Soooo my last post about alcoholics anonymous created a bit of controversy, which was not altogether unexpected. A lot of people are very passionate about AA. What did surprise me, however, was that it raised an old question within my mind that I had previously struggled with for a long time: “Am I really an alcoholic? If all these people are so convinced that you need AA to get sober, but I didn’t need AA, then maybe it’s because they’re ‘true’ alcoholics and I’m not?”.
This kind of thinking is dangerous for me. It inevitably leads me down a path where I start making excuses and start justifying my drinking. Excuses include: that I never drank everyday, I tried to have one or two days off most weeks (it was a struggle, and many weeks I didn’t succeed), I still went to the gym, I still had a good job, I still had a loving family. Despite all that, however, I’m pretty sure my drinking was not normal.
I’m pretty sure
I’m pretty sure that most people’s husbands don’t end up having to drive home on their own birthday when you were the designated driver, and pull over half way for you to vomit by the side of the road. I’m pretty sure that most people don’t have regular blackouts and spend every weekend with crippling anxiety about what they said to whom and whether they did anything stupid. I’m pretty sure most people don’t start drinking more and more alone at home (well my husband was there, but usually asleep and never drinking with me) and less and less when out with other people, so that if I did do something stupid no-one was there to remember it. I’m pretty sure most people don’t become so obsessed with alcohol when they stop drinking that every time they drive past a liquor store, or a restaurant/cafe in which people are drinking, they feel like the whole street goes dark so that all they can see is the alcohol and it’s like nothing else on the street exists.
And around and around I go, on the same thought loop I have been on many times before. Sometimes this has ended with me drinking again, later realising that I definitely do have a problem and stopping again. More recently it tends to end with me skipping the drinking bit, realising that I definitely do have a problem, and just not picking up.
A Problem and a Solution?
I have a problem with alcohol. Whether you want to label it as being an ‘alcoholic’ or not, I have known for a long, long time that I don’t drink normally. I was also constantly reminded of this by my husband. Oh how frustrating I used to find it that he would refuse to get wasted with me on a Tuesday night! In sobriety of course I thank my lucky stars that he’s not a big drinker. In fact since I have stopped drinking he also barely drinks at all, and never at home. I really don’t think I would have been able to stop by myself if he was drinking in front of me all the time.
My life has also changed dramatically since I stopped drinking: I have achieved many work goals, I do SO much more with my family now, and I have hit many personal bests in terms of fitness and strength at the gym. I actually deal with my problems in a mature manner (well more mature than before at least!) instead of just drinking and ignoring them. Now when I have a problem I write a list of what I can control, and a list of what I can’t control about the situation, then make a concerted effort to ‘let go’ of what I can’t control. I then try and work out a productive way of dealing with what I can control. If I have a talk to prepare for example, I stop procrastinating because of what people are going to think of me etc (I can’t control that anyway) and work on the talk itself – that bit I can control. As a result, when I give the talk I am calmer, more practised, more comfortable, and less anxious. What a revelation! Everything I was looking for in the bottom of the bottle happened when I put the bottle down! So I guess what I’m saying is, would my life really have changed so much if I didn’t have a problem with alcohol in the first place?
A Continuum of Alcohol Use Disorder (*mildly sciencey bit*)
So what I have decided is that ruminating over and over about whether or not I am a ‘real alcoholic’ and comparing myself to others is counterproductive. If I just compare myself drinking to myself sober (small sample size so not very scientific I know) then I can see that pretty much every aspect of my life – relationships, work, happiness, motivation, fitness, health – is better when I am sober. With regards to science, one thing that helps me understand myself in this area is the knowledge that most scientists don’t see the line between ‘normal’ and ‘problem’ drinkers as a hard line anymore. Rather, there is a continuum of ‘alcohol use disorder’ (AUD), and you can place ‘mild’ ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’ on the continuum according to the most recent edition of the DSM-V: the diagnostic manual used by psychologists and psychiatrists. When I take the DSM-V questionaire (page 2) and apply it to my drinking days, I answer yes to around 6 of the questions, putting me at the bottom of the ‘severe’ category. Alcoholism, even more so even than other types of drug addiction, is progressive. It certainly took me many years before my drinking become problematic, but the more I drank the more problematic it became. When I first became sober I watched a documentary called ‘rain in my heart’ about end-stage alcoholics in hospital dying of liver disease, and it occurred to me that if I didn’t stop drinking, this is where I was going to end up. Better to stop now I think.
*End mildly sciencey bit*
I think that’s about all the science I’m going to include in this post for today. Next week I will include more. However I also wanted to respond, particularly to some of the more passionate posts I received in response to my last blog about AA and say: I am just telling you what has and hasn’t worked for me. I am just presenting my opinion, as a neuroscientist, I am not presenting the opinion of the entire scientific community. If you attend AA and it works for you, please do not stop! I’m sure if I attended I would get a lot out of it. I wrote the last blog entry simply because I remember when I first got into recovery and I felt like AA was pushed onto me very hard. I know that others in recovery felt the same. Because of all the reasons I outlined in my last post however, I wasn’t sure that it was right for me, and the pushing just made me resist even more. The first time I heard someone’s story who got sober without AA was when I read “I swear I’ll make it up to you” by Mishka Shubaly and I actually cried a little bit from relief. It IS possible to get sober without AA. It IS possible to get sober without a higher power. Maybe it’s not possible for everyone, but I say each to their own! I would never tell someone else that there is a right or wrong way to get sober, or that there is only one way. There are many paths.
Lastly, to those who are questioning whether you are an alcoholic or not, I hear you, I get you. But if that question even enters your head, I would suggest that in all likelihood, you are probably at least on the continuum of AUD and would probably benefit from quitting drinking. I can tell you that my life has gotten a 100000000+ times better since I did.