I was with a group of folks this evening who were discussing the fact that alcoholism is as much a problem of the mind as of the body. Yes, it is a disease — recognized as such by the AMA and APA more than 50 years ago — but it is also a complex of emotional difficulties and turmoil that can ruin a person’s life even after they have put the cork in the bottle (if they manage to keep it there without cleaning up their emotional mess, that is). The same is true of other kinds of addicts who get clean, but fail to make the necessary changes. Call it a “dry drunk, “stinkin’ thinkin'” or whatever you will, it is one of the main things that lead to relapse, or misery while technically still clean and sober.
The subject tonight was stinkin’ thinkin’ — the idea that we have it down pat, and can go ahead and drink socially.
No one there seemed to have been successful at it, and no one said that they knew anyone who had, but that is not to say that those folks don’t exist. If one had wandered by, it’s unlikely he or she would have joined our little discussion.
Everyone in recovery has one of those stories, or knows someone else who tried to go back to occasional drinking with predictable results. It often starts out with a program that has gone smoothly for years. Then the person begins to think that maybe they can “handle it.” Sometimes they try, sometimes not, merely teetering on the edge for a bit. The ones who did try tend to have the most interesting stories, and they all center around the idea that they convinced themselves that they didn’t have to remain abstinent, or that they concentrated on some terrible thing that someone had done to them, fixating on that instead of the good things in their lives, or simply forgot to look for the good and concentrated on the bad — so that drinking or using drugs seemed like a reasonable alternative to the way they were feeling.
Which got me to thinking.
One of the things I’ve learned through years of meditation, both the 11th Step kind and some other stuff I do, is that I do, indeed, have a reasonable amount of control over what I think. When you meditate, you try to concentrate on something without intellectual content — your breathing, say — to the exclusion of outside thoughts. This allows your subconscious to percolate uninterrupted, mostly. To begin with it’s hard. Thoughts about all sorts of things come along, unbidden, and you get really pissed off at your inability to do anything about it. Then someone tells you that such things are a normal part of meditation, and that the idea is not to fight them, but just let them arise and then bring your mind back onto the breathing, or mantra, or Hail Marys, or whatever you’re using as a meditation tool. The key is, I can’t stop thoughts from coming to my mind, even over and over again, but I can control whether or not I concentrate on them.
Instead of drinking the poison of resentment and then waiting for the other guy to die, I can choose to bring my mind to something else. I can do it over and over again, until eventually I’ve distracted myself into thinking about other things entirely. The same is true of other obsessions, like drinking, or unsatisfied sexual urges, or the new toy that I think I need desperately. It is entirely within my power to control those thoughts; not to pretend they don’t exist, or fail to acknowledge them, but to choose not to dwell on them. In doing so, I rob them of most of their power, instead of giving them all of mine.