Throughout my month as "expert" blogger I will be looking at the problem, addictive behaviours, as a researcher in the area of affective and clinical neuroscience and neuro psychology and as someone who has also recovered from alcoholism and substance and behavioural addiction.
I am someone who marries experimental evidence with ancedotal - this is hugely important for me, explaining what I have learnt, been taught and observed in the rooms of AA. AA meetings have also taught me how to live. I seek to substantiate this vast experiential wisdom by explaining some of what I have learnt in other terms, in terms of neuro psychology, i.e. what happens to the brain and behaviour as the result of addiction and what happens in recovery also.
I will alternate between blogging about the problem and blogging about the solution, the disorder and the recovery. I also seek to explain this spiritual malady as an emotional disorder.
I am often asked what I mean by "recovered". I simply mean restored to sanity. I have the power to make sane, sensible, reasonable, "sober" decisions today in a way I could never before.
In a sense my addictive behaviours were constantly the result of a decision making deficit (to be blogged about later) which always ended in pain. My thoughts and decisions got me to AA not just the final decision to go to my first AA meeting. My best thinking ended up in catastrophic degradation of my health, mind, body, spirituality and emotional well being. I have recovered all these thanks to the 12 step program of AA.
My previous blog is how we process memories of the past, which frequently haunted us, by processing the negative emotions which fuelled these memories and kept them alive in our consciousness. Here I will look at how I stay relatively sane via Steps 10-12, the maintenance steps.
I have a condition I have to manage. I maintain my emotional regulation and hence my sanity by working these three steps in particular.
But I hear you ask but how come you have to maintain if you are recovered?
I have recovered hence I am sane hence I now know that I have a condition which has to be managed. It is like saying I do not have to regulate my emotions which is absurd. Of course I do - the 12 steps allow me a framework, a way of living which allows me to do what I could not previously do by myself which is to manage, regulate my emotional life.
I can live life on life's terms only by managing my emotional life.
When I have did my steps 4-7, noting the situations, the people, the institutions that have caused persistent resentments in me, then examining what parts of my self have been affected, I also, thanks to one sponsor was asked me to, put down exactly what “sins” or defects of character I also experienced during these resentments. This jotting down of the exact sins I was in during these resentments has proved to be very useful in my recovery ever since. What I noticed was that I had the same array of sins or negatively (immaturely) expressed emotions in relation to all resentments regardless of the situation or the person I had the resentment, the same web of sins was woven in every situation to create a memory web. For me this shows clearly how I do not process and regulate my emotions properly, how it has a canalized form of reaction, it is concretized in explicit memory.
I have found increasingly in recovery that when I want someone or something to be the way I want it and it doesn’t go that way or I want something to stay a certain way or I believe someone is threatening to interfere or take away something that I have (when I am controlling basically), I find I respond by either being dependent or dominating of the person or situation. This is what Bill Wilson also found out in ten years or so of psycho-analysis with Harry Tiebout.
Immature emotional response I call this, followed by emotional reasoning. I rarely react in a balanced manner to these prompts. The situations invariably provoke a fear based response in me which somehow also leads to me suddenly becoming dishonesty in my thinking. It is as if this self centred fear as cut me off from the truthful sunlight of the spirit and I am suddenly in the dark shadow of dishonesty. In fact, according to Father Ralph honesty comes from the Greek to be at one with God funnily enough.
Then I feel shame as the result of my pride being hurt, which can lead to self pity it if I let it. I may also feel guilt. Then I may decide to strike back via being arrogant, impatient or intolerant, in behaviourally expressed sometimes as putting others down to elevate one self. Again immature emotional response and relates to a maladaptive regulation of emotion called "self elaboration" (to be blogged about later).
I am obviously also being self centred and selfish while in this process. I can also be envious or jealous of others in the midst of this for taking what I wanted or threatening what I have, like a child in the park or playground with friends. Other ways of fixing my feelings rear their heads and I can be gluttonous as a reaction or become greedy. Eat too much or go on a shopping frenzy. All instead of processing the emotions which are driving this behaviour I react, act out of distress based impulsivity. I can be so distressed that I can tend towards procrastination, which is sloth in five syllables. These sins or negatively expressed emotions truly grip me and these sins seem to hunt in packs like wolves.
I found this fascinating when I first discovered this during my steps. It seemed to map the reactions of my heart when I react via resentments to the world. They describe accurately how I relate to the world especially when the world does not give me what I want or I have stood on it’s toes.
What else is this but an immature emotional reaction based not just on me being the same age as I started drinking but also on the fact that the regions of the brain which govern emotional regulation in the brain of the alcoholic are immature, are smaller, not connected as well or do not function as well as healthy folk. This is according to many academic studies and also seen in the brains of children of alcoholics, so our emotional brain regions may never have worked properly and thanks to years of alcohol abuse have gotten a whole lot worse.
When I am not in charge of my emotions they are in charge of me, in other words. They are controlling me and not the other way around. This type of emotional immaturity happens throughout the day sometimes. So there is no point waiting to the end of the day to do a step 10, to see when have I been fearful, dishonest, resentful or selfish. I have to do it continuously throughout the day to maintain my spiritual and emotional equilibrium, because it needs constant attention and maintenance, because I have no naturally maintained balance. I have to manage it. I impose homoestasis to an allostatic system. There is not naturally resting place. I am in charge of my serenity.
So I spot check continuously to ensure my emotional sobriety. Another word for sober is sane. I like this because while I am in emotional dysregulation or immaturity, I am far from sane. In fact, I am strangely deluded, distinct from from any reasonableness. I need to do my step ten to be restored to sanity.
The other problem with this emotional lability and dysregulation is that it send streams of distorted thinking into my head (all of which seem quite reasonable at the time - emotional reasoning in other words). I remember ringing my sponsor in early recovery, a few months in, with the startling revelation, to me anyhow, that my thoughts were all leading me to a place of emotional pain. My emotional dysregulation leading to cognitive distortions which leads to further emotional dysregulation etc.
Spot the negative emotions underpinning these thoughts and they disappear like wispy evaporating clouds. This has similarities here with the practice of mindfulness.
I do this all in a very simple way – I simply ask God to remove my sins, which are usually fear, dishonesty, pride, shame, guilt, self pity, leading to intolerance, arrogance and impatience and so on, warmed in a dendritic spreading across my heart and polluting of my mind with stinking thoughts. This is the map of my distress, my emotional and spiritual malady. It has a form, a pattern, a being almost. It stirkes like a momentary possession. Like an emotional neural ghost.
It is interesting that in the 5th century a religious man called Evagrius Ponticus suggested that one gets rid of troublesome thoughts by pinpointing the negative emotions which were somehow underpin then and weigh these thoughts in one’s mind, like anchors weighing down lassoed clouds. I do the same effectively.
I ask God to remove these emotions after I have first identified them and offered them to Him for help in removing. What I am doing, in a sense, is also identifying, labelling and letting go (processing) of the negative emotions that have kept these thunderous grey black clouds of thoughts in my head, and striking my heart with forked pain. I am asking God to help me do what I cannot do for myself it seems; namely emotional regulation.
People outside AA often wonder how this spiritual program can help people recover. As I blogged about recently it does so, I believe partly, because it helps us learn how to practice identifying, labelling and processing emotions (often by verbalising them to someone or via step 10) in a way that is not only healthy and adaptive but in a way I was seemingly never able to do prior to coming into AA. Or had never been taught to do.
I have learnt all these development skills not in my childhood but in my surrogate home of AA. How many of us have come home in AA?