Quitting Abstinence

Seven years to the day after I stopped drinking forever, I gave up abstinence. It was the day after Christmas. I remember the snow and ice on the streets, picking out the bottle, and carrying it home, better than I remember the taste of the wine.All of the old Alcoholics Anonymous superstitions didn't hold up. I didn't sneak back out to the kitchen at 4:00 a.m. to finish the bottle. I didn't die. My liver didn't burst. I didn't go out of control, walk down to the Reservoir Tavern, and drink whiskey shots all night next to some platinum blonde with her pull tabs.I had planned my re-conversion for months -- years, even. But three final straws bottomed me out on black-and-white thinking. The first was a story about rats. It was actually an experiment Dr. Keith Hoeller, Seattle professor and editor of an existential journal, told me about. Rats in a rat-packed cage, when given free access to addictive drugs, consistently abused them. But when the rats were moved to a rodent paradise -- a place with ample space, food, and entertainment -- the rats ignored the same drugs they had sought in rougher surroundings.The second straw was the movie Leaving Las VegasÉ well, not actually the film. It was the couple sitting behind me in the theater, who kept whispering "She's so codependent" or "What an enabler" every time Elizabeth Shue appeared on screen.The last annoying thing was my own voice. I would listen to myself reciting a drunkalogue, then speculating about other people's addictions. I was doing this tired circus trick -- telling a friend how I could pick alcoholics out of crowds. The words "addict" and "alcoholic" broke in my mouth.Call it stinkin' thinkin'. Call me a slippery-slope walker. A liar. One of those liars they talk about in Alcoholics Anonymous, who lacks the "constitutional honesty" to stay sober. Apparently, most people who go through AA lack the constitutional honesty to stay sober, since only about 10 percent (and that's the highest estimate I've read) remain that way. The rest go back again, or find their own way to sobriety or controlled drinking -- a concept considered ludicrous in most recovery circles. That 10 percent statistic doesn't totally discredit the recovery movement, but it does raise a few questions about the Biblical temperance model that shapes thought and policy in America and in AA. If we didn't start with the premise that alcohol is evil and addicts are powerless, then abstinence would merely be one of a myriad of choices.Choice and balance aren't something we're taught .There seem to be two kinds of speeches and presentations made in public schools, community meetings, and AA halls. First, there is the fearful warning speech, which includes uniformed officers admonishing classrooms of high schoolers, enacting mock convictions, and showing car crash films. The other is the "back from the dead" testimonial, which usually includes failed relationships, jail cells, and nights on the street. There are no presentations made by people who integrate alcohol into their lives and use it responsibly Nobody asks exploratory questions -- political, socioeconomic, psychological, spiritual -- which would push an audience to look inside their own heads, past the safe suburbs of miracles, disease, and destruction.On the other hand, doctors are lining up to cut open addicts' heads and examine the chemistry of the brain. The May 5 issue of Time explores the discovery of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that may unlock the mystery of addiction. Dopamine's a chemical totally focused on pleasure. Chemically sound people can make enough of it, and process it, and get appropriately elated after praise, sex, or chocolate. Addicts seem to have a genetic block, and thus need external help from dopamine stimulators -- like booze and drugs. The dopamine high is the addict's obsession.At first I embraced the idea that alcoholism is a disease, possibly genetic. But now I want to know what's inside the words "alcoholic" and "addict" -- I know how thoughts cut into the brain, how poverty bruises the coils, how self-hatred makes a dent for the liquid to catch in. Most of all I want to understand the rhythm of our fear of being out of control. Why are we so afraid of something we instinctively wish for?My drinking history is a mixed bag. Years of clean living, followed by intense drinking bouts. I had jail nights, blackouts, cross-addictions, geographical jumps. Then for years I was a nice yuppie housewife. That was followed by an abrupt move to San Francisco, where I came out and became a real bar rat. There's a whole story locked inside that snapshot of Catholicism and repression and homophobia, that probably helped shape my brain into a hungry desert -- but I'll save that for later.AA gave me a safe structure to fall apart inside. I felt at home for a while. Drunks fascinated me. I made friends, worked the steps -- at least six of them. But I hated the Big Book, which read like a cross between a sales manual and a Jehovah's Witness Watch Tower. It's rabidly anti-intellectual.One summer I stayed on a farm with a friend's family, who were all neck high in recovery and inner-child work. They'd bring their stuffed animals to the table at dinner, then talk to each other through the animals. I looked out the window a lot. And when it came time to have heart-to-hearts, the family had 12-step meetings instead. It worked fine for them; but it gave me an intense aversion to meetings, which I stopped attending. But I stayed sober for another four years, until being sober for the sake of sobriety seemed arbitrary."Alcohol can go wherever water goes." Dr. Dennis Donovan is explaining the geography of the brain in his lecture, part of the University of Washington's "Addiction and the Brain" series. The brain actually has peaks and valleys. Alcohol damage widens the valleys, atrophies tissues. Donovan shows us, through lists and illustrations, the harsh consequences of abuse: brain damage, memory loss, cognitive motor problems. Then he talks about the other extreme -- how abstinence can reverse some of the damage. There's no in-between in this story. He doesn't talk about the brains of moderate or steady drinkers, but does admit that the process of aging also alters, even atrophies, the brain.A man in the front row raises his hand and asks, "With all of this disturbing information, why is alcohol even legal?" People in the audience clap. Dr. Donovan, who is the head of a treatment center, talks about how much money alcohol companies invest in lobbying. He fails to mention how much profit is made in the treatment industry.Donovan is hopeful about the ever-expanding recovery pyramid. There used to be insurance money only for the worst alcoholics, at the tip of the pyramid. But now there's increasing money available to treat other "problem drinkers." One gets the sense that this pyramid could get so expansive that any drinker might one day be considered a "problem drinker" with a disease -- thus opening new markets for the treatment biz.In his book The Diseasing of America, Stanton Peele speculates about the expanding addiction-as-disease industry: "More and more addictions are being discovered and new addicts are being identified, until all of us will be locked into our own little addictive worlds with other addicts like ourselves, defined by the special interest of our neuroses." Peele goes on to trace the history of the American temperance movement and its white, middle-class Protestant champions, from around 1785, the time of the industrial revolution, through prohibition, until the present. Peele also traces AA's philosophical roots from an evangelical Christian extremist group formed in 1929, The Oxford Movement.Peele's history helps make clear why the 12-step model is not as effective with minorities and marginalized people. If you already feel powerless in society, embracing your powerlessness might not seem like the best path to freedom.The advent of strategies like "Harm Reduction" are helping to shift some of the extreme thinking around addiction. According to Darrin Sharpe, the Youth Substance Abuse Specialist at the University District Youth Center in Seattle, Harm Reduction is about "meeting the substance abuser where they're at and helping them make decisions that lower their risk level." This is exemplified by programs like the Needle Exchange, or getting heroin users to switch to marijuana. Harm Reduction, which acknowledges drug abuse as a method of coping with personal and social problems, can be a gateway to treatment, but according to Sharpe, some people prefer to work out their own solutions.I like drinking again. I like it over dinners, in restaurants, in bars. I don't feel like drinking all that often, but it's good to have the choice. Despite my experience, I believe addictions are real, and people sometimes need help getting free of them. Some extreme cases need extreme help -- like the 60ish-year-old man I recently saw in Vegas, who was sitting at a slot machine with a cigar in one hand, a drink on the counter. He was hooked up, by way of a needle in his arm, to a portable liquid med machine. He seemed truly powerless. But he's not everyone.


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