Alcoholics tend to be exceptionally optimistic – they have to be in order to keep doing what they are doing.
Most of us are probably not going to automatically associate the word ‘optimism’ with addiction to alcohol. I must admit, my memories of being a drunk mostly involve depression and feeling hopeless – especially for the last few years of my drinking.
Here’s the thing – there is no way that I would have allowed my life to deteriorate to such a degree without plenty of optimism to get me there. No pessimist would put that much effort into doing something that caused them such a high degree of suffering along the way.
I’m not a masochist – I don’t like pain. Most of the fun had gone out of alcohol by the time I hit my first treatment center at age nineteen. It took me another sixteen years before I could finally give it up forever. For all that time I held onto the idea that the good days of drinking were going to return – that’s incredibly optimistic.
Alcoholic’s Top Ten of Optimism
Here are just ten optimistic ideas that help to make alcoholism possible:
1. The good days of drinking are going to return
2. I’ll be able to change when things get bad enough
3. If I don’t drink until the evening, I’ll be fine
4. I’m one of those ‘high-functioning’ alcoholics
5. It is going to be easier to keep drinking than to change my life
6. I’ll stop drinking when I’m older
7. If I stop drinking for X days/weeks/months/years, I’ll be safe to drink again
8. This online webinar is going to teach me how to drink sensibly – it only costs $500!
9. If I move to an exotic country, I’ll be better able to control my drinking
10. My new girlfriend/boyfriend is going to help me get better
Drunks and Their Terminal Uniqueness
It’s not easy to remain optimistic when there is so much evidence that you have gone off the rails – alcoholics manage to pull this off with great aplomb. The secret to their tenacity is called ‘terminal uniqueness’ – it is called ‘terminal’ because this type of thinking gets you killed.
Terminal uniqueness is optimism in its most lethal form. It’s a type of magical thinking that most of us will engage in at least occasionally. People who come here to Thailand and ride a motorbike without a helmet are exhibiting terminal uniqueness – so is the person who thinks they can get away with smoking cigarettes.
To understand how terminal uniqueness works, we need to take a look at cognitive dissonance. This is just a fancy term for something most of know already – people are capable of believing any old shit if it justifies what the things they want to do.
Even the most uninformed alcoholic knows that drinking too much alcohol is a dangerous type of behavior. This knowledge that they are doing something so illogical makes them feel uncomfortable – this is what cognitive dissonance means.
One way that we can resolve cognitive dissonance is to believe that the normal rules do not apply in this case. The alcohol-enthusiast decides that they are somehow protected from the usual consequences of excessive drinking.
The optimism of terminal uniqueness can be almost bulletproof to reason – so much positive thinking would put Tony Robbins to shame. Even as our skin turns yellow, and our abdomen swells from liver cirrhosis, we can still imagine there to be great days of drinking ahead of us – that takes an incredible amount of optimism.