An addict, like it or not

I didn’t want to be an addict. In fact, if I had known there were options, I most likely would have said “anything but.”

I grew up around it. My mom. All her friends. One of my sisters. Then my own friends. Then me. We all drank to get loaded.

My mom got nastier and nastier as she drank. Her friends were just sloppy. The house smelled of cigarettes and stale beer all the time. I hated the drinking that went on. I rarely slept through the nights and would go to school half awake. I swore I would never be like that.

By 13, I was drinking and using despite my vows to myself. I would just control it, I told my inner voice. I had never heard of the word powerless. I had no clue about the predisposition of the demons I was signing up to wrestle.

As the consequences of that lifestyle mounted, for me and others, as my life’s problems became overwhelming, I could see how my use of drugs and alcohol was almost as big an issue as the problems themselves.  Almost — but not quite. I still deeply believed that if I could just (fill in the blank), I would magically go back to drinking safely without blackouts, without police issues. I was stubborn, uniformed about the science of substance use.

So, by the time I finally realized that I was a garden variety drunk, I was not at all happy about it. It was a headshaking, frustrating process to get to a place where I would finally run out of “yeah buts …”

‘You’re an alcoholic.’

I heard it first in treatment the weeks before I was turning 20. Not the “oh man you are such a piss tank” chiding most of us military guys got from our base or shipmates. No. It was the tone from the counselor as he told us clients that it was time we owned up to what was going on in our lives.

Over the 28-day program I attended semi-voluntarily, I learned all about the mental, physical and supposed spiritual effects of being an alcoholic. I nodded in agreement at some of the info, but silently rejected most of it. My escape clause, of course, was my age. I was 19. My drinking, while admittedly excessive in volume and occasionally frequency as well, was just a phase. Every young man goes through it, I told myself.

I told myself then. At 19 years old. I was still telling myself that seven years later when, at age 26, I simply submitted a release request and walked away from a substantial military career. I didn’t get in trouble in the military every time I drank. But every time I got in trouble I had been drinking. Trouble in the military includes fines, confinement to ship, visits to prison cells, embarrassing explanations to senior officers, judges, wives, girlfriends.

Seven months after I became a civilian, the day after a botched suicide attempt, I could no longer tell myself my drinking was a phase. I was a mess. Everything that the treatment centre counselors had warned me about when I was a teenager regarding the progression of the disease of addiction – the blackouts, the dehydration, the hangovers, the lies, the poor decisions – all of it had happened and had been happening for years.

I knew I was alcoholic. I knew it was not a phase. It was not going to magically end, either. I had said too many times that I was done drinking. I knew I had to learn how to stop drinking. And stay stopped.

February 22, 1986. I attended my first meeting out of the military and I stopped alcohol. I went to weekly meetings and listened passively, but did little else. My life improved but I was bored. I went back to school.

Within a year or so, I decided that, though I could not drink alcohol, I was sure I could safely use hash oil and weed. Maybe powders. Pills with certain effects. That attitude turned into my seven-month experiment without liquid substances, which nailed home the hard lesson I needed about addiction.

Alcohol is a drug. Cannabis is a drug. I consume as much of both as I can when I am using. And other drugs – mescaline, cocaine, methamphetamine, pills of all sorts – I have no filter. I am one of those. An addict.

And I never wanted to be.

So today, I am well into my 32nd  year of continuous sobriety. It is true, I swear. I have not used mind-altering substances or consumed alcohol since that day when I realized I was what I was. I am abstinent.

I’m getting old, though I think young. At age 60, I have literally spent more than half my life in recovery. I’m not so cocky as to say I will never drink again. I have known too many who went back who I thought were bullet proof. But I know what I have done to maintain sobriety. To accomplish abstinence. I followed some advice, rejected others. My story is my story and may or may not act as a trail marker for others to follow out of the wilderness of addiction. I am who I am.

One thing I do believe. If you have decided that you too are an alcoholic, then you too are a drug addict. You will never be able to safely use alcohol or mood-altering substances. I believe this to be true based on a huge number of friends and family members who tried to find a way to handle their liquor or substances of choice. It just doesn’t happen, from my experience. It’s a problem for life.

To get sober, or clean if you prefer that term, and stay that way, it is paramount that you own up to your condition, find others who have the same condition, go further by finding the ones who are staying abstinent and relatively happy and productive in their sobriety, and do what they do. It’s actually pretty simple.

Everything else – what you do for a living, who you are in relationship with, what you do for hobbies, etc., well, that’s all part of the background noise. The thing that matters is first and foremost ask yourself two questions:

1) Am I an alcoholic/addict?

2) What am I doing about that condition?

Good luck.

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