Opposites

Let’s play a quick game of opposites, shall we? I’ll list a series of words, and you try to come up with the opposites. Just go with the first word that pops into your head.

Ready?

  • strong
  • happy
  • fat
  • cold
  • hungry
  • black
  • on
  • light
  • sober

So, if you’re like me, your opposites were weak, sad, thin, hot, full, white, off, dark, and drunk. Is that right? Let’s try a couple more…

  • smoker
  • bulimic
  • suicidal
  • addicted

Those were a wee bit harder, right? I came up with non-smoker, not-bulemic, not-suicidal, not-addicted. Yeah, pretty lame, I know.

I find it interesting that we don’t really have good words to describe people who are no longer smoking, no longer vomiting their food, no longer contemplating suicide, or are no longer addicted to (not-alcohol, not-nicotine) other things. But the word we use to describe people who are no longer drinking is frequently “sober”. I’ve even used the word to refer to myself, with pride even. “I’ve been sober for 6 months…”

But the scary part for me about the word sober is that the contrasted word that easily comes to mind, the word that will run through everyone’s head is “drunk”. I’m sober now. What was I before I was sober? Was I drunk? Not always. Not even a majority of the time. Was I “a drunk”?

I don’t like the idea that perhaps, under some people’s ideas of “a drunk”, I just might have been one. But that would only because I had told you the extent of my drinking habit. But I’m pretty sure that, without these blog posts, if you had asked 100 people who knew me well, if I was “a drunk” that only one would have answered with a tentative affirmative. And that one person is the one who knows me better than anyone else. So, ok, maybe I was “a drunk”.

But now that I’m not “a drunk”, if I tell people that I’m sober, they immediately assume that I used to be “a drunk” and whatever that image conjures up in their head. Then there’s the judgement that comes along with that mental image.

Contrast that with someone who hasn’t smoked in 6 months. Someone in this position might, tentatively describe themselves as someone who “quit smoking” or they might just say “I don’t smoke, or “I’m a non-smoker.” Although you certainly know what came prior to the “quit smoking” phase, I’ll wager the judgement you’d place on them for having previously smoked is way less condemning than the judgement you’d heap on “a drunk.”

“But alcoholism is so much worse than smoking” you may be thinking. And I might be inclined to agree with you. But is the ethanol addict any more to blame for their problem than the nicotine addict? That will likely be the topic of another post.

So although I admit that “sober” accurately describes my state of being for the last several weeks, I bristle at the contrast the word conjures up in the minds of people who know that I’m “sober”.

Reprehensible alcoholic criminal type person

Recently I listened the Playing God episode of the Radiolab podcast. It is a fascinating exploration into the ethics of choosing who gets to live and who gets to die in extreme circumstances. The core of the story is about the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina inside of Memorial Hospital. I encourage you to listen to the whole podcast. It is quite good.

One aspect of the story is that some researchers put these thorny ethical questions to regular people in a town hall meeting. For example, if there were a flu epidemic, and ventilators were required to save people, but there aren’t enough ventilators to cover all the sick, how do you decide who gets a ventilator? Should it be based on years of life remaining? Or likelihood of survial? Or just lottery/luck?

Starting at around 39:35, a participant describes the dilemma:

You’re gonna have like a young pastor. And you might have a reprehensible alcoholic criminal type person, and he might have more years to live. Well  the years of the pastor are gonna be more beneficial to society than the years that this criminal reprehensible alcoholic bad person.

She equates criminal, reprehensible and alcoholic not once, but twice. In her mind, the three go hand in hand.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not surprised that some people do this. I’m not shocked that some random person in the USofA would think of alcoholic and reprehensible in the same breath. I’m not really annoyed that this person thinks alcoholic is an enhancement to reprehensible criminal to help make her point.

What gets me most is that Radiolab producers let her comments make the final cut. Just imagine if she had said “reprehensible negro criminal type person”, or “reprehensible retarded criminal type person”, or “reprehensible Islamic criminal type person”. I imagine pretty much any other slur would have made her comments unsuitable for inclusion. Remember, this was not a documentary on how people feel about alcoholism, so although her comments helped to illustrate a point, they were also incredibly nasty.

Some may object to my point by insisting that alcoholism is a behavior, but race and mental illness are not. The problem is that it is so much more complicated than that. To start with, alcohol addiction has been seen in pretty much any mammal that has ever ingested the stuff. As a race, those who consume it are almost universally addicted to it. And to think it is a “personal choice” completely ignores all the societal factors that contribute to its consumption.

So the point to this post is two-fold. A) some people equate ‘alcoholic’ with ‘evil person’. B) it is so socially acceptable to people to perform this equivalence, that people hardly notice.

 

Managing addiction

It has been a long time since I’ve written about alcohol, and my struggles with it. For some reason, I don’t like to write about it when I’m “off the wagon”. For several months this year I vacillated between drinking and not with a number of personal reasons for each swing of the sobriety pendulum.

The most difficult part about this past several months has been that I didn’t really want to quit. I knew I was in a “bad place” but I didn’t feel motivated to fully remove my self from the addiction and the temptation. After one night of drinking more than I should have, and half-heartedly hiding it from my wife, I apologized to her in the morning (for what, exactly, I’ll explain below). Her response wasn’t what I was expecting: she pointed out that I had apologized before, but it was starting to ring hollow because I wasn’t actually doing anything with that apology.

I’ve now turned over a new leaf, started a new chapter, or whatever metaphor you like, in how I’m managing my relationship with alcohol. Before I tell you what I’ve done, I feel compelled to convince you (and myself) that I’m not a reprehensible alcoholic.

  • I’ve never been fired (for any reason)
  • I’ve never been arrested
  • I’ve never defaulted on a loan
  • I have $0 in credit card debt, and only 11 years left on my home loan
  • It has been over 20 years since I’ve had a car accident, and that wasn’t alcohol related
  • My personal income places us firmly in the upper-middle class
  • I’m on track to have a comfortable retirement
  • I’ve never had a drink before or during work
  • I’ve never struck, threatened or verbally abused my wife
  • I’ve taught Sunday School
  • I was a Cubmaster and Den leader when my son was in scouts

OK, maybe that crap doesn’t convince you. Perhaps you know that people can have addictions and still be highly functional. Yup, that was me. Highly functional. But then why did I feel the need to quit?

  • I wasn’t fully in control–one drink easily became six
  • I was hiding my consumption from those who loved me the most
  • I wasn’t working at my peak potential
  • I wasn’t parenting at my peak potential
  • I wasn’t husbanding at my peak potential

I had allowed alcohol to take me from being a B+ human down to a B- or C+ human. Still above average. Still not reprehensible. But definitely not the best me I could be. This is what I apologized to my wife for. I knew I wasn’t what I could be, and I was letting alcohol degrade my life.

So, what have I done? I asked my family doc for a prescription and am now taking Disulfiram. This drug will essentially make it so that my body cannot digest ethanol and will therefore reject it violently. If I drink, even small amounts, while Disulfiram is in my body, I’ll vomit and feel like hell for a couple of hours.

“Sweet jesus,” you may exclaim, “you have to take a drug for ‘chronic alcoholism’ to not drink? What kind of reprehensible alcoholic are you?”

I view it as a tool to strongly influence my future behavior. I choose to take the drug when I’m feeling strong in my sobriety. The fact that I’ve taken it then causes a later version of me (still me, but perhaps 12 hours older) to avoid using alcohol to solve whatever problems I thought it might solve. In essence I now see alcohol as off-limits to me. Thanks to me.

You probably have used tools to influence your own future behavior as well. For example, retirement savings accounts are great instruments for making it hard to spend your savings before you reach a certain age. When you are feeling strong in your savings goals, you plop some money in a 401k. The fact that it is financially hard to get that money back makes an older you think of that money as off limits. You could put that money in some other financial instrument (possibly with better returns) but the 401k is a great tool for making sure you don’t spend it too soon.

I’ve now been taking Disulifram for two weeks, and I haven’t felt tempted to drink once. In previous pendulum swings to sobriety, I’ve felt like I’m “white knuckling” it a bit–holding on to try to make sure I don’t screw up. Constantly convincing myself that I need to change and this is how its done. In many ways taking Disulifram has been a relief. My sober me has eliminated the option of drinking for future me, and I’m happy about it.

Before I complete this post, please also know that Disulifram is not my only support. Or, at least I don’t intended for it to be. I’m going to be re-engaging with a couple of support groups, as well as seeking other assistance. And if you’ve read this far into my post, you can be part of that assistance as well. Nothing is required of you at this time, but I may need you to not think of me as reprehensible. I may need you to listen as I struggle with my personal identity in contrast to how our culture blames the consumer of alcohol for the chemical affects of alcohol. I may need you to ask “How are you doing?” when you really want an answer.

Right now, my answer is “Really well!”

 

Dependence

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Drink only in small amounts so as to reduce the risk of dependence.
  3. 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.