The A Word

Am I or am I not an alcoholic?

This is something we drinkers seem to spend a lot of time asking themselves, and I wonder if it is helpful.

On the pro side, I think the fact that the label exists gives us an opportunity to put a label on a problem. It is undoubtedly a problem which has existed since the first alcoholic brew was brewed. But older terms like “drunkard” and “sot” are entirely pejorative, while “alcoholic,” at least in theory, is more neutral and clinical.

Also, embracing the term gives one a blueprint for what to do about that problem. If you say “My name is XXX, and I’m an alcoholic,” everyone knows what that means. You give up alcohol “one day at a time”, you attend meetings, you follow the twelve steps, which no one knows except the “admitting you’re powerless over alcohol” one, and the one where you have to apologize to everyone.*

At any rate, there is a kind of peace, I think, in embracing a label. In addition to giving you a blueprint, it gives you instant membership into a group.  This can be your group that you meet face to face, in your AA meetings, and also just a badge of “this is who I am.” An army of people who share a certain characteristic, which gives them a certain bond.

On the other hand, I think that many people who may be concerned about their drinking strenuously resist the “alcoholic” label. Or they spend time trying to figure out if the label fits their behavior — time that would be better spent thinking about what to DO about their behavior. Thus the old saying “People who aren’t alcoholics don’t lay awake at night trying to figure out if they’re alcoholics.”

As for myself, I do not call myself an alcoholic. But is there a good reason for that, or am I just in denial? In honor of this post, I decided to answer the 26 question quiz that was designed by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. I am answering these as I would have in the months before I quit drinking.

(I first found this quiz in Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story)

1. Do you drink heavily when you are disappointed, under pressure or have had a quarrel with someone? YES

2. Can you handle more alcohol now than when you first started to drink? YES

3. Have you ever been unable to remember part of the previous evening, even though your friends say you didn’t pass out? YES

4. When drinking with other people, do you try to have a few extra drinks when others won’t know about it? YES

5. Do you sometimes feel uncomfortable if alcohol is not available? YES

6. Are you more in a hurry to get your first drink of the day than you used to be? YES

7.  Do you sometimes feel a little guilty about your drinking? YES

8. Has a family member or close friend express concern or complained about your drinking? YES

9. Have you been having more memory “blackouts” recently? YES

10. Do you often want to continue drinking after your friends say they’ve had enough? NO

11.  Do you usually have a reason for the occasions when you drink heavily? YES

12. When you’re sober, do you sometimes regret things you did or said while drinking? YES

13. Have you tried switching brands or drinks, or following different plans to control your drinking?  YES

14.  Have you sometimes failed to keep promises you made to yourself about controlling or cutting down on your drinking?  YES

15.  Have you ever had a DWI (driving while intoxicated) or DUI (driving under the influence of alcohol) violation, or any other legal problem related to your drinking?  NO

16.  Do you try to avoid family or close friends while you are drinking?  NO

17.  Are you having more financial, work, school, and/or family problems as a result of your drinking? NO

18.  Has your physician ever advised you to cut down on your drinking? YES

19.  Do you eat very little or irregularly during the periods when you are drinking? NO

20.  Do you sometimes have the “shakes” in the morning and find that it helps to have a “little” drink, tranquilizer or medication of some kind? NO – but I did find a “hair of the dog” helped a hangover

21.  Have you recently noticed that you can’t drink as much as you used to?  NO

22.  Do you sometimes stay drunk for several days at a time? NO

23.  After periods of drinking do you sometimes see or hear things that aren’t there? NO

24.  Have you ever gone to anyone for help about your drinking? NO

25.  Do you ever feel depressed or anxious before, during or after periods of heavy drinking? YES

26.  Have any of your blood relatives ever had a problem with alcohol? NO (that I know of)

Holy that’s a lot of “yes”s! According the site, answering yes to even two questions means you might have a problem and answering yes to more than 8 questions means you should seek help immediately. I have 15 yeses. Yipes.

I like these questions because the thread running through them is “Are you using alcohol to self-medicate?” and “Is your drinking slipping out of your control?” – rather than things like “do you drink alone”/”do you drink in the morning?” etc.

So after that, does it still make sense for me to reject the “alcoholic” label? Maybe not. But I still maintain my belief that normal drinking to problem drinking to alcoholic drinking is a continuum. And while one can pick an arbitrary point along that line to say this is an alcoholic and this isn’t an alcoholic, I don’t know how helpful it is to do so. I think I prefer the Allen Carr “pitcher plant” approach, which emphasizes the addictive properties of the drink, instead of the addictive nature of the drinker.

If you would like to take the test at the NCADD site, here it is.

*I do know more about the 12 steps now.

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Sober

Being the mother of a 12 year old girl means I get to listen to modern pop music again. A lot of it is repetitive drivel, but there is the occasional diamond. I liked Pink’s “Just Give me a Reason” from earlier this year, which inspired me to check out her earlier material. I stumbled on this song, which seemed appropriate for this blog:

I’ve been reading addiction memoirs lately. These are the titles I’ve read:

Dry, by Augusten Burroughs

Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore, by Rachael Brownell

Drinking, a Love Story, by Caroline Knapp

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, by Koren Zailckas

Parched, by Heather King

Unwasted, by Sacha Scoblic

Sober is the New Black, by Rachel Black

I liked all of these books, though some more than others.  I feel like I got something out of each one, and I’ll probably talk more specifically about them in future posts. For now, what struck me is that all of these people were different – different ages, different in how low their “bottom” was, different in how long they drank, how early they started drinking, whether they considered themselves alcoholics, or whether they drank to be sociable or drank to tolerate loneliness, etc. – but in many key ways these stories were all the same. This can be summed up in one sentence:

Alcohol made my life better, and then it made my life worse.

It made me think about how alcohol can obliterate your individuality. You might be a quiet drunk or a boisterous drunk, a mean drunk or a sloppy, sentimental drunk – but take a bunch of drunk people and they will all be a lot more alike than the same number of sober people.

Each writer gets to a point, too, where she has to describe daily or nightly drinking, and what struck me is how boring it is. I don’t mean I was bored reading, just that all the things that make a good story – learning, growth, life – stops. You’re just waiting, as a reader, for the writer to hit bottom so growth can start again. David Sedaris, one of my favorite authors, sums this up nicely:

Worse than anything was the dullness of it, night after night the exact same story … Call me at 11 pm, and after a minute or so I’d forget who I was talking to. Even worse was when I placed the call. “Yes,” I’d say. “May I please speak to … oh, you know. He has brownish hair? He drives a van with his name written on it?”

“Is this David?”

“Yes.”

“And you want to speak to your brother, Paul?”

“That’s it. Could you put him on, please?”

Most often I’d stay up until 3 am, rocking back and forth in my chair and thinking of the things I could do if I weren’t so fucked up.

 Hope everyone has a wonderful, sober Labor day weekend!

 

 

Allen Carr

I read Allen Carr’s book about quitting drinking just a few days after I, well, quit drinking.

I highly recommend it for anyone to read, whether they feel they have a problem with drinking or not.  It really does make you look at alcohol in a different way.   The first couple chapters are essentially a sales pitch for the book, which I didn’t really need, and the whole of it is written in a self-help style that can be a bit cheesy.   But its message is simple, straightforward, and yet somehow revolutionary.  At least, it was exactly what I needed to read when I was on day 3 and still feeling shaky and in shock about what had happened.

Like Jason Vale, he talks about the nature of alcohol, that it is addictive and anyone who drinks can become addicted.  He uses the metaphor of a pitcher plant, a carnivorous plant that lures flies and other other insects with its sweet nectar, luring them further and further in until they can’t get out even when they try.  The difference between a “normal drinker” and an “alcoholic” is merely one of degree.  He says, in fact, that anyone who drinks is somewhere on that slide toward the middle of the pitcher plant.  I don’t know if I believe that is universally true, but there is definitely some truth to it.  I turn back to Jason Vale:  he suggests, as a rather delightful thought experiment, that you substitute the word “bananas” for “alcohol” when you hear someone talk about how they don’t have a problem with alcohol:  I never eat bananas before 5:00… I only eat them a few days a week … I decided to cut back to just one banana a day… I don’t eat bananas during the week but on the weekends I like to cut loose and eat the whole bunch … If you heard someone talking like this about their banana intake, wouldn’t it sound like they had a problem with bananas?  Would they sound like “normal” banana eaters?

In Carr’s book, he goes through all of the reasons that people say they drink and dismantles them one by one.  For instance, when people say they “like the taste.”  Pure alcohol tastes terrible (and is very poisonous); it is the things that we put into it that sweeten and dilute it that we say we like the taste of.  And yet, somehow no one wants to drink a non-alcoholic drink that tastes just like straight vodka, scotch, brandy, even wine.  And even non-alcoholic beer is a tiny, tiny market compared to the market for alcoholic beer.  So if we really liked the taste, wouldn’t we want to drink things that taste like that, whether or not they had alcohol in them?

Of course, I was most interested in the chapter where he talked about people who say they drink alcohol to relax or cope with stress.  Here he made an interesting point that I feel I am coming to see the truth of, over these last weeks.  He says that since drinking alcohol is debilitating, you are actually less able to cope with stress overall.  And that in itself creates more stress, which creates an increased desire to drink, in a vicious circle.

At the end he encourages you to celebrate the fact that you don’t drink alcohol anymore, that you are off the merry-go-round.  Tell yourself “I’m free!” when you see alcohol or see someone drinking.  And this is actually quite powerful.  When I first read this, as I said, it felt almost revolutionary, a “the scales have fallen from my eyes!” moment.  And it’s still there in my head, a little spark,  penetrating old thought processes and old assumptions.  Making me listen differently when I hear people talk about alcohol.  For instance, at that dinner party I mentioned in my first entry, one of the guests poured himself a glass of wine, offered it to my husband and me, which we declined, and then to one of the other guests.  This guest smiled and said “Sure, just so you don’t have to drink alone.”

“Just so you don’t have to eat bananas alone …”

I’m free!!

Perfect 10

Hey, I finished day 10 yesterday!  Hurray!

This is a landmark not just because I am now in double-digits, but because of something I read in Jason Vale’s book this week:  that it takes 3-10 days for all traces of alcohol to leave your system.  I think most people are generally closer to the “3” than the “10,” but now I can say either way that there is no alcohol lurking anywhere in my body.

Deep breath.  It feels good.

I liked Jason Vale’s book quite a bit.  I read Allen Carr’s book first (which I will review in a future entry), which posits a similar point of view:  that alcohol is addictive, that anyone who drinks is in danger of becoming addicted (not just those with the disease called “alchoholism”), and that by not drinking it you are missing out on nothing. Alcohol is a poison whose so-called “benefits” are entirely illusory.  It’s a powerful concept and it does help to lessen the regret I feel about not being able to drink.  I can’t say right now that it does away with it completely, but I have hopes that I will get there.

The books equation of alcohol with any other addictive drug is illuminating and helped me to develop a strategy for dealing with temptation.  You know that feeling, whether it’s a bar, grocery store, drugstore, wherever, when you see those rows and rows of bottles, beautifully displayed and ripe for the picking?  It helps me to see them as rows and rows of hypodermic needles, filled with heroin.  Doesn’t sound so appealing anymore, does it?  I’m sure heroin, crack, and meth feel absolutely great when you take them!  Does that mean I want to try them?  No, because I know they are highly addictive and ruin people’s lives.  Alcohol too is highly addictive and ruins people’s lives; the evidence of that is all around me and always has been.  But because it is embedded in our society, I never thought about it the same way.