At one point in the story I tell in This Moonless Sky, I found myself on a sailing ship fleeing ahead of an advancing, hostile navy – and there was nothing to do but wait it out as the crew kept the boat moving at top speed across the water. So, I read any book that I could find, and the one described below came up.
** ** **
The morning was bright again but the air felt warmer. Still, the change in temperature only produced a few high clouds. We played cribbage; we helped the crew with their chores. Xati caught enough fish for us all to have something fresh for dinner. Eleya read a detective novel and I went on to the personal story of a 20-something alcoholic who’d turned his life back around. He had an interesting theory that addictions were based on hunter-gatherer impulses.
“You stand there,” he wrote, “you look at the bottle, and you say, ‘I must not drink that. I will not drink that. It’s bad for me, I’ve done awful things, I can’t drink that. But somewhere in your mind there’s some lip-smacking going on; someone way inside there is humming mm-mm-mm, and suddenly, to your horror, you find a glass in your hand and you’ve taken a sip.
“You were conscious that it happened and yet, at the same time, it’s almost as if you weren’t. And you say, WHY DID I DO THAT? – but it’s too late. Like the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) people say, you’re already drunk. The craving to sip again and soothe yourself with that soothing soothe is overwhelming. Your resistance is still there clawing and begging, but the glass is laughing in your hand, and you’re kissing it for its amorous persistence.
“Traditionally, we’ve been taught that what just happened there was a failure of will, a weakness, giving in to temptation. And, sure, if you call an AA friend at that moment of temptation, he or she can coax you back into resisting and save the day. But why is this failure of will so beguiling? I saw the clue one day when I saw the event described, not as a failure of will, but as a disinhibition.
“All your sensible, practical, well-reasoned exhortations to yourself are inhibitory, meant to restrain a hunger. Would a faculty of disinhibition, serving to quell those sober thoughts, ever have been advantageous for people? Of course! Imagine that you’re part of a group of hungry people living in a cave and you spot a huge woolly mammoth out along the river. Every practical impulse that you have tells you to leave it alone – it’s huge, it’s easily angered, it has long, sharp tusks – it’s extremely dangerous. And yet, you have a hunger. If you don’t go out with your spear and liberate your hunger, someone crazier than you will do it. Before you know it, against all your good judgment of risk, the spear is in your hand. You call your comrades and out you go. You hurl a spear or try to run it up into the animal’s chest. It spins, it runs, your friend is trampled to death right there. You get another spear from your son and you’re off to track the wounded, enraged animal and have another try. The mad get meat. The sensible starve. You have to have a faculty that anaesthetizes your prudent urges and lets your madness out. Otherwise, you don’t survive.
“It’s impressive to feel it happen. Even though it’s appalling, it’s a wonder of evolution. We have to deal with the fact that alcoholics have too much courage. They have a profoundly useful survival skill that has turned against them. A vegetarian species evolved into a hunter. A species that ought to be fleeing into the trees at the first sign of trouble went out to fight vast animals, even sabre-toothed predators, with little sticks that had rocks on the end. Amnesia about our herbivore fears was what made it all possible. That mental gap between ‘no, no’ and tasting the whiskey is a piece of history.
“Fighting a misplaced survival skill can only be done with knowledge. You have to bring out your other forms of courage and outsmart your disinhibition. Yes! Call your AA buddy and say, ‘I’m close to doing something I don’t want to do.’ Hunt that buddy down and get him to team up with you. Form a gang to surround your disinhibition and spear it before it can knock you down. You’re not weak; you have a division of strengths. Respect your enemy and you can deal with him. That crafty amnesia needs to know that you can see it even in its invisibility cloak. Be braver than your own bravery. And feel the other hunger you have, the hunger for keeping your life sweet and healthy. Sobriety is your meat, your mastodon, your tiger. Good hunting, my friend, good hunting!”