“Hi. I’m Rick, and I’m an alcoholic.”

FYI, I’m going to use the “n-word” lower in this post. And by “use the ‘n-word'” I mean I’m going to use the actual word that “n-word” represents. If this bothers you, don’t continue reading.

I’ve been to a fair number of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings over the last couple of weeks. Although I have been uncomfortable at times with the religiosity, I’ve finally come to terms with the label of “alcoholic”. I’ve become comfortable announcing myself as an alcoholic to whatever motley crue I’m interacting with. Given my prior apprehensions, what, you may wonder, has spurred this change in me? It was the realization that the only one judging me for using the label was myself. No one in the meetings were judgemental about whatever label anyone wanted to use: addict, grateful alcoholic, former dipsomaniac, someone who used to drink too much, and a few others. I had to finally accept that the only condemnations were coming from the voices in my head.

I also started to recognize that “alcoholic” was shorthand for “brother” or “sister” in much the same way that nigger can mean the exact same thing among certain communities. And I think this is an important parallel: calling someone nigger depends ENTIRELY on the context in which it is used. I wouldn’t dream of using the term to refer to anyone in general (or particular) because the context of a white man calling someone nigger is almost certainly going to be offensive (yes, certain contexts may make it acceptable among close friends, but those must be tread lightly). As such, I’m OK with calling myself an alcoholic within the context of those who also identify that way, because they probably fully understand the nuances of context in which I’m using it. I would not, however, introduce myself in any other context as an alcoholic, nor will I decline the offer of a drink with “No thanks, I’m an alcoholic”. I also would be uncomfortable with anyone outside of those meetings calling me an alcoholic because I wouldn’t be sure that the word means to them what it means to me, just like nigger can have a million different meanings, dependent on context, tone and intent.

This realization and acceptance has made going to meetings much easier for me. I almost enjoy them now. I haven’t quite developed fondness for a particular meeting group yet, but I can understand how that attachment can start to grow. I’ll continue to go, hoping to continue to progress in my recovery.

Euphoric Recall

Ever wonder why we make the same mistakes over and over? Why do we date the same kind of people that we know are bad for us? Why do we eat too much on Thanksgiving? Why do we start drinking again when we know it just isn’t good for us?

There’s a psychological term for what amounts to a rose-colored rear-view mirror: euphoric recall. Its the idea that you’ll be more likely to remember to good feelings associated with a behavior than the negative outcomes that may have followed. And its one of the major contributing factors for a relapse. It seems its easy for us to think about the good feelings that alcohol gave us. Those feelings are powerful, guttural even. But remembering what happens afterwards? That requires actual cognitive work. “Damnit I want a drink” just wells up, seemingly out of nowhere. “But things won’t end well if I do” has to be mustered up out of our psyche, pulled like a fish on a line, trying to stay in the water.

So one technique at remaining sober is to try to minimize opportunities for euphoric recall. Don’t go to the same restaurants. Don’t hang out with drinking friends. Don’t keep alcohol in the house. Unfortunately, the devil’s juice (I just made that up) is everywhere, and the devil’s pitchmen (advertisers) are cunning, and determined.

At a recent AA meeting, the reading was The Seven Month Slip, and it was written by a gentleman who had struggled with alcohol dependence, had sobered up, and then had a seven month relapse. While we were reading, I honestly thought “damn, I wanna drink again.” That sounds horrible now, and I can muster the fortitude to say “drinking again would be bad”. And it would be. But there’s just something enticing about the idea of being completely obliterated, and checking out for a while. But no, it would be terrible, I know that. I KNOW that.

So I sat there in the meeting feeling guilty, and blaming euphoric recall. During the discussion after the reading, one guy said “Damn, I really feel like a drink now.” My words coming out of his mouth. And there was nervous laughter throughout the room that told me he and I were not alone. We all felt it to some degree or another.

Which makes me wonder, why does AA share detailed stories of relapse? Yes, I think it is valuable to acknowledge that “relapse happens” and to work against the stigma and guilt a relapser has. But do we need to know what it was like for someone while they were relapsing? Its almost like having someone on a diet watching cooking shows. It is just simply going to be incredibly enticing.

My experience with Disulfiram

I’ve been managing my alcohol addiction with disulfiram for about 5 weeks. These are some random thoughts on what it has been like.

  • I’ve felt bullet-proof with regard to temptations to drink. I think in the last 5 weeks I’ve felt a longing to drink once. Maybe it was more like a “yeah, I would have had a drink in this situation”. I almost feel like I no longer have a problem.
  • Being around alcohol doesn’t bother me in the slightest.
  • My first week was fantastic. My mood lifted through the roof. I’m sure it was a combination of freeing my bloodstream of the toxins produced by alcohol, and also a change in my anti-depressants. It was such a high that I was sad to know that it wouldn’t last–I’ve felt it when I’ve quit before, but this time was stronger.
  • I’ve had one or two side-effects that I think I can attribute to the medication. I’ve developed, according to my wife, a persistent case of halitosis that isn’t solved with tooth-brushing and mouthwash. Its possible that this is also a dental hygiene problem since I’ve not been to a dentist in about 9 months, but that will be rectified next week, so I’ll know for sure then. The other thing I’ve noticed is that I seem to have more body odor. I don’t think it is strong enough for others to notice, but I can tell a difference. Now this may be because of other changes in my life (anti-depressants, more exercise, a change in diet), so take this one with a sizable grain of salt.
  • I’ve had one dream about alcohol where I had a single drink, then freaked out about what it would do to me. Fortunately I didn’t vomit in my dream or in real life.
  • Some people report sensitivity to alcohol-based mouthwash and cologne. I’ve used both without incident. I’m no more careful with the mouthwash than I was previously, and haven’t had a problem.

So that’s it. I really don’t struggle with temptation at all and that kindof worries me. How will I handle it when I stop taking the medication? I haven’t yet resolved that issue, and there’s no rush. I just have to be mindful of my ego, and make sure I’m prepared to go it alone when the time comes. Actually, my plan is to be sure I don’t go it alone, and that’s why I’m trying to be engaged in support groups.

Struggling with semantics

Words have meanings. (Deep, I know). Those meanings convey thoughts and ideas. Thoughts and ideas can stick in our brains well beyond the utterance of the words themselves. The connection from word to meaning to idea is so deeply embedded in our brains that we can dwell on something we read, or something someone said, for literally years. This incredible connection is why I can write “juicy lizard farts” you’ll be irritated with me for the rest of the day.

To go the opposite direction, as you have thoughts and emotions percolating in your mind, you’ll likely be feeling an unknown anxiety until you can translate those amorphous blobs into words that most closely convey the meaning of what your you’re feeling. And if I didn’t edit my writing to use the correct word (you’re instead of your) you would get likely get the meaning of my sentence, but because of the incorrect word, your (not you’re) brain would likely do a bit of a hiccup as it searched to fit the right word into the context of that sentence.

In college, I was having a conversation with a professor about one of his research projects. I don’t recall what triggered his comment, but he said something that I’ve been dwelling on for literally decades (paraphrasing): “Don’t let someone tell you that an argument is just about semantics. Everything we say is about semantics. If we cannot agree on the semantics, then we haven’t agreed.”

I struggled with semantics mightily when I was an atheist going to church, and that, ultimately, was why I left. The people were nice, the teachings were wholesome, and the music was beautiful. But I couldn’t get the word “God” to mean anything other than how I understand most people to mean and understand “God”.

“But can’t you just redefine the word in your own mind, and substitute something like ‘universe’ instead?” I tried that. And that works so long as we don’t have any kind of extended conversation that involves the word in question where my meaning and your meaning significantly differ. You need only say “God is doing wonderful things in the world today” for me to struggle with my meaning of God, and this causes a bit of uncomfortable “cognitive dissonance”. (I put cognitive dissonance in quotes because I’m not quite sure that’s the correct phrase. Its the feeling that you get when you’re having a conversation with someone and they use a word or phrase that isn’t perfectly familiar to you and you have to struggle for several moments to figure it out based on context, and that time spent figuring it out is time you can’t focus on the rest of what they’re saying, and its even worse if you just couldn’t quite grok their meaning.)

So this is why I’m still struggling with the idea of going to Alcoholics Anonymous. From what I’ve seen so far, having been to maybe a half a dozen meetings, the people are nice and very supportive. They celebrate every milestone, no matter how small. They volunteer to help and support anyone who asks. They are a great community.

And yet I’ll have to deal with my feeling of “cognitive dissonance” as I struggle with the semantic differences I have with the crowd before me. The first, and most obvious, is the word alcoholic. Pretty much every one of my posts on this topic has been about this struggle. The second is the reference to god/higher power in six of the 12 steps. When I went to a meeting this week, I introduced myself as “Rick, and I struggle with addiction” rather than the much more common “Rick, and I’m an alcoholic”. And when they read the 12 steps aloud, I read my own 12 principles. And then there is the serenity prayer, and its appeal to God for wisdom.

After the meeting, I met a fellow atheist among the regulars. He acknowledged that my struggle is a common one, and gave me some tips for working through it. His higher power were things like “global trade” or “UPS” because “those are way more powerful than I am”. And he told me he used to substitute “Sid” for God because of the letter D at the end. He summarized by saying that he finally acknowledged that all of those struggles were just his attempts to refuse to admit that he really was an alcoholic.  When he had introduced himself to the crowd, he was “Paul, the grateful alcoholic” (not his real name).

In my current emotional/spiritual state, his suggestions felt a bit trite. We had chatted for only a couple of minutes, so its not like I was expecting to be handed some great atheist-brotherhood wisdom. But it did kinda paint the picture that to get the most from the organization, I would have to resolve this internal struggle somehow, because it is clear the organization isn’t going to change for me.