Addictive Thinking – Thinking Like a Schizophrenic

by Glenn Rader

When I was about eight years old, my mother was overcome by delusional, paranoid schizophrenia. She was a bright woman, always sharply dressed, articulate, loving, and caring. The schizophrenia completely consumed her, and she became an obsessive, brooding, and fearful person. Her change was not simply like someone who is having a really bad day and being disagreeable and moody. She was completely transformed into a different person. It was as if someone else had been transplanted into her body. Her voice, mannerisms, and her view of reality were completely altered.

My mother believed that she was a part of a dark conspiracy. Her role in the “plot” was to protect secret, important information that a group of unsavory characters wanted. Her charter from her “leaders” was to stay hidden and protect that information. Periodically, she would direct me and my sisters to hide in closets or in the basement to avoid the “radar” beams that they were using to scan our house in an attempt to locate her. She was delusional, it was her reality, and there was nothing you could say to her to convince her otherwise. On a positive note, she found a path out of her mental illness and lived a great life, free from schizophrenia, until she passed away at 98 years old. My sisters and I had a wonderful relationship with her.

My drinking and drugging started when I was in undergraduate college and was nurtured during graduate school. I first started thinking that I might have an alcohol “issue” when, after expressing some remorse over my vodka bottle on the shelf being nearly empty, my roommate suggested that my concern over my vodka supply seemed “odd”. He went on to say that I might be developing a problem with drinking. Of course, that was a preposterous assertion. Over decades my “issue” with alcohol progressed into a full physical and psychological dependency. Along with the dependency came the “stinking thinking”. I can recall my wife telling me that I seemed like a different person; that my personality had changed, and that most of the time I was not making sense – not being realistic. I was delusional, it was my reality, and there was nothing you could say to convince me otherwise.

My “stinking thinking”, my “alco-logic” as we like to refer to it in my local AA recovery community, led me to the conclusion that I might have inherited my mother’s mental illness. Perhaps, my personality and behavior change, and excessive “self-medicating” with alcohol and drugs to cope, were a result of developing schizophrenia. I went to a psychiatrist and had the full battery of psychological tests performed. Alco-Logic: If I could address the mental illness, then I could drink (and drug) like “normal” people – not needing the “extra” for self-medication. Fortunately, I got a clean bill-of-mental-health from the psychiatrist. Shortly thereafter I got active in AA and have developed a solid recovery regimen.

Then, to my amazement, a few years into recovery I discovered a short, insightful book that is now on my list of “must-read” books for people in recovery. It is called Addictive Thinking – Understanding Self-Deception, by Abraham, J. Twerski, MD. It is a book that explains the similarities between the thinking that accompanies addiction and schizophrenia.

Dr. Twerski is the founder and medical director emeritus of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A rabbi, psychiatrist, and chemical dependency counselor, he is the author of numerous journal articles and books.

Based on his extensive, hands-on experience in the addiction recovery field, and his training in psychiatry, Dr. Twerski observed that people suffering from addiction reach a stage where they think and behave like schizophrenics. What does he mean by “thinking like a schizophrenic”? He means that you can reach a stage in your addiction where you believe and behave like you are living in an alternative reality. Looking back, I may not have inherited my mother’s mental illness, but I was certainly thinking and behaving like I was living in a different reality.

What Dr. Twerski would advance is that both the alcoholic and the schizophrenic are living in extreme self-deception. It is self-deception that is grounded in self-esteem issues. Reading Addictive Thinking was like reading a summary of myself when I was at the height of my addiction. These are some of the “stinking thinking” issues that are part of the self-deception that Dr. Twerski describes:

  • Confusion regarding cause and effect,
  • Denial, rationalization, and projection,
  • Problems dealing with conflict,
  • Hypersensitivity,
  • Having morbid expectations,
  • Manipulating others,
  • Guilt and shame,
  • Omnipotence and impotence,
  • An inability to admit errors, and
  • Anger management.

Through Dr. Twerski’s work, I have an improved understanding of my addiction, delusional thinking, and why I must rely on resources outside of myself for guidance regarding my recovery. He is someone who has been in the “trenches” of addiction and psychiatry and knows his way around.

Addictive Thinking – Understanding Self-Deception.

Dr. Twerski outlines the destructive and terrifying illogic that marries a person with a substance use disorder to their addiction. “Stinking thinking” and irrational thought are byproducts of addiction and they only worsen with time.

Twerski, with a deep psychological understanding, steps in to explain and contextualize all of the actions that arise from addictive thinking.

Glenn Rader is an author and public speaker in the recovery community. He is the author of: STOP – Things You MUST Know Before Trying to Help Someone with Addiction.

STOP is a short, innovative book that is essential reading for someone trying to help a person with alcohol or drug addiction. The book contains information and action items that some people take years of trial and error to learn; often at a significant emotional and financial sacrifice.

The book will change your view of what “helping” someone struggling with addiction really means.


16 Responses

  1. Bob K says:

    American psychiatrist Karl Menninger (1893-1990) said that he’d rather one of his children be diagnosed with schizophrenia than alcoholism. He thought there was a better chance of recovery.

    When asked what a person should do if he/she thought they were on the brink of a nervous breakdown, the psychiatrist replied: “Lock up your house, go across the railroad tracks and find someone in need and do something for them.” Bill Wilson didn’t invent the concept of helping others as a way of helping ourselves.

    Another poignant quotation from the Menninger Clinic founder — “Love cures people — both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.” That doesn’t match up well with the vaunted “Sit down and SHUT UP” approach that is alleged (by some) to have reigned supreme during AA’s glory days.

    Thanks for the essay. I found it thought-provoking and beautifully crafted. I’ve long believed that alcoholics are delusional in some areas, and if you’re delusional, you’re mentally ill. That leaves the “Just don’t drink” program to be a perilous one as a disordered mind is incapable of consistently making good decisions.

  2. Bob K says:

    The mention of Rabbi Twerski sent my mind to an Agnostica piece from almost nine years ago:

    Does AA Need Religion: Agnostics on CBC Radio

    I misremembered the rabbi. It wasn’t Twerski in the CBC interview – it was Shais Taub. In my defence, the two are colleagues. They both live in Pittsburgh and they both have expertise in alcoholism and addiction.

    The interview was extremely interesting as you may be able to garner from the report. The press interest was prompted by the delisting of two “agnostic” meetings by Toronto Intergroup – an action that ultimately changed AA.

  3. Chris G says:

    As I was reading the article, I was thinking “that seems a bit extreme – I don’t think I was like that”, until I got to the list of bullet points. Suddenly: yes, that was me. Not in some extreme way, but yes, I could relate to every point, some more than others. Fascinating.

  4. Glenn Rader says:

    Thank you Bob! I appreciate your perspective, the information on Dr. Menninger, and the nice complement.

  5. Dan L. says:

    Thanks for the essay. A good read for a Sunday morning. I can certainly see the similarities between schizophrenia and addiction. It is my belief that addiction runs in parallel with a number of psycho-emotional disorders indicative of a general dysfunction affecting most behaviour. As ethanol addicts although sometimes selfish we do not seem to live for ourselves but mostly to satisfy our need to consume. I used to describe myself as being little more than an endless and insatiable appetite for beer. I did not do much at the end other than sit around and drink it and it gave me enormous pleasure – or so I felt at the time.

    Through the last decades of my drinking I knew I was alcoholic. My drinking fortunately hadn’t affected my reading and research into whatever interested me. I compulsively studied alcoholism and addiction trying to find a way out. The simple fact was that I understood for a number of reasons that admission of alcoholism meant that one must stop and enter recovery or die drunk. So in spite of knowing I was alcoholic I could never actually voice or admit it. As I went into my inevitable decline I was in complete denial of something I understood quite well. I rebuffed any suggestion that I might need help because that would mean the end. The separation of me from my favourite sport, beverage, food, hobby, profession, obsession best friend and greatest love.

    Somehow – and I wish I knew how because I could save millions of lives and become really, really rich – a couple of events occurred which showed me that I was at the abyss and my denial collapsed. I think I am still potentially a very delusional individual but coming into recovery killed that appetite.

  6. Mike c says:

    Thanks Glenn, good stuff. Our alco-logic minds need all the help they can get. We underestimate the power of our addiction. It can wiggle it’s way out of our fight for acceptance, and as we know, until we accept our problem, we tend to not try to do anything about it.

  7. Doc says:

    Thanks, Some interesting things to think about. There is a possibility that I’m also addicted to thinking.

  8. Dave J says:

    Menninger was wrong. If I tell a schizophrenic the imaginary dragon he sees is gone… he knows I’m lying and will continue to see it. If I remove alcohol (safely) from an alcoholic in the throes of Delirium Tremens who is also seeing a dragon… chances are 99% it’s gone. I would much prefer to be alcoholic than schizophrenic. The latter is a relatively easy fix.

    • Bob K says:

      Menninger may have been intentionally hyperbolic. I have no idea what percentage of schizophrenics can be brought to recovery. Menninger and others in the psychiatric and medical communities were extremely frustrated in their efforts to rehabilitate drunks.

      Your example makes it sound like the detoxed alcoholic is “fixed.” As we all know, that simply isn’t the case. The detoxed alcoholic is highly likely to return to drinking within months, weeks, days, or hours. Those under psychiatric treatment may have seemed to their therapists to have been “doing so well.”

      The essay speaks of “alco-logic” — the damaged thinking that leads alcoholics time after time to return to drinking in spite of the devastating consequences that await. It’s all a good deal more subtle than imaginary dragons.

  9. Glenn Rader says:

    Thanks to everyone for the feedback on the article and your insight on the subject.

  10. Ted J. says:

    Posted to Facebook as well in response to this article.

    The article has no evidence to support the type of insanity of schizophrenia compared to the mindset of true alcoholism. Much as many psychiatrists try to describe and have empathy for the extreme delusions and paranoia of schizophrenics, no alcoholic who is not also a schizophrenic can conceive of it. The author said that his mother put her kids in the basement to prevent a perceived threat which was based in hallucinations. He describes his mother as someone who is day in and day out suffering from delusion and paranoia. This is more typical of people on crystal meth. I have yet to meet another alcoholic who behaves this way. In my experience with my schizophrenia, my mindset was one of one day being normal, living a life on planet Earth and then the next day I was on Mars for the rest of my life. I no longer trusted my own senses. This occurred 24 hours a day for over two decades. Mind you, I was not an alcoholic then. I rarely took a drink and could take it or leave it. When I did cross the line into alcoholism, it led me down a dark path that was not at all similar to my schizophrenic symptoms. I was a low-bottom, homeless drunk and often suffered delusional thinking, but nothing like the horror of schizophrenia. At this time, my schizophrenia was well controlled with medication. I would like to add that the list of symptoms in the article are generalized, and really don’t describe schizophrenia specifically enough, and seem to have been cherry-picked. Ted.

  11. Bullwinkle says:

    Bob K writes>>>Bill Wilson didn’t invent the concept of helping others as a way of helping ourselves<<>>Jesus Christ said of the sheep, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt 25:35-36). The goats, the unbelievers failed to do the very same.

    Bob K writes>>> Another poignant quotation from the Menninger Clinic founder — “Love cures people — both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.” That doesn’t match up well with the vaunted “Sit down and SHUT UP” approach that is alleged (by some) to have reigned supreme during AA’s glory days.<<<

    If one receives love, they are automatically giving love.

    I've been attending AA meetings for over 55 years, and I compassionately understand that the “Sit down and SHUT UP” approach existed / exists in the AA fellowship, it's abusive behavior. Those who would abuse others, do so because they have been abused, that's how they leaned the abusive behavior. However, if one follows Chapter 7, WORKING WITH OTHERS, virtually, this abusive behavior wouldn't exist.

    As Dr. David Stewart said, from his book Thirst for Freedom, "Few people realize that sobriety is an action of insights and skills far beyond mere abstinence. Sobriety is a creative discipline in the art of freedom of growth and of love. To be yourself is to become yourself".

  12. Thom Rutledge says:

    Excellent article. In my experience, both as an alcoholic and as mental health professional, coming to understand that in addiction we actually do behave according to an altered value system is an essential step toward discovering self-compassion needed for solid, long-term recovery. Everyone’s story is unique but addiction really can be the experience of feeling “possessed,” similar to how the author describes his mother’s schizophrenia.

    • Roger says:

      Thom has a website that you can visit by clicking on this image:

      Start Here

    • Bullwinkle says:

      This doesn’t apply to me >>> both as an alcoholic and as mental health professional, coming to understand that in addiction we actually do behave according to an altered value system is an essential step toward discovering self-compassion needed for solid, long-term recovery. <<<

      Alcoholic drinking didn’t alter my value system where it could make me behave morally and ethically different than when I was sober. In other words, alcoholic drinking didn’t create a behavior that didn’t exist. Psychotherapy opened-up my eyes to why I drank alcoholically, which engendered self-compassion.

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