When you close your eyes and think of the word “alcoholic”, what do you see?
If you’re anything like me, (well, the me from a few years ago) you probably pictured an aging man, slow moving in stained, over-sized clothing. Not much different from what we’d picture with words like “homeless” or “bum” or “crazy person”.
So, then, it might be a little surprising to you that I am comfortable — even empowered — by labeling myself with the term.
I am an alcoholic.
And, if you’re a social drinker as most 20 and 30 somethings are, I bet I’m not a whole lot different than you. The truth is, I think that the majority of American adults who indulge in alcohol are alcoholics, but reject the term due to the social stigma we give it.
Maybe I’m just projecting, but hear me out. How much of this story sounds a little (or a lot) like yours?
The Average Story
You start drinking in high school at a handful of house parties. It doesn’t really change until college, when it becomes a weekend fixture. It’s not until your 21st birthday you have your first blackout and first hangover. Once legal, drinking approaches daily or every-other-day, and it’s binge drinking on weekends.
Out of college you work in retail/hospitality for a while. Most all social activity is done over drinks, and your frequency nears daily. You binge (four or more drinks) on weekends, and some weekdays. But you keep a steady job, pay your bills on time, and otherwise feel great. And how much fun is all of this?
Sound familiar? I suspect millions of Americans live in this last lane, near daily drinkers but no outwardly negative effects they’d admit to.
I did for years, and I don’t think I would have ever really changed had it not been for what was next for me.
Social to Dysfunctional
Two weeks before my 30th birthday, I was arrested for public intoxication, for the egregious offense of tossing ice in a Steak ‘n Shake. I’d avoid the conviction, and make that incident what it deserved to be: a dumb story.
Less than 30 days later, I was arrested on a DUI. I blew a 0.200, nearly two hours after my last drink. With the frequency with which I drove drunk (over the legal limit, about 3 light beers an hour), this was inevitable, and the best possible outcome as it did not involve accident or injury.
A lot of changes came after that, but not quite fast enough. Two years later, I was charged with my second DUI. Although it was a ‘routine’ DUI by any measure, the details downright mundane, the penalties for it were more than I was ever really prepared for.
Some of you can even follow me through some of those last steps. No matter your position, it forces you to examine the effects alcohol is having on your life (partly though the court ordered addiction therapy).
For me, something odd and surprising happened: when I examined the word, it’s meaning, and my patterns, I realized that I was almost certainly an alcoholic.
The diagnosis for a substance abuse disorder, is, more or less, the continued use of any substance despite continued negative consequences. Once you have a legal record, there’s no doubt that negative consequences have amassed.
And yet, I continued to drink. I did it less frequently, and usually with better moderation, but I didn’t abstain. While my behavior changed a massive amount, it wasn’t enough to avoid the poor judgement to allow a texting-and-driving moment to open the door to a second DUI conviction.
Despite negative consequences, I continued to drink. (I still do, but more on that in a minute.)
I was, objectively, an addict of alcohol. I was — I am — an alcoholic.
But that’s okay.
As soon as I made that admission, I began to be liberated from it. See, alcohol lies to us. It’s why we like it (liquid courage, as they say). As soon as I could admit that I was under the spell of this stuff, in the very least, I could examine the narratives I had with it to see if they were accurate, or just another lie alcohol was telling me.
I would have told you, before the first arrest, alcohol had never really been a detractor to my life. And I would have believed that. Maybe that’s what you believe about your own life now.
But, now with the knowledge that my own thoughts and beliefs had been hijacked by a foreign toxin, I could look back and see that wasn’t the case. I could see that alcohol had been a negative force for quite some time.
The Hard Truths
In high school there wasn’t much in the way of negative backlash; I didn’t drink often enough or with poor enough moderation that I ever had to deal with even a hangover. After that, though, alcohol almost always caused hell in one way or another.
In college, I drunkenly made out with my friends ex girlfriend in a closet. His closet. In his room. Alcohol, then, cost me that friendship. (Sorry, Greg.)
Later in college, I can’t imagine I didn’t have at least a few sick (or late days) on account of being hungover. While I never got written up or fired, who’s to say what that inferior performance cost me. Alcohol almost certainly quietly hampered my early employment.
After college, I can name a small army of relationships that came and went at the hands of alcohol. Sometimes it was my actions, and sometimes it was the actions of someone else that was intoxicated that hurt me. Either way, alcohol cost me some friends that I otherwise may have. (Even if it was their use, not mine, I still put myself in a position to let the drug hurt me, by allowing the relationship in the first place.) Alcohol cost me friends.
I remember meeting this girl, and instantly clicking with her. By that weekend, we had hooked up. Two weeks later, after a house party which I was “too loud and competitive” at the beer pong table, she broke things off. Alcohol cost me girlfriends.
In my late 20s, as I was entering what I hoped would be my permanent professional career, I was at the peak of my drinking. While I was rarely more than a few minutes late, and almost never missed a day, my performance suffered. ‘They’ noticed. They would tell me how much potential I have, and I would refuse to hear what was being said between the lines. I cringe to think how much alcohol has cost me in terms of growth and development in my field. Alcohol hurt my career.
As soon as I could admit that I was susceptible to let alcohol lie to me, I knew to listen for the lies.
And them came the arrests, which was the first time my clouded, hijacked, addict brain would finally admit that maybe, maybe, something was wrong.
Maybe I was an alcoholic.
I fought back against that idea for a while. I didn’t LOOK like an alcoholic. I sure didn’t feel like an alcoholic — I felt like any one of my few dozen friends that seemed no different than me.
I measured myself by dumb metrics to prove it: I had never woke up craving a drink, and I had never had the shakes from withdrawal. That’s an alcoholic, I would tell myself. I never drank out of paper bags, never bought $6 plastic flask-sized liquor bottles to slide into my pocket. I never need alcohol to “get me through the day”. I, surely, wasn’t an alcoholic.
I judged myself based on the stigma I had to the word, because I thought it felt good. It felt good to create some distance between me and that word. And if I wasn’t an alcoholic, I could keep drinking. What it would mean for my favorite thing? I didn’t want to replace Sink-or-swim Friday nights for Saturday morning meetings.
I let alcohol tell me I wasn’t an alcoholic, until the damage was objectively undeniable.
But something interesting happened when I finally adopted that word: I found power in it. It meant I was a little different. It meant that, while some people can live their whole lives in any one of the lanes I had without progressing to the next, some cannot. For some, for me, it would never be enough. It would always be fun. Going out drinking with friends will always be attractive. And somewhere around my 6th drink, the drug starts ordering drinks without consulting me.
As soon as I could admit that I was susceptible to let alcohol lie to me, I knew to listen for the lies. This is where I am today. I have completed a half dozen stints of sobriety for as many different reasons, often with little trouble.
I have also drank, even drank to excess. I am reshaping my relationship with alcohol from the ground up. And I know that’s a risk. But I know to be listening for the whispers, and I’m starting to hear them. I hope, now that I can listen for that voice, I can separate it from my actual voice of reason. Because alcohol will forever lie to me, to you.
It’s the voice that tells you to rack the pool balls one more time even though its past the time you promised yourself you’d leave by.
It’s the voice on a cruise that tells you to stop and order another drink, in the event your wanders take you further than your current half drink will last. It’s the voice that tells you that you’d be silly NOT to, it’s free and included with your package, that you should get it, even if you don’t drink it.
It’s the voice that tells you the polite response to someone buying a round of shots is another round of shots on you.
It’s the voice that makes reasonable statements and suggestions, all in hopes of getting you past that 6th drink, when it knows it can hijack the driver seat.
That voice drowned out years of lost friendships, lost productivity, lost relationships, and was only interrupted by the cold clang of a jail cell door. But it had been speaking, dictating, for years.
Do you have a voice telling you lies? What if you could hear it before the damage was undeniable? What if you had the power to say no, to do better than that voice asked of you?
I found that power in a word.
Fuck the stigma. I’m an alcoholic. And that’s okay.
Every recovery is different. Every person is unique. If you’re even a little unsure about your patterns, you can always chat with mental health professional — check out the Open Path Collective for affordable therapy options in your area.