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Sunday, July 3, 2011

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  1. IN response to a SLATE article on Christopher Hitchens,[by Brian Palmer|Posted Friday, Dec. 16, 2011 "Does Alcohol Improve Your Writing?]
    I responded:
    Thank you for focusing attention on this horrible but treatable illness. Even after millennia of theories and “cures,” alcoholism remains “cunning, baffling and powerful.” Mr. Palmer and several other contributors are overlooking a fundamental fact about alcoholism: The alcoholic has no choice except to seek alcohol - sometimes for years - until a defective neuro receptor is finally blocked. At that point the alcoholic will "hit bottom" and have a period of craving free lucidity. The illness is cyclic - some people may cycle daily, others annually. Most alcoholics will relapse within nine months of hitting bottom. We could learn a great deal about the effect of alcohol on higher cortical functions if we could survey the writing careers of great authors. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda were both alcoholics, and they tended to have opposite cycles - while Zelda was in a hospital, Fitzgerald would be sober. He would write brilliantly, then, predictably a year later, when Zelda was able to be released, he would pick up and not write anything worthwhile - which cost him dearly when he was supposed to be working on a deadline writing screen plays.
    It is more important to focus on the illness rather than on the drug. Faulkner is quoted as answering the "question about what does it take to be a great novelist?" "first drink a quart of whiskey and then to sober up for a night in a whorehouse." Those who seek modern treatments using blocking drugs like naltrexone along with a spiritual program of recovery like AA, will eventually have fewer relapses, shorter relapses and MAY achieve long term sobriety.
    However, after years of battling relapses, living on vitamin deficient diets, having multiple head injuries and suffering socio-economic marginalization, it may take years for the brain to recover. And then only if the recovered alcoholic actually builds a new life free of all the familiar triggering influences that were involved with seeking alcohol or being intoxicated (even family, even friends, even a career focus usually has to go). A different author with more or less popular appeal will emerge.
    Many of the past famous alcoholic authors, like Verlaine and Rimbaud, sobered up but had organic brain damage due to lack of thiamin and substances like worm wood (Absinthe) that contaminated their alcohol. Verlaine never resumed his spectacular output. When Zelda ceased eating properly, she eventually developed wet brain (Wernicke's encephalopathy) and required permanent hospitalization during which she died in a fire from which she lacked the cognition to save herself.
    For the first time in history, this dreary perspective is shifting. The best indication is found in the works of our most popular authors. Notice the frequency with which contemporary authors either include dialog about attending AA Meetings or even create characters who are struggling with or recovering from alcoholism. (Lincoln Lawyer, “Plays Well With Others”, the Jacks: Bauer, Sparrow and Ryan). The landscape is changing slowly. If you know heavy drinking authors, tell them that sobriety will not sap their creative powers, but open up even more exciting vistas – if they seek treatment. My sobriety date is November 11, 1997…and counting). -Dr. Bill Rohde in Boston.