10 February, 2017
A TALE OF TWO ALCOHOLICS
Excess drinking is a social staple of our culture—a measure of penile vigor, a source of liquid courage, a mental blockade to shut out the world. At some point or another, we’ve all woken up (in our bed or not) with massive headaches, filled with various forms of regret that conveniently disappear from our moral conscience before the next weekend. But for most of us, alcoholic behaviors are temporary and fleeting, creating just enough dysfunction to make for an impressive story.
But what about real alcoholics? Wikipedia defines alcoholism as “compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcoholic beverages, usually to the detriment of the drinker’s health, personal relationships, and social standing.” I find the definition rather vague and overly encompassing, and despite my modest background in psychopathology, I still don’t have a clear grasp of the concept. Eager to learn more, I decide to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for individuals “disaffected by or uninterested in conventional concepts of ‘God’ or a ‘Higher Power’”. To put it simply, AA for atheists and agnostics.
The place was slightly reminiscent of a military bunker or interrogation cell, with grey walls, plastic tables, fluorescent lights. The people had more character—mostly older folks with personalities ranging from sarcastically flamboyant to deathly somber. They seem intrigued by my presence (or naiveté), and my questions spark provocative conversations. Joyous topics included suicide attempts, DUIs, parole, and unemployment, but what truly struck me was the diversity of the group: some individuals had been sober for over a decade while others have struggled with alcoholism for longer than I’ve been alive. While I could elaborate endlessly on the details of the meeting, I’ll instead present a tale of two alcoholics. Though I present mere abstracts of their stories, I hope they offer meaningful glimpses into a world that you may or may not be familiar with.
Jim’s vodka and scotch days are over; he only drinks pinot grigio now. Besides running a successful graphic design firm and frequenting jazz clubs, he’s been attending AA meetings for over ten years. We meet at a local diner for breakfast, and I begin by asking a deceivingly simple question: How did it all begin? He tells me about his first marriage—a 20-year stint that ended after he caught his wife coming home with a young graduate student. The affair, which he suspected for nearly half a year, was symptomatic of larger marital issues: her dad was dying of Alzheimer’s, Jim’s business was generating enormous stress and anxiety, and divergent goals exacerbated their emotional distance. A year after the divorce, Jim began to date another woman. They eventually married and remained together for nearly two decades before Jim began an affair that led to his second divorce.
“Oh god I was so bad to her. [The affair] was a huge, huge trauma for her. I’ll never forgive myself.”
He says that although he found his wife’s laid-back nature initially attractive, her constant anxiety about venturing outside the home “grew thin after awhile.” Although his new lover was married and nearly half his age, Jim was furiously in love. He envisioned a future where they co-owned a graphic design business and traveled around the world with no children or other burdens.
“But alcohol fueled the relationship. Every time we were together, we were drinking,” he says. During this period, Jim drank heavily, experiencing alcoholic poisoning, periodic blackouts, and other physical accidents. Despite marital counseling and a reliance on pain medication, Jim was in emotional utopia.
However, the relationship lasted for exactly one year before she ended the affair. “She broke it up, and I broke up as a result.” In fact, the loss sparked Jim’s downward spiral into alcoholism. After the breakup, suicide ideation led to his stay in a psych ward, followed by enrollment in an outpatient program where he adopted the Buddhist-like practices of mindfulness and meditation to relieve his physical and emotional pain.
One of the long-standing (and continuing) outcomes of that experience was the discovery of the Serenity Prayer that is coincidentally recited at many AA meetings. As an atheist, Jim doesn’t see it as a prayer, rather a meditation mantra that he recites almost daily. The acceptance of “things I cannot change,” “courage to change the things I can,” and, “wisdom to know the difference are powerful behavioral conditioners.” In particular, he finds the ending sentence, “accepting hardship as the pathway to peace,” most powerful in that life can be challenging but not overwhelming.
Years later, Jim still tears up over the breakup, and his current alcoholism is more of an unbreakable habit than a coping mechanism. “It’s always in your head.” Even now, I ask? “Yes,” he answers, “Should I buy another bottle? When should I start? Is 2 o’clock in the afternoon too early? Will I stop with one bottle?” Although heart complications have tempered his drinking, Jim says he’ll always finish an opened bottle of wine. Although Jim’s a decade-long veteran of AA, his longest period of abstinence has only been 2 months, with relapses usually triggered by anxiety over work demands, physical pain, or loneliness. While coming home to an empty apartment no longer bothers him, Jim remains “hopeful” about finding a loving relationship. Despite attempts at online dating and various dates with occasional biker pals and design colleagues, Jim says his clock is clicking. “Nothing has progressed beyond these friendships, and that’s very frustrating so I’ll drink to that. I’ll drink to that frustration.”
I ask him what makes an alcoholic different from someone who simply drinks excessively. “As soon as you have that first drink, you’re gone. If you’re a social drinker, you can just go home.” He says that alcoholics suffer from excess and relentless compulsion, and oftentimes, denial.
“We have a way of justifying everything we do; we plan ahead.”
He tells me about a fellow AA colleague who metered out his bottles daily, but end up finishing a bottle in one sitting. Jim’s strategy involves buying smaller bottles of wine, although he purchases “backups” just in case. What’s the biggest misconception about alcoholics, I ask. Jim says that people often assume alcoholics are irresponsible drunks, though in actuality the story is far more complex. Genetic or environmental components play significant roles, and comorbidity with anxiety and depression is especially common. He tells me that most emotional and humbling moment throughout his years of AA was admitting that he was an alcoholic in front of others. Even now, Jim finds honesty the greatest challenge—“It’s so easy not to tell the truth. For alcoholics, lying comes so easy.” Nevertheless, Jim is taking each day’s upsides and downsides in stride. “Can I be a moderate drinker? That’s what I struggle with every day,” he says, adding “I hope, one day, I can be.”
An intelligent, slightly-cynical, no-bullshit kind of guy, Ryan heads a successful banking business. We meet for lunch at a sushi lounge, where he treats me to a massive pile of sashimi, sushi, and dumplings. He begins with his childhood story, when he moved to Jackson, Mississippi after his parents divorced at the age of ten. His uncle committed suicide at age 15, his grandmother died the following year, and his father suffered an aneurysm (becoming mentally vegetative) the year after that. Although a tough family history inevitably lead to issues involving drugs and alcohol, Ryan’s proved remarkably resilient—he finished undergrad with a 3.6 GPA, obtained a business degree from the University of Chicago, and developed a successful career in finance. A serious legal scare during his adolescence (involving 15-20k worth of damage) taught him the art of avoiding capture. In fact, throughout his 20s and early 30s, Ryan seemed to smoke, drink, and snort just enough to avoid serious confrontations with law enforcement.
Ryan’s descent into full-blown alcoholism began during business school. A full-time education, a tanking economy, and cultural and structural transitions in the workplace left him exhausted, stressed, and paranoid. In addition, his wife had suffered from several miscarriages, and his mother had developed cancer. During this period, he also adopted the South beach diet, and vodka was the lowest calorie beverage. Unlike whiskey (his previous beverage of choice), vodka left him with milder headaches and hangovers and thus increased his overall tolerance. Ryan not only drank more in one sitting, but he also drank every single day of the week. In fact, for 2 to 3 years, he spent more than $20,000 on alcohol.
An initial attempt at an intensive outpatient program quickly failed. In fact, he would purchase a bottle of alcohol on the way home. He began an affair at work, and the birth of his son left exacerbated his physical and mental fatigue. Depression fueled Ryan’s inherent anxiety, and a family intervention sent him to another rehabilitation program in Texas. Although the month-long stint helped maintain sobriety for a few weeks, Ryan continued the affair upon returning to Chicago, and his wife left and moved to another state with their son.
Determined to reconcile with his wife and son, Ryan currently takes various psychiatric medications and Antabuse for alcoholism. “When I first started taking it, they made me sign a paper saying ‘if you drink this, you will die’.” In fact, he’s been sober for 100 days. I ask him why he attends AA, and he replies that the organization’s structure and focus on spirituality reduce the mental stress and anxiety surrounding his alcoholism. Ryan ignores AA’s strictly religious tenants, instead focusing on the broader positive messages such as humility, forgiveness, self-improvement, community support, and a present-focused mentality. However, Ryan dislikes AA’s characterization of a typical alcoholic’s personality; he says there’s not a singular profile that defines an alcoholic.
As with Jim, I ask Ryan the same question: what’s makes an alcoholic an alcoholic? He replies that drinking in isolation and in excess and being secretive are typical characteristics. “A normal person binges and party on weekends. You could put a bottle of wine in front of them, and if they’re not in that party situation, they don’t care about it that much. An alcoholic will feel compelled to drink it.”
He tells me about one AA member who ran a $3-4 billion organization but “was drinking every day, doing blow, and doing whippets.” Another guy was so addicted to heroin that he injected the drug through a medical catheter connected to his heart. Ryan says that the biggest misconception about alcoholism is that it’s not a disease.
“They say, ‘You can stop anytime. If I held a gun at your held, you would stop, so it’s not a disease or addiction. It’s a choice.’”
But Ryan argues that no one actively chooses to destroy their family, lose their money, get in legal trouble, or end up in mental institutions. “A logical person would not do those types of things. But you throw that addiction in there, and someone just goes down that path.”
What about Ryan’s future goals? He eventually wants to help others by pursuing philanthropy, teaching, or psychology, but at present, Ryan’s focused on helping himself: “I want to have a great relationship with son and not drink anymore,” he answers.
To be perfectly honest, I hardly do Jim and Ryan justice through my short summaries of their complicated lives. My attempts at conveying a lifetime of loss, love, pain, and perseverance seem fractional, incomplete. Because while both individuals appear remarkably functional and intelligent, a pervasive shadow looms perpetually over their thoughts and actions, darkening those precious moments of true happiness that even non-alcoholics strive to obtain.
Ultimately, I find that an alcoholic’s greatest source of suffering stems from loneliness; the lack of meaningful connections dulls out the human experience in an unbearable, stifling sort of way. That loneliness may stem from a childhood or adulthood gone awry, but alcoholism simply exacerbates the problem. But I realize that all humans are lonely to some extent—buried in our careers, desperate for perfection, and beset with personal issues, we forget about meaningful (non-technological) connections. We forget about reaching out to others, about finding support and purpose through social interactions. And what if that’s the key to true happiness?
After our meeting, Ryan sent me a picture of his son, a picturesque portrait of a little blonde boy, picking yellow dandelions in innocent wonder. Cursing my hyperactive empathy gland, I can’t look away. The picture fills me with a naïve nostalgia, and I realize that nothing tangible may ever cure alcoholism. Not Antabuse, not psychiatrists, not pot, not antidepressants. If anything, it’s the social connection that finally convinces a struggling alcoholic to put down that bottle.
*the names have been changed to preserve the interviewer’s anonymity