What Makes an Alcoholic?
Yesterday, I thankfully finished Netflixing Nip/Tuck. I say thankfully because this is truly a horrid show. Why not stop watching it if it’s that bad, you ask? Well, I’m the kind of girl whose “stick-to-it-iveness” is virtually non-existent for the good things in life and stubbornly insistent in regards to awful things. My apologies to those who like the show. Yes, it does have its good qualities. I mean, as much of a glutton for punishment as I am, I wouldn’t put myself through hours of television with absolutely no redeeming qualities. I just feel that it jumped the shark sometime during the second season… and then devolved into absolute absurdity over the next four years.
I am not a television critic, though, and my poor viewing habits are not the point of this post. The only reason I mention it is for one little scene in one of the very last episodes, “Dr. Griffin.” Sean and Christian (partners in a plastic surgery business and best friends since med school) are sitting in couples therapy trying to work through some huge issues they’re having which are threatening to ruin their relationship. The therapist asks them to take 15 seconds and write down all the words they can think of to describe one another. Once the time is up, Sean reads off his list of rather unflattering, but highly accurate words describing his partner. Then Christian turns his pad around to reveal only one word written there: “ALCOHOLIC.”
Dr. Griffin asks if Christian thinks Sean has a drinking problem. Christian clarifies that while Sean does drink to avoid his life, that’s not what makes him an alcoholic. [Note: I’m sorry; I tried to find a clip of this scene to include here, because it was just great, but I couldn’t. And now Netflix has taken down all but one season of the show (odd, since it was there yesterday).] Christian goes on to say that Sean is an alcoholic because he refuses to grow up and take responsibility for his own life. Sean keeps blaming everyone else for why his life is so messed up and can’t see that he is the one common factor in all his troubles. Now, me, I thought this was just about the most brilliant bit of dialogue I’ve ever seen on TV. Folks who know very little about alcoholism, though, probably sat scratching their heads at this scene.
The first time I picked up the Big Book and flipped through it, I thought of a whole list of people that I knew needed to read this thing. Not one of them had a drinking problem. Truth be told, I had been in the program nearly 6 months before I honestly thought of myself as an alcoholic. I knew I needed this thing because I could relate to the underlying feelings expressed in the book and in the stories related in the rooms, but I really never drank a whole lot. We talk about the three-fold nature of the disease – the physical allergy, the mental obsession and the spiritual sickness. I was definitely spiritually sick and constantly obsessed with easing my “restless, irritable and discontented” mind, but I don’t know that I ever developed the physical allergy, the craving, for alcohol. When I was about 6 months sober, I hit my first CA meeting. At the beginning of the meeting, they read through “How it works,” but substituted the word cocaine for alcohol. When I first heard the words, “Cocaine is cunning, baffling and powerful,” my eyes got all huge and I responded, “Oh, it IS!!” So, yes, I totally understand the physical aspect of the disease. My craving is just for little baggies instead of bottles.
That’s not what makes me an alcoholic or a drug addict, though. Alcohol and drugs are not our problem. They are our solution. The only reason we ever get help for our real problem is when our solution either stops working or starts making matters worse. This is where you’ll hear people claiming to be “grateful alcoholics.” And they don’t mean, “I’m grateful because I’m not actively drinking anymore.” What they mean is, “I am grateful that I became an alcoholic and hit bottom so that I could see what my real problem was and finally get help for it.” All my sober alcoholic readers are sitting here nodding their heads about now. The newbies and normies, meanwhile, all think I’ve completely lost it.
AA literature backs up my claims, but even before we actually start reading anything, we see evidence of the truth in the 12 steps themselves. Step 1 is the only one which even mentions alcohol. It’s the one I call the, “Yeah, you used to drink a bunch, get over it. You’ve got bigger problems” step.
In between periods of heavy drinking/using, I lived for years without medicating my alcoholism. I was “stark raving sober.” I had a constant sense of unease. I was always frustrated when things didn’t go as I expected – and often extremely so, to the point that I would sometimes hole up for days when plans changed. I was constantly a victim of circumstance, always reacting and never purposefully acting. I let other people and situations dictate the course of my life while I sat back and bitched about how bad a job they were doing. I became skilled in the arts of manipulation and passive aggressiveness. And when those didn’t work, I had an arsenal of overtly angry and hurtful words and actions which would ensure that I’d get my way. Suffice to say that I was a miserable person on both the inside and the outside.
As soon as I started taking suggestions in the program, I saw how working these steps and applying these principles to my life cured what was wrong with me back when I wasn’t even drinking. My obsession with alcohol & drugs went away almost immediately because I saw them for what they were – my attempts to deal with what was really broken inside of me. That’s not to say that I haven’t had a real urge to pick up a drink or I haven’t been so overwhelmed with the thought of loading up a syringe that I can barely contain myself inside my skin. I was sitting in a speaker meeting, once, when the obsession came on so strong that I just knew I couldn’t stop myself. I had to promise myself that I would go score just as soon as the meeting ended before my brain calmed down enough to let me sit still. Once the meeting was over, the urgency had passed and I was fine. But times like these are isolated incidents and I can’t even remember the last time I had a serious thought about drinking or using.
We’ve all seen those “Am I an Alcoholic?” quizzes listing questions about how much you drink, when you drink, if you drink alone or in the mornings or at work, etc. If you have to take the quiz… there’s a pretty good chance that you’re an alcoholic. But no one can tell you whether you are or not. Even the Big Book talks about the “heavy drinker” and the “moderate drinker” who may have the ability to stop drinking and therefore may not be real alcoholic. Some of them may be, though. And there are alcoholics out there who have never picked up a drink in their lives. Being an alcoholic has nothing to do with how much you drink. Check that, it has ALMOST nothing to do with how much you drink. Being an alcoholic is about not wanting to take responsibility for your own life. It’s about being completely self-centered, angry, fearful and judgmental. Being an alcoholic is about feeling uncomfortable in your own skin.
Regardless of how much, how often, where, when, why or how you drink, if this sounds like you, there is a solution. You don’t have to wait until you’ve suffered terrible consequences at the hand of one addiction or another. You don’t have to wait until you’ve isolated yourself from everyone you love. You don’t have to wait until the day you wake up and say, “How the hell did I get here?” Alcohol is not the problem. The addiction is not the problem. The problem lives inside and will always come out in one way or another until it is addressed head on. Sit in on an open AA meeting and see if you can’t identify with someone there. Or check out an Al-Anon or CoDA meeting if you don’t have a problem with alcohol or drugs. Just, whatever you do, know that you’re not alone.