By Illaria Dana, Education Major
In order for the alcoholic and the addict to stay sober, they must undergo a complete psychic change. A psychic change does not mean that a new center in the brain must be found, or that telepathy or some other intangible means of communication must be achieved. A psychic change means that the way the alcoholic and the addict think, the way that thinking in itself occurs, must be changed. The alcoholic and the addict cannot always remember why they should not drink or use after they have ingested alcohol or their substance of choice. Their thinking often leads them back to the substance from which they must be freed.
These are the beliefs of 12 step programs. 12 step programs state that new principles are required for alcoholics and addicts to live sober lives. These programs are based on the belief that no one can understand an alcoholic or addict in the same way as another alcoholic or addict who has recovered from the same state of being. These groups believe that passing on the instructions for recovery as they have received them is the best way to help others. In this way, anonymity is a virtue. Recovery depends on a process that has been proven by the experience of recovered alcoholics and addicts rather than their personal beliefs.
There are ways that we, as the public, can be of assistance to those in recovery. One way is to understand thinking as it is defined through neurochemistry. We are born with billions of neurons. Neurons are the brain cells that transmit chemical messages, or neurotransmitters, through synapses. This is the basic, physical framework of our thinking. Neurons form networks, where specific neurons link up each other, and these networks are based on the experience of the individual. When we are born, the amount of neurons is much larger than the number of neural pathways, or connections between neurons. Thus, the process of thinking can be generalized as the process of forming neural pathways between neurons. This is is physical process of learning.
Learning is guided by experience in life. For example, parents have to tame their young children, reminding them not to hit, the importance of sharing, and telling them whether they are safe in the world. Things like gender, that boys play with trucks and girls with dolls, are passed on through explicit messages, such as comments from parents and other adults, and through more subtle messages, such as toy displays. Developmental psychologists are fond of saying that the personality of an individual is formed by the age of six, because many ideas are formed by then, their frameworks placed in the neural pathways of the brain. It can be incredibly difficult to change these old ideas, for it requires a complete overhaul of the physical structure that dictates a person’s every thought.
What of the alcoholic and addict? Their brains have developed certain ideas, and the corresponding structures of these ideas, that make it difficult to change their behaviors. Their brains have also been influenced chemically by the substances they have put into their bodies. For example, alcohol is a depressant and slows down the activity of neurons. Like other substances, alcohol increases the release of dopamine, the chemical that is synthesized in the brain from the chemical L-DOPA and is linked with feeling pleasure. Chronic alcohol and drug users may have affected their brains’ abilities to synthesize dopamine. Their ability to feel pleasure may have been seriously impaired by their use.
The patterns of their thinking and the distorted chemistry of their brains make it incredibly difficult to make lucid decisions and change their behavior. In order to have a psychic change, alcoholics and addicts must remove the substance from their bodies. This is the major function of detoxes, places where medical doctors can monitor the physical responses to the removal of a substance. Detoxes are incredibly important, and alcoholics and addicts can die if their use has been severe over a long period of time. Unfortunately, Governor LePage has attempted to remove state funding from alcohol and drug treatment centers, which led to the relocation and downsizing of Mercy Detox. The public can be supportive of alcoholics and addicts by voting to support medical treatment for alcoholics and addicts through detoxes, and if they need them, psychiatrists and psychologists.
Alcoholics and addicts often believe they have to change their behavior before their thinking has changed, and that this change of behavior can help change their thinking and feelings. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) claims that thinking must change before actions and feelings can. CBT claims that the amount of negative thoughts dictate negative feelings and actions that are destructive to a person. The actions of the alcoholic and the addict must change before their thoughts can, though, because their actions are inducing chemicals into their bodies that alter the capacity for their brains to operate. As they begin to sober up and begin to take other actions to stay sober, they can become aware of what their thoughts are and benefit from new patterns of thinking. These new patterns of thinking can lead to clarity and awareness or to recognition of lies that one tells oneself. These patterns do have corresponding actions, such as meditation.
Most importantly, alcoholics and addicts cannot change themselves alone. They require the support from others, other alcoholics, addicts, medical professionals, and hopefully, from their families and friends. As members of the public, we can assist their recovery by growing and being the best people we can be. We can try to be honest with ourselves, lead meaningful lives, and build supportive communities that give hope to those who suffer, from alcoholism, addiction, and other afflictions or states of loss.