Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Am I an alcoholic? Am I an addict? Do I have to quit completely, forever, ALL substances, if I have a problem with one? Am I doomed?
I think I differ from many on the assumption that total abstinence is by definition, the ultimate goal. I TEND in this direction, for sure. I have found this to be so, with alcohol, in my own life, and it is easiest for me to talk from this perspective.
The pure view on this would say that people with addictive issues should not take any substance with addictive potential, like narcotics, or tranquilizers, or they will be at great risk, doomed, even. Some people are very “strict” with that, and extend it to mental health medications, pain medications under any circumstances, etc. Well, I don’t believe in that. It hasn’t been true for me or for MOST people I know either with what I consider to be long-term sobriety. I believe in working with doctors and medical professionals. I don’t believe in self-prescribing. I think that’s an unwitting root cause of much of our addictive substance and behavioral misuse
In my case, for whatever complex reasons, alcohol (and over-indulgence in anything, which I certainly seem attracted to) is too complex for me to WANT to manage, and the reward is not worth it anymore. I like to think I have danced with alcohol for the last time. I’m just too old! It’s too physically and emotionally punishing and I’m fighting to maintain my resilience and bounce here. Don’t feel sorry for me with that! I’ve danced long and hard! And that’s just me.
In general, I would say, that if alcohol or any other drug or behavior is affecting us badly, that it might be a good idea to stay away from it. Even as a simple part of isolating what is going on. If I suspect my child is allergic to strawberries, for example, I would approach that way. I would eliminate the item first, and then I would re-introduce under various conditions (amounts, in combination with other foods, etc.) Maybe they have testing these days to do that better, but at least as a starting point. We approach most things this way.
We try to narrow it down, and then see what happens if we alter something. As an example, they give allergy shots that are tailored to one particular allergen or set of them. Drinking and addiction IS NOT like that, that we know of, in terms of being able to so precisely target ONE allergenic factor like that. There are mechanisms and release of various chemicals, etc., but there doesn’t appear to be any simple causative factor. It’s the old nature versus nurture argument, and I always feel that it’s hard to argue that our environment, choices, circumstances, AND genetic predispositions wouldn’t all contribute to various things. We adjust as makes sense for us.
And here’s the rub. For some of us when we try to do this, we have trouble. It’s REALLY hard to stay away for a whole week or month or whatever we thought we would do. We don’t want that to mean we are suddenly INCORRIGIBLE and can’t drink ever again, and so we start there to weave elaborate rationalizations to ourselves and build hidden secretive mechanisms to drink “acceptably” so that it won’t be true that we have a problem.
If you find it hard, does that mean that you’re a hopeless alcoholic? NO! It means you may have been turning to something a little more than you meant to. It may mean that it will take a little effort to shift things back around. It may mean more than that, but it doesn’t HAVE to.
Now, for me, if I could easily accommodate alcohol without worrying about it, sure I probably would. It can be fun. It can make me feel a little sparkly. Many people can enjoy it that way. They find it pleasantly relaxing, mildly socially lubricating, and it enhances an occasion or a mood. The conversation, or the way it pairs with food or as an after-dinner drink. It’s true that I don’t get to experience those things exactly like that anymore. But that’s okay. I haven’t been deprived of those experiences. For the most part, my attempts at enjoying alcohol that way just didn’t really work like that!
I couldn’t keep my finger on that feeling. I’d go over the top, nearly every time, or it’d turn on me, and I couldn’t even get close to that feeling, or it would turn darker. For many, that’s not the case.That’s me. So what does it do for you? I’d like to be able to speak to people from both sides of that spectrum -- the ones who are really fine and should be sensible with their drinking, be reminded of what moderate drinking really is (it’s very low), and make all efforts to keep themselves out of serious jeopardy so they can enjoy their lives. Heavy drinking isn’t usually a sustainable lifestyle, IF you want to maintain health, vigor, good mental health, etc., to me. And those whose use has turned a little more serious or entrenched. I'm convinced it's all part of a spectrum and that we can all exist at different points on that spectrum given various circumstances.
There are two issues with allowing that many people DO in fact, seem to be able to moderate on their own. One, it can give those who have serious issues with addiction a lot of extra defense mechanisms to avoid looking at serious issues. Many people desperately avoid looking at their own faults, short-comings, etc., and giving people extra rationalizations seems like it might make it harder for them to see what’s going on in their lives. The effects already seem very dramatic from both a neutral perspective, and from the perspective of family and friends. How can we MAKE someone listen?
We can’t really. Sad to say. I think that we can force some people to comply by bullying and fear-mongering. Courts provide motivation, but it’s a negative motivation; not the optimum. Is it better than nothing? It’s probably better than straight incarceration usually. It depends what you’re going for. It could be educational. It could start to provide networks for support. I have always preferred that be done by healthcare professionals, but I give a great deal of credit to the courts in their attempt to step into a huge gap in care for those with mental illness and substance abuse problems, collaboratively, no matter how imperfect I may sometimes find that.
In addition, people need varying levels of help and direction. We have so many people who have grown up with such severe instability, that we need to think about those basic ideas for how we can help people create workable ways of interacting with the world from a structure of utter poverty in every dimension. The recovery community has tried to build structures and communities that people can be steered towards after rehab -- that's traditionally been AA meetings, but there have been many efforts to provide expanded long-term sober environments like sober schools or sober communities, that insulate people for a good bit and provide safe outlets to practice new skills and routines -- working, being accountable, education, groups and meetings, alternative activities and interacting with people with progressively more and more freedom over time. It's a major commitment.
For myself, some of that felt artificial. I didn’t want to change how I fundamentally was as a human being. I wanted to stop drinking. I tried to believe that a religious surrender-based approach was the key. I yearned for that, truly. But I didn’t see it. I felt I was irredeemable. I just wasn’t able to do that. I was too aware of my own agency, and I don’t mean in the sense that I should be in charge of things, but simply that it seemed very much to me to be ON ME, how I chose to live my daily life. I certainly couldn’t blame god for anything I was doing. I knew I was acting in ways that were totally at odds with everything I believed and valued. And there it is. That was the thing I think, that finally I was able to click into, to give me the foundation and motivation to change.