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Insanity and Alcoholism.

27 April 2012

Step two of Alcoholics Anonymous states that “we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” I’m still not going to talk about the spiritual aspects of the AA program. For a couple of reasons. First, it’s complicated and nuanced, and I don’t really feel up to it this morning. Second, I don’t really know how I feel about it myself. Third, I’d rather talk about the second part of the step, because it gets crushed under the weight of the “higher power” concept.

It’s almost like it got snuck in there: “restore us to sanity”. That makes an important implication, in the context of the first step, which, it turns out, step two immediately follows. Being powerless over alcohol, and having unmanageable lives, per step one, is described in step two as being something other than sanity. After all, how can we be restored to something if we were not removed from it? Now, I know there are a lot of sciency-folks who read this, and I should say that I don’t think anyone was trying to use “insane” as a technical term. But it’s a useful way to describe the state of mind we are in when we reach the terminal stage of alcoholism, whether it ends in death or sobriety.

Alcoholic insanity, as I understand and experienced it, is the state of being unable to refuse a drink. Unable to control my drinking. And because of this, I was unable to maintain appropriate social behavior while drinking. I made an ass of myself too many times to count. Was uninvited from things that were important to me. Drove drunk. Missed deadlines. Lost important work and documents. All of these things that I don’t do anymore, or do very little (I can still be socially inept, ask anyone.). Behaviors that I did not choose deliberately. Things I in fact sought not to do and was troubled greatly by. And yet, I continued in them because I had no ability to control how I drank.

Those things I did aren’t the alcoholic insanity. Everyone who gets very drunk from time to time may do some or all of those things. That doesn’t make them an alcoholic and it doesn’t make them insane. The alcoholic insanity is what I did when I was not intoxicated. It’s not insane to get drunk and make an ass of yourself and lose a friend over it. What’s insane is then, the next day, deciding that another drink is a good idea. Over and over again. Regardless of the consequences. Regardless of becoming more and more socially isolated. Regardless of involuntary interactions with law enforcement and the judicial system.

But there’s also another kind of insanity that happens. A kind I now remember fondly, oddly enough. And that’s the insanity of early sobriety. The first few weeks and months of sobriety are a confusing, difficult, baffling, emotional time. I’m not sure all of the ways alcohol abuse affects the brain. I know it’s described as a depressant. I know that it’s an anaesthetic. And I know I used it, like so many alcoholics, to prevent me from having to confront difficult and painful emotions.

As a result, when I stopped drinking, I was flooded with anger, irritation, frustration, fear, fear, fear, exhaustion, and shame. Intermittently mixed with hope, glory, relief, triumph, and elevation. Sometimes, I’d cycle between any of these by the hour. I was fortunate. When I was in early sobriety, for the first six weeks, I was in a safe place. Alcoholics Anonymous can definitely help you get sober, if you need to get sober. But it is not necessarily a “safe place”. Specifically, if you’re a woman who needs to get sober, my advice is to go to women-only meetings for a while.

It takes time for our brain chemistry to recover from the transient response of sudden deprivation of alcohol intake. Then, it takes time and work for us to deal with the onslaught of emotions we were repressing with alcohol. This is a difficult time for a lot of people new to sobriety. Many of them drink over it. With the emotions out of whack, and our thinking still skewed, we will often turn back to alcohol for relief. Sadly, all this does is make the next attempt worse (Or so I’ve been told. Thankfully, I haven’t relapsed yet.).

Oftentimes, the astonishing difficulty of these emotions feels separate from alcohol. And so they become an excellent excuse to place our focus elsewhere, to conclude that alcohol isn’t our problem. Because, of course, alcohol isn’t really our problem. Our problem is that we try to treat our discontent with alcohol, and then find that more and more alcohol is required, to the exclusion of everything else. But this effect isn’t always clear to us in early sobriety. We put down the glass, discover that our minds are full of madness, and shift our focus from alcohol. Too soon, we can convince ourselves that it’s ok to drink, because we have found the source of our difficulties, and alcohol wasn’t it. And we neglect the addiction. Or we find that our restlessness and irritability is too overwhelming, and instead of relying on others in the program or developing new methods of coping, we return to our basic first companion.

Insanity is part of alcoholism. We have all this intolerable darkness inside, and we treat it with drink, despite all the consequences. That’s insanity. When we give up drinking, we are confronted with baffling, powerful, and often debilitating emotions which threaten to leave us feeling exposed and humiliated. We often will seek refuge from these back in alcohol. That’s insanity.

Because alcohol addiction is more than just a strong need or desire for a substance. It’s more than the craving. It’s the madness. It is a mental illness. And it’s terminal. And incurable. Alcoholism, untreated, is a death sentence as sure as any fatal malady. And no interval of abstinence, no length of remission, is a cure. Alcoholism remains with us. A week, or a month, or a year, or a decade of sobriety does not prove we can drink normally. But we can recover from the hopelessness. And as time in sobriety passes, we achieve relief from the madness.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. bronironi permalink
    27 April 2012 11:20

    Good post, as always. I was reading recently about the impact that alcohol has on the brain, and therefore the challenges during withdrawl. They said 4 weeks to get back to normal cognitive functioning, and 4 years to get the frontal lobes back to normal. I can only imagine this makes the emotional roller coaster even more complicated. No wonder so many people fall off the wagon. That + what you’ve described is an insane amount of crap for anyone to deal with.

    • 28 April 2012 14:03

      That’s really interesting. I haven’t heard that before, but it’s in line with many things I’ve heard in AA, where people say they didn’t start feeling truly normal until they’d been sober for about 5 years.

  2. 27 April 2012 13:29

    Thank you, thank you. Great post on the part of Step 2 that does, I feel, get a bit overlooked. I have 17 months, but I’m not all the way through the steps, and at times I do still feel some of the “insanity” of early sobriety. I am hopeful that as I continue to work the steps, I will have those feelings less often.

    • 27 April 2012 13:59

      Glad it was helpful! And my experience is exactly that: as I worked the steps, I got less and less crazy!

  3. 3 May 2012 11:18

    And I can imagine that for some who aren’t drinking but not recovered, the insanity continues by being irritable and discontent.

  4. Lisa permalink
    25 March 2013 12:27

    Good stuff for those in Real Early Sobriety, which i now understand to be like the first years…helpful to be honest about how long this recalibration may take. Thanks for the insight.

  5. Allan permalink
    17 June 2016 23:48

    I think the longest I’ve been sober (or period of time without a drink) since the first time I tried alcohol is 3 years. My recovery has always resulted in relapse and enormous shame, regret, humiliation and remorse — yet alcohol is the first thing I turn to when I get a case of the f#@$-its. Cunning, baffling and powerful to be absolutely sure.

  6. Colin Mckenzie permalink
    22 September 2022 11:22

    Thankfully I am a week over 20 years sober, which with 20/20 hindsight is a major miracle, as I used to drink over 140 units daily on a regular basis for over 8 years. this led to me having a near fatal brain bleed, due to undiagnosed VERY high blood pressure. Thinking back, my “luckiest” thing was going through heavy detox whilst in an induced coma, so knew nothing of any DT’s etc. It has left me though with very limited short term memory/concentration which is untreatable, due to where the bleed was located in my brain. A major part of my recovery has been avoiding socialising with serious/heavy drinkers.


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