“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty …”


I like Tigers.

What’s not to like?  They’re stunningly beautiful. Awesomely powerful. One of the very few members of the Great Cats who enjoys water (a fact I continually try to impress upon my house-cats when I try to bathe them.) They’re also freaking huge: 9-10 feet long, from snout to tail-tip, standing about three and a half feet tall at the shoulder, with an average weight (for the males) of 488Lbs – nearly a quarter-ton!  They’re intelligent, and trainable, and, in the wild, live solo lives, hunting for their own needs.  They are venerated from Pakistan to China, appearing often in official seals, works of art, and religious icons (for instance, the Tiger is one of the two animals reputedly singed into the forearms of Shaolin Priests – the original practitioners of Kung-fu.)

They are among the most fearsome predators on the planet.

For starters, they are the largest of the great cats. Their hearing is roughly 5 times more acute than a human’s, and their night vision 6 times sharper, making starlight nearly as bright as day for them. Their roar can be heard up to two miles away, and they can take down animals as large as a water-buffalo – 4 -5 times their weight.  Most will only stoop to becoming man-eaters when they are too old or weak to hunt anything else.

I’d still be terrified of meeting one in the jungle.

I had originally intended to make some sort of comparison between alcoholism and tigers; I’m an alcoholic in the first stages of recovery, and I often feel like I’m combatting a predator – but the more I think about it, the less tigers seem to fit the bill … they are beautiful, powerful, and have SOME standards, at least …

Alcoholism is more like a pack of Hyaena.


Hyaena are among the ugliest animals on Earth. Everything about them is ugly, from their sloping, spotted bodies, to their chuckling hunting cry, and their propensity for mobbing any animal they come across, stealing the rightful kills of other predators, or snacking on whatever they can scavenge.

Alcoholism is like that.  Ugly.  It lies ready to ambush you when you’re feeling good. Mobs you when you’re feeling strong. Scavenges amongst your old baggage. Follows, relentlessly, wherever you go.  And, once you’ve been marked as prey, you can never, ever, ever afford to turn your back on it!

A lot of people don’t get it. “What’s the big deal? Why can’t you just not drink” 

The answer is simple:  my brain isn’t wired the way yours is.

Don’t get me wrong:  I wasn’t born an alcoholic – just had the tendency … but, when you add the tendency to emotional issues, then drown it in Alcohol for a while (how long it takes, depends on the person) what you get is someone who is chemically dependent on alcohol … I mentioned in an earlier post that alcohol damages the Amygdala:  that’s the structure in the brain that allows you to deal with pain and stress – when you substitute ethanol for a properly functioning Amygdala, you end up with A) a damaged Amygdala, less and less capable of handling its stress-relieving functions, B) the depressive effects of Ethanol, and C) less and less hope of pulling out of the downward spiral …

It can be done. I’m doing it. But it’s not easy, and the attitude of some people doesn’t help:  there are people who believe that admitting to alcoholism is giving in to it. These are much the same people who stigmatize mental and emotional illness.  To such people, none  of these things are actually illnesses – just signs of weak will, and laziness …

I’ve devoted a fair amount of space in this blog to the physiological causes and effects of various emotional illnesses … I haven’t really talked about mental illness much, and not at all about substance abuse.  Maybe it’s time to fix that.

There are three kinds of mental/emotional illness. There are shrinks who’ll argue that I’m oversimplifying, and I’ll admit it’s possible – but I’ve been dealing with this from earliest childhood, and they can sit down and shut the hell up! You can study something all you like – but it’s a whole ‘nother thing to live it!

So. Three kinds. They are:  organic brain damage, Endogenous Mental Illness, and Exogenous Mental Illness.

Organic brain damage is exactly what it sounds like:  an accident, or illness has physically damaged the brain resulting in a change in behavior, cognition, or ability.  The classic case is that of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker who, in 1848, suffered an accident where a tamping iron (sort of like a large, straight crowbar) was blown through the bottom left side of his face through the top of his skull, destroying much of his left frontal lobe.  Though the resulting mental changes have often been grossly exaggerated, there is no doubt that, at least for a time, there was a considerable change in demeanor, and behavior.  Organic brain damage can alter a person’s consciousness, ability to form new memories, access old memories, recognize faces, and trigger a whole slew of other neurologic and psychiatric phenomena.

Endogenous Mental Illness are illness born of genetic predisposition, and just the right environmental nudges. Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder are typical of this sort of illness.  No one really knows the causes of these, but a genetic component is obviously at work … add to this predisposition certain environmental factors, and you’re off to the races … think of it as a bundle of dynamite:  it will only explode if exposed to spark, or flame – but the longer it sits, the more likely it is that that will happen.  The predisposition to Schizophrenia, for instance, is not anywhere near as simple as a straight matter of inheritance … it’s believed that a whole slew of genes are involved, making it nearly inevitable – but not. It seems that there will always be some sort of environmental trigger, to finalize the process, and no one knows what it is … diet, infection, loneliness … no one knows.  It may not even be one environmental factor: it may take several … (and there are plenty of psychiatrists who don’t believe any environmental factor is required:  these believe that the multitude of bad genes involved in schizophrenia, make it inevitable that symptoms will appear.  They could easily be right: I don’t know.)

That leaves us with Exogenous Mental Illness:  mental illness that is born entirely of external or environmental causes … PTSD is a good example, though hardly the worst of these disorders.

Trauma damages the brain. Sustained trauma damages it badly. A single horrific event can overwhelm the brain’s natural filtering mechanism (the Amygdala is part of this, but not all of it) … sustained levels of fear, or stress, can produce permanent chemical changes … permanent changes in the brain’s pathways … permanent links to certain memory structures …

Remember the event, or the situation, and you experience the fear all over again, as if it’s happening right now … come across something associated with the event – a siren, a sharp noise, a particular smell – and you’re right back inside the memory, with all  of the chemical mechanisms of the brain reacting as if this is happening again right now!

That’s PTSD. There are lots of disorders that resemble it, and for exactly the same reasons:  the generally are lumped together in psychiatric lore as one form, or another of Hysteria … I’m using the term in its formal sense:  it’s been used by plenty of people in a pejorative way, and is part of the stigmatization of mental illness … the root of the term refers to women, and for ages it was thought that only women – or men as weak as women – could give way to such a thing.

Which is bullshit.  Male or Female, our brains work – at least as regards stress – pretty much the same. Stress is bad for anyone. Sustained stress is damaging to anyone – as is a single, overwhelmingly stressful event. There used to be an entire range of mental illnesses based on hysteria – they’re now widely viewed as different aspects of the same condition:  the brain desperately seeking a means of dealing with overwhelming, intolerable, stress …

Children tortured by psychotic parents at a formative age might seek to deal with the stress by creating a whole new personality to handle things – so there’s Multiple Personality Disorder, born of stress. Children exposed to stress at a later age might attempt to convert their fear and stress, into something physical, leading to a conversion disorder. Some may entirely withdraw, leading to catatonia … the list goes on, and on, and on:  all of it boils down to the same thing: damage caused by stress.

Psychotherapy can help people deal with any of the mental illnesses, but the only ones that respond to such therapy in a significant way are those with Exogenous Mental Illness … no amount of talking can solve Organic Brain Damage, or remove the genetic components of Endogenous Mental Illness – which is why, unfairly, psychotherapy has fallen into such disrepute:  the causes of mental illnesses have never been clear until recently, and it can now be seen that there are whole classes of disorders that psychotherapy can do little to treat – but the disorders it can be used successfully on are precisely the ones that are so stigmatized!  So the very need for psychotherapy, or the act of seeking it out, are as stigmatized as the disorder itself …

No one stigmatizes going to a Doctor when you’re sick – but seek out a psychotherapist, and you are automatically classed as “weak”, “delicate”, “unmanly”, etc, etc, et-fucking-cetara …

Grow up, society!  You absolutely can’t solve a problem without admitting it exists!  Admitting that I’m an alcoholic is not giving in to it:  it’s the first step of fighting it!  It’s the admission that I have a problem that’s too big to combat without help. It’s ok to ask for help when you need to move a couch. It’s ok to ask for help when your car is broken down. It’s ok to ask for help with your freaking crab-grass problem!

It’s somehow not ok to ask for help when you’re stressed out? When your mind is damaged? When you’ve got an addiction?

Think about it. Please.


~ by dourscot on September 30, 2013.

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