When I quit drinking, I felt done—very sad, but very done. But was I an “alcoholic”? I quit drinking years before the word “alcoholism” was tossed out of the accepted recovery vernacular and replaced by the less judgy terms “substance use disorder” or “alcohol use disorder” which cover mild, moderate, and severe addiction, making it more inclusive for people like me who couldn’t wrap their heads around the “A” word. The word “alcoholic” has a certain finality to it, like being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease or finding out you’re color-blind. Alcoholism doesn’t seem like something that just goes away because you started a plant-based diet. And if you announce you’re an alcoholic, the world won’t tolerate you changing your mind; otherwise you’ll be a “sad alkie who’s drinking again” instead of a “person who just wanted to get healthy and sort things out before getting back to enjoying a glass of wine once in a while.”
So I wrestled with the idea that I could actually be an alcoholic. But I also tried to remain open, because I knew that if I didn’t take some sort of action, the tapes would start playing in my mind, like reverse self-help: You weren’t that bad! Why are you being so all-or-nothing? You can have just one! In fact, everyone knows having a glass of merlot every day is actually healthy for you. There are all of those studies that say red wine has antioxidants that prevent heart disease. I mean, are you trying to have a heart attack?
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I have a friend who quit smoking a bunch of times. Sometimes she lasted a day, sometimes a week, and once she went for over 10 years. She always told me, “Quitting is the easy part, but staying quit is hard.” Why after 10 years would she possibly pick up a cigarette? I couldn’t fathom getting completely over smoking, to the point that you really don’t think about it anymore, and then smoking again, knowing exactly what will happen.
She said her relapse started with one cigarette: a clove. It seemed harmless enough. The idea just got into her head one day when someone was smoking a clove near her. The smell triggered a good memory, and a little seed was planted, and before she knew it, that seed had sprouted roots, and over the next few weeks those roots bloomed into a plan: I’ll just smoke one. And the idea made so much sense to her. If she just smoked one, she could stop thinking about smoking. One tiny little cigarette to stop the incessant thoughts. So she stopped at the store, bought a pack of cloves, and smoked one. Then she smoked the rest of the pack because, screw it, she’d be quitting again tomorrow, so might as well. For the next three years she kept smoking while talking incessantly about quitting before she got the strength to try again.
By the time I was a 42-year-old mother of three, I had tried to cut back on my drinking or to reframe how I thought about drinking or to quit drinking altogether more times than I could count. Then I went to a party with two of my kids and had so many martinis I could hardly remember what had happened the night before. When I woke up in the morning, I was fully clothed on the couch, a sign I’d had a rare fight with my husband, and as I vomited my guts out, I pieced together that I had driven my kids home while drunk. That was my rock-bottom moment, the thing that made me truly want to quit. I knew if I wanted to stay quit, I’d have to do it differently this time. I’d proven to myself I couldn’t stay sober on willpower alone. And although I’d scared myself straight with my risky behavior, I knew from experience that eventually the soul sickness I felt after driving drunk wouldn’t feel so overpowering. Eventually, the shame would begin to fade in the rearview mirror and then poof, I’d no longer remember why I’d thought it was a good idea to quit. And soon after, much like my friend convinced herself one cigarette wasn’t a big deal, I would inevitably convince myself that one little drink would probably be OK. That scared me.
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But still, sitting in recovery meetings in those very early days, I had a debate going on in my head constantly. For a long time, I could only see the differences in my drinking compared to others’ stories. I was obsessed with the Nevers: I never got a DUI; I never lost custody of a child; I never got arrested; I never broke a bone; the list went on. I teetered on the edge of believing my drinking could be defined as alcoholic, but couldn’t quite get there.
When I was about six months sober, I listened to a guy share at a meeting about being a “real alcoholic.” He described years of heroin addiction, sleeping in an abandoned van, and his 27 stays in rehab. This was all fascinating—I was here for all the intense stories! But then he said, “Unless you’ve been to rehab at least a dozen times, you probably aren’t an alcoholic.” The more he talked, the clearer it became that I was in the wrong place. My brain was on fire with the idea that if this guy was the standard for an alcoholic, it was likely that I wasn’t one. Maybe I was just a problem drinker.
I called my sponsor right when the meeting was over to share my good news: “I think I may have overreacted to my whole drinking-and-driving thing,” I said. “I definitely am not a ‘real alcoholic.’”
My sponsor was quiet. Finally, she spoke. “Is your life better when you aren’t drinking?” Hmm. I had to think about that. There were times I really missed drinking, but I was relieved to never worry I was too drunk to drive. I liked waking up without a hangover. I felt proud that I was a sober mom.
“Yes. My life is better,” I said, truthfully.
“Then does it matter?” she asked.
Despite this, for months I still obsessed over the idea that I might not officially have a problem.
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Then one day I heard someone say this quote: “The defeated do not get to dictate the terms of their surrender.” I thought about it. No one had done this to me. No one was telling me I had to do anything. But I’d tried to solve my relationship with drinking in a million different ways, a million times, and here was the truth: I’d fought alcohol, and alcohol had won.
And that was when I started to really understand the idea of surrender. I know a lot of people have trouble with the concept. Some people think that if you “surrender,” you are giving up your power. We all like to feel like we are in charge of our choices. I thought that for so long, but where did it get me? It got me doing a drunken walk of shame up my driveway after having made one of the dumbest decisions of my life. But here was a radical thought: I could give up the fight. Drop my weapons. Raise a white flag. Wasn’t that actually freeing?
So yeah, the defeated don’t get to dictate the terms of their surrender. Meaning: giving up drinking wasn’t necessarily going to be easy, but it would allow me to opt out of the brawl with alcohol that I’d been engaged in for decades.
I eventually realized that it didn’t matter what I called myself: an alcoholic, a person with substance use disorder, or just a woman who doesn’t live with integrity when I drink. I didn’t want to drink anymore. And that was enough of a reason to do what it took to make sure I didn’t.
Copyright © 2024 by Jitters Productions, Inc. From the forthcoming book Drunk-Ish: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving Alcohol by Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, to be published by Gallery Books, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, LLC. Printed by permission.Leave a comment