I had a hard time staying sober my first 6 months. Not that I relapsed, but it was the most painful experience I have ever had. My mind told me constantly that if I just had a drink everything would be all right. My mind was never further than 5 minutes from thinking — begging — my body for a drink. “One day at a time” didn’t work for me, so I was told to take it 5 minutes at a time.
I didn’t go to a detox or rehab. I didn’t know they were for people like me. I thought they were for “Real Alcoholics”. I didn’t make it through my first year because I was so smart or so strong or so willing — I was none of these — I made it because of the knowledge and the encouragement of my Homegroup: Sobrenity. My homegroup is the best one in the world. If you don’t think your homegroup is the best in the world, maybe you have the wrong homegroup.
I owe them my life. Remembering how scared I was — and sure to fail this time, as I had a thousand before — it is my greatest hope to provide one person with a piece of information — or an outlook — that will keep him sober for 5 more minutes. To this end, I would like to clarify the difference between the Mental Obsession and the Physical Compulsion. Understanding the difference myself was often what kept me from diving into the abyss. If you are unclear on the difference between the Mental Obsession and the Physical Compulsion stop reading this and read The Doctor’s Opinion. Come back when you’re done.
Often in a meeting I hear newcomers say they’ve been having “Cravings”. I said the same thing myself for the first 6 months of my sobriety. This is a misnomer. Cravings only last about 72 hours in the worst of cases. For most of us it’s more like 12 to 48 hours. My homegroup was quite explicit about what craving was — what it wasn’t — and at times the knowledge they gave me was crucial to my staying sober for the next 5 minutes.
Let’s set up a scenario. You have been sober for a week, you’re hurting pretty bad, and you feel a drink — maybe 2 — would make you feel better. You tell yourself you won’t get drunk, you’ll just take the edge off. What is making you feel bad is not the Physical Craving, but the other half of the equation: the Mental Complusion. The difference between the two is as large as the difference between a lighter and a blow-torch, between a hangnail and a broken leg.
What would you trade for that first drink? The answer is usually “a couple of bucks” and “I’m willing to lie to my spouse and homegroup”. Would you trade your job? Would you trade your house, your driver’s license, your freedom, your marriage? Probably not. Yet Alcoholics routinely trade these things for their last drink. The reason is that once they take that first drink they feel so damn bad — physically — if they cannot have that next drink that all other pain pales in comparison.
A.A. is not about Science. There’s no place for science in an A.A. meeting. This is not an A.A. meeting, and it’s bad science at best, just enough to get the point across.
When alcohol breaks down in the human body it does so in stages, with multiple passes through the liver. The first stage breaks it down into acetaldehyde, next into acetyl CoA, then (finally) into harmless chemicals like sugar and CO2. The first couple of stages basically create Nail Polish Remover in your system. It feels VERY unpleasant…. Headache, nausea, nervousness… That’s the basics.
If you (alcoholic) and George (non-alcoholic) go out, after one drink you both feel OK. For about 20 minutes. Then the alcohol makes it’s first pass through your liver. It dumps a shit-load of Nail Polish Remover into your blood stream and you feel bad 20 minutes later (40 minutes after your 1st drink). You feel worse than when you walked in the door (base-line). You NEED another drink. Not to feel as good as George, but just to get up to the base-line. Of course, 20 minutes later you need more alcohol to offset the shitty feeling you have from the acetaldehyde. And on and on… You are the Red Line.
George has a different experience. He is the Green Line. His liver doesn’t have as much of the enzyme that is responsible for the first breakdown. He will stay high longer than you (that explains why he can’t drink as much as you). The alcohol stays in his system — as alcohol — longer than it does yours. However, he has MORE of the enzymes that break the acetaldehyde down into harmless stuff. So when it DOES break down he will not feel bad at any point in the evening. He gets the crap (Nail Polish Remover) out of his system fast. And if he stops drinking he just coasts to a gentle stop.
I’m not going to win a Nobel prize in Chemistry this year, but that’s close enough to the facts for you to see how you are physically different than the non-alcoholic. When you are below the base-line, your body will do ANYTHING, and tell your mind ANY LIE, to get another drink. The rent becomes unimportant, your job, your safety… Even your children. All those things that we unthinkable to trade for the first drink are pretty standard once you start drinking.
Bob used to say: “Heh Heh Heh. Looks like Jimmy’s got a little monkey on his back. But that’s OK, it’s a cute little monkey. But don’t you feed it! It’ll turn into a Gorilla! And quitin’ drinkin’ is like having sex with a gorilla: it ain’t necessarily over just ’cause you’re tired, and think you had enough. The Gorilla’s in charge!”
The 2 most important things to remember are: 1) You can control the Mental Obsession, even get rid of it, and 2) you can never change the Physical Compulsion.
Let’s take it back to the beginning again. You feel like you want to drink (you are not craving, you are in the grips of the mental obsession). Why? Of the one billion things in the world — from chocolate cake to sex with a supermodel — why do you think a drink is the one thing that will make you feel better?
The answer is that you don’t want to drink. Most alcoholics in early recovery don’t want to drink, what they want is to feel different. They don’t want to feel the way they’re feeling right now. The easiest, quickest way is to drink. But there are other ways.
First and foremost, know that your body is detoxing — not just off alcohol — but off huge amounts of carbohydrates: sugar. That’s what alcohol ultimately breaks down into, and you’re used to having that available energy source, so let’s talk about providing it. There are good ways and bad ways.
One reason that Science doesn’t belong in A.A. is that the science that existed in 1939 — when A,A. began — was pretty bad. It was back when Grandma told you to put butter on a burn. Now we know that butter keeps the heat in, making the burn worse. Putting ice on it gets the heat out.
You’ll hear people say: “If you have cravings, drink orange juice with honey in it, or have a piece of candy…”. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Below is a graph of what your blood sugar can do with this advice. The red line is if you take sucrose, fructose, glucose, or any simple sugar. You spike and an hour later you crash. We all know that. As soon as your pancreas notices a bunch of sugar runing loose it’ll dump in a bunch of insulin and you’ll feel worse than you did before. Now that we’re off alcohol, let’s not get stuck in any MORE vicious cycles!
The green line is what will happen to your blood sugar if you eat a bowl of rice, noodles, corn flakes… Any complex carbohydrates. Basically: “Eat healthy, bitch!” It’s that simple.
Stop trying for a quick fix. That’s what got us into this mess!
To sum it up, Alcoholism is a two-fold disease: a Mental Obsession and a Physical Compulsion. The mental obsession — as bad as it feels — is nothing compared to the physical compulsion.
The most moving thing I have heard in any meeting didn’t come from the Big Book or the 12 and 12 or from someone who had 20 years of Sobriety. It came from someone who’d been sober about 6 days, and was in a lot of pain. He said: “Today I wanted to drink. But that’s okay, because every day I was drinking, I wanted to get Sober, and I didn’t think it would ever happen. I’m here to tell you, It feels a lot better to be Sober, wanting a Drink, than to be Drunk, wanting to get Sober. There’s no tears running down my face.”
“We believe, and so suggested a few years ago, that the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker. These allergic types can never safely use alcohol in any form at all”
“All these, and many others, have one symptom in common: they cannot start drinking without developing the phenomenon of craving.”
The Doctor’s Opinion
“These observations would be academic and pointless if our friend never took the first drink, thereby setting the terrible cycle in motion. Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.”
“… he believed he had acquired such a profound knowledge of the inner workings of his mind and it’s hidden springs that relapse was unthinkable. Nevertheless, he was drunk in a short time.”
“But the actual or potential alcoholic, with hardly an exception, will be absolutely unable to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge.”