Because you have the power to change your perspective.
Believing you don’t have a drinking problem is one of the defining features of having a drinking problem.
This always sounded scarily like Catch-22 to be useful to me. You know, Joseph Heller’s name for the idea that if a soldier is sane enough to declare himself insane in order to escape the danger of battle then he’s sane enough to stay and fight.
For months I was confused. What if I just thought I didn’t have a drinking problem because, you know, I didn’t have a drinking problem?
It’s a damned hard argument to make in the context of an AA meeting. Once you’ve walked through those doors a couple of times, something has been acknowledged.
But when you don’t go to AA meetings you end up drunk or wishing you were. And when you get drunk you regret it or don’t enjoy it.
Addiction is the only disease/condition/disorder that tells you that you don’t have it. It’s a habit. It lives inside your mind. With your memories and preferences. It lives inside your body. It has your voice.
It tells you that one won’t hurt. Because you’re not really an alcoholic. And maybe you’re not. But do you want to keep getting drunk and doing stupid, embarrassing shit all the time? And if not, then why can’t you stop?
This was another question that stumped me. If I didn’t have a proper issue, and I was sure I didn’t, then why TF couldn’t I stop drinking?
Around my eighteenth month sober, I did a writing residency on a tall ship in the Arctic. Away from my boyfriend and cat (aka my family) and my sober dweeb society, I found myself surrounded by alcohol and artists, some of whom were heavy drinkers, all of whom intimidated the hell out of me. The only warm place to relax was in a varnished wooden saloon straight out of my literary wet dreams.
I’d applied for the residency before I got sober, during a period in which I was obsessed by and desperate for total isolation. But in the interim between applying and going, my life had changed so much that I’d thought seriously about cancelling the trip.
But if I didn’t go, what did that mean? Was sobering up the end of adventure?
The date of my flight to Oslo crept closer, and I was no more enthusiastic about leaving the comfort of my wholesome, alcohol-free life. It had taken so long to get here! What if I died on the ship? But cancelling felt like admitting defeat. In spite of huge internal resistance, I decided to go.
Sober friends asked how I planned to take care of my recovery, and I told them not to worry. I’d brought a book on Buddhism and a candle. I was taking a face mask so I could practice self-care. I was going to ‘get into meditation’.
Within two days of leaving home, I was wracked with the desire to drink. Nobody knew me here, so I could get away with it. Plus I was surrounded by the sort of talented and confident people that scared the bejesus out of me.
Drink would help me loosen up and make friends. I felt stiff and shy, the way I had as a teenager. Locked, silent, inside my body. I longed for the relaxation of a string of daytime pints.
“What would happen if you drank?” one of the other residents asked me. It was halfway through the trip, and we were standing on the deck, looking out over lilac icy mountains. The sky was pink, a never-ending sunset, and the moon hung low in the sky.
I’d told her a bit of my story in a bid to connect and keep myself accountable, and her eyes were bright now with anticipation as I tried to think of a satisfactory answer.
“Oh, nothing really. You’d probably prefer me.” I laughed, sipping my licorice tea.
And it was true. I’d become louder and sillier, more sociable and mischievous. I’d keep loyally returning to the bar. I was a drinker’s dream, pretty much. Keep drinking with me, and I’ll forget how to leave the table.
“I can’t imagine quitting,” she said. “I like it too much.”
As she took another sip of her bottomless red wine I imagined swan-diving off the back of the ship. I liked it too much to quit too, FFS. How on Mary's earth was I going to get through life, this residency, this moment if I couldn’t drink?
That night, in my cabin, I reflected on her question. What would happen if I drank? What was I so scared of? My sober friends had taught me to play the tape forward as a defense against the lure of the first drink, but for me, I had to play it a little while before I met with consequences.
And what would happen? I’d get another drink. And another. And another. I’d make friends. I’d do something daring and silly. I’d show off and tell secrets. What else then? Truthfully?
I would become so involved in this temporary, fleeting period — so present on this ship — that nothing else would be real to me. There would be a man. An all-consuming crush fuelled by alcohol. Then I’d hate myself. And so I’d drink more.
I couldn’t be bothered to tell my bright-eyed, wine-totting friend all this the next time I saw her. Being sober in the midst of heavy drinkers feels like speaking a newly minted language. You have to work too hard to be understood.
How could I say, I have something more valuable now, without sounding like a smug little twerp?
The wonderful thing about addiction recovery in 2019 is that you get to decide when it’s the right time for you to stop. Nobody needs to understand your reasons but you. And everybody is there to support your decision.
If the way you use alcohol or heroin or haribos is problematic for you, then that’s a problem for you. Guess who’s going to do the work to solve it? That’s right, toots, you are!
And there genuinely is a solution. It’s a combination of admitting you need help, being willing to take suggestions and slowly rebuilding your entire belief system through a long series of emotional, spiritual and philosophical experiments. Does that sound like the party for you?
The fact is, do I really have a drinking problem is a daft question. Partly because it suggests a binary that doesn’t exist (we’re all on a spectrum, babes) and partly because no one can tell you anyway.
Gradually, for me, the debate has lost its power. As my life improves, it becomes more obvious that booze was holding me back. Drinking becomes irrelevant. I very rarely miss it today. There are so many other things to care about.
When I do miss it, I remind myself I’ve had my quota, I just blasted through it quick.
These days I understand that drinking (for me) is only a symptom of a deeper issue: an inability to connect with others or process trauma or accept the reality of who I truly am.
Consuming drinks is a delaying tactic I no longer have time for. Each time I do it I prevent myself from facing the actual problem.
“Happy people don’t tend to get drunk all the time,” my third therapist said to me.
“Don’t they?” I asked, genuinely curious.
For so much of my life, I associated drinking beer with good times, it never occurred to me that I was drinking to mask something. This is the nature of denial. It protects itself from your purer, loftier consciousness. It stops you from knowing things that you know.
‘Alcoholism’ is a spectrum, and there are many stages of harmfulness along the way to liver disease. Keep your alcohol-related questions simple: does booze stop you from living the way you want?
In the end, I chose the Catch-22 that made my life better.
As a wise woman once said to me, “I’d rather be sober and convincing myself that I’m an alcoholic than drunk and convincing myself I’m not.”
The truth is I have something more valuable now, and I’m doing whatever I can to keep it.
Read more from me at Medium.