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I’ve been having an eye-opening experience with Caroline Knapp’s book, “Drinking: A Love Story.” Before I get started with this train of thought, I will just say that anyone who has or has had a bad relationship with alcohol should read this book. I find myself stopping to highlight and make notes a lot while I read. Often her words sound like conversations I’ve had in my own head. “Me too,” I say.
Yesterday, I read her thoughts on moderation and the self-help trend during the 90’s that she dubs the “moderation movement.” She calls the idea that you can teach or train an alcoholic to moderate her drinking a contradiction in terms. The inability to moderate is, by definition, what makes us alcoholics. Most of us have never moderated alcohol. She writes, “The struggle to control intake – modify it, cut it back, deploy a hundred different drinking strategies in the effort – is one of the most universal hallmarks of alcoholic behavior.”
I know this behavior all too well, as did Knapp, as do probably a million folks worldwide who experience the same struggles with alcohol that we do. I chuckled a little to myself reading the various examples she gives the reader: switching from hard liquor to beer (me, except it was cider), setting time limits on drinking (ex. I won’t drink before five – also me), and my personal favorite that never worked but was suggested to me by a women’s magazine, “have a glass of water for every glass of alcohol.” The amount of mental energy I have wasted negotiating with myself on alcohol consumption, finding ways to get out of stopping and just change it up a little, is both astounding and laughable. What was I doing? Why do I STILL find myself engaging in this self sabotaging behavior?
As an anecdote, Knapp tells the story of “Scott” who was sober for three years. He decided to test the waters to see if he was better. Could he now drink moderately? He bought a bottle of scotch and poured himself a glass. All was fine. He poured another. Then another. Nothing terrible happened, but by the end of the night, the bottle was empty. “I’ve failed the experiment,” he proclaims. This is true for me as well. Even after months of sobriety, when I have had alcohol, it has always been a binge. There is no moderation.
This reminds me of an episode of The West Wing where the character Leo McGarry, played by the late John Spencer, is speaking with a White House aide who has been fired for leaking information about his stint in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction to a political opponent. When he asks why she did it, she reveals that her father was an alcoholic. She then asks Leo how long it took him to get cured. He tells her that he isn’t cured. “You don’t get cured,” he says. Leo continues by telling her that he’s been clean for six and a half years. The aide asks why he can’t have a drink now and he says something that has stuck with me from the first time I watched this episode. “The problem is I don’t want one drink,” he says, “I want ten.”
I want ten.
This scene is one I think about when I need to remind myself why I can’t have alcohol. Like Leo McGarry, I have never wanted just one drink, or two for that matter. I want to keep going until I can’t go anymore. Even now, as I’ve reached this odd place where I’ve opted to drink three times in three months, every single time has been a binge. Sure, I don’t engage in the binge nightly or weekly like before, but it’s a binge nonetheless. My brain is still very much broken. The impulse is always there. It’s just not as loud as before. It doesn’t beg to be let out of its cage on a daily basis. Make no mistake, however, it can (no, WILL) come back with a ferocity that I have little power to control. I can easily wind back up where I was one year ago: smoking a pack or more a day and drinking five to six nights per week.
Why do it? Why roll that dice once or twice a month? As Mark Twain so eloquently said of smoking, “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it a thousand times.” The same is a bit true of alcohol. The lure and sexiness of “one last time” is strong. I’ll have these little treats, this scotch, these cigarettes, just tonight, this one last time. There’s something gleeful in conspiring against yourself this way. The magic of buying the pack of cigarettes for the first time in a while and going to the liquor store to get that old familiar bottle; it’s all so enticing. Setting up your drink, organizing the lighter and ash tray, hunkering down for the binge one.last.time. There’s an excitement to it. Adrenaline starts flowing and the pleasure centers in your brain light up. You’re having one final hurrah, one last time.
Except that isn’t true. In my case, I’ve engaged in this ritual a handful of times since going four months without touching booze or cigarettes. Reading books like Knapp’s helps. Remembering scenes like the one I mentioned from The West Wing help. I’m beginning to reconcile myself to the fact that the impulse doesn’t go away. My brain’s penchant for bingeing is never going away. There is no fabled “last time” that finally gets it out of my system and opens up space to be all better. There’s just a decision to stop and make today a sober one. Wake up tomorrow, repeat. To say otherwise is to kid yourself.
I’ve realized through my reading that throughout my life bingeing has manifested in a variety of ways and that this story runs deeper than just a dysfunctional relationship with alcohol. It’s a topic I intend to explore further. Today the goal is simply to erase the idea of moderation from my brain. It’s false. It isn’t about strength or will power. I have the capacity for both in my life, except where alcohol is concerned. Time to stop pretending otherwise. Some people can hold their breath under water for over three minutes. Some people can go out for one drink and be satisfied. I can do neither.