Character Changes Caused by Addiction

Much has been written about the changes which take place in alcoholics as the disease progresses (Jellinek, 1960; Polich et al., 1981; Royce, 1981). These researchers and others have found a number of psychological and biological changes, which appear to be associated with alcoholism. There is growing evidence of a relationship between alcoholic drinking and a reduction in neuro-transmitter levels of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine (Blum & Trachtenberg, 1987).

Ethanol has the capacity to displace enkephalins and endorphins at binding sites which decrease these levels in the brain and pituitary, thus resulting in alcohol craving (Blum & Topel, 1986). At the psychological level there has developed a recognizable cluster of personality traits associated with alcoholism, including a low tolerance for stress, feelings of inadequacy, impaired impulse control, isolation and a negative image of self.

There seems to be agreement that at a point in the progression of the disease, people cross into alcohol addiction. It is at this time that alcohol becomes the organizing core around which everything else in the alcoholic’s life must relate. When this happens, alcoholics can no longer predict their behavior while drinking, or even whether or not they will drink.

Dr. Stephanie Brown (1985) has explored these developmental changes in cognition, which lead to “alcoholic thinking.” She states that these changes refer “not only to rationalization, denial and frame of mind, but also to character traits that frequently accompany drinking. These include grandiosity, omnipotence and low frustration tolerance.” (Brown, 1988 pp. 97) These traits appear to be directly associated with the addictive process rather than with the individual’s personality prior to establishing this abusive cycle.

As alcohol becomes more dominant, the need to deny these changes becomes greater. It appears that there is an interaction between physiological changes and psychological defenses which creates emotional immaturity, self-centeredness and irresponsibility. Alcoholism becomes a thought disorder as well as an addiction to alcohol.

These qualities would accurately describe the primary defenses and interpersonal style typical of normal development in the first three years of life. We have found it useful to characterize the addictive part of self as a “two-year-old child”. The widespread appreciation of the “terrible two’s” stage of human development gives alcoholics a new way of understanding what is happening inside.

Alcoholics increasingly utilize the psychological defenses of denial, undoing, isolation, and rationalization to keep from facing reality. This progressive use of these early defenses forms the core new part of the alcoholic’s personality. This two-year-old wounded part of self begins to “drive the bus” and create havoc for all concerned.

As the disease develops, the two-year-old becomes predominant while the adult influence atrophies with disuse. When fully formed, the two-year-old becomes a permanent part of the alcoholic’s personality. The use of alcohol and other drugs strengthens the power of the two-year-old and at the same time weakens the adult. The primary focus of therapeutic intervention in Therapeutic Coaching is to develop healthy supervision for the two-year-old by the New Program Adult.

If a young child is left alone in a room with a loaded AK-47 - with the safety off, who is really responsible if that two-year-old shoots up the room, destroying many precious things? Is the young child responsible? Are the parents responsible for shooting up the room, even though they were not physically present at the time? The reality is that the parents are responsible for not supervising their child and therefore they are ultimately responsible for the actions of the child. This key distinction allows a new way for alcoholics and drug addicts to view their destructive behavior.

One of the most difficult issues in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction deals with the shame and self-hate associated with destructive choices and actions that were made during the time of using the drugs and alcohol. Usually the results of the destruction begin to surface in early sobriety. At the time the addict/alcoholic can least cope, the results of the addiction hit the most.

To give them a healthy way to understand what has happened in their lives and within that understanding, a constructive focus for current attention. The alcoholic can begin to tie the destructive actions to the two-year-old driving the bus. The focus is on learning to supervise and nurture the wounded part of self, seeing sobriety as the key to that supervision. It helps the alcoholic/addict shift from the destructive reaction of shame, to the healthy reaction of regret.


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