In this post, we will be talking about the first stage of the model of change, the Precontemplative, those who have not, as yet, made the connection between the substance they are abusing and the problems in their lives. Unfortunately, there is no clear program, procedure, or method guaranteed to help such people make the connection, other than trying not to stand between them and the consequences of their own behavior.
Most of us go on with our destructive habits for years until someone or something wakes us up, and unfortunately it’s impossible to predict what it will take to make a individual aware of his or her particular condition. Fairly early in my own recovery, I went along with some AA friends who were invited to tell their stories to a group of men who were confined in a minimum-security facility for alcohol-related offenses in Connecticut. These inmates were in Camp Hartell for a variety of offenses, mostly related to repeated arrests for driving under the influence (DUI), and there were even a few who were in there for what was then called “involuntary vehicular homicide while under the influence,” meaning they were responsible for the death of at least one innocent human being because they chose to continue to drink.
I talked with some of these fellows, and to a man they just couldn’t wait to get back out and “have a beer.” Here they were, locked-up, separated from friends and family, in deep legal trouble, and they couldn’t make the connection between the obvious problems in their lives and the alcohol they were drinking! I’ve worked with many substance abusers in various prison facilities, and in their minds, the problem wasn’t the substance at all, it was always something “else,” something totally out of their control that was responsible for their current situation.
AA will tell you that alcoholism is a disease whose main symptom is that it tells you that you have no disease, but it’s actually much more complex than that. Addiction becomes tied-in with our basic survival instincts, and the “gotta have it’s” override even our most fundamental self-preservation drives. Also, there’s a normal, human attribute, that to a certain extent effects everyone, addicted or not, and that’s the tendency to discount evidence, even very strong evidence, that contradicts something we already believe. The more deeply-held the belief, the stronger the evidence needed to falsify the belief.
We see this in religion, in relationships, and in other areas of our lives. Young-Earth Creationists, for instance, must somehow find a way to ignore or rationalize scientific facts from Biology, Astronomy, Physics, Geology, Paleontology, and virtually every other branch of knowledge in order to maintain their belief in a recent creation. People will stay in untenable relationships, as long as they can continue to deny the obvious evidence that they would be much better off if they simply terminated it.
It may have sounded as though I was judging those inmates in Camp Hartell. Believe me, I was not! I had tons of evidence, over many years that my drinking was out of control, and chose not to make the connection or do anything about it. I drove drunk literally hundreds of times, and it’s only dumb luck that I didn’t kill myself, my children, or anyone else. Heck, I never even got a DUI, in those days it was “You’ll go straight home, won’t you Pete, and don’t let me catch you again.” Those cops were well-meaning, and thought they were doing me a favor, what they did was simply prolong my drinking career.
In order to progress from the precontemplation to the contemplation stage in this model, the addict must somehow make the connection between his situation and his behavior. Sometimes this happens quickly, as a result of a traumatic life event, a serious talk from a trusted physician, a confrontation from a group of friends or family, or something similar that provides the addict with a “wake-up call.” More often, it occurs more slowly, over a period of months or years.
In this stage, the addict hasn’t really made a decision to change, they are either completely oblivious that the substance is causing a problem in their life, or they are just becoming aware of the possibility. Some people realize quite early in life that alcohol or drugs are a problem for them, and just stop. Others, like me, continue to use, become dependent, and only realize it has become a problem when the evidence piles up so high it can no longer be ignored.
AA calls this point “hitting bottom,” but the problem with this phrase is that it’s been rendered meaningless by the number of people who come-and-go, hitting a new and lower “bottom” each time they stumble back in, swearing that they’ve “really got it this time.” Whatever you call it, it’s a different point for every single dependent person, and what’s important is not the fact that they say they have “finally hit it,” it’s what they decide to do about it that matters.
I have no intention of rattling on with a long war story here, let’s just say that my problems with alcohol began during my hitch in the Navy, and continued for twenty-six years. Although there were plenty of problems and signs, the last year or so was undeniably the worst. I was failing at work, my personal life was a mess, and I kept getting in one scrape after another. Not legal scrapes, but I was doing the kinds of things that hurt other people, destroy your reputation, and cause a great deal of personal pain. Yes, the pain! And there was only one thing that would kill the pain, and unfortunately it was also the thing that caused more pain. And so on, and so on…, until you reach the point where alcohol no longer kills the pain, but you continue to drink anyway because it brings the relief of unconsciousness!
One night, as I was writing a kind of email to a friend far away, I typed the words: “I only drink every night, and only to oblivion.” It was one of those “where the hell did that come from” moments. I had typed the words without conscious thought, but there they were, out there where I couldn’t ignore them, and the worst part was, I realized that they were true! I pondered them while I finished my Scotch-on-the-rocks, and thought about them for the next couple of days, then I filed them away somewhere.
A couple of weeks later, with my wife and kids in the car, I took a wrong turn in the fog, and ended-up driving about a quarter-mile down some railroad tracks. My son, sleeping in the back seat, was awakened by the jolts of the railroad ties, while I was completely unaware of what was going on. We had spent the day with some friends, and things got a little out-of-hand. There were two or three other incidents in the next few weeks, and then I started making some plans that were really off the deep end.
I convinced myself that all the pain I was in, and all of my problems were due to my wife, my family, my job, and in fact, just about everything in my life, except, of course, myself. I made plans to escape to another part of the country, but as the date approached, it somehow seemed to make less and less sense. About a week before I was to leave, I had lunch with my best friend at the Lighthouse Inn in New London, Connecticut. At 2:30 in the afternoon, over my last Vodka martini (on the rocks with a twist) I told him that perhaps, there was a possibility, that maybe I was drinking just a little bit too much. He told me that one of his other friends had gone to this “AA,” where they had learned to drink like a normal person.
I made three phone calls from my car on the way home. The first was to my Aunt who had been to treatment for alcoholism, and was somewhat familiar with 12-step, although she no longer went. The second was to the AA hotline, where I found a meeting near where I lived for that evening, and the third was to my daughter, who was home from school, telling her to pour every bit of my booze in the house down the sink. Having had a little time to think, I was convinced that I was through drinking. It wasn’t worth it, I had had enough! I had reached the point that researchers call “Crystallization of Discontent,” that is, I suddenly made the connection between the booze, the pain, and the problems. It was a turning-point!
I didn’t know it then, but I had moved from the precontemplative, through the contemplative, and into the action stage in the space of a couple of hours. Unfortunately, it took me twenty-six years to get there. What I remember about the rest of the drive home was a feeling of tremendous relief, a feeling that perhaps the nightmare was over. That feeling lasted until I actually got to the meeting that night, but that’s a story for another time. My feeling of relief was due to the disappearance of cognitive dissonance, that vague feeling of uneasiness you get when your brain somehow knows that your beliefs are not based upon reality, but on what you feel is necessity.
Addiction is such a complex issue, that we never know what will bring us, or another person, to the point where they question their substance use. For some, prison isn’t enough, for others, an off-hand remark from a total stranger might do it. We never know. All we can do, is continue to have compassion for those who cannot yet see the problem, and do what we can to try and not prevent them from seeing it for themselves. That last can be very hard, sometimes, especially if it’s someone you care deeply about.
In the next excerpt, I will discuss those who are actively considering change, and how people who quit on their own go about making the decision to do so.
Pete is an author, blogger, and podcaster who makes his home in Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico. His primary interest is in helping others recover from self-defeating behaviors.