There is a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s often used in relation to addiction. This is nonsense. The addict is not insane. The reason they do the same thing over and over again is due partly to desperation, and party to the way the human brain works.
I’ve previously likened the human brain to a computer. It works in certain predefined and logical ways. Everything it does has a reason if only you can understand it. If you don’t understand it, it can seem to act in an entirely irrational way, but this is not the case. When I was writing Alcohol Explained I used Microsoft word and I tried to number the chapters and some of the paragraphs. Sometimes when I would do this the numbering would go completely out of sync, the indent and border would change, the spacing between the lines would change, even sometimes the font, and this all seem to happen completely outside of any logic. However there was logic behind it, I just didn’t properly understand how the program worked. This is what we do when we are addicted to something. In the same way that I would try the same thing again and again and again out of desperation, so the problem drinker will return again and again to the drink as they constantly flit between what they consider to be the lesser of the two evils; life with the drink, and life without it.
If you woke one day in a strange room and wanted to leave, and tried the door only to find it locked, would you spend the rest of your life in that room never trying to open the door again? Would you think, 20 years down the line, ‘Well there no point trying the door again. It was locked when I tried it that one time 20 years ago so logic must dictate it will still be locked now’? Would you consider someone insane if they tried that door more than once? Or do you think it would be perfectly normal to try that door again and again and again through sheer desperation? I’d think someone insane if they didn’t try that door over and over and over. And wouldn’t you be even more likely to keep trying the door if you became aware that there were millions of other people in your situation, all of whom were able to open the door with no problem?
To be clear here the locked room isn’t an analogy for addiction, it represents a mediocre and unsatisfying life. A life where things do not feel right. A life that we want to change to make it feel right and good and enjoyable again. The drinker knows instinctively that things are wrong when they are drinking, but they also feel that things are wrong when they stop.
However this is just one element of it. Returning to alcohol when we know from bitter experience the damage it does to us isn’t just due to desperation, it is also to do with how our minds work. The human brain cannot think of an infinite number of things at the same time. The current general consensus is that the human brain can think of only seven things simultaneously. If you then think of an eighth thing one of those original seven things drops away. How accurate this is I don’t know, personally I feel that three is my absolute upper limit, and that on a good day, but whatever the actual number is, it is clear that there are a finite number of things we can think about at any one time.
When we are agonising over whether to take a drink or not, there are tens if not hundreds of factors in play. We believe we want it, we cannot enjoy whatever situation we are in without it, we cannot cope with life without it, we are miserable without it, we have vowed we won’t take another drink, we know from personal experience how miserable our lives are when we drink, we know it makes us tired, lethargic, bad tempered, it stops us sleeping, we are afraid to drink it, and we are afraid not to drink it, we worry about the cost in terms of finance, in terms of the strain it puts on personal relationships with our friends, family and colleagues, in respect of our job, and our house, our self-respect, the way changes us, the way we have to have another drink when we take that first one.
Above I’m come up with around 20 different considerations to take into account when thinking about whether to take that drink. In reality there will be hundreds flying around in the drinker’s brain, some generic, some deeply personal to them. But remember you can only actively think of a finite number of things at one time. If you’re thinking that you’re miserable without drinking, that you can’t cope with life without drinking, that other people seem able to take it or leave it, that logically if you can stop for long periods you should be able to just take one or two, that life is getting you down and you just want a bit of relief, and everyone seems to say a little of what you fancy does you good, you have already filled your brain up with everything you can think about at one time. There is no room now for any of the reasons not to drink. So you reach out and grab a drink and take it.
The problem is when you’ve taken the drink you’ve no reason to dwell on all the things in favour of taking that drink, so they just empty out of your brain. You then start thinking of all the bad points. This isn’t insanity, this is just your brain working as it is designed to work. You can only think of seven things and until you’ve exhausted the thinking around those seven things you can’t think about anything else. This is why so often we are desperate for that first drink, we agonise over it and the second it finally passes our lips we wish we never taken it. We suddenly wonder what on earth we are playing at, what the hell are we doing drinking again?!? It may feel like insanity but it’s not. It’s making a decision on the basis of the information we are able to consider at any one time.
The other issue of course is that when we are thinking about whether to drink or not, often it’s not really a proper rational decision making process, it’s really more of an excuse finding mission. We want a drink so we search desperately for reasons to justify our having one. We search for excuses to drink, rather than the solid reasons not to. Find seven of these excuses to drink (no matter how flimsy these might be) and there’s no room in the ‘decision’ making process for anything other than excuses to drink. So your mind is filled with seven reasons to drink and no reasons not to. It’s a forgone conclusion.
There’s no insanity here. Just a human brain working in the way a human brain works.
This is another reason why, when you are craving a drink, pausing and thinking very carefully and consciously of the reality of taking that drink can be such a powerful tool in helping to stop. You need to consciously think about not only the negatives and the reason you stopped in the first place, but also the supposed benefits of taking that drink. Think it through rationally and realistically, think carefully about what it will give to you and most importantly what it won’t. It won’t make you happy, it won’t make you able to deal with life, it will make you feel slightly dulled, shortly after that you will feel correspondingly anxious and nervous until you take your next one. Deal with and dispose of all the flimsy excuses to take a drink so you can base your decision on solid reasoning. Also be alive to the fact that as soon as you take that drink you’ll brain will have no reason to dwell on the excuses to drink, you’ll be left then with the stark reality, which will leave you desperately wishing you’d never given up all the marvellous benefits of sobriety.
Don’t be caught out in the whirlwind of craving. Giving into a craving is not insanity, it is simply filling your your brain with implausible excuses to drink so your brain is incapable of factoring in the myriad of very real reasons not to drink.
And if your life doesn’t feel right, and you think it needs changing for there better, then seek out that change by all means. But don’t think that drinking again will be the change for the better that you need. That really is insanity.
With counselling, support from my local alcohol treatment centre (NHS) as well as your book and these emails, I have been completely alcohol free since the 17th of October this year. I also continue to do a lot of studying and research into addiction , this has helped a great deal also. I have many specific passages of your book highlighted and return to them again and again. Once again thank you for being a huge part of my freedom from alcohol. Receiving these emails means a great deal to me, your book is one of my lifelines. x
a powerful desire for something
I do not have this. For me it just like a quite voice saying “fancy a drink”
I can easily say no but like a persistent friend it keeps coming back “come on mate just have the one”
proceeding in a gradual, subtle way, but with very harmful effects
Why do I always give in?
Bubble, you WON’T always give in, there will come a day when you realise that alcohol is a two faced liar, pretending to be your friend while slowly killing you, you have the power to turn your back and reject it. The day will come. xx
Great article & in my case, good timing
Wow. Really well written and makes so much sense to my brain. Thank you for that.
Wow again. Brilliant. So well written and so helpful as always. Thank u William.
It’s as though William got into my head and wrote down every emotion and cognitive experience I’ve had for the last 30 years!!! Its like I’m waking up (trying) from a nightmare and looking back at what I’ve been dreaming. Respect!!!!! X