Looking Up After Nearly 4 Years of Abstinence from Alcohol

In a moment of vulnerability, just a few years before she died, I said to my mother, “I’ve tried my whole life to please you.”

“No you haven’t,” she replied.

Having alcoholism has felt like having an unpleasable parent.

Last Saturday, I woke up well-rested. I wrote excitedly and with growing confidence that my new discovery of recently published research on the neuroscience of addiction might be the eureka cure for addiction. I mixed and kneaded dough for bread, worked out with my trainer, had a nap, baked bread, bathed with lavender-scented bubble bath, then headed to a church event to which I had been invited by a friend. I arrived early and checked in with the church ladies. The one seated nearest the fellowship hall waved her arm invitingly toward the entrance, smiled warmly at me, and said, “The bar is open!”

Anne's Place, Blacksburg, VA

I don’t have words for how I felt or what I thought. But I shifted quickly to, “I’ve got this. Surely after everything I’ve done and learned, I can be present for the people and enjoy what’s here.”

In not quite an hour, I was nearly running to my car. In spite of the nice event, the nice people, the nice friends who arrived and with whom I talked, in spite of me undergoing nearly every single known addiction treatment, I could do nothing to stop the abject, terrible longing to join in drinking the wine with the nice people.

I can only use one word to describe the feeling I have when alcohol is present: pain. Mental, emotional, physical, existential pain. The pain of feeling stalked, hunted, targeted. The pain of feeling under dire threat. The pain of feeling unprotected.

I have never once not gotten out of bed. But on Sunday, I went back several times. I looked up what it feels like to be tazed. I looked up Achilles heel and kryptonite. I read over and over what happened to Ulysses when he was tied to the mast and heard the sirens’ songs.

I have done everything I can to make longing to drink go away and to make distress and weakness in the presence of alcohol go away.

There is nothing more I can do.

I think, like most uninformed people, I believed fundamentally that addiction resulted from having gone bad or having done bad and that being good and doing good would make it go away. The symptoms of addiction show up as words and actions so it makes sense to target the feelings and thoughts that create those words and actions. I have undertaken complete moral, characterological, psychological, behavioral, educational, social, and relational transformations. I have scrutinized every single aspect of my feeling, thinking, behaving, and relating that is within my power to identify and confront and address. Every wrongness I could find, I have tried to right.

I have abstained from alcohol for 3 years and 10 months.

And, one more time, alcoholism pinned me like an insect to a display board and had its way with me.

I cannot make longing to drink go away. And I cannot make go away the result of that longing: writhing in the bindings of my own intent when I am in the presence of alcohol.

What is this thing that’s got me?

I’ve been asked how addiction is different from mental illnesses like depression or anxiety or from chronic physical illnesses. The difference is there is a one-to-one correspondence between a “flare-up” of this “chronic illness” and 1) harm to myself and others because I lose partial or complete control of my words and actions, 2) contempt from others, and 3) punishment. If I relapse, I will not be brought casseroles. I will be pitied or pilloried. And I may be incarcerated, whether in rehab or jail.

What’s to be done with what can’t be done?

The first thing I need to do is make conscious my unconscious beliefs about addiction. Experts are right, society is wrong. Addiction is a brain disorder. Good feelings, good thoughts, and good behaviors will not make it go away. I have exhausted myself doing things that do not make alcoholism go away.

The second thing to do is accept that I might relapse. Most people with substance use issues get better on their own. They age out, have spontaneous remission, or successfully practice harm reduction, i.e. they use in ways that allow them to function. I don’t currently fall into any of those categories. So the odds are good I will return to use. My entire life is lived as a relapse prevention plan. I need to follow up on creating a relapse response plan.

The third thing to do is accept that bouts like I had on Saturday are going to happen, no matter how well I think I’m doing. Wine happens everywhere in my town. Those bouts don’t happen often. But I need a near-relapse recovery plan for when they do.

I need to continue to play the odds in my favor. None of these treatments or practices directly affects addiction. But a lot of them help me feel good. I’m guessing, but can’t know, that the better I feel, the less likely I am to relapse. I felt great on Saturday and was nearly felled. So it’s not a guarantee. But for myself and for the people I work with, I think it’s the way to go.

I need to continue to try to find people who can help me when I’m around alcohol. I was talking with my counselor about my near-demise on Saturday and an image of a bodyguard came to me. If I could take a bodyguard with me to every drinking event, present solely to protect me from alcohol, I think I would be okay, or okayer. She, of course, wisely coached me to become my own bodyguard. I hear her! But I’m so tired. I so wish I could have a little help! But the help I need is so specific that it’s almost impossible to find. It just seems like everyone I know can’t be around alcohol or wants to drink it, too. I do hope some day to have a partner with whom I can have a “You and me! We’re going in!” team. I think if I felt less alone with all this, I’d be doing better. It’s a tough one, though.

And the most important thing for me to do is to enjoy non-alcoholism moments. For me, most moments of most days are alcoholism-free. Alcohol’s power to destroy moments terrorizes me. I never know when it’s going to hit or how bad it’s going to be. For those who don’t experience addiction this way, I am shaky with gratitude and relief for you. For myself and those who have shared with me having similar feelings, I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. Ever.

Still. Right here, right now, I’m sipping my last cup of tea from the pot, my plump elder cat is resting on the footstool, and I’m typing away in an office painted pink from ceiling to floor. I’m going to go work out with my trainer, have an egg and cheese on flatbread from Subway, take a nap, go from there. I’m not going to spend any time, at least today, attempting to please the unpleasable parent of figuring out what addiction is and what treats it.

My painter cleans gutters and when I first moved into this house two years ago, he suggested we wait until all the leaves fell before we did the task. We were out in the yard and I started looking on the grass at the first fallen leaves for clues and asked how we would know when that was. He looked at me with surprise and kindness.

“Look up,” he said.