We were trying to decide what to do next. Tired from the morning’s frivolities, our conversation had started to lull. No movie peaked our interest. I didn’t get cable. The Wii was broken. We had already eaten and were already drinking. After weighing our options and ten minutes of silence, we decided to get the Wii fixed. As I stood up to get my car keys, I lifted the glass of Seagram’s and 7-Up to my lips. “I have learned nothing,” I thought to myself as I took one final sip before leaving,
In the summer of 2009, I attended a party where emotions had started to run high and I had started to drink heavier than usual. I blacked out around 12:30am, stopped drinking around 1:00, and I left the house around 3:00. I fell asleep at the wheel and ran into a lamppost on an empty street going about 30mph at 6:00am. The police arrived, administered a field sobriety test, and arrested me for driving under the influence. We arrived at the police station at 7:00am, where I blew a .19 on the breathalyzer. Having a blood alcohol content of .19 means I had lost gross motor control, had poor reflexes and reaction times, and was at risk of having alcohol poisoning; and this was six hours after I had stopped drinking. At the height of my drunkenness, I wouldn’t be surprised if my BAC was closer to .30, which is when you are at risk of, you know, death.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about my drinking habits and what led me to do something so incredibly stupid and reckless. I can’t deny I had abused alcohol that night, but was I an alcoholic? My gut reaction, anyone’s gut reaction really, was to say hell no I’m not an alcoholic, I just love to drink. No matter how many different ways you say that, it’s always bullshit, particularly in my case. I was in a bar drinking the night after I got out of jail. Instead of taking my totaled-beyond-repair car as a sign that I had a problem, I looked at the reality of my friends having to drive me everywhere as an invitation to drink more. I was walking everywhere: to work, to the grocery store, to the courthouse, and especially to one of the eight liquor stores in my neighborhood, where I discovered that alcohol comes in tinier, easy-to-finish-in-one-night bottles. I drank myself to sleep every night for seven months.
Despite all the evidence in favor of the idea, I never felt like an alcoholic (although to be fair I don’t know what being an alcoholic should feel like), and yet something was going on. I liked drinking a lot, but other than the DUI and almost killing myself, it was hard to see the negatives of my lifestyle. Hangovers? A mere nuisance, nothing more. The opinions of others? If I had really cared about those I doubt I would have been drinking so heavily in the first place. Impact on my health? Shit, I was just glad to be alive. I assured myself I was doing all right and slammed back Gin & Tonics like I would win something if I kept at it. The upsides always outweighed the downs and I probably would have continued drinking in this manner if I wasn’t so goddamn pedantic.
I am a person who likes control, but if life has taught me anything it’s that we have no control over most of the crazy crap that happens to us. What we do have control over is ourselves and our actions, and that is extremely important to me. When I would drink too much and blackout (where you are no longer in control of what you say or do but continue to say and do things), it was extremely disconcerting. While it was not unusual for me to pass out in the chair at my desk at home, when I woke up one morning and found that the glass I had distinctly remembered leaving at my computer was instead on my nightstand, I started to panic. Most likely I had the glass in my hand when I moved from the chair to my bed, but I didn’t recall doing it. What else had I done? What else had I done during those seven months I did nothing but drink? What else could I have done the night that I crashed into a light pole? The possibilities were vaster than I felt comfortable with. I stopped drinking that very moment until I figured out what the hell was going on.
Once I started to go to bed because I was actually tired instead of drunk, I began to realize that my substance abuse was caused by my deep-seeded fear and anger at post-college life. I was no where near where I wanted to be and considered myself a complete failure at the decrepit age of 24. I blamed myself for it all and believed that I deserved nothing but hardship. It’s easy to see how I could lose control with that mindset; if you never give yourself a break, you’ll end up breaking yourself. I delved head first into the hellish introspection that one has to go through to discover that they are actually worth a damn, what Douglas Adams’ called the “long dark tea-time of the soul”. I started to lose weight and get fit. I got myself an awesome new car. I got into a relationship that made me feel attractive and wanted (although the relationship ended after three months because she was straight up bananas). I still drank, but never on a weekday and never ever in the quantities that I used to. I had walked to the brink, dangled over the edge, and walked away with only a few scars.
I never answered the question though. Am I an alcoholic? I had been to many court-assigned AA meetings and had seen people who were not just dangling on the brink but in the process of falling off. I knew for certain I wasn’t one of them, and yet I couldn’t answer the question with a definite no. A sober person would never have done the things that I had done and lived the way that I did. But being an alcoholic is a black and white issue, isn’t it? You either are or you aren’t, right?
The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has a twenty question Alcohol Abuse Self-Test, with questions like, “Can you handle more alcohol now than when you first started to drink?” and, “Are you having more financial, work, school, and/or family problems as a result of your drinking?” Answer “Yes” to a question and you add one point to your score. If, at the end of the test you have two or more points, you are at greater risk of being an alcoholic. A score between two and eight, and you “should consider arranging a personal meeting with a professional who has experience in the evaluation of alcohol problems.” Anything above an eight, and you’re an alcoholic. The NCADD does state that the test is educational and not medical in nature, and the results should not be considered as a diagnosis of alcoholism, but if you answer yes to “Do you sometimes stay drunk for several days at a time?“ it’d be hard to not be labeled as a booze hound. After taking the test just now I scored a six, so obviously I still have some issues.
But I don’t think it’s that obvious. I have a steady job. I’m involved in a healthy romantic relationship of two years and going. I exercise, eat right, and (other than a few extra pounds) am pretty healthy. I never feel an unexplainable lust for alcohol. I have consulted with AA sponsors and counselors just to make sure, and none of them said they felt like I had an abuse problem. So why do I still feel like an alcoholic?
Because I am an alcoholic. The issue is a black and white one, and if you are, you are for the rest of your life; and yet I am okay with being an alcoholic.
There are the people that are labeled alcoholics because they enjoy drinking, go on binge about once a year, don’t mind drinking alone (and prefer it in many cases), and they are never ashamed that they do so. For these people, alcohol is a hobby, one they love to practice whenever possible. They are social alcoholics, deemed somewhat less than because they admit that it feels good to drink. Everything comes with a price, however, for when you dance on the edge of the precipice, there is always a risk of falling off. Social alcoholics are always in danger of becoming the big alcoholics and at one point in their lives, they usually do. I did.
There are those who demonize all substance-use as substance-abuse and consider anyone who indulges in drugs or liquor as people with a problem. They hold nothing but disdain and pity in their hearts for drinkers. The feeling is mutual. The author James Crumley once wrote, “Son, never trust a man who doesn’t drink because he’s probably a self-righteous sort, a man who thinks he knows right from wrong all the time. And, son, never trust a man who drinks but refuses to get drunk. They’re usually afraid of something deep down inside, either that they’re a coward or a fool or mean and violent. You can’t trust a man who’s afraid of himself.” For me, it’s hard to trust a person who has never made a mistake or gone too far. You learn something significant about yourself when you hit bottom, and it’s a testament to your strength and fortitude if you can pick yourself up and go on. I’m not advocating that people should go out on a bender to truly explore every facet of life, but the people who have never had a drink, or who have the occasional eggnog at the Christmas party, and look down on others for their habits are nothing but snobs who only want to feel superior.
Drinking, or not drinking, doesn’t make you a good or bad person. Using a substance doesn’t make you a bad person. Being a judgmental asshole makes you a bad person.
So yeah, I’m an alcoholic. I like to drink more often than the normal joe on the street, and I usually do . . . and I’m absolutely fine with that.
If you think you may have a problem, or would like to talk to someone, you can find information at the NCADD website, or call 1-800-622-2255 for immediate assistance. Times can get tough, so please remember that you’re not alone and there are people who want to help.