Do Addicts Really Think Differently Than Everyone Else?

By Ruth Fowler 07/01/11

Let's face it. Many of us process life differently than so-called "normies." But luckily, we have tools to combat the insanity we live with on a daily basis.

Road warrior: How to fight the garbled thinking drives us Photo via

“I have my own climate—things can seem okay on the outside but inside I’ve got black clouds hanging low in my sky, and my soul has fallen through my ass,” says William, a 63 year-old with 30 years of sobriety who lives in Venice Beach. He’s talking about “alcoholic thinking,” that nebulous dark cloud, insidious nagging voice and negative mental groove that can lead us back to the booze. The general accepted philosophy is that if you’re feeling “restless, irritable and discontent,” chances are a little alcoholic thinking is creeping back in. But how are you supposed to distinguish AT from the blues? For “ladybug little,” posting on an anonymous recovery forum, alcoholic thinking is: “The feeling that something terrible was going to happen. I didn't know what...but I knew it would be awful and I just had to drink because I couldn't handle it…Anything that was even remotely good in my life, my head managed to turn into some omen of calamities to come.” “If only I had a boyfriend, my life would be perfect,” the thinking may go. Or: “If only I had more money, I wouldn’t be unhappy.” And then there’s: “If only I had a drink, life would be bearable.”  

AT is the conviction that something is about to go horribly wrong or that we need external validation to fill a hole deep inside and that in the event that our own impossible demands are not met, we must drink to fill the hole. “If only I had a boyfriend, my life would be perfect,” the thinking may go. Or: “If only I had more money, I wouldn’t be unhappy.” And then there’s: “If only I had a drink, life would be bearable.” Which all leads to: “I don’t have these things and that’s evidence that the world is pitted against me. I called my sponsor to complain, but he didn’t call back. It’s because he—like the world, like God, like the universe— is against me. This is the worst day of my entire existence on this planet! Everyone hates me! I can’t stop thinking about my sponsor. Asshole. I want him to die! I also want that person who cut in front of me to die as well, not to mention that kid who nearly walked in front of my car just now even though the lights were green. Shit, he has Downs. There’s the universe again, trying to make me feel like a cunt! What did I do? I don’t deserve any of this. I’m a victim. It’s not enough that I have a job, enough food to eat, a car, a home, family, friends. I NEED MORE!”

In a sense, AT is like being a dry drunk, a condition that has been described as “returning to one’s old alcoholic thinking and behavior without actually having taken a drink.” If you consider alcoholism is a threefold disease—a disease of the spirit, the mind, and the body—AT is the mental part of it: the complete self-centeredness of our ego-driven negative thinking which we seek to placate or calm with alcohol and drugs. Alcoholics don’t have a monopoly on the blues, on feeling “restless, irritable and discontent,” or even being grumpy. What seems to distinguish an alcoholic from a regular person is that these feelings are often multiplied by a hundred/thousand/million (depending on the alcoholic in discussion) and that they're often accompanied by a conviction that what’s happening now will never end; “I will always feel this way and I can’t handle feeling this way” can often equal “Drinking or using is the only escape.” Add to that an allergy to drinking or drugs—that is, the fact that we don’t have an off button once a substance is put in our system—and you see the issue.

So how do we combat AT? It’s often said that following the 12 Steps of AA is basically like embarking upon a course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Our dysfunctional thinking and mental behavioral patterns are directly addressed in the 12 steps, in much the same way that a CBT therapist might gently highlight negative thinking in a therapy session. “My CBT therapist suggested when I say things like, ‘I really needed a drink,' I should stop and rephrase it as something more accurate like, ‘I really wanted a drink,’” says James, a 47 year-old alcoholic attending CBT counseling alongside AA meetings. “It reminds me a lot of AA.”  A prayer, for example, is a simple, effective method of setting a positive intention to counteract a negative AT pattern. Those who find thar prayer isn’t for them can do this by simply reciting an affirmative sentence like, “Today I am going to stay calm and not pay any attention to my ‘monkey mind.’ I am going to practice love and forgiveness, instead of anger and suspicion, to the best of my ability.” By pledging to replace obsessive, negative traits with spiritual opposites, we’re training our minds to stay alert, to recognize AT, and to calmly take what AA-ers term “contrary action”: Feeling lazy? Get your ass to a meeting. Hating the world? Help a newcomer. Sick of your meetings? Take a commitment. This is the method in much of AA’s madness. 

But when we’re alone, trapped in what William termed his “inner climate,” reluctant to leave the house, mired in isolation—when we’re hating it and simultaneously convinced that nothing will make a difference—what do we do then? Pray, or “set an intention” for willingness, my sponsor always used to say. “White knuckle it” is what I usually did instead. But as I started to work the steps, what began to happen was that I’d discover ways to treat the AT and isolation even before it started so it never developed into the full blown craziness we all know so well.

Many, of course, believe that only a Higher Power outside ourselves can relieve the insanity of alcoholic thinking. Opponents point out that a belief in a Higher Power suggests that the alcoholic has no personal responsibility for their recovery: you’re a failure but for the grace of God. But speak to many in AA, and they’ll deny this outright. “I’d love it if believing in God made me less responsible for being a jerk-off,” laughs William. “But I don’t think my sponsor sees it that way.” William does pray, and finds it helps to combat the bouts of AT which occur occasionally (in early sobriety, he had “an ass-kicking sponsor” for when he failed to self-motivate). Sarah, a 32-year-old yoga teacher who’s been sober for two years, does not believe in prayer or God but still works the program in her way. “Here's how I interpret the 12 steps,” she says. “I couldn’t get sober on my own without everyone in my meetings and my recovery world. They’re my Higher Power. I looked to them to show me what I couldn’t see in myself. They’re imperfect, they fuck up, they’re not gods in any sense of the word. But when I think I can’t do this anymore and I have to drink, I call my sponsor; knowing that she hasn’t picked up for 10 years gives me faith that I can resist, too.”

AT tends to start murmuring most strongly when we’re wronged. It’s so easy to be a good sober person when life’s going great but as soon as some asshole badmouths us, or doesn’t do what we want, the voices start again. Recently, a person I had offended reached out and gave me another opportunity to apologize to them. I did—and immediately got kicked in the teeth with a vicious and ungracious response. So I did what any good alcoholic did. I sat on it, letting it fester in my mind until it grew to enormous, gargantuan proportions. Never mind this girl was probably PMS-ing. Never mind that she had every right to be annoyed at me. Never mind, even, that she was in the wrong. If I’d kept my side of the street clean, it would have been okay. But I reacted. And sometimes that’s the hardest thing about AT—practicing what many in recovery call “non-reaction.” We have to learn how to pull our train of thought away from those familiar tracks that can lead to a relapse, and often that can be as simple as recognizing AT, acknowledging it, and simply not feeding it: going for a walk, calling a friend, hitting a meeting, watching a movie—distract, distract, distract—until the feeling diminishes, which it inevitably does. Alcoholics with AT are like pit bulls with small mammals: we will not let go and will worry that thought to death rather than put it down and walk away. “Let it go” must be our mantra for mental sanity—but there’s arguably nothing more difficult. The best distraction of all, and often the quickest route to changing feelings of resentment, is the contrary action route: pissed because you don’t feel you’ve gotten enough validation from the world for your greatness? Why not return the email from the person who asked you for help? Somehow a conviction that you’ve been wronged morphs into a belief that the world is a beneficent, loving place—and, even better, that you’re a part of all that positivity. (Similarly, if you want to exacerbate those feelings of resentment, send a bunch of angry emails to those who you’re convinced are responsible for holding you back; it’s guaranteed both to keep you simmering and to motivate them to not help you.)

So next time you feel storm clouds gathering and want to sit inside with the curtains closed, step outside in the sunshine. Do exactly what you don’t want to do. And watch the bad weather blow away.

Ruth Fowler has written for The Village VoiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe New York Post and The Observer. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008. She also wrote about why doctors can't deal with addicted patients and nursing your way back to health, among many other topics.

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