Alcoholism and Free Choice

I’ve been thinking about the subject of alcoholism after discussing it with a colleague. I was wondering whether it isn’t possible to ascertain the turning point when the person changes from being an alcoholic in potential to being an actual alcoholic. I am defining “alcoholic” here in AA terms, as someone who can no longer drink socially because of what even one sip would trigger.

I was troubled by the definition of alcoholism as a disease. It seemed to me that there must have been a turning point and this turning point could have been controlled, as opposed to a disease that cannot be controlled. It also seemed to me that someone who can no longer drink moderately has lost free choice in that area of life. In other words, drinking socially is no longer an option.

It made me think, if only there was a way to determine the turning point at which that change takes place then full blown alcoholism could be avoided and the person could continue to drink socially without worry.

She said that the question of when this turning point takes place does not matter and does not help. The progression of alcoholism is different for different people. She said that we need instead to look towards the supportive nature of logotherapy and to the AA axiom of staying sober “one day at a time.”

As often happens, when I need to learn something I’m showed the way. One of those ways is through my fixed learning time of the book Alei Shur with my study partner. The following day I learned about the concept of “putting one’s life in order.”

This refers to the ability to get in touch with one’s dreams, aspirations and values and then putting them into one’s schedule. The next step is to be aware of the circumstances life is bringing us and also to be aware of our internal and external challenges – both ongoing as well as unexpected – and then adjust and rearrange our schedule based on those things that upset our original schedule.

In the section we were studying this particular day the author was quoting a Talmudic passage that described the following scenario: A person has two pieces of meat in front of him. One piece came from an animal that had been properly slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law but not properly salted and soaked according to Jewish law. The other piece came from an animal that had died a natural death. Eating from the first piece is a less severe prohibition than eating from the second piece. Thus the person is advised, if his drive is so strong that he is going to eat one of the pieces of meat regardless and the question is only which one he will eat, then it’s preferable to eat the less severe prohibition.

We felt this must be theoretical because it seemed to us highly improbable that such a scene would ever take place or that such an instruction would be given. It’s more likely that this was meant to be instructional in a different sense – not on a practical level but to teach a lesson. If so, what was it meant to teach?

My purpose is not to discuss the fine points of Jewish law but to better understand human nature, and we believed it was in fact trying to teach something about human nature, in addition to teaching something about the value of human effort and intention.

I’m imagining this scenario. A person is so overtaken by his drives that in spite of his strong commitment to his values he is capable, in the midst of intense craving, of choosing the lesser of two evils.

Thus it seems a person has some measure of control even in the midst of an almost total loss of control, and that even when you don’t have a choice about one thing you have a choice about something.

This also tells us that regarding our relationship to God or to our conscience there is great value in any kind of decision-making capabilities you have even if the situation is not ideal.

To get back to the context of putting one’s life in order, there are times in life when we lose our bearing, our emotional balance or our self-control. Yet even when this happens and even when it happens to the extreme, this too is a situation where we can and must rearrange ourselves surrounding the situation.

In conclusion, there can be no objective “turning point” for alcoholism or for anything else because these processes of the effect that substances or experiences of any kind have on us are highly subjective.

Knowing that by taking one drink you will lose control completely and therefore you choose to abstain completely is of great value. You have not “lost your free choice” just because you cannot choose to drink socially. To the contrary, the choice to abstain shows a very high level of exercising the defiant power on a daily basis.

Choice is not measured in terms of how many things among all the possible experiences of life the person can choose from. Choice is measured in terms of its quality.

This is why the turning point of alcoholism does not matter. What matters is always being aware of what is happening to you and never losing your locus of control. What is required is to gain sensitivity towards what is happening at every step along the way in life, and to exercise our defiant power in order to put our life in order around it. We can never lose our ability to choose completely. We always have some kind of choice. This is something to celebrate!

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One Response to Alcoholism and Free Choice

  1. Pingback: Beat Alcoholism - How to

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