I’m no alcoholic
December 3, 2022 Comments Off on I’m no alcoholic
Despite having been to three weeks’ worth of AA meetings, I’m still struggling like hell to get my foot up on AA’s First Step. This is the one where you admit that you are powerless over alcohol and that your life has become unmanageable.
Sometime in November of 2014, I quit drinking with the promise to my family that if I ever drank again, I’d go to AA. About six months ago I restarted my drinking program but had no plans at all to follow through on the promise.
The event that triggered my sobriety went like this. I had been at a cyclocross race all day with friends. I had quit my race and started drinking beer around 10 o’clock. My friend was driving so I kept drinking all the way back to Torrance, where we met my wife and went to have pizza. I’d had four or five IPAs by then, which was enough to get me totally sloshed.
Amazingly, the pizza joint served beer, which I thought would go really well with all the beer I’d already had, so I ordered another beer. My behavior deteriorated. Everyone was embarrassed, and through the fog so was I, but not enough to stop drinking. Plus, the more I ate the more it would absorb the alcohol and the more sober I’d become.
Eventually I became so sober that I fell asleep on the table, reviving only when my friend and wife carried me out of the restaurant. My point here is to show that I was not at all powerless over alcohol. I was in control the entire time. That spittle coming out of the side of my mouth? That was controlled spittle, sir.
The abstinence that followed wasn’t my first brush with sobriety. The previous time I had quit drinking involved the Red Bull Tavern in Redondo Beach. I had gone there to meet two friends, one of whom was a drunk and the other of whom drank a lot. They were late so I had a beer. Beer is nothing, right? I suppose I should mention RIGHT NOW that my reaction to alcohol has always been slightly different from other people I know. I metabolize it instantly and get an immediate effect of drunkenness. It doesn’t take much and it never has.
I’ve never gone on a multi-day bender and have only rarely consumed what most people with severe Alcohol Use Disorder would consider a lot of alcohol at once. The most beer I’ve ever had in short succession is four pints, not even enough to meet the definition of a binge, which is five drinks in two hours. I’ve never had half, or even a quarter bottle of hard liquor, except for one time that a friend and I split a bottle of aquavit over dinner, with a beer and a couple of glasses of wine preceding. I vomited all of it, and dinner, over the third floor railing of his flat onto the parking lot below. The most hard core sprees I’ve ever been on have involved drinking two or two-and-a-half bottles of wine over the course of an evening, with beer or sake sprinkled in. In short, lightweight.
I say this because the last time I quit drinking, though I willingly called myself an alcoholic, my idea of an alcoholic has always been the classic one, the compulsive binger portrayed in the AA book, and the people in my own family who consumed massive quantities of alcohol over periods of days, weeks, years, lifetimes. My grandfather Jim could drink a fifth of Old Forester a day, and most days he did. My uncle Phil chose to keep drinking rather than abstain to receive the possible life-saving treatment for his esophageal cancer. I never saw my father stop drinking once he started, never heard him say “I’m good,” “That’s enough for now,” or “Maybe later.” When offered another drink, he always said “Why, thank you, don’t mind if I do!” or his favorite line, “You’re a gentleman and a scholar!”
My point is that although since my last dry spell I’ve called myself an alcoholic, and I follow everyone’s lead at AA meetings by introducing myself as “Seth, alcoholic,” deep down I haven’t believed it.
But back to the Red Bull Tavern. When my friends showed up, we had a couple of bottles of wine and steaks. I don’t know how much I drank. It wasn’t a prodigious quantity, but I could barely stand upon leaving. My one friend offered me a ride home. He was visibly concerned, but too drunk himself to force me into his car. The other friend had arrived drunk, gotten drunker, and would keep drinking at home. What happened to me was my business. In any event, I can now answer the joke “What do you call three lawyers in a bar?”
Punchline, and it’s not very funny: “Future defendants.”
The drive home was less than three miles, but I was living in PV on Via Zurita and I was terrified of getting stopped. I was shaking in terror the whole way home. When I safely parked the car I swore “Never again.” That lasted, like most of my abstinence periods, for 5 years or so, during which time I had not a drop, and didn’t even want one.
See? I wasn’t an alcoholic. I was in control. Driving completely drunk and not getting a DUI and losing my law license was proof that I had, uh, control.
The time I quit drinking before that I don’t really remember, nor the previous time. What I recall is that I always quit cold turkey and was completely fine for a period of years, at least five, often longer. And when the drinking resumed, it was always the same gradual process, never the textbook AA’er who goes instantly from one sip to massive, multi-day binge.
My alcohol habit, which to me didn’t fit the test of alcoholism, was gradual. Once I’d started drinking again I’d go months having a beer or two a week, or a couple of glasses of wine a week, and then the intervals would shorten, always over months so I knew I was in control, and then after a year, sometimes two, I’d have a regular habit: at every day’s end, never the beginning, I’d finish up with enough alcohol to be completely drunk. And it only took a relatively small amount. See? That’s not alcoholism.
It was about six months ago that I was lost on a Forest Service road. We’d been riding all day. We were destroyed. We’d had to carry our bikes over barbed wire fences and high, wooden ones more than six feet off the ground. Our GPS didn’t work and we were pretty sure we were trespassing, so running across anyone was going to be really bad.
When it seemed like we were close to where the road should have picked up again, as we were pushing our bikes in a dry creekbed, practically dying of thirst, we saw an encampment of hunters. Thirsty and not caring if we got caught, we haled them. Two guys came over, smiling. “Want a beer?” one of them said.
I know I had “Yes” written all over my face. I took it and drained it, the best beer I’ve had before or since.
We got home many hours later and I was fine. I didn’t crave a drink or even want one. But I had been behaving badly and the stress was wearing on our relationship. A few days later, I decided to have a beer and see if that made things better, and surprise, it did. For me.
But it didn’t make it better for anyone else, because I’m a mean drinker. Alcohol in my case takes what’s there already and intensifies it. I’m a mean person by nature, haughty and misanthropic, arrogant, vain, insecure, and cruel. The alcohol ratchets all those things up, and as my drinking went from a few beers a week to a beer a night to two beers every night, I realized that I was back in the trap.
But I was in control. Right? I could quit anytime, and I did. There’s a longer story here and I intend to tell it, but for now I’ll just say that I found myself in a huge family fight, and one of the only people left on earth who cares what happens to me said this: “You promised that if you ever drank again you’d go to AA.”
I nodded and stormed out, thinking “That was then, this is now, FUCK YOU.”
How I got from “Fuck you” to AA is another story, and again, it’s one I fully intend to tell, just not today. Today I want to finish with the obvious, which is that to belong in AA you have to be an alcoholic who wants to quit drinking, and to be an alcoholic according to them means that you have no control over alcohol. It doesn’t mean that the first drink leads to ten more in two hours, although it can. All it means is that once you start drinking, things eventually fall apart, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. In their words, you’re “powerless over alcohol.”
In my third AA meeting, a newcomer like me said, “Frankly, I’m still having trouble calling myself an alcoholic.” That made me wonder because her story was so typical–booze, booze, booze, all day, all the time.
“Of course you’re a fucking alcoholic,” I said to myself. And then the speaker’s words started to sink in, because I was still having trouble calling myself an alcoholic, too. But what was the difference? She drank a lot all the time and it was ruining her life, I drank a little all the time and it was ruining mine. She couldn’t stop, I couldn’t stop. She had come there because of her family, I had come there because of mine. She desperately wanted to quit and so did I. Most germane of all, we were both at a meeting of people who were all admitted alcoholics, who had experience with all kinds of alcoholism, and no one was telling us that we were okay. To the contrary, they were telling us that we weren’t.
I further thought, if I’m not an alcoholic, what am I? Someone who drinks uncontrollably in small amounts until he has destroyed everything and everyone around him? How, exactly, is that different from “alcoholic”?
Or maybe I’m someone who drinks just enough to let down my guard and show the world what a cruel, mean, and nasty sonofabitch that I am? Hasn’t that made my life completely ruinous? And isn’t that the second part of the AA definition of an alcoholic, having no power over alcohol such that life becomes unmanageable?
The only escape hatch left is that “I’m just an asshole, sober or drunk.” Unfortunately, being an asshole is completely compatible with, and almost always exacerbated by, being an alcoholic. Same thing, by the way, for being a narcissist, a sociopath, or what in the good old days was called “crazier than a shithouse rat.” Alcoholism pairs well with each of these noxious flavors, and is mutually exclusive with none.
But what does “alcoholic” really mean?
When AA started in the 1930’s, it broke new ground by identifying alcoholism as a medical condition rather than a moral defect or a failing of willpower, beginning the decades-long process of making alcoholism less stigmatized, and making it socially acceptable to seek treatment. Yet at its core, AA identifies alcoholism as a deep personal failing, and more importantly, requires drinkers to accept that they are in a sense helpless and hopeless sinners when it comes to drink. Indeed, AA is clear that the people for whom their program won’t work are those incapable of rigorous honesty. Salvation for sufferers lies in following the steps, in honesty, and giving themselves up to a god.
That’s one reason sitting in a meeting and introducing yourself as an alcoholic feels strange. It’s hard to imagine a group of cancer survivors going around the room and grimly saying, “Jim, cancer patient,” with other patients sometimes catcalling and saying “Yeah, you are!”
It’s also hard to imagine a group of people with lung cancer taking turns as they recount their first cigarette or their first exposure to asbestos, and ruefully talking about how many packs a day they smoked or how many ship boilers they worked on. But in AA, the meeting’s core activity is to talk about what you were like before AA, what happened, and how you are now. This ever-changing narrative is almost always described in painful terms of terrible human failing, and the awful consequences to oneself, loved ones, friends, and society.
In short, AA may begin with the premise that you are in the grips of a disease, but this particular disease has distinct moral qualities, and the only way to cure yourself is to focus on “defects of character,” which you exhort a god to remove, and which you publicize to others. It wouldn’t make any sense if you told someone with lung cancer that his cure lay in telling everyone about stealing cigarettes from mom’s purse and then making amends, but somehow with alcoholism, people act as if it does.
Nor do people simply act as if it works. For a whole lot of people, AA puts their drinking into permanent remission. There is much scientific argument about AA’s true success rate, but everyone agrees that its methods work for many, and if you go to enough meetings no degree of cynicism can overcome the reality that the process has helped a lot of people either control or completely abstain from incredibly destructive behavior. One study has even quantified it, showing that attending 27 or more meetings your first year is correlated with a high degree of sobriety.
In a way, AA makes it hard to get to its own first step by using the word “alcoholism,” which is not a medical term anymore. Current science calls it Alcohol Use Disorder, and like most disorders it occurs on a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe. Crucially, Alcohol Use Disorder is free from pejorative connotations, blame, or moral judgment of any kind. “I’m Seth and I have a moderate case of Alcohol Use Disorder” is a lot easier to say than “Seth, alcoholic.”
It’s easier to say because if alcoholic means someone with absolutely no power over alcohol, I’m probably not that guy. True, it gets worse with time and eventually becomes uncontrollable, but you can’t say I’m powerless when it’s gradual. The idea of being powerless over alcohol is problematic for other reasons, primarily because if you have no power over alcohol, how is abstinence even possible to begin with unless you posit that a benign god will direct your actions every waking second. If this is the case, why go to AA at all? Won’t the benign god eventually take care of you? Or is it a benign god that only works through AA?
If AA shows anything, it’s that people have great power over their addictions, and that despite relapses it’s possible to enter complete remission with regard to Alcohol Use Disorder. What AA doesn’t show, or try to show, is that alcoholism is susceptible of cure. Their stance is that alcoholism is a permanent disease that can only be managed through abstinence, despite no medical evidence of any kind that this is true, and despite overwhelming evidence that it can be managed for many people through a variety of interventions and that it’s a disorder on a spectrum, not a physico-moral infection incapable of cure.
Yet you can quibble over numbers and success rates and measures of remission, but for a lot of people AA works. And it begins with a kind of abasement, a prostration of the self and the will to the demon alcohol such that we admit we are powerless even though we clearly are not.
This is no different from many of the deceptions we buy into when we make decisions with terrifying consequences. For many, abstinence is the only thing between them and death. People who charge a beach, leap out of a trench, run into a burning house, submit to high-risk surgery, or give up everything they have to be smuggled over the border in the back of truck have to tell themselves that what they’re going to is better, even when it often is not. And people who try to succeed in a harsh system, be it prison, the gulag, an exploitative factory, the corporate ladder, or life at a large law firm, must, like the alcoholic at AA, recognize that at some level they are powerless in the face of some external threat, be it hunger, homelessness, or death–in order to adapt to the system, accept its regimen, and “work the steps.”
The difference is that working the steps in prison means not getting beaten to death or spending your life in solitary, whereas working the steps at AA means you radically increase your chances of a better, more sober life.
It’s wise if you’re going to enter an institution, formal or informal, to give yourself up to its tenets. The institution will change you, not the other way around. That’s the definition of “institution.”
Humiliation or recognition?
One reason it’s humiliating to call yourself an alcoholic is because of the word’s moral associations, and because it is connected with drinking run amok. At AA, these are precisely the things that have to be addressed if you’re going to recover. And while it seems like calling yourself a bad name is needless denigration, for a lot of people it really is “the first step” because it’s the point at which they admit they have a problem.
Unlike cancer patients, who quickly accept their diagnosis, people with Alcohol Use Disorder may deny the condition until it kills them. Organic diseases often carry with them their own indisputable effect on the functioning of our minds and bodies, but alcohol is almost unique in that many times even its most extreme abuse is accompanied by a complete unwillingness to admit that there’s even anything wrong.
With alcohol, it’s a case of “to begin at the beginning, you first have to begin.” And as one AA member said, she went from humiliation at having to get treated for her problem to self-confident at having recognized the problem, accepted the problem, and sought treatment. “There’s no shame in addressing what’s wrong and trying to get better.”
Another member added that seeking help is a source of strength, whereas hiding your head in shame isn’t. As every person with a bad drinking problem knows, the anonymity of alcoholism is largely fictional anyway because few things are as public, obvious, and noted by those around you as drunkenness, its consequences, and its casualties. Just because you think no one notices how much you swill doesn’t mean they don’t notice, and for the people who end up at AA due to a plea deal or the ultimatums of families/friends/employers, far from being anonymous, your alcoholism is often a matter of public judicial record.
Whether you call it Alcohol Use Disorder or alcoholism or simply “I drinks a bit,” AA nails it when they say that recovery begins with some sort of recognition that you’re in over your head, you can’t handle this by yourself, and would somebody please help?
At its root the humiliation of calling yourself a drunk is less the social stigma and more the insult of telling yourself truths you’d rather avoid. This isn’t to say that lots of people have found success with a different approach, or that AA works for everyone, or that ‘fessing up to your powerlessness is some kind of forced denigration that all must go through. It’s simply to say that regardless of how you get started, dealing with the “cunning and baffling” qualities of alcohol means you’ve got to honestly appraise where you stand versus where you wish you were standing, followed by an equally honest assessment of whether your approach has worked, is working, or has any prospect of working. For AA that process is simple, close to what one member called an oxymoron: you can’t fix the problem unless you admit that you have it. Duh.
I know a guy who has been in AA for decades, and many years ago he was the first person I’d ever heard describe the process of going from classic alcoholism to complete sobriety. The last time I quit drinking he had said to me, “Frankly, I never thought your drinking problem was that bad.” His words stayed with me all these years, comforting me that whatever my problem was, it wasn’t alcoholism. However, in retrospect, I misheard him, likely intentionally. He didn’t say “Your alcoholism wasn’t that bad.” He said “your drinking problem.” As time has passed, I’ve realized that even though you’re an alcoholic, your Alcohol Use Disorder admits of degrees. Some alcoholics are starving and homeless, some incarcerated, some institutionalized, whereas others may “simply” be miserable people who nonetheless have hearth, home, food, and family in some greater or lesser degree. Others still may have their disorder in check for the nonce, with dimmer and grimmer prospects as time goes by. And of course there’s the AA message, which is that you can be an alcoholic and stone cold happily sober.
A fella can dream.