This post was originally published on February 9, 2016.
Back in my day, if you wanted to quit drinking you pretty much had to physically show up to a 12-step meeting, or something like it, and ask for help. These days, there are podcasts, blogs, online chat rooms and webcam meetings to help you recover in the comfort of your own living room. And the perks of getting sober in 2106 keep getting better. According to a New Zealand neurosurgeon, implants might be the wave of the future—just not of the Pam Anderson variety.
Brown Chicken Brown Cow
Though his name sounds like he works in porn, Professor Dirk De Ridder is much more interested in your brain than your body. As a professor at the University of Otago and a neurosurgeon at Dunedin Hospital, De Ridder is leading a study on the brains of alcoholics. The focus is on how they respond to battery-operated implants inserted into the part of the brain that controls cravings. Though the results haven’t been what the patients expected, the research shows some hope in cases of otherwise hopeless drinkers.
From the three people who participated in the study in Dunedin, one man and two women, all reported to having consumed alcohol since the implants but assured De Ridder that they hadn’t abused it. They claimed that their drinking was at a “social” level, but they really wanted to stop entirely so De Ridder is in the process of tweaking the devices.
Wait a Whiskey Drinking Minute!
Let me get this straight—through the grace of science, three drunks were able to drink like normal people and they are complaining? Forgive me, but if these people are disappointed about being turned from hopeless alcoholics into social drinkers, I am more inclined to question their diagnosis than the success of this experiment. The literature of AA states, “Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet.”
Are they telling us science may have achieved “yet”?!
And Herein Lies the Problem
Of course, this raises several problems. First, while brain implants might help alcoholics moderate their drinking, they don’t address the issue of alcoholism as a disease—only as a behavioral problem. These devices are geared to control cravings not cyclical thoughts of impending doom, worthlessness and narcissism—all known characteristics of alcoholism. If alcoholics aren’t drinking or learning tools to manage these issues, then what happens to them? Are we suddenly gifted with coping mechanisms to alter our perception of life?
The second issue is money. While there are many wealthy alcoholics, there are just as many, if not more, who don’t have two sticks to rub together. How can we maintain the equality that is so imperative to widespread recovery if some alkies are able to buy their way into sobriety? I can just see it now, the best excuse to drink yet: “I can’t afford to get sober!” Or worse, “Why should I trust that I can recover using a traditional method, you people probably all have brain implants!”
The third issue is accuracy of the results. Many of us in recovery have had periods of abstinence, usually motivated by some kind of bottom or change in routine—a new girlfriend who doesn’t drink, a new job where they drug test or a new health fad. These self-will fueled sobriety kicks rarely last because they are not backed up by the hard work it takes to change your actions, attitudes and behaviors. Even towards the end of my drinking, I would still have evenings when I only drank two glasses of wine. That didn’t make up for the countless nights I drank God knows how much and gave a stranger a blow job in the bathroom of a dive bar. Being able to drink “socially” for a period of time doesn’t mean you are not an alcoholic. The same way getting wasted and pissing yourself a few times in college doesn’t mean you are.
Best for Hopeless Cases
All in all, De Ridder is definitely on to some exciting new developments. And as he says, the implants are for people whose health is at stake and have tried everything else and failed. In the spirit of anti-drinking medications like Antabuse, brain implants that arrest the uncontrollable cravings to drink could prove to be very useful. But this would only be the first step towards recovery for otherwise hopeless alcoholics, it certainly isn’t a permanent solution for alcoholism.