AA, Mental Illness, and Changing Your Brain

laser20neuronA few weeks ago, I wrote about how mental illness is never mentioned in AA.  Well, a good ol’ boy redneck just busted that issue wide open.  It was his turn to share.  He took a deep breath and said, “Guys, I gotta get something off my chest before it kills me.”

He then proceeded to talk about 10 years of suffering from severe panic attacks, basically ever since he quit drinking. I resolved to talk about mental illness and my bipolar disorder when it was my turn.  I’d talked about before, but I felt like people just ignored it.  But when this big, tough guy talked about it, people paid attention. They didn’t all know what to say, but it turned out that others were suffering or had suffered from a mental illness at some point.  That matches up with the statistic that 55% of alcoholics suffer or have suffered with 1 or more mental illnesses.

I reached out to him that night with a text.  I asked him what he was doing to treat it, and he was doing virtually nothing.  No meds, no therapy.  I think this is as a result of stigma in the working class community.  I told him “Brother, you do not need to suffer with this the rest of your life.”  I talked to him about meds,  therapy, and a technique that I and others in my close circle of family and friends are finding success with.  The next night we talked about it.  It’s helped my brother with anxiety attacks, and it’s helped me with smoking.

The idea is that we can change the way our brain functions through repetition of thoughts, actions, and feelings.  The more we think, do, and feel something, the more efficient our brains become at doing it to the point that we don’t even have to think about it.  When we reach a juncture where we might experience something undesirable (panic or smoke or whatever), then we need to give the brain a stronger, more efficient option which increases the likelihood that we choose the better option.

I experimented on my smoking habit.  I’d been trying to quit for several years: patch, gum, vape, prayer, sheer will, toothpicks, meditation.  I figured if this worked on smoking, it could work on just about anything.

My method is to construct a statement which states our desired reality as something that is happening right now, then state a deeply desired benefit I will receive because of it.  Then I say it, imagine it, and feel it throughout my day even while I’m smoking.  The key is that I not attempt to quit smoking and that if I smoke I should cut off the negative feedback loop which only reinforces the behavior.  My theory was that I would quit smoking when my brain was ready.  My statement was “Now that I’m a non-smoker, my singing voice will return to optimal health.”  I chose singing over lung and heart health because I honestly care more about my voice.

After 2 weeks, I said to myself “You know what?  I could wait another 30 minutes for a smoke.”  Then “I could wait an hour”  Then “You know what?  I’m done!”  I haven’t craved one since.  I continue to say the affirmation.

When my brother said he could no longer drink caffeinated drinks because it gave him an anxiety attacks, I told him about this.  His affirmation was “Now that I’m anxiety free, I can drink caffeine anytime I want”  It started working in less than a week.  It goes deeper than caffeine but it is a start.

And so when my AA brother shared his struggles, I told him about this.  He’s doing better than he’s done in years…so he says.  He also intends to take a daily Buspar to further support his help.

I write all this to say that it is so important that we share our mental health struggles, whether at AA, church, among friends, among families, and even at work.  It takes courage like that guy in AA mustered, but look what happened.  He found a friend who understands mental illness enough to help him out.  His courage, and my sharing may touch other people’s lives as well.

I’m glad that my AA group is a little more mental illness friendly.  My sobriety and mental health are deeply intertwined.  I need to talk about it sometimes.  People need to get used to hearing about it if they’re going to face their own mental health issues or support others who have them.


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