The other day I read a great article by neuroscientist and addiction memoirist Marc Lewis about the effects of alcohol on the brain. (It's on the Guardian website, if you want to read it yourself.) The article got me thinking, and I wanted to work out some of that thinking here.
One of the main effects that alcohol has on the brain, according to Lewis, is that is the prefrontal cortex is inhibited, which means, "your ability to see things from any perspective other than your own approaches nil." One of my interests in psychology is the central role of perspective-taking in being a person. It's interesting to realize that, when you're drinking, what looks like clear thinking is more like the inability to take in other points of view. We live in a world that prizes certainty and clarity, and having the illusion of that would be a great comfort, so it makes sense that that's some of the appeal of alcohol. But being able to take in multiple perspectives is essential, even if it's not always the straight road to crystal clarity of thought. Other perspectives enrich your thinking, and continuing to encounter new perspectives keeps you open to new approaches to important issues in life. At the same time, knowing that there may well be other perspectives still unknown to you or that you don't fully understand gives you the understanding that when you make a decision, even when it's a good decision, you're usually making working with limited knowledge of the world. You could always be wrong. But you do your best, and you accept that everyone is in the same situation, always working with partial knowledge, and so you throw in your lot with humanity, and that's as good as anyone can do. (That last bit is a very poor translation of some of the ideas of philosopher Richard Rorty, but it's good enough for where I'm going here.)
After reading the Marc Lewis article, I got to thinking about an implication that he doesn't get to in his piece but that might be important for people who are quitting drinking: Once you give up alcohol, you will lose access to an easy way to temporarily shut out other perspectives. That means if you are someone who is highly susceptible to other people's perspectives (as I am), you might have to build some silence into your life. Otherwise you may lose the ability to temporarily shut out other perspectives and therefore become unable to find your own voice.
To me, this matters. Since I started this blog, I've struggled to balance two sides of getting sober: taking up the advice of other people about how to get sober, and finding what works best for me. (There are plenty of people who say that your own thinking was what got you into having a drink problem, so you need to give up your own thinking and be obedient to what others say when you decide to get sober. I see that that works for some people, but it was never going to work for me. I wonder now whether that advice may work best for people who have trouble hearing other perspectives at all, rather than people who have trouble locating their own.)
I'm not a mother, but I have read so many blogs with stories about mothers who drank to shut out the world (mainly the kids) temporarily. Later they often felt badly about having done that. Yet anyone can see that having to take up other people's needs all the time is a surefire way to drown your own needs, or even the ability to know you have needs. Once you're doing that, drinking to quiet them all down almost makes sense. Women, whether we're mothers or not, are socialized into this way of being hyper-attentive to others. Finding a way out occasionally seems crucial.
Now, I am absolutely NOT making a case for drinking here. Not at all! What I'm trying to do is understand a little more about being drawn back into drinking many times, despite the misery that heavy drinking always brings me. And what I'm coming to, helped along by the informative bit of brain chemistry that Lewis so clearly explains, is that, having quit drinking, I need to cultivate a space of silence within which I can learn to hear my own voice.
I have been doing that in various ways--sometimes by cycling, running, or walking; sometimes via meditation and prayer; often by reading; definitely by writing this blog. And I can see that the whole "treat" phenomenon, which has usually eluded me, might be partly about this, finding a way to make a space for your own wants in the middle of the hectic world. For me, the "treat" talk has always left me cold, as it seems to be just swapping one indulgence for another, and that just leads me back to my primary indulgence, booze. I needed a more wholesale life change than that. But if Lewis is right (and I've no reason to think he isn't) then I can see that treats may have something in common with something that's been important to me, and maybe to many people who get sober, and that's making a space for myself that temporarily keeps out the cacophony of the world so that I can find my own voice in all the noise. It's temporary, of course. Once you find your voice, you have to go back to the world and take up the other voices and see how your own holds up in the larger conversation. And you have to accept that you might be wrong--just because it's your voice, doesn't mean it knows what's right, or even what's right for you. I think, for me, starting to be able to hear that voice has been a big part of getting sober. Now that I have an easier time discerning my own thoughts and feelings ( and I have to say, I'm still slow on this at times) learning how to think and feel my way through balancing my voice with the voices of the world is a big next step.
Thinking this through has been a help to me. It may or may not help anyone else. The case I'm making, if I'm making one at all, is that one important part of getting sober might be to find a way to set aside the noise of the world once in a while. That might be an important service that alcohol was providing, and even if the drink wasn't working anymore, being able to sometimes shut out the noise might be an important part of knowing what you think and feel yourself. Seems to be true for me, anyway.
As an aside, if you read this blog at times and have followed my big crisis of school applications and thinking about visas and so on, that whole drama has died down for now. I'm in conversation with people about longer term plans, but nothing is happening any time soon, and I feel pretty good about that. Anyway lately the sun has been shining and the cherry blossoms and magnolias are out, and that always makes me feel like I live in a world made of love!
If you're still here, thanks for keeping me company. Hope all is well!