On occasion, I have the opportunity to be in the presence of alcohol. I don’t make a habit of hanging out in dive bars or dope spots anymore, but I like to watch live music, I enjoy parties, and I embrace opportunities to have dinner or play board games with friends who partake. On these occasions, I watch. I can’t help myself. I notice little things. At this point in my recovery, I don’t resent the fact that they can drink and I can’t, and I don’t really gain any vicarious pleasure by being in the presence of alcohol. Instead, these situations are opportunities to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of my own addiction.
When I witness people engage with alcohol in a normal way, it gives me clarity around my own relationship with it. Understanding my unhealthy relationship to substances requires some sense of what a healthy relationship looks like, a reference point against which a distinction can be made. So I take advantage of these situations. There is useful information here.
What I’ve gathered from watching and occasionally asking them about their experience with alcohol is that at a certain point alcohol creates the feeling of being out of control, and this is the point at which their desire for alcohol ends. I find this endlessly interesting. On a basic level, I find this awareness around their response to alcohol baffling. They know when to throw that half a glass of wine down the drain, when to close their tab at the bar, when to screw the cap back on the whiskey bottle and put it in the cupboard. I never had this awareness. In the rare case that I had a mark, I always overshot. But what is more fascinating to me than the ability to determine how much is enough is that feeling alcohol gives them—that experience of being out of control.
My experience was the exact opposite. The more I drank, the more I felt in control. This may seem strange to a person who doesn’t struggle with addiction. Honestly, it is still a little bit confusing to me. From the outside, it was clear that alcohol and other substances resulted in an utter lack of control. I did outrageous and regretful things when I was loaded, and in a big-picture sense, I couldn’t keep myself from getting loaded even when I wanted to. Objectively, my addiction was entirely devoid of anything resembling control, but on the level of my subjectivity, the experience of drunkenness made me feel like I was conductor of my own life.
The first time I drank enough alcohol to feel the kind of control I am talking about, I was thirteen. Until this point in my life, I had felt like I imagine a cat feels after running onto a ten-lane highway at rush hour. All of the little pieces of my life were barreling past me, and all I could do was dart this way and that to avoid getting run down and annihilated. As far back as I can remember I lived my life frantically, always afraid, always vigilant, knowing I was one turn away from something terrible. And then I got my hands on a forty oz. bottle of Colt 45., put down a few shots of Popov vodka, and suddenly, just like that, I was no longer that frantic cat. I wasn’t even the driver of one of those cars. I was the fucking highway and everything passing over it. It’s difficult to explain this first experience with alcohol. All I can say is that it was my first no-bullshit, jaw unhinging, things will never be the same, spiritual experience.
If I had to boil it down, I’d say that first experience with intoxication was the first time in my life I’d felt like I was part of the universe. All of my life’s spinning parts came together and slowed down enough for me to stop ducking and dodging for a little while. My life finally felt like something I could live in, and it was a tremendously liberating experience. Looking at it objectively, nothing really changed in that moment, but alcohol, and a short while later, opiates, gave me the ability to control how I felt. Suddenly, what was happening externally was irrelevant because I had the ability to control the way I felt about it. This was the kind of control I gained in substances. Not the ability to control my life externally—the opposite was true—but the ability to change the way I experienced whatever was happening.
The thing about alcohol and opiates and other substances is that they really work for a person like me. I have yet to find a more powerful antidote to that deeply rooted feeling of being out of control. The problem, however, is that as I sought relief in substances, my life became more chaotic and out of control externally, creating a greater need for relief, which droves me back to substances…and here the cycle perpetuates itself. Cycle through enough times, and the very thing that allowed me to feel as if things were controllable suddenly becomes the thing that is creating the need for control, and this, my friends, is a real quagmire of a situation to find oneself in. On the bright side, however, this is the dilemma that launches many of us into recovery.
I think a lot of us assume that our real issue is with substances. We think if we could just put the substances down, the rest of our lives will just fall into place. Based on my own experience, I can say that putting the drugs and alcohol to the side is an excellent start. But if we think of our addiction like a math equation, eliminating one part of the calculation does not eliminate the entire problem. It simply changes the solution. What I was left with when I subtracted the substances was my external reality, and the tool I have to reconcile and make sense that reality, my brain. No more filters. No more antidotes. Just my life and my perception of it. And this is where the real problem lies. Suddenly, I am that cat on the highway again. In a strange way, the substances were one solution to my problem, but they were a short-term solution that ended up creating more problems in the long run. The real problem, at least in my experience, is that I have been unable to confront reality, see it clearly, feel my way into it, and accept that there is so much I have no control over.
What I lost in giving up substances was my ability to assume control over the way I feel, but what I gained is the ability to be more human, to experience a range of emotions, to be vulnerable, to respond to life in ways that force me to grow. And here, I think lies the different between myself the friends I mentioned earlier. I suppose it’s possible that they don’t feel out of control to begin with, and therefore have no need to exert it, but knowing their stories, I am willing to bet this isn’t true. Maybe they have other ways of exerting control over their experience of the world; I am sure some of them do. But I think the real difference is that they are more willing than I am to accept and embrace reality, and feel what they need to feel about it. I think this comes more naturally to some than others. As someone who struggles in this area, it has been a long hard road trying to figure out how to embrace my lack of control. But when I can accept the fact that I control almost nothing in this world, including the way I feel at any given moment, I can begin working on those things that are in my control. When I can take this position toward life, I find myself able move with the universe without having to force it.