Some days, my alcoholic mind plays tricks on me.
“You never drank every day," my mind says. “You never had withdrawals.” “You haven’t battled a serious urge to drink since you got sober.”
My sober self is left to triage. Not important. Not important. Not important.
“Drinking was still fun when you quit.”
My sober self wavers, and my disease jumps at the chance. “There are lots of people who quit drinking only when drinking stopped being fun,” reasons the disease. “They felt sick, miserable, more like an indentured servant to booze than a voluntary participant. You never felt like that.”
The disease has a point. For me, drinking was “still fun.” Sure, the last night I drank wasn’t fun – in fact, it was miserable – but the night before was, by all accounts, exactly what I looked for in a night out. I felt free, thoughtless, likable. I easily forgot that the previous week at work had been miserable or that the very same day I’d broken up with my boyfriend. Drinking was still fun - at least, sort of.
In January, most twelve step attendees have a lot of exposure to Step One: "We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable.” Yesterday, for example, I chatted with a woman who is currently going through alcohol detox. When I tried to relate, I felt like an imposter. In comparison to her disease, mine went quietly. Later that day, I sat in a first step meeting, listening to a litany of dramatic drunkalogues and arduous attempts at recovery. My alcoholic brain took inventory of the differences. You never did that.
A few days earlier, my girlfriend asked me what would happen if I started drinking again. That shut my alcoholic mind right up.
For one, I knew, my girlfriend would immediately become less important to me. Our relationship would take a backseat to alcohol.
I would also begin avoiding my family.
I would find friends who weren’t friends, but with whom I could drink comfortably.
And most important: I would feel guilty all the time. I’d have that constant nagging feeling that I wanted more, that I was capable of more. I would know that my thoughts went farther, my emotions ran deeper, that my impulses and desires were being abridged, disregarded, forgotten in real time. I didn’t have to black out or even get drunk to forget what I wanted; rather, with one drink – hell, even with the promise of a drink – my every impulse felt less urgent. More, farther, and deeper could wait until tomorrow.
The time between drinks would quickly cease to be fun - but drinking still might be.
When I compare myself to those who quit in later stages of alcoholism, my alcoholic mind senses an opening. Maybe you’re not that bad.
Answering my girlfriend’s question – "what would happen if you drank?" – is the antidote. It was that bad. It is. Her question was exactly the exercise in Step One that I needed.
What makes me an alcoholic is not whether I now have the urge to drink, whether I experienced withdrawals, how often I drank, or how long it has been since my last drink. Rather, what makes me an alcoholic is what would happen if I did drink – how quickly the life I’ve built would dissolve. My sober life is one replete with love, with growth, and with enough self-respect to carry me through each day. And when I drink, that disappears.
Today, that is enough. Today, that's how I know I’m alcoholic.