There was a time in my earlier drinking and drugging career when I actually had the ability to put the brakes on for a little while when things started getting hairy. But when I got older, I found that it got harder and harder to stop for any length of time. According to a soon-to-be published report in the December 2014 online-only issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, there’s actually a scientific reason for this, and while it’s the one that I kind of expected—brain damage—this report has an interesting explanation as to why it got more difficult.
I’ve read quite a few scientific studies that indicate that people who abuse any of the substances (alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, and a host of other “recreational” drugs) that I ingested over my 30-plus year history of booze and drug abuse tend to suffer at least some form of brain damage. Most of the symptoms involve a slowing down of day-to-day brain functioning, with some of the impairment being permanent and some clearing up with a little sober time.
But this study concludes that the specific brain damage that chronic boozing inflicts upon people like me impacts the ability of the person to actually get sober. Apparently, long term drinking damages the integrity of something called the “frontal white matter tracts,” which screws up cognitive and inhibitory controls that are important to achieve and maintain abstinence from booze or substitutes. Who knew?
“The very parts of the brain that may be most important for controlling problem drinking are damaged by alcohol, and the more alcohol consumed, the greater the damage,” said the report’s author, Catherine Brawn Fortier, a neuropsychologist at the VA Boston Healthcare System and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “This part of the brain mediates inhibitory control and decision-making, so tragically, it appears that some of the areas of the brain that are most affected by alcohol are important for self-control and judgment, the very things needed to recover from misuse of alcohol.”
And all this time I thought it was just a case of the “fuck-its,” where I rationalized (quite correctly) that since I was only going start again anyway, what was the point of staying stopped?
The study consisted of 31 abstinent alcoholics (20 men, 11 women) with an average of 25 years of abuse and approximately five years of sobriety, as well as a control group of 20 nonalcoholic control participants (13 men, 7 women) matched to the alcoholic group by gender, age, education and estimated intelligence. They were then subjected to brain scans that revealed that the sober alcoholics showed reductions in “white matter pathways” across the entire brain as compared to healthy light drinkers. Those pathways are supposed to allow the different parts of their brains to communicate efficiently and effectively, but the study found that they are disrupted by the chronic abuse of alcohol over a protracted period of time.
For me, this study explains a lot. When I was younger, stopping and staying stopped after a particularly bad run of boozing and drugging was not that hard, possibly because I knew it was only temporary anyway. But once I hit my mid-30s, it became more and more difficult, and by the time I had to either stop my drinking or die in my 40s, it was nearly impossible. Without AA and prayer there’s no way I could have done it, and I have no qualms about admitting that today.
The best example of this study for me was my own annual post-holiday attempts at “controlling” my drinking. The scenario was pretty predictable: The night before Thanksgiving, I’d kick off a four-day coke-fueled booze binge that would continue to progress throughout the yuletide season, leaving me limping to the finish line at New Year’s. At some point during the run, I would decide that it would be in my best interest to swear off the booze (yet again) right after the final dreadful holiday with the idea that I’d stay off the hooch and blow until the Super Bowl.
When I was in my 20s, this wasn’t such a bad plan. I could stop the day after New Year’s with the help of a couple of Valium and by smoking a lot more pot, and I could usually coast up to Super Bowl Sunday—when I would invariably get spectacularly hammered, black out and call in sick to work the next day. But as I got older, it took a few more days or a week to stop after New Year’s (I hadn’t started going to detox yet), and I wasn’t able to make it much more than a couple of weeks or so before drinking like my usual alcoholic self.
The last eight to 10 years of my drinking, I didn’t even bother to try stopping after the holidays anymore, knowing that it would just be an exercise in futility. By then I was chemically addicted to booze, and needed to have alcohol or a load of benzos in my system 24 hours a day, 365 days a year just to not violently shake or have a panic attack.
The best chance for recovering from alcoholism according to the researchers is to stop drinking earlier. “The day-to-day implications of this study are clear: abstinence and light drinking lead to better health and better brain function than heavy drinking,” said researcher Terence Keane, a professor of psychiatry and psychology, as well as assistant dean for research at Boston University School of Medicine. “The longer you misuse alcohol the greater your chances are of permanent damage. So if you or someone you know needs help to reduce drinking, do it now.”
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