Trigger warning: this post discusses the attraction of alcohol and drugs. You may choose whether you want to read it today.
These days I am too much in the world
And in other people.
I am not with myself enough, alone.
My body moves,
My mouth opens and closes
And words come out,
But I am not centered enough,
There is an emptiness to me,
I cannot escape.
Inside I am frantic,
My thoughts have no place to settle,
I need it all to stop a little.
I need it all to stop.
i am unsettled, f.gabdon
A friend’s husband misses the party scene, now that he’s older and a father. But the party scene – music at melting volumes, nights that bleed into morning, drinks in plastic cups and long queues for grotty bathrooms – belongs to the young. Even without the responsibilities that weigh us down in our thirties and forties, the party scene is not our country.
He doesn’t crave the drugs the way an addict does. Occasionally he goes out and gets very, very drunk; not ideal from a health point of view, but he doesn’t fit into the diagnostic spectrum of alcoholism either. It’s deliberate, occasional, planned when it won’t impact his life. He does it because he seeks the oblivion that used to come from those perfect clubbing moments, when the drugs took him higher and the music fused with his soul and all the people dancing were in love and there was no self, only communion.
He’s a good father, a loving husband, a responsible citizen who accepts that his drug days are done. But the occasional bender doesn’t feed him the way the scene used to, and he walks around with a hollow space inside, grieving without knowing it.
Another friend and another conversation. She is talking, hesitantly, about her need for BDSM sex. How she tried to turn off that part of her sexuality when she met her vanilla husband, but she felt it as a loss, as if she was permanently unfulfilled. No matter how amazing their lovemaking, it wasn’t the same as when she could submit entirely and satisfy both body and soul.
They’re both seeking the same sort of transcendence. A surrender of self, a letting go of individuality and autonomy and the responsibility that comes along with that, in return for a greater, deeper communion with something bigger.
Drugs and alcohol (…so, drugs) can provide that too. People talk about ‘getting obliterated’ or ‘wiping themselves out’. An obliteration of self, a temporary abnegation of responsibility – at its peak, a total surrender of self to something greater. That moment in a bar, with a close friend, when you’re finishing the second bottle of wine together and your words are a tumble of excitement, tangling with one another in the joyous rediscovery that you think alike. The sudden clarity in a late-night club, when you see through the costumes and the poses and you feel as if everybody in the room is human, flawed, vulnerable, but no less beautiful for all of that. Even the moments alone, drunk, when you crack yourself open to the universe. It’s not that alcohol allows us to create deeper bonds with one another, not real bonds: in fact it does the opposite. I feel, react and love so much more deeply since I became sober that I am constantly overwhelmed with the strength of the bonds I have discovered. But what drugs do do is help us get out of our own way.
It’s no wonder that many people in recovery discover, or rediscover, religion. It’s another answer to the need. Religion (and I am not a theologian, but this is certainly not limited to Judeo-Christian beliefs), preaches a surrender of self; joy and fulfilment through submission to a higher authority. An ecstasy-taking raver might balk at the analogy to religious authority, but the joy in surrender is the analogy, not the thing to which one surrenders.
I don’t have the answer to this. In This Is How, Augusten Burroughs talks about his belief that no amount of twelve-step programs, or self-discipline, or fear, will keep you sober if you haven’t found something you want to do more than you want to drink. For him, and for me, that thing is writing. Writing takes me out of myself; it allows me, like the poet above, to be with myself but also, in my own small way, part of something greater. For other people, there are good works, risky sports, music, meditation. I don’t know if there’s an easy answer for everybody; it’s certainly not as simple as chirping ‘just take up a hobby!’. I love to cook, it makes me happy, but cooking doesn’t fill the hole in the same way, not for me. Because it’s not just a matter of finding something you like to do; it’s finding something that allows you to transcend your self.
So I don’t have any answers, but I do know one thing. Alcohol, or drugs, are really fucking bad at doing what we want them to do. I was never so painfully aware of myself as I was when I was drinking. I was conscious of my physical self all the time, reminded by headaches and gas and nausea, wondering if I smelt of stale wine, worrying about the red streaks appearing across my complexion. I was never so much in the world as I was when I spent my days wondering if there was wine in the house and if not, how I could obtain more. I was never so empty and frantic as I was as an active addict.
I need it all to stop a little. I need it all to stop.