Am I an alcoholic? This was the first and most difficult question I had to answer in early sobriety.
My drugs of choice were wine and cocaine. I bought wine four cases at a time and cocaine by the ounce. Neither lasted more than three weeks. I guzzled the wine and I shot up the coke. If you take a needle and shove a drug into a vein, you’re a junkie, no way around it, and I knew that’s what I was. I was hooked and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t give up the needle.
But it wasn’t clear if I was an alcoholic. I knew that I needed rehab for my cocaine addiction. I just wasn’t sure if I was an alcoholic as well. My counselors and my buddies in rehab thought it was very important that I was sure. And they were all on my back about it constantly. On the way to an AA meeting, my friends Wally and Larry and I had a long conversation about just that.
“Are you a real alcoholic?” asked Wally.
“I don’t know, am I?” I asked.
“That’s a trick question,” said Larry, lighting a cigarette. “It’s not for me or anyone else to say whether you’re an alcoholic. Only you can.”
“Huh?” I asked. One of my more enlightened expressions in those days.
Larry went on, “Only you can decide if your drinking has gotten out of hand. That’s because you must believe deep in your heart that you can never drink again like a normal person, or you’ll never make the commitment it takes to get sober.”
“Hearing that you are a drunk from your wife, your boss, or the judge doesn’t help,” said Wally. “You have to say it for yourself and mean it.”
“The Big Book of AA suggests two questions you can ask yourself,” said Larry, trying to blow cigarette smoke out the car window. “You’re probably not an alcoholic if you can go to a bar, have two drinks, then quit for the night. Or if you can go for six months without a drink.”
“And not go crazy,” added Wally, opening his window to flush out the smoke.
Larry frowned and tossed his cigarette out the window. “When my drinking got really bad,” he said, “so did my life.”
“Negative consequences,” said Wally, nodding.
“Yeah,” Larry continued. “Boy! Two DUIs in one week. Got fired. Got taken to court for bouncing checks.” He sighed deeply. “And the next week, the wife and kids left. Ugh.”
Wally chimed in, “Every time I got high, I didn’t get into trouble, but every time I got into trouble, I was high.”
They were telling my story. Their words tasted bitter in the back of my throat and I wished I was somewhere else.
“Just because you hold down a job doesn’t mean you’re not one of us,” Wally went on. “Only a few of us end up living under a bridge. Over seventy percent of us lead relatively normal lives. We go to work, pay at least some of our bills, and maintain the semblance of a loving family life. We’re still functional, but our lives are usually pretty unmanageable. Just because you still have a job making good money doesn’t mean you’re not one of us.”
Wally was on a roll, “There’s no difference between the drunk on the street picked up by the deputy sheriff, and the judge who gets too drunk to drive and is taken home by the same deputy. The nurse who steals pain pills from her patients’ medicine drawer is no different than a junkie in the ER dying of a fentanyl overdose. A drunk is the same as an addict and the junkie is the same as the alcoholic. We all share the same disease and all will eventually find the same end: jails, institutions, or death. Unless we find recovery first.”
He went on, “What you used isn’t important: beer is the same as wine or bourbon. And it doesn’t matter if you only drink after work or on the weekends. It doesn’t even matter how much you drink. All that matters is whether you’ve crossed over that invisible line that leads to the disease of addiction.”
Suddenly I remembered that during the heyday of my using, I had large gaps in my memory. Whole nights of partying just disappeared. These gaps were frightening. People told me of the insane things I had done, but I remembered none of it. Then it hit me.
“Oh, my God!” I said out loud. All at once, I was cold and shaky, and I felt like I might throw up. I sucked air.
Larry and Wally both turned to stare at me.
“I…I...,” I mumbled, “I am an alcoholic.”
“What? Louder, please,” said Larry.
“I’m an alcoholic,” I said again, louder this time. “Blackouts. I’ve been having blackouts. O, God!”
“I guess now I get to tell you that only an alcoholic has blackouts,” said Wally.
“I’ve been having blackouts, for a long time,” I said. “I’m an alcoholic, there’s no doubt about it.”
Having said it out loud, I actually felt better. Both my friends were smiling at me.
This excerpt adapted from “A Spiritual Pathway to Recovery from Addiction, A Physician’s Journey of Discovery,” due out September 1st of this year. The website is https://www.spiritualpathwaytorecovery.com/