Friday, August 10, 2012
Relapse? Or Simply Got Well?
I was thinking about this just this morning because for the second time in a week, I've learned about a "former alcoholic" deciding they're not an alcoholic and returning to drinking. One seems to be handling it well--just social drinking on occasion. She says the episode that landed her in rehab (where we met) was the result of stress and grief that hadn't been dealt with. Now those problems are behind her; now drinking poses no problem. Do I believe her? I don't know. Maybe she is "cured." (An AAer would say she was then never an alcoholic in the first place.) I suppose the only way we'll ever know is by seeing what happens when life throws another curve ball at her. Naturally, I don't wish that on her, but life just has a way of doing that to all of us. If she's learned the lesson "do not drink when I am under stress," then perhaps she'll be just fine. I certainly hope so, and that is certainly my wish for her.
The other person resumed drinking and did have some sort of horrendous drinking episode not that long ago, which tells me she's not even remotely "cured," but now she is pregnant and is choosing to not drink, so that's a good thing. I hope she's not white-knuckling it. I can say this with utter certainty: one sure sign of addiction is extreme discomfort when you're not able to use. (That's the part about having no control that carries truth--I'm not sure I can even describe what it feels like to be jonesin' so bad you think you'll lose your mind if you can't get your drug into you. To be shaking, for your heart to be racing. To feel positively suicidal. To know better than to pick up but to be driven to do it--just so the pain will stop.)
That shit no amount of willpower can lick, at least not permanently. Anybody can have willpower for a week or a month, or maybe even nine months, but the rest of your life is a long, long time.
The evidence says that some of us can learn to drink in moderation, or that many of us, in fact, just grow out of alcoholic drinking. Think about all those college students who used to get puking drunk every weekend--they grow up, get a job, marry, have kids, and start drinking like normal people. Or I think of my own dad. He had a job as a salesman and used to drink beer every night--until one day he had a few too many over a business lunch (or maybe it was a golf outing with a client), and he was tagged for DWI trying to do wheelies in the parking lot at work. Lost his license, lost his job. After that, he drank only once a week on Saturday nights. I saw him drunk only two times after that incident--so he kept it pretty well under control. (I can't say he was a happy man, though.)
Me, I do things when I'm drunk that I just wouldn't do when I'm sober. I tell lies; I get inappropriately touchy-feely with others (to this day I still marvel at the few people who actually responded WELL to the come-ons and went ahead and had sex with me when I was in a total blackout--how unsexy is that!?); I get paranoid and simply make shit up. Old recordings from my childhood start playing in my head--I feel persecuted and am convinced my partner doesn't really love me and is mean to me, and I act out accordingly. I've been rushed to the hospital in an ambulance for passing out and falling off my barstool at a bar. After all those things, I still thought I had only an "occasional problem" that I could get under control. So, it's pretty clear the addict brain tells whoppers.
Me, I've tried quitting too many times, tried moderation too many times, and failed too many times to let my addict brain keep lying to me. But in all honesty, it's not AA anymore that is keeping me sober. I worked my program--and really, the 12 steps are something you work your entire life--I took a lot of tools and wisdom from rehab and AA meetings, and now I hardly go to meetings at all. (Some will shake a finger at me and tell me a relapse is inevitable.) But for me, the difference has been to find things that bring me more pleasure than drinking ever did. I do have a spiritual practice that is impossible to do under the influence (and somebody who drinks regularly, even if they don't happen to have a drink in their hand at the moment, is still under the influence--alcohol changes your brain chemistry.) I have been cultivating my creative side in both painting and playing guitar (sure, I'd like to be a Van Gogh or an Andres Segovia, but that's not necessary to keep me sober). The point is, you regain control over alcohol when other things become more important than alcohol--but it has taken three years almost for me to feel comfortable in this.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not complacent. Upon first hearing the news about my rehab friend, I grieved. And I definitely felt fear. "If it could happen to X of all people, it could happen to me!" But I'm not X. I'm me. And I know damn well my addict brain is just waiting for the chance to whisper more lies in my ear.
I am fifty years old. I missed a good portion of thirty years of my adult life being an on-and-off drunk. I am just now starting to really live. I will not risk ruining what time I have left to a substance that wants nothing more than to destroy me. So, "cure" or "relapse" just don't matter. It's a conversation I don't need to have. I just do NOT care to drink what, for me, is essentially poison.