Escaping The Grip
By: Katy Ralston
Alcoholism: habitual intoxication, prolonged and excessive intake of alcoholic drinks leading to a breakdown in health and an addiction to alcohol. Drinking without the intention of drinking, consuming more than the intended amount, not knowing what is going to end up happening when the drinking starts, but drinking nonetheless. You realize it's true. You realize it's happening to you. You want to change it. So where do you go from here?
Millions of people have faced this question before; staring down the daunting, almost impossible, quest. Scared and unsure where to begin.
"Hopelessness, helplessness, powerlessness. Can things in fact be different?" said Mary Azar, collegiate director of the La Hacienda treatment center, of the emotions one feels at the beginning of the process.
"The shame and confusion. No, not me. My granddad, now he was an alcoholic, he was under a bridge, but not me. I can get control of it," said former alcoholic Ray, who wishes to remain anonymous.
The flood of emotions comes rushing in, accompanied by uncertainty, questions and denials.
"For most people, the hardest thing perhaps is bouncing back and forth between 'there is no way I can do this, I can't go all day without a drink', and then that denial of 'I don't really have a problem, if I want to quit I can' and 'I don't need any help from anybody else, I don't need any help from God, I don't need any books, I can do this by myself,'" Ray said.
While the initial flood can be overwhelming, according to both literature and reformed alcoholics' personal experiences, the solution begins with understanding the problem and overcoming denial.
"What makes recovery so difficult is the whole bunch of misinformation about recovery," said former alcoholic Chris.
One misconception about alcoholism that contributes to a person's denial is the idea that alcoholics are visibly ruined individuals with wrecked lives, when in fact alcoholism does not necessarily manifest itself in outward appearances.
Although alcoholism can contribute to decaying one's public life, it is only an effect of alcoholism and is not a sole indicator of the disease.
"Some alcoholics are under a bridge drinking out of paper sack. But that is definitely not the definition of alcoholism. You can be successful and be [an] alcoholic," Ray said.
Chris said it was this misconception that fed his denial and was the most difficult to overcome.
"I'm waiting for my outside to look like an alcoholic, but I'm not getting DWIs, and I'm listening to people who believe that is what it means to be an alcoholic," Chris said.
Alcoholics can come from all appearances, occupations, family backgrounds, economic situations and childhood experiences.
Some people think alcoholism is a choice. But in reality, Chris said, it is a chronic illness of the mind.
"This is a form of mental insanity. It's not a behavioral problem," he said.
This disease causes a mental obsession and compulsion to drink. For some, the craving can be as strong as the need for food and water. For others, drinking becomes such a detached habit that they hardly even notice when they are well into their fourth drink.
No matter how many consequences they may have faced, alcoholics do not have the ability to turn away from drinking. Logical reasoning and "willpower" have no effect. That is the difference between a true alcoholic and an excessive partier, Chris said.
"It's not like a normal drinker who can say 'I had a bad hangover, I don't ever want to do that again,'" he said. "We have an endless experience with too many headaches or too many hangovers or too many DWIs or too many broken relationships, but we can't remember that."
Chris said the mental aspect of alcoholism will guarantee the alcoholic continues to drink until they die.
"We just steadily drink ourselves to death. We are not doing it because we want to, but because we have absolutely no choice," Chris said.
Alcoholics do have one choice, however; the choice to seek help.
Looking for help
Once a person has decided to seek help, there are many different options available to assist them on the road to sobriety. Options include treatment centers, halfway houses, outpatient facilities and Alcoholics Anonymous small groups.
At the La Hacienda coed inpatient substance abuse treatment center located in Hunt, Texas, a specialized treatment plan is developed for each individual according to his or her specific needs. Patients stay on the campus for an average of 30-45 days under the care of doctors, therapists, psychiatrists and nurses.
Resources the facility provides include group sessions, individual counseling, drug and alcohol testing, studies on defeating alcoholism, on- and off-campus 12-step meetings, educating the family members and therapeutic activities such as a ropes course.
The Collegiate Program at the center was created for 18 to 24-year-old people struggling with alcoholism. While the collegiate patients attend most of the same sessions as the others, there are many activities geared specifically towards their needs.
One such resource is therapists who only work with the collegiate group.
"They are in a group with their own age group and they are talking about issues that are pertinent to their age group," Azar said. "They haven't had failed marriages and lots of job losses and children; the issues are just real different."
The patients participate in off-campus outings to the movies, bowling, hiking and kayaking so they can learn to engage with their own age group in a sober setting.
"That's a real important piece; they don't know how to interact with each other clean and sober," Azar said.
Dealing with past issues of hurt is another way the patients at La Hacienda learn how to turn the page to a sober future. The therapists engage the patients in a timeline exercise.
The idea is simple, a straight line of significant events that happened throughout one's life. But the breakthroughs can be astounding, Azar said.
"It allows the individual to see where they have been. A lot of times things happen to us, and we just kind of brush it under the carpet, no big deal. I think what we are finding more and more is these kids have been through an awful lot, deaths and losses and pretty serious things," Azar said. "If they continue to carry around the weight of the world, all these secrets, then they will continue to use [alcohol] to numb the pain."
The therapy message of the collegiate program is slightly different than the adult program. Being at such a young age, the collegiate patients have a whole life to gain and the therapists focus on establishing their new identity in sobriety.
"It's about who am I and what do I want to do with my life," Azar said.
Azar said the probability of individuals staying sober after release is potentially successful for everyone; it just depends upon the actions of the individual.
"If they go to groups and they do their work and they start working their steps, there is no reason in the world why they can't stay sober," Azar said.
After release, the next question becomes how to stay sober.
A study by Brown University's Digest of Addiction Theory showed that 40 percent of those who were helping other alcoholics avoided taking a drink while the rate was only 22 percent of those who did not help others.
"[The study] is so true," Azar said.
He encourages patients to get involved in a 12-step program once they leave the treatment center.
"There is a saying in AA: you have to give it away in order to keep it."
Ray said he found this concept to be true in his experience.
"I go to meetings and do the things I do to help newcomers, but I also do that because if I stop doing it the insanity will return one day," Ray said. "Probably not today, probably not tomorrow, but eventually I will decide that one drink won't hurt me."
Alcoholics Anonymous define themselves as a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.
This mission of sharing is underlined in the organization's stated primary purpose: "to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety." Since 1935, these two concepts have gone hand-in-hand to encourage many life changes and keep those changes on track.
AA has more than 116,000 groups worldwide, with nearly 1.25 million members in the U.S. The Brazos Valley area has 25 AA programs, managed collectively by the Brazos Valley Intergroup.
"We pretty much have one thing to offer. We have a proven method to stop drinking," Ray said, who is a part of the Brazos Valley Intergroup.
Ray started his recovery process in an AA group and has continued to be involved over the years. While there is support and encouragement at the meetings, Ray said the main objective of the meetings is to present the 12-step method to those searching for the answer.
But it's a continuous journey.
"We find that about 80 percent of people who show up to an AA meeting aren't ready to quit yet, so they don't stay sober because they aren't ready to do the work that it takes," Ray said. "Then out of the 20 percent that are ready and willing to do the work, about 95 percent stay sober."
And for that 95 percent, it is the choice of a lifetime.
AA's 12 steps:
1 We admitted we were powerless over our addiction; that our lives had become unmanageable
2 Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity
3 Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God
4 Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves
5 Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs
6 Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character
7 Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings
8 Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all
9 Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others
10 Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it
11 Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out
12 Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to other addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.