“I don’t think you are really an alcoholic,” someone close to me remarked quite unexpectedly as we shuffled past a neighborhood bar, making our way through the cool dark to a restaurant by the sea. It wasn’t a conversation I welcomed chewing into at that time. I was hungry and I didn’t have the patience to get into how the term “alcoholic” is both dated and inaccurate, or what “alcoholic” even means anymore.
“Why do you say that?” I asked. My throat tightened.
“Because you’re not that weak,” he replied. The weight of those five words sunk to the pit of my gut and anchored there as carelessness and ignorance. This, from someone so intelligent, someone who knew me so well. “Well, that’s your opinion,” I said, having nothing more to offer on the matter and sensing that any further explanation would just be wood chips for the fire. I have since realized that those many cutting statements delivered to people in recovery are not only sprung from naiveté, but also from a desire for control. It is “Human Nature 3.0”- we like things to be predictable and we want to have the upper hand (more on this in a future “Conversation”).
"Because you're not that weak."
Stereotypes imprison the addicted and block our collective consciousness from seeing that this crisis is perhaps the largest societal challenge we face today. After all, the vast majority of us are addicts in action; our poisons are the differentiator. Food. Sex. Gambling. Money. Shopping. Booze. Drugs. Pills. Work. “Perfection.” Love. Prestige. Exercise. Religion. Facebook. Beauty. Power. And yet, when people conceptualize the image of an “addict” in their minds, their own reflection is rarely conjured.
Imagined instead are:
- A drink upon waking
- Homelessness and squalor
- Trembling hands, “the shakes”
- Messy hair, body odor, bad teeth
- Joblessness & living on the dole
- School dropouts, lack of education
- Marital and financial trouble
- Piercings & tattoos
- Drink or use every day
- Foolishness, weak-willed
Maybe so many people have chosen to frame addicts this way because it’s easier, because the reality is far too close and unearths unacceptably discomforting levels of fear. Consider that over 7% of the US population and just under 4% of Singapore’s population fit the criteria for having an alcohol use disorder, according to population-based surveys (estimates should be considered extremely conservative, given self-reporting methods and the shame associated with admission). Millions of these people are educated, hold down jobs, and have family and friends to answer to. In fact, around 20 percent of individuals with an alcohol use disorder are considered “high functioning”- in other words, highly intelligent achievers who are able to maintain the façade of an accomplished and even enviable life despite their dependence on alcohol. Gabrielle Glaser, author of “Her Best Kept Secret: Why Women Drink,” writes that the more educated and well off a woman is, the more likely she is to consume booze, and that white women are more likely to drink than women of other ethnicities. And, according to a new survey by Protecting.co.uk, a third of workers in the UK have admitted to using drugs at work while nearly every respondent said they had gone to work drunk at least once.
In an age where nearly everything seems to revolve around cocktails- from bonding with friends to making important business decisions and even having sex (yes, many people admit that drinking is often a prerequisite requirement to doing the deed), what does addiction actually mean and how can someone tell whether or not they’ve crossed the line? Perhaps it is first crucial to accept that no one definition of addiction exists, as it is viewed from diverse perspectives.
Many scholars and doctors define addiction as a “brain disease,” which in my view is a simplistic and even dangerous way to categorize a many-tentacled beast that sucks its existence from complex social, cultural, biological, psychological and spiritual forces. Other addiction experts say that addiction is a chronic neurobiological disease characterized by impaired control, compulsion, continued use or behavior despite harm, and craving. This perspective to some extent minimizes the outcomes while focusing on the actions. Is an addict still an addict if she is no longer engaged in her addiction? SMART Recovery describes “addiction as an impulse disorder, favoring momentary satisfaction over the long term view,” while other programs consider addiction a “spiritual bankruptcy.” The origin of the word “addiction” perhaps gives us a clearer meaning; it is derived from a Latin term that means “bound to,” or “enslaved by.” This notion, “an enslavement,” resonates most with me; when you have an alcohol use disorder- or any kind of addiction- you must tie yourself to some external actor in order to feel ok; that desired sense of belonging or normalcy exists at the other end of the craving. Addicts without their fix- be it cocktails, cakes or cocaine- find it impossible to inhabit themselves.
So, when does drinking become a problem; how do you know if you have an alcohol use disorder? Well, you can take a handy "Almost is Too Close to Always" quiz from Harvard, although I’m not sure its results are definitive, particularly since, again, the criteria varies. Or, you can go with a more traditional screening method like CAGE:
C Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
A Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
G Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
E Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or get rid of a hangover?
According to a CAGE screening, two positive answers warrant further assessment.
Be warned however, that most people severely underestimate how much they drink and count, on average, only one quarter to one half of the drinks they actually consume. I think, with many of these types of issues, we already hold the answers within. I knew years before I quit drinking that it was hollowing me out and stealing my spirit. But, if someone asked me about it, I wouldn't hesitate denying that knowledge.
It is alcohol after all... cunning, baffling, powerful.
So, if you suspect that your drinking may not be serving you well anymore, why not begin your exploration of that relationship by reflecting on these questions?
- Is my alcohol use holding me back from my dreams?
- Is my drinking negatively impacting my relationships or my health?
- Do I actually enjoy drinking or has it just become something to do?
- Am I drinking away boredom?
- Would my life be better if I quit drinking? In what ways?
I quit booze when I realized that it was beginning to steal the life I was meant to lead- one with a sense of peace and confidence, a creative existence, a good marriage, a rewarding career, a spiritual belonging, the ability to accept myself as is. A few people might argue that I hit the bottom several times, while most others standing on the outside looking in could only see a woman who had it mostly together- top student, secure job at a great company, solid friends and marriage, and a rather exciting life in a "city so nice they named it twice." What I knew for sure was that I was deeply unhappy with who I’d become, and that if I chose sobriety, I’d at least have a chance to turn it around.
Best. Decision. Ever.
Perhaps it will be the same for a few of you reading this today.
If you missed the first two installments of The Conversation, you can check them out here and here. Blogger EJ Austin-Jones also had some thought provoking things to write about this series, so check out her take here. I'd love to hear your thoughts, so please share them in the comments section. If you liked this post or think it might be interesting to someone else, please share! Stay tuned for next week's installment and if you have a question on addiction or would like me to cover a particular aspect, just send me a message.