I ended up at the cinema the other day. My wife and I went with our two young boys, and watched a film called ‘Trolls’.
For those without young children you will have had no reason to watch this film so let me give you an overview of the story. The trolls are little creatures who are loving and happy, and spend their days dancing and hugging and generally loving life. The Bergens (interestingly the same name used in the British Army for the backpack that gets filled with enough kit to equal your own body weight which you then drag around terrain that is more like a rollercoaster covered in thick mud than normal ground) however are not like the trolls. They are bigger (big enough to pick up the trolls and eat them) and miserable. The don’t hug, they don’t sing, they don’t dance. They are just miserable.
Anyway one day a miserable Bergan sees the Trolls and sees how happy they are, and eats one, thinking it can then have the Trolls happiness. And because it thinks it will be happy if it eats one, it is. Suddenly the whole race of Bergens becomes obsessed with eating Trolls as they believe that the Trolls are their sole source of happiness. The Trolls run away, and the film is about the Bergens recapturing the Trolls and the Trolls trying to evade their fate of being eaten by the Bergens.
For those who have become sufficiently excited by my astounding storytelling ability to want to rush out and watch the film stop reading now because I am about to tell you the ending. The Trolls manage to convince the Bergans that it is ridiculous to think that you can eat something to make yourself happy, that there are many reasons to be happy; happiness comes from within and not from something you eat. So they all live happily ever after. This is very much a sign of the times, with the baddies being rehabilitated rather than defeated.
Be that as it may it was a strangely insightful little piece. The Bergen Prince is sat on his father the King’s lap and is told by the King that he will never, ever be happy unless he eats Trolls, and as the Trolls have escaped he can never be happy. So the Prince is miserable. He isn’t miserable because he isn’t eating Trolls, he is miserable because the idea of being miserable your whole life is enough to make anyone miserable. He believes he will live a miserable life and it is that belief, not the lack of trolls to eat, that actually causes his unhappiness.
If you believe that you are going to spend the rest of your life unhappy, that belief alone will guarantee you are miserable because the prospect of having a life of misery is a horrible one, enough to make anyone miserable. All you need is that genuine belief that you will be miserable. Of course we are never sat down on our father’s laps and told, categorically and absolutely, that we will never be happy without alcohol (at least I hope that is true for most people). But of course we don’t need to be, we have this belief instilled into us in a far more effective fashion. By society generally of course through television programmes showing people drinking at every given opportunity, through friends relatives and colleagues serving drinks at every occasion, etc. But in fact the main source of this belief comes from ourselves.
Every time you take a drink there is a little schizophrenic battle going on. One the one hand it is bad for you, it causes you x, z and z problems, we are clearly better off without it, etc. And on the other hand? Well, the fact that we want it of course. It gives us a short term boost, and we want that boost. So we tell ourselves all kinds of excuses and lies to justify our decision to take the drink. The most recurrent of these excuses for most people is that a drink will make us happy (or happier, or less miserable, depending on where you are emotionally at the time). We force this view on ourselves again and again, so that when we come to stop we believe we won’t be able to enjoy life, or certain situations, as much without a drink. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. If you genuinely believe you now won’t enjoy life, or even that you won’t enjoy certain situations that you used to enjoy, that alone will be a cause of misery.
Now the misery isn’t the end of it. An antidote for misery is hope. I have been through some fairly grim situations during my lifetime, the thing that kept me going through them is hope that things will get better. I remember reciting a section from a Levellers song to myself over and over again during my time in Iraq that goes “…there’s never been a day that lasts forever, just as the sun sets, it will rise at dawn for ever after…”. It is a comfort sometimes, when there is no other, to remember that time moves inexorably on. Whatever misery or horror you are experiencing cannot last forever, things end, so there is always hope. But what if you are in a situation when you know that the misery can never end because it is self-inflicted and you have decided that the one thing you can do to alleviate your misery is the one thing that you can never allow yourself to do? Well that is a whole new ballgame. We are not just talking about misery now, we are talking about misery with no hope of reprieve, and misery with no hope of reprieve is despair, utter, utter despair. This is the rock bottom for the addict, mentally if not physically. The drug is destroying them, mentally and physically, it is ruining their life, causing them to lose their job, their loved ones, their home, even their very life. But without it they have misery and despair. So on the whole they tend to choose the drug. It may seem an irrational choice but it isn’t. The misery of the drug is usually marginally better than the misery and despair the addict encounters when they try to give it up.
This not only explains why the addict will usually chose the drug over abstinence, but it also explains the tendency for them to jump from taking the drug, to abstinence, and back to taking the drug again. They are miserable with the drug, they know that logically they should be better off without it, so they stop, but then they encounter the misery and despair. So they start again, but they just end up back where they started with the misery of the drug, so they stop again. So the cycle continues.
This phenomenon also explains why the AA doctrine of taking one day at a time is so powerful. It’s not so much that it breaks the recovery down into ‘bitesize’ pieces of single days, but more importantly it can negate this phenomenon. The misery and despair evolves from contemplating our entire life without whatever substance it is that we believe we need to enjoy life (or to enjoy certain situations). However if we are not thinking about our entire lives then we can short circuit the entire process. The problem of course with this doctrine is that it doesn’t solve the problem, it is just a way of ignoring it for a short period. After all if we are determined to stop for ever then we need to reconcile ourselves with that, not just ignore it every time the conflict arises.
This phenomenon also provides an explanation for why stopping for certain time limited periods is often achievable, but stopping for good can be problematic. When we know that we will be starting drinking again at some point, again, we entirely negate this phenomenon. So just because you can stop short term, don’t kid yourself into thinking that you are in control.
All in all it’s a fairly bleak picture; either the misery of the drug or the misery of life without it. But there are two key points to note. Firstly the entire process takes place in the conscious mind, therefore it is within our power to control and negate if we wish to do so. Secondly the entire phenomenon built on one key point; a genuine belief that you cannot be happy without eating Trolls, I mean drinking alcohol. And the beautiful truth is that this one single point from which the entire prison of addiction is built on is a lie, a fabrication, it is utterly wrong. You can enjoy life without alcohol, in fact not only can you enjoy life without alcohol but in fact it is far more enjoyable. You just need to fully understand how the drug affects us and how every one of its perceived benefits is an illusion. If you can do this then you can free yourself from this mental prison which forms the backbone of any addiction.
For more information you can read the first 5 chapters of Alcohol Explained here.