The other reason I’ve been quiet these last couple of weeks is that I’ve been sick. It was one of those illnesses that likes to duck and weave; it started as a sore throat, turned into something flu-like and then refused to go down for the count and turned itself into bronchiolitis.
Well into the second week, and exhausted from waking myself up coughing ten times a night, I decided to throw some medication at the problem. I’ve never been much for taking medicine; I tell LH that this is because I like to ‘listen to my body when it tells me I need rest, not ‘soldier on” but maybe it’s just that most medications say don’t mix with alcohol, who knows.
Anyway, this time around I went and bought a bottle of cough syrup and some other preparations. I took the first dose just after lunch; an hour later, driving home to pick up my children from school, I realised that I felt really quite tired. More tired than the multiple-cough-related-wake ups would suggest. More than that; I felt … pleasant. Pleasantly drowsy. Don’t worry – I got the kids safely enough, but once I got them home I put on the television for them and lay down for an hour.
That night, I had another dose. After a day of struggling to breathe and feeling really quite sorry for myself, that pleasant wooziness was like a warm, soft bed. Combined with my actual warm, soft bed, it was like…well, I guess it was like two warm soft beds, although that doesn’t quite convey the depth of comfort here.
Came yesterday, and I’m feeling much better. The cough remains, but it’s reeling against the ropes, and I have my energy back. When I headed to bed, though, my eyes fell on the cough syrup bottle. I’ll just have a dose to get rid of the last of the cough, I thought, then I know I’ll sleep better. And I did, and in fact I did wake myself up coughing at least once in the wee hours once the dose wore off, which would imply that the cough syrup was a sensible precaution, and today I feel almost fine, thank you for asking.
This is a very uninteresting story, except for one thing. When I looked at the bottle of cough syrup yesterday, part of my thought process was not ‘…so that I stop coughing’ but ‘…because that pleasant drowsiness was really, really nice’.
Cough syrup contains dextromethorphan, which is also used recreationally and can cause a disassociative hallucinogenic state. It also contains brompheniramine, an antihistamine which causes drowsiness. My floating away sensation was a normal side effect, but people do get addicted to cough syrup.
And as soon as I caught myself thinking that, I remembered the article I’ve just linked, and I started wondering about cross addiction, and I started thinking of the cough syrup as a drug rather than a medication which, frankly, I sorely needed. And then the crazy addiction talk started up; well, even if I am taking it for the wrong reasons, that’s okay as long as I stick to that one little bottle. I have what, one or two more doses of it, so that’s one a night just to float me into sleep. Although it’d be sort of nice to have some in the morning, then I could feel a bit floaty…no. No! Stop it, that’s ridiculous.
Here’s the thing: I genuinely believe that if I hadn’t been hyper aware of cross addictions and the possibility that cough syrup is something that one can be addicted to, I’d have just taken the dose, slept, and thought no more of it. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll go to bed and the bottle will catch my eye again and – as I’m still coughing – I’ll have one more dose. Maybe not.
I have, in the past, wondered about whether my hyper-awareness about my drinking caused part of the problem. That sounds like classic addict double-think, and it probably is, but certainly there was a long period there where I’d fill out those ‘are you an alcoholic’ tests, and the only thing that tipped me over into the ‘yes’ category was the question ‘have you worried about your drinking and then not cut down’. I used to think, indignantly: well, so if I had less insight I wouldn’t be an alcoholic, but because I’m worried about it, I am?
Of course, the reason that answering ‘yes’ to that question made me an alcoholic was not the first half but the second; not the worrying, but the inability to take action on that worry. If you think you drink too much, and you can’t cut down, you have a dependency issue. Even if you function fine in every other way.
So, that’s true. But at the same time, I do wonder about the part that labelling has to play here. I have read many, many stories of relapse over the years, and they usually talk about the fact that once they picked up a drink, they drank themselves into oblivious. There’s a commonly understood piece of recovery wisdom that your disease gets stronger in remission; ten years without a drink don’t mean that you’ll have overcome it, it means that your alcoholism has progressed ten years But is that true? Or is it that, once you relapse, you’ve already admitted that you’re an alcoholic and the subsequent drinking has a flavour of ‘last hurrah’ with just a soupçon of desperation about it? If I know that I have an addiction, then any time I give it to it is going to feel illicit.
Have any of you ever dieted? It’s very common, when you’re dieting, to ‘break your diet’ for a night. And when you do, it is even more common to then Eat All The Things, because tomorrow you are going to go back to celery sticks and sadness.
It sounds like I’m arguing for moderation, and I don’t think I really am. I know that it wouldn’t work for me. Perhaps I wouldn’t drink three bottles of wine in one sitting, perhaps I would just have a glass or tow. But then, given that I could drink responsibly, I’d have a glass or two on the next night as well. And maybe a little bit more on the weekend. Perhaps it would take as long as a month, but at the end of it I’d be back where I started, and where I started was miserable. So, no.
But I do reject this image of addiction as the hulking monster, doing press ups to get stronger, stalking our every move, as well. I think that gives it too much power. Alcoholism, the Great And Terrible.
And if there’s one thing that I want to tell people who are still wondering if they can give up, wondering about all the things they might lose along the way, it’s this: alcoholism isn’t a big, huge, terrifying enemy. It’s a little man behind a curtain, making himself look terrifying.
You can do this.