The road is long

“Still” meaning – as a continuation of my last post. Not as a continuation of the past eight or nine months.  I feel like this resurgence of desire is on some sort of schedule: I’ve never read anything in addiction literature about an 8-9 month hump, but I’ve definitely read similar things from bloggers in the sobersphere.  So, once again, thanks for being you.  It’s easier, knowing that this will pass again.  I had a moment the other day where I felt like I was going to be fighting cravings forever.  And now I understand why people say “don’t think about ‘forever'”, because that’s exactly the sort of overwhelm that could drive one to drink.  But I know I can not drink today, and not drink tomorrow, and the chances are good-to-definite that fairly soon, I’ll go back to not missing it.

On the weekend, some old friends came to dinner.  The male half of the couple is one of my closest and dearest friends, although since they moved to the other side of the world almost a decade ago, we’ve drifted apart.  Back in our twenties, we used to meet at a bar and share a bottle of wine and some snacks.  And then we’d share a second bottle of wine.  And then we’d look at one another, because we knew perfectly well that the third bottle would tip us over into uncomfortably drunk, and we always said we wouldn’t drink that much next time, but neither of us felt done yet.  And so we would, always, order that third bottle.

Those were nights of talking so fast that our words tangled together, too much smoke and alcohol, and feeling slightly nauseated on the last bus home, near midnight.  Nights of bad judgement and hungover mornings afterwards.  I wonder, now, whether our friendship would have been as close if it hadn’t been so alcoholic.

This time around, I knew I’d have to tell them that I no longer drank, and I managed to slip the information into an email giving them directions to my house.  No big deal at all, luckily: we’re of an age where several of us have stopped drinking for various reasons, I gather.

So I cooked beef fillets wrapped in prosciutto, and they arrived with some fancy gin truffles as a hostess gift (2% gin.  I’m going to eat them, but not this week, not when I’m feeling a bit shaky) and three bottles of wine.   And the food was amazing and the conversation was great, and I’m glad I got to see them again.

But.

Three bottles of wine.  For three people, for one dinner.  They arrived mid-afternoon, and when LH failed to offer them a glass by four o’clock, they opened one themselves.

By ten o’clock, the conversation was flagging, a bit.  It never used to do that.

crossroad

I find that I look at people differently, now.  I watch my old drinking companions drink, and I notice how fast they tip the last bit of wine into their glass before opening the next bottle, and I look at their faces closely; are they puffier, redder, then they used to be, or is it just age?  I feel mean, thinking things like that, but I don’t intend to be critical.  I’m hardly Dorian Gray to their picture, after all.  It’s just that I’m not very far down the path of sobriety yet: the crossroad is still in sight, behind me, and so is the road I didn’t take.  When I watch my friends, I’m peering down that path.  I’m reminding myself why I took the one I did.

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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.

bed

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.

The total surrender of self

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,
Even laughter.

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.

rave

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.

joy

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.