So, I’m an addict. Technically an alcoholic — that’s the only “medical” diagnosis I have, but just generally an addict. If I’m not careful, I can buy things on Amazon compulsively (and, I’m sure they love me for it), or compulsively seek sex, or whatever. It’s just a latent trend in me. But alcohol — specifically, usually, beer — is the worst, because not only is it an unhealthy activity to begin with, but it lowers your inhibitions and impairs your judgement, making it that much harder to make a better choice after you’ve finished that “just one drink.”
Now, I’m not going to go into all the sordid details of my drinking career — DUI, bad behavior, blackouts — it’s all pretty much standard fare for an alcoholic. I’ve never hurt anybody behind the wheel of a car, I’ve never raped or murdered anyone, and I’ve never pissed myself (that last one is, oddly, a matter of personal pride). But I’ve done just about everything else.
My roommate knows about my addiction, and she’s been sending me reading materials she suggests I watch or read or listen to. She’s young, but apparently a number of people in her family struggle with addiction (as far as I know, she does not personally have this issue) so she has some experience in it. I put off reading/watching/etc. most of this stuff because, frankly, I’ve been through most of it across the years, and it’s just so horribly depressing, with saccharine hope in the face of a horrific disease. But recently, I watched a TEDTalk video that she suggested by Johann Hari, called “Everything you Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong.” It was very good, and rather moving.
The conclusions from the video were that the “war on drugs” and prohibition in general as a way to fight addiction were wrongheaded policies and needed to be abolished — I already agree 100% with that; putting people in jail for essentially being addicts is a cruel, upside-down system.
The other conclusion of the video was that the story we have — of addiction being about chemicals getting their “hooks” into our brain, causing us to literally lose control of our ability to stay sober — is dead wrong, as well. Hari cites the famous “rat park” experiment — where rats that were provided an environment full of things to do and other rats to be friends with (“rat park”) lost almost all preference for drugs like heroin and cocaine.
Now, there are some valid criticisms of the experiment, so it shouldn’t be taken as gospel. But understanding the importance of environment on addiction is very, very crucial. It’s not just all drugs and brains interacting; the rest of your life is pretty damned important, too.
In my own personal history, I remember the very first time I drank. My mom had been sober for many years by that point, so I was very, very nervous about drinking — I knew I had a high potential to be an addict, too. But I was 21 — late bloomer — and at a party at my own house. I remember being paralyzed with social anxiety, and unable to mingle and chat and flirt with the many interesting, attractive people who were there. And I remember getting more and more frustrated — I mean, ffs, this was a party at my own house and I was still a wallflower? What the hell?!
So finally, when someone offered me some beer, I gave in — what the hell. At least I wouldn’t be the oddball in this one particular way. I drank the beer; it tasted awful but it wasn’t horrible, and it made my stomach feel warm, so I had another… and a few more. And lo, and behold! Suddenly my shyness and anxiety vanished. It was like a veil had been lifted — when I drank, suddenly all of the repression and shyness and anxiety just fell like scales from my eyes, and I could be the guy I always wanted to be.
That very first drink, I drank until blacking out, and passing out. I woke the next morning, hugely hung over, but even here I felt strangely happy — my roommates were hung over, too, and we all went out to breakfast and nursed our hangovers together. I felt like “one of the crowd.” This was such a new feeling!
I have been chasing that feeling, ever since then. I don’t drink because I am miserable — gods, why would you want that!? I drink because I’m generally in a good mood and want old stuffy Dr. Jekyll to go away so vivacious, interesting Mr. Hyde can come out. Mr. Hyde who can talk to women, flirt with women, seduce women, have sex with women. Mr. Hyde who is charged with bonhomie and laughs and sings and so on.
But the Jekyll and Hyde metaphor is apt; Mr. Hyde is not a very good guy. Yes, he can flirt with and try to seduce women, but he does that with almost every woman, even if attempting to sleep with them is horribly inappropriate. Sure, he sings, but he doesn’t shut the hell up. Yeah, he’s full of deep, profound wisdom, but he’s mostly full of insane, unfiltered gibberish. He can express his anger — unlike me — but he can also rage out (thank god I’ve never been violent). He’s kind of a dick, and when I sober up again, old stuffy Dr. Jekyll has to go and clean up all the wreckage Hyde made, further adding to shame and alienation.
Of course, the “answer” to this particular issue is to figure out how to integrate the two “parts” of my personality so I don’t need alcohol to open up. I need to figure out how to be a confident, sexy, sexual man while sober, so I don’t feel like I need “a drink” to let it out. I need to figure out how to express “negative” emotions like sadness or anger while sober, so I don’t need to be deep “in my cups” to cry or let someone know I’m angry at how they’ve behaved. I need to get past my social anxiety and shyness (which has vastly decreased over the years, but still cripples me — it keeps me from participating much socially) so that I can feel “a part of” groups that I identify with.
But, well, all this is very, very hard, and it’s difficult to avoid the temptation of using a substance that I already know works, and works quickly, even though that use carries often horrific consequences. I recognize that drinking is a self-destructive behavior, but once you accept that the need for friendship, connection, and sexuality is fundamental and not just a “nice to have” then it’s not completely irrational to not want to give up the one tool I have — even if it’s a flawed, broken tool that tends to hurt me as much or more than it helps me. So, in some ways, drinking is a rational behavior for me. It’s just that it’s a bad choice from an array of horrible choices. The alternative — stay repressed, stay fearful, stay sexually inhibited — just isn’t acceptable. That’s like saying “just don’t breathe.”
The final takeaway I got from Hari’s video was that beating up addicts for being addicts is counterproductive and immoral. Whatever the roots of my addiction, the fact that I only ever found this one, flawed, broken tool for getting some of my fundamental needs met is not my fault. Whose fault it is is a matter of debate, but it’s certainly not my fault. It’s not even entirely my fault that I keep periodically relapsing — that is the nature of addiction. If addicts didn’t relapse, they wouldn’t be addicts. I’m sure I’ll relapse again. I don’t want to, but the odds are just overwhelming.
I have made a deal with myself; I’m an alcoholic, but I will be a functioning alcoholic. I won’t promise to never drink again — I’ve made that promise before and always, always broken it… so I don’t make the promise. But, I promise that I won’t let my addiction hurt or drive away others with my bad behavior. Whatever it takes to ensure that, I will do. And in the long term, I know that I need a better solution than alcohol to try to resolve some of these emotional “knots” in my psyche.
I need to identify my problems and find solutions. I need to stay as sober as I can, as long as I can, and when I slip I need to do what I can to limit the damage — okay, I shouldn’t drink at all, but for instance when I do make that choice, at least don’t drive. And above all, I need to stop being so cruel to myself, stop beating myself up for being an addict — I need to have a little compassion for myself as I fight forward through my struggles.