When I quit drinking I moved the wine and beer glasses to the garage and got rid of all the bottles except for one. I thought I should save the glassware because the kids might want it some day, but it didn’t dawn on me I’d be handing down a legacy that had nearly ruined me. The wine glasses were the traditional German kind with decorative etching on the sides and I knew I’d regret parting with them. Part of me thought quitting would only be temporary — another part couldn’t let go of these precious things. Or understand what they signified.
And that is how the thought process works. You get encased in a labyrinthine logic of your own doing. In fact, you build the maze at the direction of the substance that’s occupied your mind. That’s why trying to quit can be so bedeviling: because you don’t know where you entered the labyrinth, you don’t know the way out. You’re not even convinced you need to leave. Perversely, we defend the same logic that’s deluded us as we insist there’s no problem, there’s nothing to see here, and we protect/hide the thing that’s killing us. One day this logic takes over.
I got rid of all the bottles except for one, the dry cooking sherry, because: a.) I might need it for a recipe, b.) it wasn’t the kind of thing I’d be compelled to drink, and c.) pouring it down the drain seemed wasteful. While the bottle was mostly hidden from view I could still see enough of it to stir something in me each time I opened the door. It still held a charge. Like the glasses, the object signified something more than itself. It radiated with an energy that sparked the neural pathways in my brain. In a sense, it controlled me.
I knew all this was bullshit and I should just get rid of it, and that’s what I’d do. Because now that I’d quit, the alcohol didn’t hold any power over me. But I didn’t need to be reminded of my dependency on it either.
And with that I had to pause: was it a “dependency” or an addiction? Because the words mattered, they pointed to an inner truth. Dependency felt different than addiction because addiction brought in another dimension, shame. Addiction conjured images of people slumped in corners; dependency had more of a clinical ring. It was like being infatuated with someone versus being obsessed. One was gentle in tone, the other menacing. Someone with a dependency could kick the habit with help, but for addicts the outlook seemed more dire. These words, like the wine glasses or bottle of sherry, also held a charge. We depend on people or things to function a certain way and that’s a positive thing. To be dependable holds positive charge. Addiction, on the other hand, comes from the Latin word, “to be enslaved by.” Or addicere, “to assign.” Addicts are assigned. There is nothing positive there.
I quit cold turkey two years ago this week. I did not go through any recovery programs, I was mostly disgusted with my drinking and just wanted to move on. But I used THC pills habitually to mimic the high I got from alcohol. After time I realized what I was doing was numbing out, a phrase I learned from our daughter Lily as she underwent a therapeutic, wilderness intervention herself. Lily suggested I might be a “dry drunk,” a term I’d never heard before but didn’t like. The idea is, you may have quit drinking but you haven’t addressed the factors that led you to drink in the first place.
And so I had to look back inside the labyrinth. I read the AA book but struggled to get through it. One of my key takeaways is that drinkers are looking to place themselves on the spectrum of use versus abuse, to gauge if they have a problem. If you choose to identify as an alcoholic you start by admitting to the fact that you don’t have any power over it and your life has become unmanageable. Part of that was true for me and part of it wasn’t, but I figured I’d still be better off without.
I haven’t relapsed since I quit, but there was a time the first year I thought about starting up again. It was on a drive back from West Seattle after I’d walked through a park and decided to climb the Austrian Alps again in August. I simply couldn’t imagine being in the Austrian Alps and not drinking a beer. And if that was true, if I’d allow myself to drink in August, why not start now? Because once I started in August I knew I’d continue. This is how the bargaining works, you get drawn back into the maze. And it is a kind of madness to feel like you don’t have control over your own mind. If the labyrinth metaphor works for you, consider how the walls are formed and why. For some it can be a form of numbing to hide what’s going on inside. The problem is, you come to depend on those walls for comfort and coping. And then you lose track of yourself in the process.
When we name things we drag them out into the light. To assign a name is like using a net to catch a butterfly, to classify it, to pin it down. Any time someone speaks at an AA meeting they first say their name and then “I’m an alcoholic.” Hi, I’m Bill and I’m an alcoholic. Perhaps doing that gives the alcoholic a chance to reclaim their voice, to regain some power. Maybe their identity too.
In saying I’m an alcoholic, it has the combined effect of both releasing our individual selves and resigning ourselves to a larger group. To contribute a part of ourselves that may feel flawed in service to those who may need the same help. Paradoxically, we want to believe our circumstances are unique — but then we find comfort in the recognition they are not.
Last week I went to a concert with a friend and we sat talking in a dark Irish bar. He was hungover from the night before but still drank four cans of beer and four more at the show. Walking between the Irish bar and the show we talked about alcoholism and he said he knows he needs to deal with his drinking but at least now he’s aware of it. We agreed the worst part of hangovers wasn’t the physical feeling, but the shame. And when we left the show I offered to give him a ride but he wanted to stop at another bar and wait for a cab instead. I saw how his mind activated on the thought of a final drink and recognized myself in him at that moment. There was the same light in his eyes that was not his own. I insisted on giving him a ride, and when I dropped him off we agreed to keep in touch.
Perhaps it is the sound of someone else’s voice that helps us find the way out. First we have to see it’s time to leave.