When I first quit drinking, I thought everyone else should too.
Seriously: when I looked at others’ drinking, all I could see were the problems. How it looked like mine. And if I’d hit bottom - if I’d qualified as an alcoholic while still physically, if not psychically, intact - surely others should be finished too.
Likewise, in the peak of my disordered eating, I thought that anyone who skipped a meal did it on purpose. I thought that anyone who ordered a salad secretly wanted the burger. I thought that a “runner’s high” was nothing more than relief at having burned so many calories. I was wrong.
Sick people aren't the best judges of sick people.
Early sobriety was a rough and raw time, and I was eager to shift the attention to others' drinking. Anyone who questioned whether I was really an alcoholic had "issues" themselves. Anyone who seemed even minorly disappointed that I wouldn't join them for a drink needed serious help. Anyone who joked about paying too much for an Uber while drunk, who passed out over their late-night take out or giggled over their late-morning walk of shame, wasn't just having fun - they were, I thought, in the worst kind of denial. I’m sober. You should be sober, too.
There's a lot of ego in this disease.
It’s been 3 ½ years, and every year I know fewer alcoholics. Every year, I’m less convinced that I know anything at all about others' drinking.
The other day, a friend described for me the prevalence of high-functioning alcoholism in his home country of Scotland. He said they don’t use the label “alcoholic." Someone who spends most of the day at the bar “likes a drink.” Someone who becomes a crazy person under the influence of alcohol “can’t hold their drink.” And that's it.
I find these phrases hilariously euphemistic, and yet oddly humble. At best, all I really know about a person who drinks a lot is that they "like a drink."
But wait: some people are clearly alcoholic - right? Some people clearly need help. Isn't it dumb and even dangerous to ignore the writing on the wall?
If the question is whether alcoholism is dangerous, the answer is a fervent yes. If the question is whether it helps to identify it, the answer is: maybe?
In clinical health science research, we spend a lot of time pondering “warning signs." We pump up our manuscripts by insisting that "early identification" is vitally important. If we can describe the profile of adolescent depression, we can intervene early.
In that example, I mostly buy the argument. In the context of identifying alcoholism "early," I'm ambivalent. Do I ever really know a person's insides based on their outsides? And even if I did - even if I successfully identified the "warning signs" - how could I intervene? Even the experts, people whose full-time job is treating alcoholism, don't really know how to do it. Readmission rates for treatment are sky-high.
When I came home from my freshman year of college, I raved to my dad over dinner about the miracle of booze. I framed the miracle in pop-psychology terms: I’m normally so high-strung, dad. I think it’s healthy for me to let my guard down a little!
He must have known that “intervention” wasn’t really an option. He grimaced, and simply said: “Be careful with alcohol.”
Exactly. That’s all there is to say.
Even those with an honest desire to intervene don't have a fully equipped tool belt.
And my motivations weren't so honest. Not really. In the beginning, I felt threatened by other peoples' drinking. If her drinking is worse than mine, shouldn’t she quit too? If he quit on his own terms, am I just weak for needing a special program to do it?
I wanted reassurance. I wanted to know that I wasn't weak. I wanted to know that I was doing the right thing, and as a human - as a fundamentally social creature - I was looking to others for confirmation. It's understandable, and when it comes to drinking it's also a waste of time.
If I could go back and tell myself one thing in early sobriety, it would be this: Believe your own résumé. Four years of increasingly disappointing drinking experience is reason enough to quit. Four years of increasingly acute psychic pain is plenty. Other peoples’ drinking doesn’t matter - never has, never will. Revel in the opportunity to think only of yourself. Right here, right now, you are your only job.