I read a piece recently about the mental calculus of the alcoholic. The author makes the assertion that, in the mind of the alcoholic, drinking to obliteration is a rational act, as it is the fastest, easiest, and most sure way of “making the emotional devastation go away.” Essentially, he says, “It is not irrational to take a drink when taking a drink is the best available option.” He asserts that powerlessness and irrationality are interchangeable terms, and that therefore – while he doesn’t argue against AA, explicitly praising the organization – the first step* may be badly formed. If powerlessness equals irrationality, and it is rational for an alcoholic to drink, then that alcoholic is not powerless.
First of all, I would dispute that taking the fastest means to an end (especially if that end is destructive) is necessarily rational. But I think that’s irrelevant. I don’t believe the premise that powerlessness and irrationality are meant to be synonymous. I’m not at all sure they’re related. Whether my relationship with alcohol is that I drink it because I think it is my best option, or despite that I think it is my worst – i.e., that my actions are internally rational or irrational – the problem is that my relationship with alcohol is controlling my desires.
In the first case – I drink because I believe it is my best option – I may be behaving in an internally rational manner, but I am clearly out of step with the real world. Sure, inebriation blunts emotional pain, but it doesn’t address emotional discomfiture. In fact, for we alcoholics, in inevitably exacerbates it. So, I am drinking because my thinking, technically rational though it may be to me, is distorted. I am turning to alcohol to treat a condition which alcohol makes worse. And I am doing so because I have convinced myself of something untrue.
In the second case – I am internally irrational – I am compelled to drink despite knowing that it is not good for me. This type of powerlessness may be more obvious to a non-alcoholic that the previous sort, where I am drinking because I am in denial of alcohol’s effects or powers. In this case, I don’t want to drink, but I am drinking anyway. This is the sort of powerlessness that those outside the program seem to understand.
But the first type is the more insidious type. There it is the powerlessness of being unable to see for the truth that my need for alcohol has changed the way I think. So that it becomes the rational solution. Just because my actions are internally rational, that does not mean I have any more power over the alcohol than a person in the second case. In fact, I may have less. The person in the second case may at least have the option of attempting to abstain because they know the alcohol is harmful. In the first case, I am utterly powerless, because I have convinced myself that the alcohol is beneficial.
So, being powerless over alcohol is not, to me, related to rationality at all, because it is easy to construct two scenarios – one where I behave according to what seems rational, and one where I behave seemingly irrationally – and am powerless (and drunk!) in both scenarios.
Here’s the real truth of it for me: the powerlessness referred to in step one is not really about the alcohol. As we grow in sobriety, we discover this to be deeply true, I’ve found. In fact, very little about being an alcoholic is about alcohol. It’s about needing to drown my emotions and agony and despair and discomfort. It’s about needing to anesthetize myself against living. It’s about preferring a state of intoxication to a state of unencumbered reality.
And it doesn’t matter if I choose that state despite wanting not to, or if I choose that state because I believe it’s my best available option. In either case – and in all the cases on the spectrum between – I am choosing alcohol over anything else. Because I’m an alcoholic. And because alcohol gives me what I cannot find anywhere else: obliteration of self.
It is only when we recover, and face our emotions, that we can see what the powerlessness means. That I am powerless over my relationship with alcohol. Because I am powerless over my own mind. When I drink, my thinking changes. And I will convince myself of whatever I need to to get the next drink. I will even convince myself that alcohol is the best option. I’ll believe it. Because I am an alcoholic. I have a disease which makes me believe I don’t have a disease.
I have not gained, in five and a half years of sobriety, any power over alcohol. What I have gained is the ability to compare my internal world to the real world. And I can recognize that the way I think when I am active in my drinking doesn’t jibe with the way the real world functions. By abandoning my attempts to control the alcohol, the world, and even my thinking. I have become (more) able to accept life on its own terms.
And to accept that I cannot maintain a relationship with alcohol. Not if I also want to do anything else. And that acceptance is the breaking of the lock.
* “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.”