Alcoholism, Dissociation, and the Russian Protests

Pasadena, California
Monday, March 27, 2017

Dear Readers,

Imagine the guts of Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption activist in Russia who organized the country-wide protests yesterday. He showed the courage to publicize the problem of corruption in Russia. He called for the rallies after publishing a report of alleged corruption by Russia’s prime minister, Dmitri Medvedev. It’s a well-paying job, but hardly providing the income to purchase luxury yachts, vineyards, and estates. I heard on NPR yesterday that, while the protests erupted, Mr. Medvedev was skiing. More than 1,000 protesters were arrested in Moscow alone, including Mr. Navalny.

How does this relate to alcoholism and dissociation?

Persons with alcohol abuse or dependency problems typically know they are drinking to excess. They often utilize denial, of which you’ve all heard. In psychoanalytic circles, denial is considered mostly an unconscious process. In other words, alcoholics are not lying if — as actually occurred in my practice years ago — one says drinking three bottles of wine after returning from teaching is no big deal. This particular teacher used to return home early, around 330p. From her point of view, she drank fairly slowly, passing out around 10p or so.

The concept of disavowal is similar to denial, but is more conscious. Using that same example, the female alcoholic knew she was drinking too much, but set it aside in her mind. She rarely thought about it. She was, in fact, referred to me by her internist who discovered elevated liver enzymes after a routine blood test. She died around a year after seeing me, by the way. She only attended three sessions, refusing to accept she had a problem.

Moving from alcoholism to dissociation, notice how the so-called ego defense mechanisms, like denial and disavowal just explained, and others like projection, splitting, undoing, etc, share a common factor: they are varieties of dissociation. In other words, they create splits in our subjective experiences. Humor, for example, is an upper level, normal defense mechanism. When black humor is used to laugh about an upsetting experience, it creates a distance between the worrisome event and you. You can laugh. The same logic applies to disavowal. On one level, you know your drinking is a problem; on another, you’re not thinking about it.

As I have mentioned in yesterday’s post, parallels exist between the way we govern ourselves and the way governments oversee populations. I would suggest Putin, for example, is either disavowing or denying the intelligence of the Russian people. What brave Mr. Navalny achieved, recently, was to communicate to the Russian people but one small part of the well-documented corruption in the Putin government. By analogy, like might occur in an individual suddenly realizing their drinking is problematic, the Russian public reacted with outrage at the clear evidence of corruption.

I am holding out dim hope for these protests fomenting more governmental change in Russia. I hold out the same kind of hope for persons consulting psychoanalytic psychotherapists. In a sense, they too seek to publicize their internal oppressors, at least within the quiet privacy of the consulting room.

Coincidentally, I just mentioned the need for a revolution to a patient who consulted me just this morning. Adhering to numerous internal rules for being a “good boy,” a good provider, a responsible husband and father, he lacks freedom. He never plays. He has no friends. He feels intensely anxious. He seems open to listening to the wounded part of him living in this internally-repressive regime. I hope he does.

Fortunately, he does not risk dying, at least violently, as a result of his internal rigidity. However, if he lives under such internal pressure for enough years, he could develop a more serious mental disorder, or some other health condition.

Mr. Navalny, the spokesperson for a nation of oppressed persons, literally risks death for his revolutionary activities. As I noted yesterday, and as recently reported in The Washington Post, at least ten Russian citizens have been killed in the last decade for their social-justice activism. I shall hold Mr. Navalny in my thoughts now, hoping he survives, and hoping that, even if killed, his courage has initiated a path towards freedom for his many fellow citizens.

With affection,


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