In Search of Lost Time.
In a continuing series on questions solicited over on twitter, I was asked by @katiesci how long it took, after I realized I had a problem until I did something, until I found recovery. I think it’s an important question. Maybe if we knew more about what makes a person seek sobriety, we would know more about how to help more people achieve sobriety. Maybe we could find a way to compress the duration of active, full-blown alcohol dependence and usher more people from dependence to recovery.
Sadly, I think there are a lot of problems there in that paragraph. The very idea of “helping the actively alcohol dependent” is in some ways deeply flawed. Alcoholics are expert at finding ways to turn any kind of aid into a way of sustaining their drinking. The entire concept of medical care for the treatment of alcoholism is, in my own opinion, deeply flawed and badly enacted. Certainly, there is critical need for medical care for alcoholics, don’t get me wrong. But I think we do it very, very badly, and in a way that often prolongs dependence.
My opinion is that the role for medical care for the alcoholic is during the acute phase of very early sobriety. The time when we are at risk for seizure, hallucination, and other types of rapid decompensation. What many of us call “detox”. It’s a little longer than just the detox process, of course. For the first couple of months we are bewildered, disoriented, depressed, and sometimes suicidal. Engagement with medical professionals can address all of these issues.
And I’m not a physician, and alcoholics should not avoid seeing physicians. However, it is my opinion, and it is not an uncommon one among my cohort, that attempting to rely upon physicians or other health professionals to help us achieve sobriety is a fool’s game at best. We will rapidly offload our responsibility to the health care professionals. Then, when we drink again, we have a place to lay the blame: “The doctors failed me!”. Any attempt to treat alcoholism that is not initiated by the alcoholic is very likely to fail. We have to want it.
It took me a long time to want it. And a short time. I began drinking seriously when I was about 21. I found recovery when I was 33. Of course, while I was doing all that drinking, I also got a doctorate from a fairly prestigious university, in systems engineering. So I wasn’t entirely non-functional during the beginning of that. But the years from 2001 to the beginning of 2008 were pretty gruesome. There were all kinds of hints and suggestions that I was on an unsustainable path. Friends like Lawnboy telling me I needed to limit my drinking at his wedding (I didn’t). Like Chicago Joe telling me that I wasn’t invited back to the party in the New Mexico desert. The one where everyone was so drunk it’s amazing no one died; I stood out as a problem drinker.
The truth is, I knew very early on I was an alcoholic. Another friend in grad school, who had introduced me to pot as well (which I gave plenty of opportunities to, but never particularly enjoyed), often just outright said that he was an alcoholic. “I’m an alcoholic, and I drink,” were his exact words. It made sense to me. I felt the same way. I didn’t say it out loud. When people would ask me if I had a problem I would assess their tone. If they seemed like they were joking around, I’d say I was a professional, or something like that. If not, I’d say in serious tones that I enjoyed drinking, but that I had no trouble fulfilling my obligations.
For a long time, probably up until around 2006, I believed that I could be what my then-fiancée called a “functional alcoholic”, which she believed I was, though never quite saying it directly at me. I thought that I could manage my life and be successful while drinking an enormous amount of hard liquor in secret, and reasonable amounts of wine and beer in public. The fact that a beautiful young woman wanted to marry me and let me help her raise a young man helped me believe that I couldn’t be that bad.
I was of course. There’s no point in looking away from how I was as an alcoholic, active in my drinking. I wanted so much to be left alone. I locked myself in the bathroom and drank for hours. I knew how badly I was ruining things. I knew I couldn’t keep living how I was living. But I didn’t know how to stop. I didn’t want to stop. I don’t have any way of conveying the power of the need for a drink to people who don’t need a drink. I was the rag doll in the mouth of the dog.
It was in January of 2008, on a Wednesday, when I finally went to my wife and admitted to her how much I drank. All I could say was: “It’s every day.” It was probably the first purely honest thing I’d said in half a decade. And I’ve never recovered from the wreck of agony I saw in her in that moment.
It took about a month from then before I actually stopped drinking. I talked to my marriage counselor, who told me not to stop until I was under the care of a physician. I went to a rehab for six weeks, where physicians and psychologists cared for me. It was necessary and appropriate. Medical care was crucial, in those early stages, for me. For suicide drunks like I was, drinking about a 750 ml of 80 proof liquor a day, the detoxification process can be fatal if not overseen by medical professionals.
What made me seek treatment? Seek sobriety? Pain. The knowledge that I was going to lose everything I had worked for; everyone I loved. Exhaustion. The sense of being totally unable to contemplate another goddamned day dragging myself from bed, trying to remember what I’d said the night before, lying, bargaining, blaming, and eventually finding an excuse or an opportunity to do it again. Shame. That I was failing all of the people who I cared about. Fear. That I would die in my sleep, a vast drunk carcass.
I wish I knew how to help alcoholics seek recovery prior to getting to where I found myself. But I don’t think there is any way. The only thing that I know, and that I’ve ever heard, that treats active alcoholism is pain. For me, it was about three years of fun, five years of knowledge but denial, and four years of exhausting, grim hell.
Several years prior to getting sober, I visited my sister’s in-laws in Oaxaca. My drinking affected that trip very negatively. I don’t need to rehash all the war stories here now. But I remember walking in downtown Oaxaca and seeing a brilliantly colored building with the words “Alcohólicos Anónimos” painted on the side in large block-square and confident white letters. Somehow, the inherent contradiction of plastering the word “anonymous” on a bright building didn’t land with me at the time. I remember thinking: “I’m going to be there one day.”
It took a long time still. But I’m there now. And I’m so grateful. I’m grateful that all that pain can be put to use. Because experience is an incredible tool. I’ve seen how others have been able to benefit from my past. And I’m overwhelmed with the amazing new life I have now. I run in a vast green demesne.