That’s a Big “If”

“… and I’m an alcoholic.”

It took me a long time to say those words, and even longer to mean it.

I’m not sure if alcoholics are contrarian by nature, even if we are typecast as a rowdy, incorrigible bunch. Perhaps it’s something a little more specific to me. Having been raised with little to no discipline or sense of responsibility — and having been born into a certain amount of privilege I didn’t really recognize until I began to travel extensively to poor, “dangerous” countries in my 20s — I’ve coasted through a lot of my life doing exactly what it was I wanted to do.

Sometimes that’s worked out for me, sometimes it hasn’t.

Okay, more often than not it hasn’t.

Fine. It doesn’t usually work out very well, but at least I was in charge of my own life.

I was the “master of my domain,” as it were. “Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” I’d tell myself. This libertarian streak did not, in the end, serve me well.

I was barely 19 when I attended my first AA meeting at the insistence of the legal system. I was told I had to be there, so I did not like it, I did not respect it, and I didn’t pay close attention to it. I learned quickly to keep my head down, to not make eye contact. It didn’t take long to figure out exactly which meetings would sign my slip at the start, rather than the end, and not ask any questions about it. I got out of those meetings exactly what you’d expect.

That isn’t to say I was an alcoholic at that point — I hardly drank — but I was, quite certifiably, already an addict.

Perhaps unfortunately, another common trope that fed into my rebellious nature when it came to recovery was borne from hearing the judge state quite clearly that he didn’t care what kind of meeting I went to, so long as I went to a hundred of them and the word “anonymous” was in the name. I’d sit through my gambler’s anonymous meetings, narcotics anonymous, alcoholics anonymous, overeaters anonymous, whatever “anonymous” group that was convenient for me and had someone willing to verify that I’d shown up.

These programs have nothing to do with self-improvement, I thought. This is just yet another punitive measure, one that doesn’t cost the state a penny. I’d not yet had someone tell me that I’d get out of it what I put into it. The concept of putting effort into this nebulous, ill-defined “recovery” eluded me. It sounded like a lot of work.

A decade or so later, having purged all recovery-related information from my mind quite quickly after my sophomore year’s brief interlude of clean living — not as a result of any program, mind you, I was just terrified of failing a drug test while on probation and getting kicked out of school — I was no more well-positioned to deal with my addictions. They had, sadly, continued to work on me.

I moved easily from recreational drug use into, let’s say, more professional drug use. I learned that I didn’t need to have anxiety about anything — I could turn that off. I didn’t need to care about anything. I didn’t need to feel anything at all, if I didn’t want to. I could spectate the difficult parts of my life without having to take an active role.

I’m not sure why that seemed so attractive to me, even now, but it did. So I wholeheartedly embraced the avoidance of anything real and slept in my soft, warm cocoon of ignorance and bliss until I was forced, again, to pay attention to my own life.

Eventually, I started having trouble finding drugs, so I started drinking more often as compensation. I learned that with enough effort, alcohol can dispossess you of any and all feelings just as well as other drugs could. It was cheap and ubiquitous, too. It was easy to drink, as Homer Simpson says, “until you can’t feel feelings anymore.” 

I was already a serious addict. I had my preferences, but anything would do. And now I had embraced a drug that our culture not only tolerates, but celebrates. I could achieve all of that inner nothingness while still maintaining some kind of social life. At one point I asked myself why I hadn’t started drinking seriously sooner.

As you’d expect, this lifestyle didn’t serve me well. I found myself in front of another dispassionate judge who had another ambiguous set of tasks for me to accomplish. Once again, I found myself making the rounds to whatever meeting best fit my schedule. Having learned nothing the first time, I repeated myself in ignoring a lot of information and advice that could have prevented further difficulties.

I went through the motions until I could drink and use again, picking up right where I’d left off. I found myself living out the predictable relapse pattern: I’d drink until it caused a problem, I’d stop until the problem didn’t bother me much anymore, and I’d go back to drinking until another problem arose.

I’m still not entirely sure when or where the epiphany occurred, or even if there was one. As the legal, medical, financial, personal, professional, and social consequences began to reach a fever pitch — each wave of shame and regret drowning me deeper in shame and regret for longer periods of time — I just got sick of it. To employ one of AA’s many beloved idioms, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to get out of that hole I’d once been so proud of digging. I didn’t know who (or what) could (or would) help me, but I did realize that all of those meetings — all of those fellowships that contained so many people who just wanted to help and be helped — had taught me one thing: I knew exactly where I needed to go.

Who knew? it really does work — if you work it.

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