Why Do You Do It? - The Divided Mind
Updated: Jun 16
I'd been dry for five years. It had taken intensive psychotherapy and three years to overcome excruciating panic attacks. I'd gone through a lot of suffering. But then I’d started all over again and repeated the entire cycle. Here I was, sat back in front of my GP hoping for another referral to an alcohol treatment clinic. He said to me, “You seem like an intelligent person, why did you do it?”
I was amazed. It may have been a legitimate question to ask, but since when did intelligence come into it? Are there no intelligent alcoholics? It seemed like a fairly dumb question to me. After all, if I genuinely had the answer – and he clearly didn’t - then I probably would not have been sat there. So I said what any alcoholic would say, “Because I fancied a drink”.
It's for others to examine us and find the deeper reasons behind our addictive behaviour. The addiction literature is full of competing theories and explanations. Let's go through the checklist of some of them.
Was there trauma in my past? Yes, my elder brother died when I was only 15-years old. It had a devastating impact on my family. On the night of his death, I walked the streets alone drinking whisky for solace. I’ve often been asked whether this event triggered my alcoholism. But the truth is that I’d started the pattern of drinking to get drunk long before.
Did I drink because of peer pressure? I started drinking seriously in my early teens but that wasn’t unusual. Later, I did encounter more peer pressure from the drinking culture in the City. But it’s worth pointing out from the standpoint of sobriety – and to encourage those in recovery – that refusing subsequently to attend client drinking parties never did my career any harm.
What about drinking to cope with stress? Well, my work was tiring and stressful in a high-pressure environment. It took me all over the world. But I wouldn’t say that I got drunk as a mechanism to cope. It wasn’t really social either. The serious drinking was done on my own either at home or when away on business travel. At any rate, it seems to me that stress means different things to different people at different times.
The simple truth is that I started drinking to get drunk when young and enjoyed it. But I got stuck in a pattern, ran into troubles of blackouts and panic attacks, and found that I couldn't turn back. With Augustine, I was "stuck fast in the glue of this pleasure", (Confessions 6.22).
Augustine famously said of his own addiction, “For my will was perverse and lust had grown from it, and when I gave in to lust habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit it became a necessity”, (Confessions 8.10). In other words, what starts as an enjoyable habit becomes a form of compulsion. Unfortunately, you only truly realise it when it’s become too late.
Didn’t I know that continuing to drink was bad for me? Sure I did - eventually. There were embarrassing situations – too many to list here. There were dangerous situations like turning up outside of my hotel in Copenhagen at 4am not knowing where I’d been or how I got there. Blackouts are dangerous when you don’t know where you’ve been and who you’ve been with.
Socrates said that choosing between A (sobriety or moderate drinking, for example) or B (uncontrolled drinking and serious health problems) the rational human motivated by the desire to be happy will always choose A. But Aristotle responded that our actions are sometimes driven by passions or emotions and we choose B. He called this “incontinence”. Whether or not it makes sense to say we will knowingly choose the worst option for us – what philosophers call “akrasia” – has led to much debate.
One possibility is that we don’t always make careful evaluation of the options when we choose to act. The idea here is that alcoholics reach for the next drink without ever thinking through the consequences. To act in this way is in some sense to be deficient as a human person. To say this is not to be condemnatory. It is simply to say that choosing to act without at least some degree of rational consideration is to fall short of what is possible for a properly functioning human being.
Another possibility is that we allow our judgment to be clouded by circumstances. Drug or alcohol addiction can be a form of self-medication, for example. In these circumstances, using alcohol to block out some form of underlying suffering is seen as the least-worst option. Clearly, in these circumstances treatment needs to target the underlying issues.
Augustine introduced the idea of the divided will to explain the dilemma. He knew what he ought to do but found that he could still not do it. “The mind commands the body and is instantly obeyed. The mind commands itself and meets resistance”, (Confessions,8.21). He had the will but lacked the power. He explains that this was like slumbering between sleep and waking up, when we know that we ought to get up but feel that we lack the strength. I can relate to this. When I was drinking, I was still asleep. I needed to wake up.
So why, then, did I continue to do it? I suppose I suffered from the usual delusions of the alcoholic. I thought to myself “it won’t happen to me”. Perhaps I also thought that any serious consequences were a long way into the future and I could postpone making a change until a later date. But the plain truth is that I was locked into a pattern and it wasn’t until I hit rock bottom that I acknowledged that I needed help because I couldn’t do it on my own. It wasn’t strength of resolve. It was fear that made me change.
Fundamentally, I believe that what alcoholics in recovery need most is a whole new philosophy of life. I spoke about these issues at a meeting once. At the end, somebody said, “What you are talking about is wisdom”.
Wisdom can be taught but mostly it comes from experience. I'm not sure I can easily answer the question of "why did you do it?" I didn’t know then what I know now. But I do know that wisdom keeps me sober.