This is a tough one to post, it’s also a little off topic for the forum. I went back and forth a great deal about whether to crosspost it anyway, and ultimately decided to, since I have in some ways posted on this topic here before, and since there are several parts that are directly relevant to Effective Altruism (the last three sections all have substantial relevance of some sort). Doing this also makes it easier for this to be relatively public, and so to get some difficult conversations over with. The short version of it is that I’ve been an alcoholic, mostly in secret, for about three years now. This blogpost is a lengthy dive into different observations about it, and ways it has changed my mind on various issues. I don’t want to post the whole thing below because, well, frankly it’s huge and only occasionally relevant, so instead I’m going to post some relevant quotes as people often do with linkposts of things they didn’t write. There’s a good deal more in the link.
First, here’s a quick summary of how things got started:
“I started drinking during early 2020, when as far as I can tell there was no special drama going on with Effective Altruism, and I had already been involved with it in a similar capacity for a couple years. Most of the alcoholics I’ve met at this point either got started or got significantly worse during the pandemic, I was no different.
But the truth is my drinking even then wasn’t terribly dramatic a coping mechanism. There was never anything that meaningfully ‘drove me to drink’. The idea that drinking at this point could land me here wasn’t part of my decision at all, I was just kind of bored and lonely and decided it would be a fun treat to drink a beer or two at night – something I had very rarely done before.
As the pandemic wore on, it became something I looked forward to more and more, and eventually I discovered the appeal of hard liquor, which I never switched back from, and eventually I started working on my thesis for my first MA. The combination of my thesis and hard liquor turned a casual habit and minor coping mechanism into something more obviously hard for me to let go of. Over the course of the next three years things got slowly worse from there, and I came to realize more and more how little control I had.
It wasn’t some meaningful part of the larger story of my life, replete with a buried darkness in my soul coming to the forefront, or a unique challenge driven by terrible circumstances. I have had to push back in therapy repeatedly on these subtler and more interesting attempts to make something of the event. The truth is sober reflection makes it all look like little more than a meaningless tragedy.”
Here are some reflections on what it feels like:
“One thing that I think people on the outside of this get wrong is the way conscious and unconscious feelings work in this context. I have been asked many times, especially in therapeutic contexts, what it feels like to get urges to drink. Truthfully, it doesn’t feel like much of anything as far as I can tell. It isn’t like thirst or hunger where there is some identifiable physical sensation. The easiest description of how the ‘urges’ start, is with intrusive thoughts. Not necessarily something as consciously obvious as ‘hey, you should drink’, but often more abstract things about drinking. ‘Do you think you’re going to drink tonight?’ ‘what happens if you drink tonight?’ ‘what happens if you don’t drink tonight?’ ‘if you do this, then you can drink tonight’. Argue with these, and they keep going all day until you drink. Drinking, in fact, is largely how you settle the argument, how you release the building tension.
Do not argue with these thoughts, it does not help, or at least helps very rarely, especially when they are persistent. Not arguing isn’t perfectly adequate either. Ignore them and they aren’t replaced either by silence or by an identifiable urge sensation like hunger, but rather by, when one reflects on the idea of a night without drinking, a vague sense of sadness, even of indignity, at being cheated out of drinking when all the other surrounding nights you got to, and one night won’t make a difference anyway, and your reward for good behavior is to wind up getting punished by being denied alcohol.”
This is a summary of one of my worst periods of drinking, driven by fears about AI:
“Over this time period Effective Altruism played very little role in my alcoholism. The closest it came was for a few months starting around April of 2022, when the combination of Yudkowsky’s Death With Dignity post and the various AI advancements released around the same time caused me to look into AI risks more than I had been, and for them to suddenly feel real in a way they hadn’t before. During this period I was regularly wracked with fear and sadness, especially at night, and often drank more just to forget a little, just to get to sleep. Ultimately this improved after a few months, and I can’t really tell to what extent even this made my drinking worse in the long term.”
This is how alcoholism has been psychologically corrosive to my view of myself as an EA:
“A final way that Effective Altruism could affect alcoholism is perhaps the oldest part of the Effective Altruism canon – your resources can do much more good in other hands, and at the very least one should prefer to spend on the good of those who need it much more than on trivial expensive luxuries. The occasional drink perhaps doesn’t merit strict personal control for any but the most ambitious altruists, but this was not remotely my situation.
Every week or so when I took out the recycling, I was reminded by the avalanche of bottles I poured into the recycling, that I was voluntarily paying a small second rent for the privilege of slowly killing myself. This would be bad enough news for someone who knew they were going into debt for their schooling anyway, but for an Effective Altruist it is hard not to think about how many lives are being lost to this self-destruction on top of it.
At first this is one of many things that can be motivating – it is a very inspiring Effective Altruist story to say that you managed to make yourself stop drinking because you felt you had a moral duty that this was keeping you from meeting. It is, at least by a certain point and in my experience, one of many framings that worked and then worked less and then stopped working. This is all the more disheartening – a sense of purpose is the thing I’ve felt most in need of for pulling myself up, and everything I appeal to in this regard gets worn down and abandoned in time. A sort of gradual moral injury, and erosion of identity.”
And finally, this is how the post ends, with some thoughts on how the community aspect of Effective Altruism can be concretely helpful in this context:
“Since I have mentioned the relationship between my drinking and my Effective Altruism, I should maybe finally end with the confession that I am anotherburneraccountsorry, the author of ‘Advice for an alcoholic EA’. I regret to say that little came of this post. While people brought up potentially helpful advice and resources, I never got around to reviewing them in the way I had planned to, as the rest of my treatment picked up in terms of time commitment, and my other commitments outside of it did as well.
One thing that I asked, and which seemed to come up briefly in the comments as well, was that it might be a good idea to set up some kind of recovery group for EAs struggling with substance abuse. While there are other EA mental health initiatives, ones more like group meetings seem less common, but I think I would feel especially eager and able to be helpful and be helped by people who have some of the same background references and concerns and beliefs, at least it would help when airing out certain topics. Something as simple as some informal recovery meetups, in person in major hubs and/or remote ones for EA more broadly could potentially be helpful to many people.
If there is something I could concretely do to help setup or participate in a group like this, I would be happy to. If anyone else wants to do something like this, I would support them in it. At the same time, as I mentioned in this post, there is a risk of becoming too inward facing or getting too reliant on this one group for even major life events that aren’t as directly relevant to it, so I don’t want to remotely discourage people from attending different groups, even if one like this does get set up.
On the other hand…One of the most inspiring things I ran into during my period as an alcoholic was just a couple videos by Victoria Lynn Carroll on her experience with alcoholism, someone I mostly knew about through a single funny sketch on rationalist twitter handles, and whose level of involvement with EA or rationalism is unclear to me. I wouldn’t have run into these if it wasn’t for my involvement with the EA and rationalist communities, and it’s not clear they would have meant as much to me without that context. Another was just watching the 2022 Secular Solstice recording during an especially tough time for me – I still have The Mary Ellen Carter on repeat when I need to feel some hope and motivation – and it didn’t even touch on addiction.
Despite my sense that separating intimate mental health experiences from EA to a degree can be important for being a richer and more grounded person, it is undeniable to me that I feel a strong need to connect my hardest experiences to aspects of my community and values that provide me with day to day meaning, and that did before I had this problem. It is unsurprising to me that so many religious addicts wind up involving religion very heavily in their recovery. People who compare Effective Altruism to religion are usually making some subtle dig, meant to prove something they lack the arguments to argue for directly, and so hope to imply with more superficial connections…but there is at least some less superficial connection as well, and I think one of more important ones to recognize is the way EA can serve as an anchor point for identity and meaning for people in the community who are suffering from an acute crisis of both. When it comes to cheap or free ways to help people through this anchor point, like informal recovery groups, we shouldn’t pass up the opportunity.”
Anyway, these are on average fairly depressing quotes from on average a fairly depressing post, so I want to briefly close by saying that I’m currently optimistic. A regime involving Naltrexone and Trazodone is helping me get more control, and some recent more hard to explain emotional motivation and longer patches of sobriety make me think things are on the whole improving. Sorry if this is the wrong place to post it.