“The mass of men lead lives of quite desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
— Henry David Thoreau, philosopher and writer
Chapter 3 of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book uses a number of powerful words to define alcoholism. Obsession. Illusion. Insanity. All of these can be found within the very first paragraph of the chapter. But there’s also another word the authors use to describe this disease: desperation.
Consider the following passage from Chapter 3:
“What sort of thinking dominates an alcoholic who repeats time after time the desperate experiment of the first drink? Friends who have reasoned with him after a spree which has brought him to the point of divorce or bankruptcy are mystified when he walks directly into a saloon. Why does he? Of what is he thinking?”
The “insanity of the first drink” is a well-known concept among AA advocates, but the feeling of desperation that can precede the first drink is just as important.
Why? Because this desperation is often directly related to the reason a person started drinking or using substances in the first place.
“I had this illusion that I was not good enough. So I would drink."
John Robertson has served on the staff at Tara Treatment Center since 2007. He is also a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for more than 15 years. John uses his own struggles with alcohol as a tool for reaching other substance users, and he talks openly about the root of his own addiction.
“Why do we drink? In my case, I never felt normal,” John says. “I never fit in. I never fit in with my family, I never fit in at school. But when I took that first drink, all those inhibitions came down. The desperation of that is it covered up all my emotions. It covered up who I was as a person, and I never dealt with anything. I never had any coping skills. I never bonded with anybody, but I bonded with the bottle.”
John’s personal story is supported by psychological research, which has shown that low self-esteem is correlated with substance addiction. Feelings of worthlessness can make a person turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, and substance use can in turn create greater feelings of shame. And once a person becomes addicted, their desperation may increase as a result of their chemical dependency.
“Alcohol taught me how to fly, and then it took away the sky. And that’s when the desperation came. That’s when I drank out of necessity, and that’s when that hopelessness came,” John says.
Recovering through Hope and Trust
How can we begin to rebuild our self-worth and break free from the desperation of addiction? John lists two important steps: finding hope that we can recover and forming relationships with people we can trust.
“If you look at the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, the word ‘alcohol’ is only in the first step,” John says. “The other eleven are about relationships. But it’s pretty hard to have a relationship with you if I don’t have a relationship with myself—if I don’t know who John is. Some of that hope is that the person will be willing to discover who they are without drugs and alcohol.”
Once a person starts to get in touch with their inner self again, they often face the difficult task of confronting the demons that fueled their addiction. This is where a trusted friend or family member can help.
“First we get hope, and then we learn to trust a little bit. I’ve gotta trust you to open that basement door where I’ve stuffed all my feelings and go in there. And that takes time,” John says.
Above all else, John finds that the best way to build trust with someone who uses substances is to treat them with dignity and understanding:
“What I try to do here at Tara is when someone walks through the door, I look them in the eye and say, ‘You’re a good, worthwhile person worthy of recovery.’ And the look on their faces…some is shock, and some is relief. And there is hope.”
If you enjoyed this post on Alcoholics Anonymous and finding hope in the face of desperation, you might also like these other articles!