Alcoholism: do we make it bigger than it is?

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.

oz1And 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.


I’m here, I’m here

Hello! So it turns out that if you don’t blog for a couple of weeks, people contact you and express concern that everything is still alright, which is code for ‘have you started drinking again’. Which is very nice of them. I mean that quite genuinely: everybody in my real life has either accepted that I no longer drink or they never cared much in the first place, whereas the sober community, I think, understands that it continues to be something one has to work at, year after year.

So, first things first: no, I’m not drinking again. I’m just channelling a lot of time and effort into changing career direction, which is rather like turning around a juggernaut in terms of energy expenditure versus discernible effect. And there are only so many hours in the day, after all. I’ve let a lot of other things drop recently as well; my long evenings of cooking to music; indulgent baths; any form of exercise.

All of which brings me to the second thing. So, I’m very busy in a happy, engaged, interested sort of way. And I can’t imagine how on earth I ever had time to drink, and I can’t imagine having time to do so again – there are so many more interesting things to do with one’s time, it turns out.

But! There is this little voice of doubt at the back of my mind, asking me whether or not it’s ‘safe’ to dial down the sober work.

One of the things that I dislike about a certain subset of AA adherents is this: it feels like there is an attitude that there is only one way, that sobriety is something to be worked at forever, and that if we let down our guard for a moment, a bottle of alcohol will leap out of a dark alley, mug us and leave us for dead. Now, I’m not saying that’s any of you lovely folks, but it’s something I’ve seen in comment threads time after time, so it’s definitely out there as an attitude.

And of course, the blogosphere has a selection bias. We only hear from the people who do continue to do the work, week after week, whether that’s AA work or other work (Belle, of Tired of Thinking about Drinking, estimates that she does about 4 hours a day of sober work, for example. It’s not step work, it’s emailing and blogging and sober podcasts and a million other things).

But what of the people who just get sober and then move on? Do they, in fact, relapse because they’re no longer plugged in? Or do they step into a new life, and we just never hear from them again because they’re no longer thinking about sobriety?

I have no idea. But it’s untestable: either I step away and see if I relapse, which doesn’t seem like a great option, or I don’t, and I commit time that could be spent doing other things. If I knew that committing that time was useful, of course I wouldn’t resent it – it’s less time than I spent drinking, as I’m sure some of you are already itching to point out. But I don’t drink now, and my days and nights are very full, and it is time taken away from other things.

A lot of people talk about ‘trying moderation’ one last time. I never did, because so many of them came back and said ‘Well, that didn’t work’ and absolutely nobody came back and said ‘Hey, you know what, I’m magically cured!’. So although I do have thoughts about not being really sure I’m an alcoholic, I don’t want to test it, because the possible gain – I get to drink some fermented grape juice and not get drunk from it – is so much less than the possible loss of everything I’ve built up.

That’s fine. I’m clear about that. I just don’t have to drink, and like magic, I remain sober. But the doubt creeps back in. Is being sober enough? Or am I fooling myself and just ‘staying dry’ if I stop blogging and connecting on this level? I do hate people telling me that there is only one right way to do something, and I also hate fear mongering, but then again. Some of you have been sober a shitload of time longer than I have, so if you want to talk, I’m listening.