the empty chamber in the heart

Addictions, after all, are enormously self-protective. They're coping mechanisms.

- Caroline Knapp

Happy Hours: Alcohol in a Woman's Life Hours: Alcohol in a Woman's Life by Jersild
My rating: of 5 stars

Excerpts from Happy Hours, by Devon Jersild...

If you look at the studies of enzymes and the studies of responses to alcohol together, a certain commonsense logic emerges. If drinking makes you feel terrible, you're not likely to drink much or often. If, on the other hand, you have to drink twice as much as others to get a buzz, you might be likely to drink more, and therefore become susceptible to addiction. Similarly, if drinking makes you feel especially great, and you don't suffer hangovers, you have more incentive to drink. Negative physiological responses can be overridden, however.

When alcoholism does develop in a genetically susceptible individual, this is because alcohol plays a unique role in that person's life. … In every step, genes interact with the environment.

Alcoholism has a complex etiology that includes personal, social, and cultural factors, and the belief that, ultimately, the alcoholic must assume responsibility for her own life.

There is a strong tendency today to pull alcoholism out of its social and psychological context and to redefine it as a biological illness that needs strictly medical attention.

Critics of the disease concept have feared that it strips the alcoholic of responsibility for recovery, but most clinicians find that when alcoholics understand the physiological processes of addiction, it frees them from shame. Only when that has happened can they effectively take responsibility for managing their lives in the context of an addiction that would otherwise kill them.

Some people conclude that they or their loved ones are not "real alcoholics" because the reality of their problems is more complex than what they hear described.

Everyone agrees that letting go of blame is crucial to recovery.

Alcoholics describe the canny ways of their disease, how it sneaks into nooks and crannies of their lives, looking for a foothold. That's why recovering alcoholics are best at counseling one another. They know about cravings; they know the kind of thinking that means danger is at hand.

She always thought she was a failure, except when she was drinking.

It's hard to imagine the courage it takes for someone to acknowledge the devastation alcohol has wrought in them and in their family, and then to remake their life.

Physiology is only the beginning. Alcohol problems express themselves in a person's whole life: in work and relationships and psychological well-being.

The alcoholic beverage industry is aggressively marketing to women, with ads linking drinking with glamour, independence, and liberation.

Most men leave their alcoholic wives; most women stay with their alcoholic husbands.

For a period of time in these women's lives, the release they found in their evening cocktail ritual seemed like a godsend. Only gradually did they realize that this pleasant habit was not serving them well. The alcohol kept them from experiencing the frustration that might have impelled them to confront the sources of pain in their lives and find creative solutions.

Yet I suspect that any woman who has ever worried about her drinking, or had a few quick beers to be sociable, or to get in the mood for sex, or—like Sophie—to be "funnier, prettier, warmer" will find something familiar in these stories. There's a way of thinking that goes along with alcohol problems but is not unique to alcoholics. It has to do with looking for solutions outside yourself. It has to do with finding yourself unacceptable, trying to make yourself right, and having your efforts backfire.

Alcoholism is referred to as a "shame-based disorder" because very often a drinking habit develops in part to drown out feelings of shame. Once addicted, the drinker has more to be ashamed of, and another drink helps dull the feeling of despair. The cycle takes another turn.

A study using college students and rape scenarios found that a man is considered less responsible for raping a woman if he was drunk when he did it. But if the woman he raped was drunk, she is considered more to blame.

Both women and men who are dependent on alcohol are likely to be deeply dissatisfied with themselves. They frequently describe themselves as awkwardly self-conscious and somehow "different" from other people.

In many cultures, as Sandmaier suggests, a drunken woman is not considered merely irresponsible, as a man would be. She is a metaphor for potential social disruption.

Daphne found herself waiting all day for that time with Paul, when they shared their days, and the wine took away her weariness and made her feel loving and warm.

Alcohol was a helpful friend, an ally in her battle against depression. If she couldn't destroy the enemy, at least she could cope with it. Alcohol could help.

Daphne's focus on her partner as the primary source of her self-worth is also typical of women with alcohol problems.

The inadvertently "enabling" behavior of the codependent was at first seen as a response to living with an out-of-control drinker. You have your nose in the other person's business and you don't even notice that your own life is falling apart.

Detaching with love is important. It means you can be compassionate and still have boundaries. It means you're allowed to care for others without going down the tubes with them, or being in constant emotional turmoil because you can't save them.

Alcoholics need to take responsibility for themselves and partners are most helpful when they focus on their own behavior instead of caring for the alcoholic.

The emotionally underresponsible person expects sensitivity and recognition from others without making his or her needs known, and blames others for his or her problems.

Overresponsible people pride themselves on being the only ones who know how to get things done and take care of others. They feel important and powerful—but they also feel intensely angry because they can never be dependent or expect to have their own needs met. Like their underresponsible partners, they rely on external validation to feel valuable. Since they can never achieve perfect control, they are plagued by anxiety and a sense of worthlessness.

Alcoholism is at its core, a disordered relationship between the drinker and the drink. It begins with an effort to control some aspect of oneself by means of an external agent. Ultimately, this external agent renders the person powerless.

Alcohol disconnects people from their feelings allowing them to deny the drinking problem and the struggles that are arising because of it.

Daphne was, in a way, saying "You don't own me, and you can't make me stop drinking." Typically, Paul reacted to her rebellion by telling her that she was bad and needed help. By taking a position of moral superiority, he reestablished his power. Daphne drank more, reasserting her independence. Paul tried harder to control her.

The power structure won't change unless the drinking stops, the alcoholic dies, or the partner leaves.

There's no self at the beginning of recovery; it has to be built from the ground up. Without the alcohol, they think there's nothing there to help them cope, so becoming aware of any feeling is just terrifying.

Truthfulness is healing.

You can't heal shame in isolation.

Years of drinking narrow the personality without the drinker's awareness. We become subjective, egocentric, demanding, self-pitying, resentful. We are wrapped in a cocoon, aware only of self with no relation to others or the outside world.

Alcoholism is not caused by weakness of will, immorality or a desire to hurt others.

When a mother is the substance abuser, children take much more license in terms of attacking and shaming and holding her to account, much more so than they're likely to do with a father.

So much of the responsibility for family life rests on the mother.

Family members, lovers and friends of problem drinkers learn that what looks like virtuous behavior—picking up the pieces after an alcoholic—can actually help maintain an addiction. In a circular interaction, the drinker becomes less and less responsible, and the non-drinker over-functions. "It gets to look like a saint and a sinner," says Bepko, "but in effect, the overresponsible person is complicit in the problem. And you have to wonder why somebody would continue being an overfunctioner and sustaining a great deal of anger instead of taking a position."

Since drinking removed inhibitions it allowed the pairs to connect emotionally in ways they did not when they were sober—or at least to imagine they were connecting, since bonds formed in the haze of alcohol often appear on reexamination to have been more about an alcohol-induced general aura of good feeling with little actual communication or connection.

I wanted to get outside myself. I wanted to reach that state where I wasn't like a cork. Swept along by the ocean. I wanted a higher perspective, one foot in my life, and one foot out. When I drank, at first, I could finally let go of all the trivial things that bothered me and see myself, and my life, from a larger perspective that is what I wanted; that's why I drank. But alcohol doesn't transcend. It obliterates.

In our secular society, many people have no way of understanding or talking about the basic human desire to transcend the self. When alcohol disinhibits us, and our inner censor and judge takes a holiday, our warm , loving feelings may be as close as we get to being in harmony with ourselves and all of life.

For many women, the experience of oneness is what makes alcohol so compelling. Love, power, and alcohol are all related. They represent attempts to get out of the self and make some connection with the world. The motivations for drinking often include health and striving for wholeness. It's just that alcoholics have chosen, as a Buddhist might say, "unskillful means" of achieving their goal.

Depression, suicidal thoughts, impulsive behavior, and even symptoms of bipolar and borderline personality disorder can all be induced by drinking.

When younger people rely on alcohol or drugs to ease anxiety, they lose the opportunity to develop healthy strategies for managing mood swings and maing friends and to develop skills that lead to sturdy self-confidence. This stalling of emotional development and growth at the point when hard drinking begins is one of the main negative effects of dependence on alcohol.

Stalled emotional development can be combined, heartbreakingly, with precocity and pseudo sophistication. … A veneer of knowledge and sophistication can make them seem wise beyond their years—but they are still children inside.

Still, the drugs kept her from experiencing her own misery.
The bouts of depression she had suffered since college were getting worse, and her anxiety attacks were mounting. "I felt kind of dead inside," said Alice.

I don't think attorneys have more problems than the rest of the world, he told me, but they do have special barriers to recovery. They have great argumentation and advocate skills, so they can keep people at arm's length.

Often women are introduced to alcohol and drugs through a romantic relationship; when the relationship fails, the alcohol and drugs fill the gap.

She had no knowledge of how to access her own resources and be nourished by them. Instead, in a process psychologists call projection, she attributed many of her own positive qualities to the men she adored. For as long as she could, she merged with those men in order to repossess her own powers.

Drinking keeps you from growing up and dealing with life on life's terms. It's a constant avoidance technique. One of my lovers and I used to say that we weren't like other adults. It's a seductive way of thinking.

Their alcohol problems, as painful as they were, became an opportunity to transcend the rigid structure of identity and to experience peace, connectedness, and gratitude. Their new lives are not about miracles but about opening up to a whole range of experience, including such negative feelings as ambivalence, anger, and sadness—the feelings they used to try to medicate. The first months (years) of sobriety can be agonizing. Alcohol used to provide a barrier against discomfort, but now that is gone.

The force that drives addiction is powerful and doesn't disappear when the drinking stops.

It is tremendously painful to live this way, but these cycles serve several purposes. They distract a woman from self-loathing, and they give her the punishment that she feels she deserves. They provide brief relief as well as excitement and drama. They create a comprehensible set of rules and this gives an illusion of relative safety, a familiar set of obsessions. They offer a strategy for shutting out a world that feels increasingly unmanageable and living within a world with a comprehensible shape and structure.

I had to admit I needed help. I was hanging on to hurts in ways I wasn't aware of.

Lindsey's evasiveness alternates with piercing honesty—a pattern familiar to many alcoholics and their families.

The anecdote points up a paradox: Lindsey's need to be entirely self-sufficient undermines her ability to take care of herself. Until she learns to rely on other people, she'll have a hard time relying on herself, and she'll be vulnerable to self-destructive impulses. To ask for help, she'll have to make two leaps—believing that someone can help, and believing that she deserves help.

Alcoholism nearly always refuses to see itself. The tragedy deepens when suffering people place their trust in a health establishment that shares in their own denial.

Kasl urges therapists to ask clients directly about alcohol and drugs—"when, where, how much, and about all the effects."

"Aren't you tired of living like this?"

She, like so many children of alcoholics, may have thought that if only she loved the drinker enough, she could heal his wounds and make him feel good about himself. Healthy and whole, he would turn to her and give her what she needed.

Nice girls and party girls: an updated version of virgins and whores, women idealized as spiritual or scapegoated as sexually degenerate. In either case, they appear as men's objects, to worship and marry or screw and discard.

"He was going to have to find time between me being busy and his being drunk," said Victoria, "and he couldn't do it."

At first, the pleasures it offers are in proportion to the pain. By offering a predictable high, they give you an illusion of managing your own feelings.

Especially in early sobriety, the world is a frightening place.
Contradictions, double binds, and paradoxes are at the heart of addiction and recovery.

The drinker drinks to find love, but drinking chases love away. The drinker drinks to find relief but after that initial release she finds only pain in the bottle. The drinker feels powerless and drinks to escape and to assert her power, but drinking renders her helpless. If she turns to a substitute addiction, it tightens the self-destructive cycle and delivers her back to drink. Her determination to get control of her addiction exacerbates her problem. It's a closed system, and she's in it by herself. The spiral keeps on tightening. There is no way out from within.

The harder one tries to control it, the more powerful the impulse becomes. Compulsion cannot be conquered in a head-on battle. When one has tried everything to control their behavior and found that no amount of willpower has done any good, they sometimes experience overwhelming relief. They are asked to step outside the cycle of mastery and rebellion represented by their drinking and their efforts to control it. In doing so, they enter a new territory, where they can recover their freedom to make choices.

For many alcoholics, the "bottom" they've feared all their lives is a few months of sobriety. Their relapses may be less about a physical craving—which passes over time—and more about a desperate need to return to a life that is known and understood, a life in which they can rest in what's familiar, even if that is nausea or pain or an empty park bench. Once they drink they have no more decisions to make, since drinking carries them through the day. There is something to treasure in this: simply in knowing the contours of one's life, what one is, and what one feels.

We should not underestimate this. Even if we are sober, well-adjusted, and adaptable, our sense of well-being may depend on a clear identity. When our story about ourselves is challenged, we are likely to feel anxious. When that challenge persists, anxiety can lead to despair. When a woman has been a victim of trauma—as is so often the case—and she has held on to this victimization as the truth about her life, then to give up that identity, to take a step toward wellness, is to revolutionize her sense of self.

It might sound paradoxical to say that someone would have a hard time giving up pain—why not hand it over? Why not choose freedom and space and possibility? But to do so requires faith—and faith, the religious will say, is a gift.

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1 comment:

Joshua Rosenzweig said...

These excerpts are powerful, insightful, and touching. I'm so proud of you, my sweet.