How 12-Step Recovery Helps Alcoholics Remember What Drinking Took Away

Decades of research have shown that alcohol severely damages the brain, causing blurred vision, slurred speech, slowed reaction times and impaired memory. Alcoholism causes cognitive deficits in 50 to 80 percent of alcoholics. Interestingly, memory loss worsens when an alcoholic stops after a prolonged period of drinking, whether that involves binge drinking or continuous drinking as seen in chronic alcoholics.

Repeated periods of alcohol use followed by withdrawal seem to have the most significant impact on memory. Withdrawal isn’t limited to severe symptoms such as seizures associated with the sudden cessation of alcohol use after an extended period of drinking. It can be as subtle as the sweatiness and shakiness people often feel when they wake up after a night of drinking. If someone drinks every day and stops every night, they are going to experience withdrawal every morning. And that’s the kind of withdrawal that injures memory.

So when alcoholics say, “I don’t think my memory was this bad before I stopped drinking,” they are observing a genuine scientific phenomenon. Stopping drinking causes a toxic reaction in the brain that significantly worsens memory deficits. Of course, the answer is not to continue drinking. Research also shows that medication, alcohol addiction treatment and 12-Step recovery can minimize the effects of drinking.

The Impact of Alcoholism on Memory

As a result of animal studies, we know that alcohol-related memory impairments appear to be related to changes in the gray matter of the brain as well as changes in hippocampal volume, a structure specifically associated with memory.

When rats are placed in a cage with objects they’ve never seen before, they are attracted to the novelty. They sniff and paw at the objects to determine if they are of any interest. Once they learn what the object is, they lose interest. This is called object recognition.


How Long Does Addiction Recovery Take?

When a patient discovers that they have an illness, one of their first questions is, “How long until I get better?” In the field of addiction treatment, there is an ongoing debate about what the answer should be. Some feel the only way to instill hope for recovery is to define a specific endpoint at which patients can consider themselves fully recovered.

But this ignores the true nature of addiction. Unlike a cold or a broken bone, research has confirmed that addiction is a chronic brain disease akin to heart disease or diabetes. There is always hope for recovery – a hope I see fulfilled every day through education and treatment. But for hope to be authentic, it must be directed toward living a healthy, fulfilling life while managing the disease, not blind hope for curing it.

Understanding that addiction recovery is a lifelong process, it benefits patients to understand what their journey may look like. What are the stages of recovery, and how long does each take? These questions can be answered any number of ways, but the following descriptions align with the guidelines set forth by the National Institute on Drug Addiction (NIDA).


This stage begins the day the addict stops drinking or using drugs. For many, this happens in a drug or alcohol treatment program where they learn to address addiction holistically as a disease of mind, body and spirit.

New Definition Of Recovery Leaves Questions Unanswered

Last month, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) set forth a working definition of recovery. After consulting the behavioral health community and soliciting comments, SAMHSA declared that recovery is “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

According to SAMHSA, the four dimensions that support recovery are health, home, purpose and community. The administration also enumerated 10 guiding principles, which explain that recovery:

• Emerges from hope;
• Is person-driven;
• Occurs through many pathways;
• Is holistic;
• Is supported by peers and allies;
• Is supported through relationships and social networks;
• Is culturally based;
• Is supported by addressing trauma;
• Involves the individual, family and community; and
• Is based on respect.

Several of these guiding principles align with the values many of us in the treatment field have long held, including hope, respect, and the importance of individualized treatment and social support. Although some critics assert that recovery must have an endpoint – a measure of success by which someone knows definitively if they have recovered or not – SAMHSA embraces the well-researched and now widely accepted disease model of addiction. Because addiction is a chronic, progressive illness similar to heart disease and diabetes, recovery is a lifelong process; it is a journey, not a destination.