Trauma, Stress and Alcoholism

By Bob C.

My early days in recovery were spent trying to fit in as best I could. Because the first men I met at the meetings were totally into the Big Book of AA, I in turn was totally into it. That includes my wonderful, faulted, evangelical first sponsor, Rob. From the start, though, you could say I had some problems with the material. Being not only inquisitive but at times downright obnoxious in my questioning, I likely irritated many of the people who diligently tried to bring me into contact with god – that entity who would finally enable me to get and stay sober.

I was taken through the Big Book, line by line, which for many is an effective way to have a spiritual experience and remain permanently sober. It didn’t exactly work that way for me though I believe I reaped good benefits from the process. I didn’t find god, or else god was ignoring me; I’m not sure. I kept coming back though, and this has been really important for my success in AA.

I had a lot of questions. I even questioned the introduction before chapter one in AA’s first publication, titled “The Doctor’s Opinion”. In it, Dr. Silkworth guesses that an allergy of the body might be at work in the loss of control I experienced every time I picked up liquor. I never jived with allergy. It didn’t seem accurate, although I could see its usefulness as a temporary explanation for something unexplainable. Dr. Silkworth also says, “One feels that something more than human power is needed to produce the essential psychic change (p. xxix).” And right there I had a problem on my hands, because for the next eight years, I searched for the power beyond human that was supposed to arrest my drinking. Unfortunately, the only thing that ended up getting arrested in that time span was me.

Out of all the old AA ideas that some members cling to, it may be “The Doctor’s Opinion” that dates our fellowship the most. Though it’s true that Silkworth and AA helped put alcoholism on the map as an illness, it’s been 80 years since that chapter was written. 80 years later, what we know about alcoholism has evolved. As we all know, science produces a huge amount of information about addiction today. Some people estimate that a new scientific study is published on the subject of addiction every four minutes worldwide. Some of that information must be of use to us in AA.

For me, it seems the longer I stayed sober – which eventually did happen – the more I questioned. One of my biggest questions has always been, what is alcoholism? And also, what is recovery from alcoholism? I knew that getting on my knees and asking god to take my drinking problem away got replaced out of sheer necessity by more practical ideas: Showing up to the fellowship of AA and showing up to life, to name just a couple. I put down interventionist deities in desperation, started to really connect to the people around me and I began to stop drinking. All the third step prayers in the world didn’t produce the same therapeutic value – for me – of taking responsibility for my health, and surrounding myself with others who were doing the same. Along the way, I also learned that I could tell my story – as frightening a prospect as that seemed when I first got sober.

This idea of connecting with others to relieve alcoholism has become one of the most obvious answers to me in my own recovery. It is, though, also one of the clearest answers that has come out of the research on alcoholism from the last 20 years. We people, it is said, are wired to connect and when we don’t we tend to get sick. Nothing new, right? We agnostics consistently label our relationships to others and to the world around us as critical features of our recovery stories.

In the biomedical model, alcoholism is a brain disease. Though I feel too much emphasis is put on this biomedical feature of our illness, it is interesting to know that some of the very parts of our brain that become addicted are the parts that are so-called wired to connect to other people. Addictive chemicals “hijack” the reward pathways in our brains, but these pathways are also responsible for making us want to connect to others – socially and sexually. The very same regions of the brain! It does not seem like a stretch to imagine that deliberately connecting to others would have the effect of reversing our state of addiction to alcohol.

These ideas are played out in all kinds of addictions research today: The addicted mind is a disconnected mind and the recovering mind is a mind that is relearning to connect. Research often says that this state of disconnection – which many suffering alcoholics new to recovery take as normal – occurs before addiction to alcohol takes root. Of course we people don’t experience “brain disconnected.” What we experience is pain, a sense of social awkwardness, a belief in living life by myself, for myself. This sort of thinking is often the result of people being poorly treated over and over, which sets the brain up for compulsive, pain relieving behavior such as ingesting alcohol.

To understand the actual experience of how a chronically painful or isolated state can precede alcoholism, trauma researcher Bruce Perry uses the analogy of a two men drinking a glass of water. One of the men takes a drink because he’s somewhat parched. The other, however, takes a glass of water after a harrowing ten-mile walk in the desert. The second man’s drink has relieved a much deeper thirst. For people who have experienced, for example, chronic childhood abuse or neglect, their first drink of alcohol at age 14 or 15 often has a far different effect than for someone who has not had such experiences.

I found myself feeling a little more at home when I heard stuff like this. I never really got that, “I was born with this disease.” It was too vague. I might have been a bit of strange kid, but I wasn’t close to the angry, fearful wreck I brought to the doors of my first AA meeting at age 25. I also knew that my first four beers, shared with my older brother John, relieved me of an enormous stress that had already begun to accumulate in me by age 13. On the weekends, I would basically run from my father’s place, where it was strict and where I could never be good enough. I’d head over to my mom’s in Toronto’s west end where my brother and I drank, hung around girls and pretended we were cool. It seems fairly straightforward to imagine or explain why I kept heading to mom’s and why I kept drinking.

There’s other really interesting research that talks about how chronic stress and pain can disconnect us, and how this disconnection creates havoc in us humans. Dr. Stephen Porges of the University of Illinois works on what’s called “ployvagal theory.” This research describes how our bodies are wired to connect, just as our brains are. Dr. Porges studies the areas of the body that are involved in speaking, hearing and feeling for others – the areas, in short, that are wired to connect on a biological level. He calls the nerves throughout the heart, neck, mouth and ears a “social nervous system,” which operates to automatically bring us into deep and loving relationships with other people.

The problem is that when a person is constantly exposed to stress or danger such as childhood abuse, or when people are exposed to sudden violence such as during war, this “social nervous system,” switches off. In its stead, people enter into fight or flight mode… a survival instinct takes over and replaces the social one. Once this happens, it can be very difficult to come back to a social frame of mind. Sufferers of PTSD know very well how hard it can be to begin to trust, love and connect again after being abused or exposed to horrible events. But people with less severe stress than PTSD suffer in similar ways, which make them vulnerable to compulsive pain relieving behavior like alcohol addiction.

I know that when I first came to AA, I was always on guard, distrustful and ready to flee at the first sight of danger. It took me years to overcome this kind of reaction. I still struggle with it. Years of joking around, staying sober, laughing, being invited out, being confided in by others… all this slowly produced the reversal of a survival instinct which dogged me in early recovery. Fortunately, a more connected person has emerged, one who is not as likely to run or fight.

Progress over perfection though, right? I went from fighting everything and everyone to fighting just some of the time. I still feel the survival mode coming on, when I’m stuck in really bad traffic or when I’m feeling alone and I haven’t hit a meeting in a week. But I have come a long way, and it has gotten easier. I believe Dr Porges would agree: As we begin to connect again, and as our social nervous system turns back on, it really has its own momentum. Recovery, as it were, has its own momentum.

If it seems a little strange that a disconnected body is partly to blame for alcoholism, it might seem even stranger that communities themselves can cause disconnection and addiction. Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander studies addiction and its causes. His well- known Rat Park experiments provide scientific proof that rats do not become addicted when they are given the opportunity to live full, happy lives. Rats put into cages, however, become addicted very easily. When Bruce conducted rat experiments with addictive drugs like cocaine, he put some into cages, while others he put into a “Rat Park,” which had been designed based on what we know about white rats. Rats resist addiction-even to the most serious drugs- when they are free to play and socialize. The implication is that when rats – or humans – see the world as their cage, they will naturally manifest addictions – as well as a host of other psychiatric illnesses.

Dr. Alexander sees addiction as an adaptation to painful circumstances, rather than because of exposure to addictive drugs. To him, alcoholism is normal and expected, rather than abnormal or pathological. His work has demonstrated that when we people are deprived of rich culture and complex social connections, our mental health suffers. One of his best examples is his study of the addiction problems of aboriginal cultures, which disease theorists conveniently explain as a lack of biological resistance to alcohol. Dr. Alexander, however, has shown that North American aboriginal people did not develop problems with alcohol until well into the 17th century, at the time when their cultures began to be systematically undermined – 200 years after first contact with Europeans.

Since I have been well trained to think of alcoholism as purely an individual problem and disease, Rat Park has caused a huge shift in me. What I understand is that we don’t walk out of our latest AA meeting into a community that preserves connection and deep relationship as goals by which we should live. In fact, it is quite the opposite. We live in what social worker Brene Brown calls, “A culture of disconnection.” I can only feel for the newly sober drunk who exclaims to me, “Fine, I’m sober for the duration of this meeting, but what about the other 23 hours?” I nearly say a little prayer for him, because I know that our workplaces, larger communities and sometimes even our families produce and promote disconnection, rather than alleviating it.

Connecting to the men and women of AA has been largely responsible for my recovery. I suppose that means that I was not beyond human aid. If I have had deep and unexplainable experiences of love and surrender, it was when I was laughing with my friends until I cried, or when I held the teary glare of a stranger at a meeting, and allowed myself to feel their vulnerability and pain. The research I have read and continue to read about our illness does not seem to indicate that we are beyond human aid, or that we are hopeless. It seems, rather, to indicate the opposite.


Bob C. 39, is a happy member in AA who just celebrated six years sober. He has a regular yoga practice, a cat and a beautiful wife named Lisa. He writes regularly on addiction, mental health and recovery, as well as poetry and short stories. His cat co-wrote most of his stuffy university papers while drinking feline energy drinks such as Red Tabby and Catnip-Star. He has also written an article for AA Agnostica called, The First 164 Pages. Bob spends an inordinate amount of time in his car and often resorts to listening to country music on the drive home. He is a social worker practicing in addictions and mental health, and is interested in research about how the human body plays a key role in healing from mental health disorders. He lives in downtown Toronto.

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Jane Doe
Jane Doe
5 years ago

I have to disagree with you, not on your diagnosis, but on your conclusion. The idea that support of other people is definitely appealing, but only if they promise not to drink again and/or if they do, they promise to try to not do it again. Unconditional love is the only true answer. If a person was going to commit suicide, would you give up after awhile and hand them a gun? As long as people judge other people, drinking too much will continue, as will a lot of other behaviors. I personally have no one other than my mother… Read more »

Chris C
Chris C
5 years ago

So, where is the AA? No disease concept, no higher power (even the group?) and (forget alcoholism) addiction depends on a bad cildhood. Please take AA off this site and don’t hide dissolution behind the word evolution. We have enough religious zealots doing it already.

Chris C. From Lenoir, NC

Steve K
5 years ago
Reply to  Chris C

The disease model belongs to the medical profession. AA’s view is an illness of the mind, body and soul. Bill W didn’t think alcoholism was technically a disease and preferred the term illness. (1) The big book suggests maladaption to life, as well as a physical factor. Alcohol abuse does bring about biochemical changes in the brain (“some sort of physical component” as suggested in the BB). The behavioural account acknowledges this.The “allergy” suggestion in the BB, was an early guess/theory at this physical component in alcoholism and as “laymen” didn’t claim certain knowledge or authority on the subject. The… Read more »

Denis K
Denis K
5 years ago

Hello Bob, thank you for this essay as well as your previous offering, “The first 164 pages” , I connected with both pieces. Passed along your essay to a non-alcoholic friend who made the following comment which best reflects my own thinking. Here is what she replied. “Great piece, certainly resonates with me. We are all seeking connection, for some the search is darker than for others.Putting this (alcoholism) down to a disease and something removed from ourselves and our experience makes the pathway to change much more difficult and convoluted”. My friend also added, “Lucky people that have him… Read more »

joe c.
5 years ago

About a month ago I interviewed Marc Lewis (Rebellion Dogs Publishing, Rebellious Radio) about THE BIOLOGY OF DESIRE: WHY ADDICTION IS NOT A DISEASE. Like his first book, MEMOIRS OF AN ADDICTED BRAIN, Lewis has a refreshing neuroscientific approach to both addiction and recovery. Thanks Bob; I really enjoyed your other article about the Big Book, too.

Jon S
Jon S
5 years ago

Another great book, which explains the deep evolutionary sources of alcoholism, is “The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink And Abuse Alcohol” by Dr Robert Dudley. Alcohol abuse is NOT a character defect, it’s a one time evolutionary advantage hard-wired into our genes. Over 120 million years only our mammalian ancestors who binged on fruit managed to survive the lean times, and alcohol is a chemical indicator of ripeness. The section on recovery is poor, but the rest of it is a real eye-opener. Singe best book I’ve read on what really causes alcoholism – and also obesity.<\p>