The Strange Mental Blank Spot – Grapevine Article by Louisa P.

An alcoholic does battle with the strange mental blank spot that separates her (and all alcoholics) from the rest of humanity

Alcoholism is a physical, mental, and spiritual disease. That’s what we learn in AA. Alcoholism is merely a lack of self-discipline. That’s what most of the world thinks.

Alcoholics can exert all the self-discipline in the world and still end up drunk.

No, says the rest of the world. If they really stuck to their guns, they could stop or moderate.

Only accessing a power greater than themselves can keep an alcoholic sober one day at a time.

That’s just religiosity, says the rest of the world, hidden behind a cultish slogan. 

Sometimes it’s frustrating to live in a world that doesn’t “get” my disease. My blood family and casual acquaintances assume the mind works according to certain principles. The notion of the “strange mental blank spot” (Chapter Three of the Big Book, page 42) is foreign to them and to almost anyone who hasn’t been utterly stumped and defeated by it. Thank God I’ve been both, though to get there took about 4,000 attempts of rallying with every fiber of my being the resolve that I was not going to drink (or would drink with moderation) and then finding myself plastered—again. It took the admission that I’d run my life into the ground despite countless advantages, to the point where I no longer wanted to live.

But I still would have clung to alcohol as my only friend, determined to manage my drinking, if the stuff hadn’t quit working for me. When it no longer brought about the magical transformation that had made it a staple of my life, taking away my self-conscious unworthiness and replacing it with sociability and confidence, only then was I willing to consider the counter-betrayal of checking out AA. where I learned from other people the hallmarks of alcoholic thinking, feeling, and experience.

The main hallmark is not only drinking a lot. I’ve had several partners who matched me drink for drink for years on end. But as soon as they made up their minds to exert their self-discipline, they could stop. They had brakes. Mine might work for a few hours or even days, during which I was able to act on my resolve. But then along comes that strange mental blank spot and my resolve is greased with coconut oil.

In terms of a rough, cartoon image of the brain, what happens is this: We like to think the conscious parts of our brain determine our actions—the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, which hosts our thoughts and decisions. But there’s a little lizard living in the basement of our brains—the amygdala—that generates basic survival impulses like fear and anger. Alcoholism seems to live here and is able to circumvent even the most determined, powerful resolves of the frontal lobe, by connecting a drink to the basic conditions of being alive. Drinking becomes an impulse, almost like breathing, that we act on without rational choice.

The subjective experience goes like this. You’re all set to not drink today. You’ve made up your mind: it’s just not an option. You’re going to drink healthy stuff, maybe exercise, busy yourself with—but, hey, maybe you should have a drink. A drink is a great idea. Why not just relax and enjoy one or two?

You know there’s something wrong with this thinking. A drink is what you weren’t going to do. Yes. And the reason you weren’t going to do it was… was… Here something happens similar to flipping through an old fashioned Rolodex and recognizing not a single name: Let’s see it was here somewhere: “Not good for my body”—who’s that? “Always make a fool of myself”—do I know him? “Swore to my loved one”—I think I met him once. No, no… none of these ring a bell.

Meanwhile, here’s your amygdala holding out a frosty, aesthetically perfect image of your favorite drink. It asks: “What are you, a wuss? Just do what you wanna do!”

It makes perfect sense. The idea of abstaining for any reason seems absurdly far-fetched, while the idea of drinking rings every bell of recognition as a natural, sensible, sound idea. So, you decide: “Yes.” All it takes is a millisecond of assent and that genie is out of the bottle again, running your life.

Equally preposterous to the normal drinker or active alcoholic is the solution— asking the help of a Higher Power. But when you give up using your resolve and sincerely ask a Higher Power for help, something shifts. Suddenly, you’re able to weather those strange mental blank spots with just enough resistance to avoid saying yes. Do this long enough, and eventually the constant obsession to drink is lifted.

In my case, even after 19.5 years’ sobriety, there are times when I don’t recognize a single reason not to take a drink. “You’re in AA!” seems so stupid. “You’d lose all your time!” Really? Who gives a crap? But in my case, something steps between me and the image of the flawless, aftermath-free drink my amygdala is advertising. Within thirty seconds, in my experience, my conscious mind is back at the wheel.

It may seem unlikely, but that’s pretty much the scenario experienced by millions of alcoholics all over the world. When we do the things suggested in AA’s program of recovery, that mediating influence restores us to sanity.

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