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The Alcoholic Impulse.

9 October 2012

So, I haven’t had a drink in 1,697 days. A bit more than four and a half years. Most days, alcohol is barely a thought other than the gratitude I feel to no longer be dependant on it. That gratitude is – as you’ll know if you read this regularly – enormous and in many ways life-defining. A huge part of my existence is centered around not drinking. I attend meetings regularly with other people who don’t drink. I write about not drinking. I read about not drinking. I help others to not drink, if they want help. It’s a core part of my self, at this point.

I’ve had limited success with that “helping others” part, at least from my own myopic perspective. I’ve had two sponsees. Both are drinking today. The first was a problem drinker and depressed and lonely and unemployed and didn’t know where to turn. He had a friend in the program. So he came to AA. He worked with me through the fifth step. Then he stopped calling. Later he got a job, moved to Italy, and the last I heard (Christmas time about 19 months ago) he was actually doing rather well, and moderating his drinking, or so he claimed. I haven’t heard from him since.

The other was a desperate mess. I presume he still is. He never got past step one. He came to meetings, a few times. But he simply obsessed over his ex-girlfriend. He drank constantly and smoked crack cocaine. He actually told me that he believed he would be able to drink normally if she would take him back. I asked if he’d drunk normally when he’d had her. Of course he hadn’t. He abandoned her and went on drunken, coke-fueled benders with his low-life friends. But this time would be different. He stopped calling. He’s alive, and working. But I have no reason to believe he’s happy. I will always carefully treasure the gift he gave me, which was perspective on the obliviousness of the active addict. His statement: “I am not even thinking about alcohol. I’m only thinking about [her]. So why shouldn’t I go get drunk?”

However, I have had the privilege of witnessing and being there with and for a large number of people as they negotiate the early stages of the program, and several of them are sober today. One dear friend who is almost six months sober is a point of particular joy. The amazing progress from alcoholic insanity to productive and happy through turmoil and trial is wonderful to watch. It’s inspiring. In many ways I’m jealous: the magic astonishment of early sobriety is past for me. Though, I do continue to discover new rewards.

But I have long been told, and continued to experience, that the old alcoholic impulses never truly fall away. This weekend I spent time with my “adopted” family in Indiana. As is common in family get-togethers, people drank a bit. There was one moment when someone asked me to hand a beer to someone else, a beer already open, and the impulse to take a swig as it passed was sudden and powerful. It lasted only a tenth of a second, and was not remotely compelling. But it was there. I’ve had that impulse many times.

There is only one defense against that impulse. Regular and careful maintenance of my sobriety. If I skip too many meetings, if I don’t keep up with my sponsor, if I don’t keep communicating with other drunks, if I don’t continuously apply the principles of sobriety to my life, then the day will come when I choose not to resist that impulse. Right now, resisting that is easy. There is an instant of longing. A flash of memory. A salivary response. And then almost as fast my mind flashes forward to what happens if I drink. Shame. Misery. Death. By the time I’d even consciously processed that there was an urge, the drink was out of my hand and in its recipient’s.

Vigilance is part of the recovered alcoholic’s world. Because while I have recovered from my state of hopeless inebriation and alcoholic insanity, I have in no way recovered from my status as an addict. When I put alcohol in my body, in any amount, I change. And for all of science’s new understanding of addiction and how my brain is different from normal people’s brains, there will never be a more meaningful definition of alcoholism for me than the one put forth some 80 years ago by Dr. Silkworth: it is an allergy of the body, and an obsession of the mind. Now, of course, “allergy” is not scientifically correct, we now know. But the fundamental point stands.

Alcoholism is a permanent condition consisting of two fundamental aspects, in the practical world of the alcoholic: we are affected differently by alcohol than normal people; when we are active in our addiction, we obsess about alcohol. That is the condition to which I can immediately return, if I choose. I am deeply and consistently grateful that today, I have the choice not to.

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