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Alcoholism and Symbols

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Dr Jung was associated with the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. I was recently reading this article Jung and the labyrinth of addiction which explains Jung's point of view on addiction, particularly alcoholism and how this could be addressed. Some excerpts "....In the early 1930s a patient of Jung’s, Roland H., stopped drinking during his analysis but relapsed soon afterwards. He returned to Jung, asking to resume the analysis to help him to become abstinent once again. Jung refused, telling him bluntly that nothing less than exposing himself to the experience of a genuine conversion could be effective – and that even that might fail. Jung’s patient was utterly shocked – an example of the rock bottom experience of many an addict. Unbeknown to Jung, Roland H. returned to the U.S.A where he joined the Oxford group which had helped many alcoholics to become sober. Within this group he did undergo a religious conversion and he became sober. It was in part his influence that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous......."

"...Jung understood the psychological function of drugs in a different way from other psychoanalytic writers, not merely as changing mood (calming or stimulating), but actually changing what happens in the inner world. This means not simply masking psychic distress but actually removing the cause of the distress for the time being. Chemical substances, he knew, work at a deep level of psychic functioning, blurring the boundaries in the inner world. Splits are abolished, the fragmented worlds become merged. Once someone has experienced this sense of wholeness, they may well want to experience it again and again. The wholeness that comes with intoxication is an illusory wholeness with a numinous power which dissolves when one sobers up. So the search to repeat the experience begins, and it is not one that is readily given up...."

"...Alcoholism, he believed, involves a spiritual thirst for a sense of wholeness – the true secret of its numinous power and the reason why a person can be led into an addiction. He understood intuitively that only a radical conversion to something equally satisfying to the individual at a deep level can promote recovery...."

"...Underlying the Twelve Steps is the archetype of initiation in the form of containment, confrontation of the shadow, and finally the relinquishing of ego control, that is, of heroic qualities, in favour of the Self as the organising force within the psyche....."

In his book Jung's Map of the Soul, Dr Murray Stein comments on the meeting between Dr Jung and Roland H. "...Jung responded by admitting that the therapist is essentially helpless in trying to overcome a patient’s substance dependence.23 Jung’s message was—in my paraphrase of his letter—You need a symbol, an analogue that will draw the energy that has gone into drinking. You must find an equivalent that is more interesting than getting drunk every night, that attracts your interest more than that bottle of vodka. A powerful symbol is required to bring about such a major transformation in an alcoholic, and Jung spoke of the need for a conversion experience. Symbols emerge out of the archetypal base of the personality, the collective unconscious. They are not artificially invented by the ego but rather appear spontaneously from the unconscious especially during times of great need. Symbols are the great organizers of libido....."

This subject is of interest to me because I personally know people who are suffering from this illness.

So what is the connection here between alcohol and a religious experience? How does alcohol cause such mental and spiritual suffering? How does a symbol help in escaping from this suffering? What is the process involved?

Dr Jung's thesis is that (I paraphrase), libido or psychic energy constantly flows up to the surface of consciousness in the form of emotion and is meant to be converted into meaningful action - into life itself, as it were. This involves mediation by the ego. It has to acknowledge the raw emotion, convert it into feeling (value judgements) and channel it into actions that are meaningful to the situation and the person's current stage in life. This is how one progresses and adapts to life, and Jung's core assertion, which is not universally accepted, is that this is an autonomous process that happens in everyone independent of any conscious control. Jung called it individuation.

Alcohol does two things.

First it acts as an emotional anesthetic, so this natural process of experiencing emotion and converting it is blocked when one is not on an alcoholic high - the day after, for instance. Dreams are also blocked - there are very few dreams for someone sleeping in an alcoholic stupor. This could go on for years on end.

If the ability to feel and to produce dreams is blocked, adaptation and individuation stops and the alcoholic feels stuck and isolated. Without the ability to produce symbols via dreams or otherwise, one forms a concrete relationship with objects. This is the obsession with the liquid itself and may also take other forms like an inability to form relationships with the opposite gender, the Other, based on anything that contains meaning.

The second thing alcohol does is that the block is released only when one is drunk and one's ego defences are lowered. So all the emotion that has been trapped inside is released explosively, but unmediated by the ego. Inappropriateness of behaviour aside, the lack of mediation means that there is no transformation happening. It is just a dissipation of energy. Meaning results from libido in the form of emotion being converted to value in the form of feeling. When this process is short circuited, life gets hollowed out since libido is not an infinite resource.

This works (or rather doesn't work) in both directions. It is not only the autonomous drive for individuation from the unconscious that gets short circuited. Life is a process of doing things in the world and then these experiences have to be replayed and assimilated periodically. Even well before alcohol is recognized as a serious debilitating problem, it blocks this process in the same manner as mentioned earlier. This means that one ends up living one's life without reflection, examination, adaptation or growth and one strays further and further from the full authentic life one is meant to lead. Some alcoholics even report that they feel like they are living two lives - and both don't seem real. It is not difficult to see how this can be a pathway to narcissism. There is an idea of oneself growing in the mind,often grandiose, since it is not being recalibrated against anything in the real world - and thus corresponds less and less with the reality of one's situation with time.

It is a vicious double sided trap.

Only a great symbol will have the power to draw libido out when it is blocked like this. The stronger the addiction, the greater the symbol that is needed. The alcoholic needs to be willing to allow this process to happen through them. Usually this is extremely difficult and cannot be willed - the accumulated suffering and disillusionment has to cause at least a short space of time when all projections are withdrawn from the world (known as rock bottom or a moment of clarity), so the other process can kick off.

This makes sense only if one were to accept the reality of individuation, that is, if we have a psychic life that develops independently and directionally with a beginning, middle and end, just as our bodies do.

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