Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Alcoholism as a symptom of addiction

Hi. My name is Jeff, and I am an addict. When I was in college, I studied for the MCATs consistently, non-stop for four months. The more I studied, the more I kept on thinking about studying and the more I ended up studying. When I wasn’t studying, I felt that I should be studying to the point of being self-destructive. I was surrendering friendships and fun, losing touch with old friends and not making new ones, besides my MCAT books. My downstairs neighbor commented that she was often in our apartment hanging out but never saw me since I was never there. Instead, I was studying. I stopped exercising, started getting anxious, and I thought it was all normal and that it would only make the test go better. When I took the actual exam, I had actually studied too hard and could not physically put my brain through the verbal section. My brain was fried, burnt out, and said ‘no more’ at the time I needed it the most. I ended up doing poorly on the verbal section, forcing me to retake the MCATs.

My behavior was compulsive, progressive and self-destructive, all signs of an addiction. Was I addicted to studying for the MCATs? No, but my dependence on it does point to an underlying addiction. So how could I be dependant on MCAT studying without being addicted to it? This is an important distinction to make and one that is essential in my alcoholism and deaddiction project in Jamkhed.

What happens when our brain receives information? And how does that information then turn into action? Studies have come to find that our limbic system, or more specifically our amygdale, plays a large role in the actions we make. Previously it was understood that our feelings were simply derived from our actions, yet brain imaging studies have shown that the amygdale actually responds to information collected before the action takes place. Thereby, our actions are in large part a reflection of our feelings. This has had a great deal of importance in addiction medicine, showing that to truly treat an addiction you must go to the root of the cause, which involves feelings rather than simply thought and action.

In our life, we have both good feelings and bad ones. Both are strong, but it is usually the negative ones that burden us. These negative feelings derive from unhealthy relationships with friends, family, money, work, society and ourselves. These negative emotions exist in all of us and drive us to need good feelings, largely determining our behavior in life. With alcoholism, the good feeling is found in a bottle, with the drive to alcohol propagated by our underlying negative feelings. Alcoholism is thereby a dependency on alcohol to achieve that good feeling, similar to dependencies on gambling, drugs, eating, sex, exercising and many other behaviors. The dependency increases as tolerance increases and chemical imbalances create a need for it beyond emotion. Yet originally behind that dependency is a different addiction – a disease of our emotions in which we are reliant upon negative emotions. The dependency can change while the addiction remains, as often we find alcoholics who stop drinking but turn to workaholics, or who stop tobacco yet take on gambling, or quit eating and switch to exercise. The addiction has little to do with the alcoholism but rather the alcoholism serves as a symptom of addiction.

Further, studies have shown that similar chemical imbalances are achieved in the brain by alcohol, working, gambling, shopping, sex and drugs (1). This research has shown that the same pleasures can be achieved regardless of the dependence. The significance is that what is important is not the dependence which creates the pleasure but rather the addiction that drives the need for a pleasure. Therefore, removing the alcohol from an addict may remove that specific dependency but the addiction will drive the man to find a new dependant behavior. This is regardless of the fact that it may be much more difficult for a man to quit his dependence on alcohol or drugs than exercise or eating due to higher tolerance and cravings.

Addiction counseling and rehabilitation must focus on the understanding that the removal of alcohol from the addict will not solve the whole problem but that the underlying negative emotions must be addressed. Deeper examination is necessary of the addict’s relationship with the world around him and with himself. For this reason, the Twelve Step Program (used by Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups) is such a success. The twelve steps focus on the concept that that we are powerless over alcohol. To make amends, we must deeply examine ourselves and repair those relationships that have been harmed and harmful. It is a focus on examining the emotions and the struggle within ourselves, not with the bottle or with the actual dependency.

In Jamkhed, Friday and Saturday were spent with an addiction doctor and counselor from Pune Adventist Hospital. To update from a previous post Beginning part two of the alcohol and hypertension study: a 2nd and more successful meeting was held with the village where hypertension was discussed, results from the study shared, and the issue of alcohol only touched upon. Connections were kept with the Indiranagar village as we identified men in the village who were open to discussing alcohol. A partnership was made with Pune Adventist Hospital’s deaddiction program and they just recently came to Jamkhed for a two-day session with our three counselors focusing on both theory and logistics.

At this point, the plan is for the counselors to meet throughout the week and continue to discuss the theory behind addiction, using AA’s The Big Book as a guide. Simultaneously, one of the counselors (a recovered alcoholic) will begin to meet with men from Indiranagar who want to quit three times per week, eventually taking them through the twelve steps. Once a solid group has formed, an awareness program will be launched and the Pune Adventist group will return to run a five-day detox center. Most importantly, at this point the outlook looks promising and achievable. If the steps as planned are taken, the project has a bright (although difficult) future for CRHP and the men who deserve the opportunity to quit drinking and treat their addiction if they so desire.

When we tell alcoholics that they are wrong and bad people, we are not only wrong about the alcoholics but we are lying to ourselves. We are all addicts. We all face feelings very similar to those of alcoholics, including fear, sadness, resentment, guilt, insecurity, egoism, irresponsibility and shame. The difference comes in our coping mechanisms, as we are able to deal with and hide these feelings from others and ourselves better than is someone who deals with alcoholism. Because of their impaired coping skills, these universal feelings are expressed more openly, allowing us to label and diagnose an alcoholic as some different than ourselves rather than examining our own relation with those feelings. Alcoholics are not mad or bad people but rather are sick with a disease of the emotions. A great first step in helping recovering alcoholics is to recognize that we are not so different after all, and we all face our own addictions.


Nikki said...

I really like this entry-- I have not thought about addiction in that way. Thank you for getting me to think and re-consider!

Garrrr said...

What great work you all have done. This work on recovery will have a profound effect on both the alcoholic and the community. Feel VERY proud that you will leave your community a better place.

Anonymous said...

So did the doc check out the 'leaders' of the project as well? Might have been very helpful.

Jaz said...

Without alcoholism treatment, these problems can often go undiagnosed; most alcoholics don’t ever seek treatment until they wind up in some major problem involving severe health problems

Anonymous said...

I'm in the program, and am going to Jamkhed tomorrow! I'm hoping this is still happening when I get there!