Addiction: The Three M’s of My Progression into Alcoholism
People don’t decide to become alcoholics. We slip into this insidious disease unwittingly. It seeps into our soul quietly, removing any sense of empathy, ambition and connection to community. It attacks and disables the very qualities that one needs to awaken and recover, so we fall — increasingly disconnected from reality — into a state of ego-fueled delusion. It isolates us and makes us feel enticingly like we are at the center of the universe. Over time, we become unmoored.
In many instances, we discover alcohol as a means of self-medication. In my case, I used alcohol instinctively as a way to manage general and social anxiety. I feared everything, but I didn’t know this about myself. And no one else knew it because I covered it up, so I was never guided to the proper care of a therapist. I just knew that drinking made me feel better — and who can argue with more of a good thing?
So, the beginning of my drinking presented as an exuberant and festive celebration, laughing with friends in an affirmation of life that was not only tolerated, but encouraged. Rounds of drinks that made us silly were like a rite of passage in the fields of media and advertising. This was the phase I call “Magic.”
A few years later, the era of Magic evolved into a new phase, one that I call “Medicine.” My drinking began to feel like a well-earned reward at the end of a hard day, and they were always hard days. Life, with all of its obligations and responsibilities, had begun to feel quite tedious. A gin or vodka martini became the staple because of its effectiveness at blurring out the uncomfortable, undesirable feelings and fears that so plagued me. I thought about having a drink all the time. I began leaving work at mid-day to drink and over the years, became increasingly unable to return.
Alcohol changes the brain over time. It erodes morality and leaves us relying on our limbic system, the oldest part of the brain that drives mood and feelings, so we begin acting exclusively on our instincts. We lose the ability to reason things through, or to connect consequences to our actions. Also, a mind saturated with toxins often yields bad decisions, which lead to consequences — so my life became filled with unnecessary strife and conflict.
By the last few years of my drinking, I was struggling with a level of darkness that was beyond anything I could have possibly imagined. Preferring isolation, I had pushed everyone away and was suffering alone, in silence. The bouts of pure despair that descended and washed completely over and through me were untenable.
Deep mental anguish is difficult to describe, but perhaps the best way to illustrate it is to say that it was an existential crisis. I felt that I stood on edge of a great precipice, staring into a void. I was living a life so small, so despondent and painful that it was difficult to begin another day. The depression made every minute feel intolerable. Time passed slowly but my brain raced and darted in every direction, leading me into all sorts of destructive and disturbing places — always full of a rage turned inward, a pervasive self-loathing. My moods were erratic, making it increasingly impossible to fulfill even the smallest professional or personal commitment.
At this point, I was drinking from the moment I awoke and throughout the day until late evening, when I could wholly obliterate the world and render myself unconscious. Moderation was no longer an option. Once awake, I would do it all again. I did not want to die, but I did not want to live. I began contemplating ways to end my life, thinking the situation hopeless. This phase I called “Misery,” and it went on for several years.
* * *
After fumbling through 15 years of the progression of this deadly disease, I slowly began to find a reprieve each day through being directed to the right resources by people who cared. But these initial steps were the most difficult of all. Alcoholism is the disease that tells us we don’t have a problem. Every step toward recovery was counter-intuitive, based on the way I had been living my life. I had to understand that alcohol was causing many of the consequences that I had suffered. I had to develop a faith that there was hope and that long-term sobriety was indeed possible. I had to become more willing to seek that solution — in fact, to make it a priority in my life each day. I had to walk into great discomfort to experience my feelings, to stop isolating and meet others on the same path of recovery.
The most profound realization was that the riddle I had been trying to solve was actually a trick question. It was never up to me to beat alcoholism. The solution was to give up entirely and admit defeat. I had to stop functioning so independently and living at the center of my own private universe. I needed to embrace humility and listen and learn from others. And relapse is common, so it is important to not give up. The same tenacity that compelled us to walk in the rain and snow to find the next drink can be our friend, if directed toward recovery.
Getting sober for even one day, then 30 days, 60 days, 90 days and one year was the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was also the smartest decision and most transformative experience I have ever had. The old saying goes, “May you have a long and slow recovery toward becoming happy, joyous and free.” With hard work, I began to become the person I was always meant to be and that process is still unfolding, even many years later. The process of getting sober doesn’t have a finish line; it’s a daily commitment but it is that beautiful, incredible journey that helps me grow and develop emotionally, spiritually, and socially. I’ve never felt more grounded and secure, and at home in my own skin.
Stigma and shame are the dark foundation of the disease, and they can prevent a successful recovery. It is my belief that these stories must be told. The fact is that alcoholism may appear like an unstoppable, confusing force when someone is in the throes of the disease. It’s the only disease that must be diagnosed by the patient. Addiction and other mental health disorders are real, common, and very treatable. Millions have already recovered, restored relationships and lived the remainder of their lives with joy and a sense of purpose.
Choose life — choose hope. This requires incredible courage, but the solutions do work if you choose them. You are worth this fight. You matter.
If you have questions about addiction, speak to your healthcare provider. There are many social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists that specialize in treating addiction, not to mention respected in-patient and out-patient centers like Hazelden and Caron. Also, there are more than 123,000 local groups of AA around the world.
• Let’s bust the biggest myth of all: Once and for all, addiction is not a problem with a lack of self-control, personal willpower, strength and morality. An addict is no more able to cure themselves than someone with a physical ailment like heart disease can self-heal.
• Addiction and alcoholism are fatal. If left untreated, the disease can kill.
• Admonishment of the afflicted doesn’t help. In fact, what is needed is love, patience and gentle encouragement to get help — and placing proper boundaries. Don’t enable.
• It’s important to know that the progression only goes one way: down. It never gets better and it doesn’t improve with a little time off. The progression simply picks up wherever it left off, no matter how much abstinence or sober time has transpired. In fact, many recovering alcoholics report that the disease actually progresses even faster after a relapse.
• There are proven solutions. There are many options, actually, but we don’t yet appear to have a quick medical fix. Since this condition is chronic, it will require ongoing treatment and care, just like diabetes and other diseases. The good news is this work will transform you and be the greatest investment decision you ever made in yourself! You can become a complete person again, living a joyful, purposeful life.
• Make the commitment and stick with it. Practice smart self-care with practical tools that trained professionals can teach you. If you sought to be physically fit and healthy, you would change your diet and begin exercising. If you wished to become better educated, you would read the right articles and books, and take classes. Emotional and spiritual maintenance is no different. It takes ongoing work, sometimes a substantial investment of time and courage.
• The most difficult and important step of all is admitting to yourself that you’re an addict. This can take decades — or it can happen in one moment. Find someone you trust and speak with them about your pain. Remember that you are only as sick as your secrets. Keep an open mind.
• Open up, tell your story and let this pain go. The more you share, the more you learn, and the more you learn, the closer you will be to a sustained journey of recovery. Keep listening also — alcoholics tend to be highly self-reliant, but we must let others helps us.
Suicide Hotline 800–273-TALK (8255)
If you or someone you know is in crisis, fighting an addiction, being bullied, a victim of domestic violence, or struggling with depression and feelings of suicide, there are options. Help is available. Speak with someone today.