When is Addiction Over?
Phillip Seymour Hoffman had been sober for 23 years prior to his relapse. Twenty. Three. Years. A friend commented to me last night, “You’d think after twenty-three years you’d be good.” Meaning, after such time in sobriety, one ought to be “out of the woods”, so to speak. Relapse should be off the table. Lessons learned. I’ve had friends ask, “Since you’ve been sober for so long now, don’t you think you could go back to drinking just a little, now and then?”
No. Vigilance against exactly such thoughts is the only way to stay alive. Hoffman’s story – decades of sobriety derailed by painkillers – is depressingly commonplace. I’ve had several acquaintances relapse and die under exactly the same circumstances. Sometimes it’s because they were opiate abusers and the painkillers prescribed legitimately fuel the relapse. Sometimes it’s because they were alcoholics and thought themselves immune from abuse of pills (this is my own fear). Sometimes it’s because in the fog of appropriate anesthesia their defenses against alcohol were degraded to the point that drinking seemed like a good idea.
In many ways, the mechanism of the relapse doesn’t matter. The destination does. We end up in morgues a lot. If we’re lucky, we just have to start over from scratch with our sobriety. If we’re unlucky, we endure another long slow dredge of addiction leading to isolation, depression, misery, impecunity, and grim morbidities. In some ways, Hoffman may have been fortunate to end as he did, rather than in slow decline.
When is addiction over? Never. Not for me. There are people who call themselves “ex-addicts”. They’re welcome to that label. I hope it works for them. I have no interest in adopting it. I am an alcoholic. I believe I was born an alcoholic. I shall certainly die an alcoholic. Hopefully, not for a long time, and without having had a drink between now and then.
My addiction is never over because I have no interest in learning to drink like normal people drink. Your glass of wine with dinner, your cocktail at a party, that is of nearly no interest to me. My desire is to drink by the gallon, until I cannot stand or see, until I vomit – perhaps intentionally – and then continue. That’s what I want. That’s what I would be doing right now if I could do so and not have negative consequences in my life for it.
Physicians keep prescribing opiates to addicts. And it keeps killing us. And I don’t know the answer. I know that I will suffer pain rather than take pain medication that alters my perceptions. I do not dare risk opiates, narcotics. Not if there is any alternative whatsoever. I cannot risk it.
I am fond of using the metaphor of remission for my disease. I am an alcoholic in remission. I do not exhibit the symptoms of alcoholism. I do not drink. I do not store resentments in my heart and mind. I do not take other mind-altering substances. My partner has never seen me drink. My colleagues have never seen me hung-over.
But remission is not really the right word. Not as I understand it (which I confess is poorly). By comparison to cancer, when someone is in remission, they are cancer-free. They have a survival profile similar to (if not quite the same as) persons who never had cancer. Any new cancer may be entirely unrelated to the first one. I am not free of my original disease. I never have been.
I still have my alcoholism. It is within me and will never, ever, recede. And the remarkable thing that I have come to understand is that I have a kind of wonderful symbiosis with this malignant thing inside me. Because of my disease, I have learned a way to live that is enthralling and exciting. I’ve learned to communicate and interact. I’ve learned to share. To let go of resentment and hatred and disappointment. To take life as it is and myself as I am. To give freely of what I have to offer and to accept gratefully the things I’ve been given.
My alcoholism tries relentlessly to kill me. And unless you’re like me, you probably can’t imagine just how grateful I am that it does.