The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous refers to the “insanity of alcoholism” as the way alcoholics justify their alcoholism. In one section, it reads as follows: “People drink because they like how alcohol makes them feel. This feeling is so elusive that, even though an alcoholic admits it is injurious, they eventually cannot differentiate between what is true and what is false. To them, the alcoholic life seems the only normal life.”
The “insanity of alcoholism” isn’t meant to imply an alcoholic is clinically insane. Instead, the quote describes how an alcoholic’s thought processes become so disorganized by their addiction that they are no longer capable of rational thought. Their lives become consumed by alcohol–where to get it, when to drink it, and how to stay drunk as much as possible. Nothing except for that next drink matters to an alcoholic, not even the well-being of their children, their parents, their siblings, or their closest friends.
How the Insanity Begins
According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 15 million Americans suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD). The NIH defines AUD (alcoholism) as a “chronic, relapsing brain disease” characterized by a person’s inability to control or stop drinking, despite suffering health, work, and social consequences. Alcohol is classified as a central nervous system depressant which disrupts normal sensory input. When someone is intoxicated, they cannot see, hear, smell, feel or taste normally. In addition, the release of brain chemicals responsible for maintaining brain activity is suppressed. Alcohol increases levels of a neurotransmitter called GABA that causes marked sedation. Benzodiazopenes such as Valium and Xanax do the same thing.
Alcohol also forces the brain to release massive amounts of dopamine into a part of the brain that controls feelings of euphoria and pleasure. Once the brain of an alcoholic gets used to feeling “great” due to alcohol’s disruption of the CNS system and neurotransmitters, it “tells” the alcoholic to drink again or suffer the consequences of withdrawal symptoms.
And that’s where the insanity of alcoholism begins.
What is “Alcoholic Thinking”?
To an alcoholic, anyone who tells them they need help because they are an alcoholic is “the enemy.” You might have a mountain of evidence proving an alcoholic is indeed an alcoholic–multiple job losses, divorce/separation, losing their car or home because they are always broke, arrests for public intoxication or drunk driving–but none of that matters to an alcoholic. Admitting they are an alcoholic means admitting all the terrible things they have done to loved ones as an alcoholic. And, admitting their alcoholism means going to detox, “drying out,” and confronting emotions they do not want to deal with.
Denying alcoholism is a powerfully effective, self-preservation mechanism. People start drinking for a variety of reasons, but never with the intent of becoming an alcoholic. Once addicted to alcohol, they cannot avoid unbearable withdrawal symptoms when they can’t stay drunk. Many alcoholics tell their counselors that it is the overwhelming fear of withdrawing physically and psychologically from alcohol that prevents them from seeking help.
The mind of an alcoholic denies reality. It finds ways to spin, twist, distort, and blame reality for causing its owner problems. Here are a few classic examples of the insanity of alcoholism:
Bob has been an alcoholic for two years. His boss finally fired him after giving him chance after chance to clean up his act. But Bob claims his boss did not fire him for missing work or coming to work drunk. Bob tells anyone who listens to him that he got fired “because Sam wanted to hire his nephew to take my place. I should sue Sam and get a big settlement for being illegally fired!”
Mary has been an alcoholic for six years. She started drinking after her second child died at birth. She has a 14-year-old son who spends most of his time at friends’ houses and a husband who works long hours to support his family. She has been arrested for OVI (Operating a Vehicle Impaired) twice in the past two years. Mary spends many of her afternoons and evenings at the corner bar.
Walking home late one night, Mary is beaten and robbed. When her husband brings up the fact that she wouldn’t have suffered a concussion and black eye if she weren’t an alcoholic, Mary screams that it is his fault she was almost killed. “You’re never home! You make me drink because you don’t want to help me! Remember, I lost a child, you know! And all you do is blame me for everything!”
Of course, Bob wasn’t fired because his boss wanted to hire a nephew and Mary’s excuse for drinking because she lost a child and her husband must work 60 hours a week to make ends meet are ridiculous. But so goes the alcoholic mind. It denies, blames others, blatantly refuses to admit a drinking problem and does everything possible to reinforce the delusion of blamelessness.
If you have a friend or family member who is an alcoholic, understand that you cannot reason with them until they have completed a medical detoxification. Of course, the hardest thing to do is to convince an alcoholic they need professional help. Unfortunately, most alcoholics won’t admit they have a problem until they have hit “rock bottom” (be it homelessness, no money, no friends, a family that has abandoned them, etc.).
Can An Alcoholic Recover from the Insanity of Alcohol?
While alcoholic thinking is reversible, cognitive impairment caused by alcoholism may not be reversible. Recovering from the insanity of alcohol demands entering an inpatient rehab facility for detoxification, followed by intensive counseling and cognitive behavioral therapy. If an alcoholic relapses, they may or may not revert to alcoholic thinking.
Sometimes a relapsing alcoholic will seek help immediately. Others will start drinking again and tell everyone they now know how to “control” their drinking and won’t become an alcoholic again after just one drink. The latter case is an example of a relapsing alcoholic reverting to the “insanity of alcohol.”
Long-term alcoholism can permanently damage the brain. Structural imaging scans of alcoholic brains show brain volume loss in the frontal lobe and cerebellum. The frontal lobe is the area where higher mental functions occur while the cerebellum is responsible for balance, gait, and learning.
Research indicates that alcoholics who have not drunk alcohol for several weeks still present some cognitive deficits involving visuospatial, memory, and problem-solving abilities. Some recovering alcoholics will regain normal brain volume and unimpaired cognitive abilities. Others will always have permanently impaired cognition due to alcoholism. Doctors thinks irreversible brain damage may be linked to how long someone drinks, how much someone drinks, and their overall health as an alcoholic.
FHE offers in-depth, comprehensive alcohol treatment, including medical detoxification, counseling, medications, and aftercare support. Our neuro-rehabilitative treatments can speed the recovery process, by helping to restore brain health for minds ravaged by alcohol. If you or a loved one can’t stop drinking, call FHE today. Find sanity and freedom today.