If, for example, the emotional disorder alone is addressed, the drinker may believe they feel so good now that they can handle the drink. It’s like having two broken legs, but only seeking treatment for one.

If you’re struggling with alcoholism, realize that you are ill on numerous levels. The problems linked to alcohol dependence are extensive, and affect the person physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually and socially. Drinking becomes a compulsion for a person with a drinking problem. It takes precedence over all other activities. Alcoholics are obsessed with alcohol and cannot control how much they consume, even if it is causing serious problems at home, at work or regarding finances. The alcoholic is viewed as dealing with a physical allergy to alcohol, a mental obsession to keep on drinking, and an underlying spiritual malady that means willpower is not enough. Unless all three aspects of the condition are treated, the drinker will not be able to escape his or her addiction.

Many people lead lives of quiet desperation, trying to fill the God-shaped hole in their soul and cover the pain with shopping, eating, gambling, and a million other distractions. But addicts and alcoholics are physically predisposed to escape or numb themselves in ways that go directly into a downward spiral of self-destruction. When I drink or take drugs, my life is little more than an isolated routine of coming to, muddling around, getting drunk, or taking Vicodin or Oxycodone, in order to make things fuzzy until I pass out. Of course, this is little more than sleepwalking through life.

After getting “sober,” I returned to church. I considered myself a “Christian in recovery.” Although I was able to stay away from alcohol, marijuana and cocaine since 2008, I started abusing narcotic pain killers. I was teaching Bible study at the county prison, but I was hiding my addiction. I was in denial. I wish more pastors didn’t still view addiction in primarily moral terms. Yes, addictive behaviors often begin with a moral failing like selfishness or overindulgence. But full-blown addiction is a disease that involves physiological and psychological components that go beyond sin or even choice. Trying harder, reading the Bible more, or praying more are rarely the solution.  I have finally come to believe that I cannot drink or use opiates safely no matter how spiritual I may think I am.

I, like Paul, war against my flesh. He said, “For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not, that I do…Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do, but sin that dwells in me.” (Romans 7:16,20) The magnitude that one’s spiritual life plays in recovery from addiction is hard to measure. I do believe, however, that without addressing the spiritual malady of alcoholism, recovery is often no more than just putting the cork in the bottle with little lasting effect. I want to make something absolutely clear. A spiritual approach alone, without working a recovery program specifically for addiction, is problematic. Worse, it’s all too easy for addicts and alcoholics to convince themselves they’re covered through meditation or church attendance or the blood of Jesus. They tend to do nothing to address their addiction, their character defects, or their self-centered fear.  Remember, faith without works is dead. Thankfully, I know Christ died on the cross that I might live my life free from the bondage of addiction. It is now up to me to take certain steps.



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