Dependence. We all know what it feels like. There are many things in our lives upon which we are dependent: food, water, air. While those are the obvious ones, we’re also dependent on human connection, sleep, salt, vitamin D, clothing (in most climates), eye glasses, and many more. I’m not even including the “things we cannot do without” like Instagram, photoboming, Bejeweled, or coffee. Well, wait, coffee just might be on the list.
You know you’re dependent on these things, and you go through withdrawal symptoms when they get low. Hunger is the obvious withdrawal symptom for lack of food, but it frequently can hit us even if we don’t feel physical hunger pangs–we’ll get cranky, tired, irritable–all the things that the Snickers commercials poke fun at. We enjoy those commercials because they point out something obvious–someone in food withdrawal doesn’t always recognize they’re in withdrawal.
And that’s true of many of our dependencies: the withdrawal symptoms aren’t always obvious, even to those of us who are familiar with them.
Caffeine, nicotine, and ethanol are three substances that our bodies don’t actually need, but we readily consume them, and frequently form dependencies on them. And humans aren’t alone in this regard. I currently have dependence on caffeine, have never experienced nicotine dependence, and have experienced ethanol dependence not too long ago.
Ethanol dependence might be referred to as alcoholism by some people. So if I had alcoholism, you might call me an alcoholic. Or a recovering alcoholic. Or a former alcoholic.
I still internally bristle at the label of alcoholic, and I think that comes from my difficulties with Alcoholics Anonymous. I may write more about AA in the future, but one of the things I dislike about the AA program–not the people in the program–is the “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic” idea. Another is that the program teaches that alcoholics are fundamentally different from other people. Since alcohol dependence can be induced in non-human animals (this review of methods for accomplishing dependence was written in 1973, so this idea isn’t new) it seems incredibly ignorant and myopic to consider alcohol dependence in humans as something to which only some people are susceptible.
So what is ethanol dependence like? It’s nothing like what you’ve seen in movies or TV shows. The alcoholic caricature is pervasive and wrong. For me, dependence meant that 12-16 hours after my blood stream was free of alcohol, I would start to feel uneasy and a little bit irritable. That’s it. Doesn’t really make for compelling TV does it? To relieve that uneasy irritability, I would have a drink. That drink would taste good and make me feel good, and that uneasy irritability would start to fade. I didn’t want that feeling to return, so I would consume a semi-steady flow until bed time. The hazard, of course, with alcohol is that as more gets into ones blood stream, the harder it is to self-regulate the flow. So sometimes I would have more than I intended–more than was necessary to relieve the uneasy irritability. I never got into trouble as a result of the difficulty in self-regulating, but I can easily see how someone might.
Now you might be wondering, Ah, but how did it start? Isn’t that where the real problem is? Didn’t some defect of character lead you down that road? I would agree with you if alcohol were difficult to obtain. I would agree if I had to harm other people in my quest for alcohol. But if you think I’m deficient of character, then you’ve got to include nearly every other alcohol consuming adult (and that’s a lot of people). It pervades our culture. It’s advertised nearly everywhere, and sold in places that just make no sense: nearly 2% of adults report that in the last 30 days they’ve driven after drinking too much AND we sell the stuff in gas stations and drive throughs! Its everywhere, and one drink does not an alcoholic make.
I’m currently ethanol independent. My body is free of the dependence that I’ve felt several times previous, and I see three possible courses in my future:
- Drink when I want, and ride the roller-coaster of dependence up and down, hoping that since I’ve never gotten in trouble before that I won’t in the future.
- Drink only in small amounts so as to reduce the risk of dependence.
- Abstain from consuming alcohol entirely, completely eliminating the risk of dependence.
In the last five years, I’ve done all three. Only one of these options is safe. Number 1 is risky, and increases the likelihood of ethanol impacting me and everyone in my life. Number 2 can work for short periods, but still has a significant risk that small amounts won’t stay small. Number 3 has as its only downside that I choose not to drink beverages containing ethanol.
So I’m abstaining again, but this time I’m admitting I need help in maintaining my abstinence. AA may play a role, despite my reservations. I’m also looking at LifeRing Secular Recovery and SMART Recovery. If you’d like to join me in ethanol independence, let me know.