Every blue moon, my dad had a beer in the refrigerator to enjoy after spending a hot and humid New Orleans summer afternoon doing yard work. The only other alcohol in our home as I grew up was a bottle of Old Granddad whiskey that sat on the top shelf of a kitchen cabinet. It was about a third full and never changed during the first fourteen years of my life. My parents either gave it away or tossed it when we moved to Miami in 1965. At least, I don’t remember seeing it again.
So, the surreptitious nips of alcohol my friends and I took came from their parents’ liquor cabinets, not mine. When we snuck those sips, I never failed to wonder why the adults drank that stuff. It tasted terrible and burned my tongue. That changed when I was nineteen and at a party where somebody had sloe gin. I tried some, and the sweet, grape flavor was tolerable, so I managed to actually swallow some of it. Within minute, I felt it and wanted more. The stuff was magical. It cured my terminal acne, taught me to dance, and loosened my mouth so I could talk to girls, and all that happened in one night.
I drank the whole pint, then went looking for more and that pattern of drinking never changed. For the first ten years, I drank at parties and happy hours, but unlike most of my friends, I never, ever just had one or two. Once I started, I didn’t stop. Daily drinking started ten years later when I was twenty-eight. It ended twenty-four years later. And from the beginning to the end, it got worser, and worser, and worser.
All that ended August 30, 2002, and since then it gotten better, and better, and better.
That’s not to say bad things haven’t happened since I got sober. Not at all. I was diagnosed with coronary artery disease and an electrical malfunction of my heart called long q-t syndrome, set out to grill chicken and grilled my house instead, had family members struggle through their own issues, dealt with my mother’s illness and death, and more. But, because of the things I’ve learned since my last drink, those bad events do not define me. I deal with them, move on, and am loving life.
And I don’t miss stuff like jumping in fear when I see a police car following me, or waking up in the morning and grabbing my head after remembering what I’d done the night before.
For more than a decade, I’ve spent tons of time with other alcoholics who were in early recovery or still deciding whether or not they had a problem and needed to quit drinking. These questions and answers come from that experience.
Questions & Answers
►What qualifies you to answer my question?
Excellent question. While I have a masters degree in psychology and a doctorate in counseling, my primary qualification is I've been a recovering alcoholic since August, 2002. I'm sharing the knowledge I've gained from my experience in recovering hoping it might provide motivation for you to get better, too.
►I don’t know if I’m an alcoholic or not. How can you tell?
Just asking the question is a pretty good clue. When normal people think they might be drinking too much alcohol, they quit drinking alcohol. It’s like when I was seven and got access to a boatload of red licorice. After eating the whole wad, I had a toilet-hugging pukefest that rivaled any morning after with liquor. That was over a half-century ago and I haven’t touched a string of red licorice since. I had no problem putting it aside after it made me sick, and I’ve had no problem telling people I’m averse to the stuff. That’s how normal people treat alcohol. If it’s a problem, they don’t drink it.
Alcoholics don’t want to admit the problem because they’re addicted to alcohol in the mind, body, and spirit. Alcoholics don’t want to give it up, so they resist and deny, even though in their hearts, they know the truth.
Now, if you want to take some kind of test, the odds are high you’re an alcoholic if any of these things are true:
- You said you weren't going to drink last night, but you did anyway.
- You said you were going to have a beer or two and before you knew it, you had six.
- Once again, you woke up this morning feeling deep regret for something you did or said last night after you started drinking alcohol.
- You woke up in this morning and had to go look for your car.
- Try as you might, there's a large part of last night that you just can't remember.
- You woke up in jail after being charged with a DUI. This may be the first one you've gotten, but you know it wasn't the first time you've been driving drunk.
- And so on.
All those things are harbingers of alcoholism. Admitting to yourself that you have a problem is the first step toward doing something about it.
If you’re still unconvinced, here’s a simple test: Don't drink alcohol for a few months. If you can do that with no problem, and be happy doing it, and not be counting down the days on clinched fingers until you can drink as you want to again, you're probably not an alcoholic.
Or, better yet, drink one standard drink a day. (Standard drink: 1.5 ounces of liquor, 12 ounces of beer, 2 to 5 ounces of wine.) If you can have one drink a day and be happy, you're probably okay.
If you’re an alcoholic like me, the second test will be pure hell. And, that’s literal. If I go to hell when I die, the devil will punish me for eternity by making me have one standard drink a day. Insufferable!
► Is alcoholism a disease?
I don’t know, and, really, I don’t care.
As a recovering alcoholic, all I have to know is that I didn’t make some kind of bizarre choice to spend twenty-four years in misery. To think being an alcoholic drinker is a choice defies all logic, and that notion can only be perpetuated by those who have zero understanding of what it’s like to be addicted to alcohol.
On any given day, we long-term alcoholic drinkers enjoy about ten seconds of euphoria after taking the day’s first swallow, then that’s followed by hours and hours of underlying despair as we keep drinking even though we don’t want to. No one is going to choose to continue doing something that is so painful. We’ve known that since B.F. Skinner observed his first pecking pigeon.
As far as I’m concerned, we alcoholics have no need to define our condition. We just need to know it’s not self-inflicted so we’ll start doing something about it instead of wasting time beating ourselves up.
Now, there’s no doubt alcoholism acts like a disease. Disease can be defined as being a condition that is progressive, chronic, and fatal. Alcoholism fits that definition. If you’re an alcoholic and keep drinking, your condition will inevitably worsen over time, so it’s progressive. Without some kind of intervention, either from others or yourself, you’ll likely continue to drink until you die, so it’s chronic. And, unchecked, alcoholism will kill you eventually, unless, of course, you die of something else first.
There’s also evidence that alcohol interacts with our midbrain’s pleasure center in the way it uses dopamine. When I read that theory, it makes sense to me. I’m no medical doctor or biology professor, so I’ll let you look that one up.
I call my affliction a disease in every day conversation because I’ve got to call it something. But, disease or not, I believe this to my core: I did not choose to be an alcoholic and my reaction to the substance is beyond my control without help of some kind. I suggest you leave this definitional quibbling to those who aren’t desperately trying to survive the disease, or whatever the heck you want to call it. For the alcoholic to get caught up in all that just provides an excuse to fail to do what it takes to get sober.
► I thought alcoholics were homeless, toothless, and smelled bad. I’m none of that. How can I be an alcoholic?
Holy smokes, get over that notion.
I used to camp out occasionally. That’s the closest I’ve come to your definition of what an alcoholic is and I am one. I’ve met a whole lot of alcoholics and at least half of the ones I know, if not more, are college-educated, employed professionals. Some lost their families and homes because of alcoholism, but most didn’t and continue to work and own homes. The other half of the alcoholics I know weren’t academic stars in school, but most showed up to work most of the time and used their talents and skills to build homes and offices, construct fine furniture, make music, or manage parking lots. I’ve heard many stories told by recovering alcoholics and it’s true some were homeless while drinking and many were on the verge of homelessness. More often than not, though, the alcoholics I know were undetectable as they went about their daily lives before recovery.
Make no mistake about this, though—all were miserable and hurting badly in some form or fashion.
But, yes, if you’re an alcoholic and wait too long to quit drinking, or go back to drinking after quitting, you may very well end up under the bridge, or, more likely, dead. I’ve seen both of those things happen far too often.
► What makes alcoholics different from normal people?
This is really, really simple.
If you’re an alcoholic, your response to the substance is different from non-alcoholics. As the folks in AA say, it’s similar to having an allergy. Most people have no problem eating peanuts. For some, even a tiny sliver of a peanut is deadly. Substitute “alcohol” for “peanut” and you understand our problem.
Now, before you run off in some raging fit, I’m using “allergy” as a metaphor. If you want to get better, start focusing on understanding concepts rather than searching for flaws in what I’m writing.
My wife is not an alcoholic. On occasion, she'll drink some wine. She enjoys it. It relaxes her. After finishing one normal glass of wine, she might pour another. About halfway through that one, she's had enough. She's ready to feel normal again. She seldom finishes the second glass.
There are two parts to the way I respond to alcohol. First, unlike my wife. I have to drink a whole lot of alcohol before I grow tired of it. Second, when I’ve had enough to drink to make me tired of the feeling, my body chemistry has changed so that I must continue to drink alcohol to avoid feeling awful, so I keep drinking even though I don’t want to.
And, once I have that first drink, I have absolutely no control over that process, just as an allergic person can’t control what happens after eating the peanut.
► Okay, maybe I am an alcoholic. That’s scary. I can't imagine life without alcohol. How can you stand it?
I know exactly how you feel. That's one of the things that kept me from seeking help with my drinking for years. I couldn't fathom facing entire evenings without drinking. How could I enjoy ball games? One of my biggest fears was thoughts of going to the beach without alcohol. How could I go to sleep without alcohol? How could I endure a middle school band concert without having a buzz to get me though it?
Here's the good news. Not only can I stand not drinking alcohol, it's glorious. It took a while after my last drink, but now I sleep better than I ever have. While alcohol puts you to sleep, it's crummy sleep. Now I sleep good sleep. Ball games are a whole lot more fun, and here's the good part: I remember them. Middle school band concerts are either fun or funny and both work.
Man, I thought life would be impossible. It's not and that's the testimony of all the recovering alcoholics I know, and there have been hundreds of them.
At this point, my obsession to drink alcohol, along with my belief I can’t live without it, has been turned on its head. Now, I have an obsession not todrink alcohol and I have no desire to experience life in any mental state other than my natural one.
On this one, you need to have faith that I’m telling the truth.
► You’re telling everybody you’re an alcoholic. You even call yourself a drunk. Aren’t you embarrassed?
Not at all. I have acne scars on my face. Should I be embarrassed? I have an inherited malfunction in my heart’s electrical system called Long Q T Syndrome. Should I be embarrassed? I didn’t choose to be an alcoholic. It has nothing to do with who I am at my core, the state of my will power, or sin. It’s just the way my body reacts to a substance. It’s not embarrassing at all. And, I did a whole lot more embarrassing things back when I was an active alcoholic. Compared to some of those things, people knowing I’m a recovering alcoholic is by far the easier road.
And, there’s a reason I don’t keep my alcoholism a secret. I never, ever, ever want to drink alcohol again. It was awful. Lots of people knowing my affliction creates accountability, and I’m less likely to drink alcohol again.
► You said alcoholism has nothing to do with your weak will. It seems to me that’s exactly the problem--alcoholics are weak willed.
Are there really people who still think this in the twenty-first century?
Unfortunately, there are still people who think like that, and I’ve decided no amount of talk will change their minds. They just don’t get it. But, if you're an alcoholic and want to quit drinking, your odds of success are about zero if you think you can "will" yourself out of alcoholism. Have you ever had a bad case of diarrhea? As you were running for the toilet, could you stop and "will" yourself to wait for a while? No? Does that mean you're "weak willed"? No, it doesn't.
And, let me tell you something—an awful lot of those people who aren’t alcoholics and think it’s a matter of will power are the same people who wake up in the morning full of regret about the pint of ice cream they ate at midnight. Everybody’s got something. The testimony of the vast majority of self-admitted alcoholics is that they could not abort their compulsion to drink by using will power. And, some of these people have been among the most powerful in the world in all other areas of their lives.
And this is my testimony: While I was drinking alcoholically, I raised a family, earned a doctorate from a highly rated program, wrote mysteries praised by major reviewers, taught myself website design, and on and on. That didn’t happen without a good bit of will power. But, I couldn’t stop drinking on my own.
Charging that alcoholics are weak willed is an activity done by the ignorant and the self-absorbed.
► Can’t I quit drinking on my own?
Lots of people decide alcohol is becoming a problem for them and quit. One oft cited statistic is that more people quit drinking alcohol on their own than those who enter treatment. I don’t doubt that. I would suggest, though, that those who quit on their own aren’t alcoholics as I define the term. But, I have no interest in arguing semantics. That’s an exercise in small thinking best left for the reader reviews found on Amazon.
My guess is if you’re reading this, you’re somebody like me and can’t quit without help. Otherwise, why are you here? I’m presuming you’ve tried and tried and self-help hasn’t worked. So, to answer your question, and not to generalize to the whole population, if you’re here because you’ve tried to quit and can’t, my answer is, “You need help.”
Early in my daily drinking career, I went to a couple of counselors because I was concerned about my drinking. At that time, it wasn't messing up my life much, but I was worried about the health consequences. One counselor told me I needed to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Then she said this, "I've only known one alcoholic who quit drinking on her own."
Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah, that's all I needed to hear. I knew that if it was possible for one person in the world to quit drinking on his or her own, I was that person. I left the office relieved. Twenty years later, I noticed that I hadn't gotten around to quitting on my own yet.
For years, I thought my problem was the second, third, fourth . . . thirtieth drink. While in the treatment center, I realized how wrong I was. My problem was the first drink. Once I had that one, I would not quit drinking until I’d had a lot more. That first drink flipped a switch over which I had zero control.
And, here’s the big deal–I've learned I cannot keep from taking that first drink by myself. I tried to do that for years. Even decades. I failed. Just couldn't do it. Sometimes I could put the first drink off. I might even go a day or two if I had to for some reason. One time I went six months. But, sooner rather than later, I would take that first drink no matter what promises or efforts I made. I had to get help from somebody to keep from taking that first drink. After all these years, I still do. Based on observing hundreds of alcoholics, I'm not alone.
But, if you refuse to believe me and trust the people who insist you can quit drinking on your own, fine—keep trying. But if you’re lucky like me and survive twenty-four years of trying without long-term success, you might want to give getting help a shot. Getting help is not nearly as big a deal to do that as you seem to think it is. In fact, it is a whole lot easier than going it alone.
► Do I have to go into treatment?
Not necessarily. I've known a lot of alcoholics who have quit without treatment. Most went to Alcoholics Anonymous. Some did it with the help of a counselor alone, though that's unusual. Most counselors send alcoholic clients to AA. Some received help from Smart Recovery®, Rational Recovery, Smart Recovery, S.O.S. and other programs.
But, you must hear this: Detoxing from alcohol can be dangerous. It can be fatal. I know from experience. If you read something else, close that book. The author is ignorant.
I detoxed by myself for two weeks before going into a treatment center. When I finally did go in, I still had signs indicating I was in danger of experiencing delirium tremens (DTs). About 30% of people who have DTs die. If nothing else, had I gone to receive medical help, the process would have been easier and quicker. I didn't until I was desperate because I was afraid of losing my job.
That was dumb.
So, going to treatment provides an opportunity for a safer and quicker withdrawal from alcohol. It also gives you a jump-start on recovery. If you begin to have physical reactions to not drinking beyond some nervousness and mild sleeplessness, go get medical help.
But, to reiterate, a good many of the recovering alcoholics I know who have been sober for many years did not go into a treatment center. But, nearly all of them found help somewhere. I know a few who did it totally on their own, but each of those few live miserable lives. They stopped drinking alcohol, but never learned to live a happy life without it.
► I don’t want to give up alcohol forever. Can’t I learn how to drink it like normal people?
In my experience, this is a question that nearly all alcoholics ask before they quit drinking, but quit worrying about that after a period of solid sobriety. But, if you want to give it a shot, try Moderation Management, a program claiming to teach alcoholics how to drink with moderation. That means no more than a drink or two a day.
Knowing how I react to alcohol after my first drink, that wouldn’t work for me. I’m just built to want to keep drinking the stuff. I can’t make myself grow another two inches or change my eye color, either. I’ve heard many alcoholics say, “I’d love to be able to drink like normal people. If I could do that, I could get drunk every day.”
That’s a joke. Do you get it?
The testimony of a million alcoholics is that they have to quit drinking forever. But, if you think of it that way, you’ll likely fail. Thus, we remember the well-known Alcoholics Anonymous statement, “One day at a time.” I don’t have to quit forever. I just won’t drink today. (Or, for the next hour.) I’ll worry about tomorrow when it gets here.
And, to reiterate, a common result of sobriety is that we don’t want to drink alcohol anymore. We have learned to enjoy life for its own sake and don’t want to create artificial feelings created by substances.
► Do you have recommendations for the program I should use to help me stop drinking and keep me sober?
No. The key to what works is what works. There are a number of different systems and programs to help you stop drinking alcohol. Do some research and pick one to try.
Now, use some common sense, here. Any whackdoodle out there can create a website, and anybody can say whatever they want in book reviews and on message forums. There are a whole lot of screwy people with screwy agendas out there. Investigate programs in person with an open mind. Look for verifiable success stories couched in terms of decades of sobriety.
Once you find one to try, give it some time and don’t make decisions based on isolated incidents you encounter. Any program that involves help from other alcoholics is likely to have participants who do inappropriate things. That’s true in any group activity, whether it’s a recovery group, school, or the church choir. Commit to several months of effort in varied settings.
But, listen up! This is a big deal: Whatever program you choose to help you stop drinking, you can't pick and choose what you will or won't do and expect to be successful. I see this all the time in reviews of alcohol cessation programs. People saying, “This didn’t work or me.” If you look close enough, it becomes clear the reviewer treated the program like a cafeteria plan – picking the stuff they like and leaving the rest.
If you fail to follow directions, and you keep drinking, don't blame the program. Look in the mirror for that.
► In your story, you said you were powerless over the first drink. It seems to me to be counterproductive to believe you have no power to change things.
I came to the realization that I was powerless over the first drink the second night I was in the treatment center before I’d heard anyone else say it. I soon learned that admitting powerlessness over alcohol is the first step of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Since then, I’ve also learned there are people who object mightily to that notion. In fact, in reviewing the literature, many seem to be downright angry about it, and seem to think that by admitting that bit of powerlessness, we set ourselves up to be weak-kneed hunks of whimpering Jell-O forever. That hasn’t been my experience.
Not at all.
When I gave up trying to keep from taking the first drink by myself after trying for more than twenty years, my main feeling was relief. Finally, I understood my primordial condition. That, in itself, made me feel more powerful than I had in years.
It’s called a paradox.
Since admitting my powerlessness over alcohol, I’ve become far more powerful in all other aspects in my life. Instead of being a guy sitting in the corner quaking in my boots because of a lack of power, I now have the ability to do all sorts of things that terrified me in the past. I do, though, need to recognize that I cannot control what other people think or do, and angsting about that is counterproductive and might lead me to drinking alcohol again. So, I don’t beat my head against a brick wall trying to change things I cannot. However, when I am dealing with things I can change, my admission of powerlessness over alcohol has allowed me to do what it takes to meet those challenges.
In short, by admitting my powerlessness over that one aspect in my life, I have become far more powerful in all the other things I do. In my experience, those who see admitting powerlessness over alcohol as a sign of weakness are shortsighted don’t understand the ultimate result.
► What am I risking if I keep drinking?
Oh, geez. So many awful things. But, let’s talk about early death.
Read the obituaries for a few days. See those guys who are dying in their fifties and sixties? Most have succumbed to lifestyle choices, whether it be excessive alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and/or sloth.
There’s a whole lot of other bad things that happen – like losing your family, career, possessions – but dying is the biggie. The average alcohol-dependent person dies at age 58. And, it can happen in a hurry. No symptoms, everything seems fine, then bad labs from a blood draw and, bang—you’re dying, then dead. That’s the way it works.
Man, I know what you’re thinking now – you’re envisioning your Uncle Joe who drank like the proverbial fish and smoked like the proverbial chimney and died at ninety-two. And, I’m guessing your retirement plan involves buying lottery tickets, too.
Alcoholic drinking is going to kill you early. Count on it despite your Uncle Joe who was one in a million.
And, if you’re twent-five and think fifty-eight sounds like an okay time to die, let me tell you from personal experience – you’ll change your mind on that.
Since my last drink, I've gotten to know a lot of alcoholics who stopped drinking for a while, then started again. A few managed to get sober again, but many of them died. There’s the 26-year-old attractive, college educated, successful businesswoman who left a party, went home (probably in a blackout), passed out on her couch, and drowned in her vomit. There’s a 32-year-old construction supervisor who started drinking again after years of sobriety. Brilliant guy. After getting drunk, he decided to drink liquid morpheme. That killed him. One special friend was a major administrator in a major university. He drank again, then drove up to the mountains and shot himself in the chest with a S&W .32 magnum pistol. He died in the helicopter trying to get him to a hospital. Just a few examples for now. I’ve got many more stories.
If you don’t die from an accident or by your own hand, you’ll die from one of the multitude of conditions heavy alcohol use create. And, you’ll be young when that happens.
That’s pretty much guaranteed, except for the one in a million lottery winners like your Uncle Joe.
► I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired? When will I start feeling better?
A few weeks after my last drink, I heard an alcoholic say, "When you've been walking into the woods for years, you won't walk back out in a day?" How true! Patience is critical. If you don't drink and you do the things you need to do to react to life differently, you'll get better and better. The first thing you'll notice is that you'll feel better physically. It takes a while to fully recover from the damage you've done to your organs and nervous symptom, but some things will get better right away. If you keep following the one day at a time axiom, the length of time won't matter. You'll come to appreciate how much better each day is, even if you're not yet where you want to be.