My Name is Steven and I'm Not An Alcoholic
Sometimes a wrong diagnosis leads to effective treatment.
"My name is Steven and I'm an alcoholic," never quite rang true. So why did I say it thousands of times over the course of 20 years? And why, after so long, did that affirmation stick in my throat when I uttered it?
When I went to my first AA meeting, I was 27 years old. I had been going to NA on and off for about a year when Maria, a woman who had 13th-stepped me (I quickly got over that) suggested that my recovery might benefit from a change of scene. She took me to a speaker meeting in Methuen, Massachusetts and I was immediately struck by several differences between the NA meetings I had been attending and this AA meeting.
First, there was the number of people in attendance at the AA meeting - well over one hundred. Up until then the largest meeting I had attended had maybe 25 people, including those bused in from Phoenix House.
The second difference I noticed was the age range. The average age at this meeting was perhaps 50. At 27, I was one of the younger people in the room. In NA, there were as many members younger than me as older.
By far the greatest difference between this AA meeting and all the NA meetings I had attended was time - the number of years people had been clean and sober.
Amongst my NA friends, Rick was the "Old Man." He had been clean and sober longer than anyone else in the group. In 1990, Rick had been clean for seven years and I was astounded by this. But the speaker at the AA meeting had been sober for more than 30 years and during his talk, he referred to several people in attendance who had been sober for even longer. The majority of these people seemed to be financially and emotionally stable and the room was filled with joy. So, over time, I gravitated more toward AA and that is where I spent the better part of 20 years trying to make sense of my life and my relationship to alcohol and other drugs.
Fast-forward to 2010. I am sitting in a meeting in Los Angeles, where I had been living for about nine years. I am surrounded by friends I have made, those who have helped me through hard times and those whom I have helped. These were people with whom I had formed tight bonds and spent countless hours laughing in late-night Hollywood restaurants, hearing each other's stories, helping one another move, joking and arguing and dating and calling at 3am to get talked off a ledge. These were my people. So why, when I said for the umpteenth time, "My name is Steven. I'm an alcoholic," did a voice from deep within me rise up into my conscious mind with the very clear reply, "No you're not. You know you are not."
Because it was true.
Despite all the stories of alcohol-soaked debacles I shared (also, all true), I never once experienced anything like an "allergy" to alcohol or that uncontrollable, inexplicably compulsive urge to drink more. I drank the way those around me drank. If I was in a "wine with dinner" setting, there was no desire for more. If I was in a "Let's get shitfaced" setting (most of my time in college and the military), that is what we did. The reason I recognize that I do not have this relationship with alcohol is because I HAVE had this relationship with cocaine.
When I was 18, I had a girlfriend named Susan. She and her friends would pool their money and buy a small amount of cocaine. One night as we were sitting in my mom’s Chevy Malibu, Susan laid out a couple of small lines on a mirror and set it on the center console. I remember the map light casting a grey reflection of lines and razor blade onto the tan headliner. I remember thinking that was cool. It was less than a quarter gram between two of us. I did a line and immediately asked where we could get more. Susan looked at me like there was something wrong with me.
More. Right now.
I did not go on three-week runs. The comedown was so hard for me - utter despair - that I would swear off coke forever. A few weeks or a few months later, I would try again with the same results: a night of sweaty isolation and compulsive cocaine abuse followed by hours of darkness, self-loathing and suicidal thoughts.
Cocaine did not make me feel euphoric or outgoing. Cocaine made me feel like doing more cocaine. So when I read passages in "Alcoholics Anonymous" referring to an alcoholic's compulsion to drink despite negative consequences, I got it. I would just mentally substitute the word "cocaine" for "alcohol" and I felt like I fit in. And at every meeting, I said the words, "My name is Steven. I'm an alcoholic," ignoring my inner voice telling me this was not true until the voice receded deep into some dark corner of my mind for 20 years.
For years I had tried to avoid cocaine while still consuming alcohol or smoking pot, but if I was in the company of party people, eventually someone would offer some blow and I was unable to refuse. Eventually, I accepted the fact that at that point in my life, if I drank booze, I was eventually going to use cocaine. Abstinence, as hard as it was, was much easier than trying to manage various mind-altering substances and so began my relationship with AA. Never a perfect fit, but a vast improvement over what I had been doing.
Years passed and I lived in the world of the recovering addict/alcoholic. My social life, most of my friends, my career choices at the time all centered around recovery. I ain't gonna lie; many of my best years were during this period. But the last couple of years...not so much.
"If you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." In AA, the 12 steps of recovery are used to help alcoholics recover from alcoholism and have a spiritual awakening so that they may then help others recover from alcoholism. The steps are an extremely effective, time-tested tool for achieving these ends. But I found myself at a crossroads or a midlife crisis or whatever and I was suffering. There were those who urged me to "work the steps" harder or with a different sponsor. I took this advice, but felt more and more mired in depression and self-doubt and worry. It was around this time when my eldest brother was murdered and nothing was ever the same again.
My worldview had been shattered. Senseless violence and evil were no longer abstracts. My sheltered, suburban upbringing, my safe little corner of the world was no longer safe. AA kept me sane. It gave me a place to go every morning even if all I heard when people spoke was the "wha wha, wha wha wha wha" adult-speak from the Peanuts cartoons.
A couple years later, my parents and I traveled to Colorado to attend the sentencing hearing for my brother's killer. The night before, I went to a local bar with live music - the kind of place my brother and I would sometimes go to. It was then that I decided to take one of AA's suggestions and try some controlled drinking. I got a little buzz, listened to some music, and walked back to the hotel. It was winter in western Colorado and it was pretty cold. The sky exploded with stars and hope. I felt like my brother was walking alongside me as I made my way back to my room.
The next day, I awoke with no remorse or guilt about my drinking. I did not feel like I had "slipped" as I had a number of times in the past. I felt like I was entering a new chapter in my life and that my relationship to alcohol, drugs, and recovery was changed.
Things got a little out of hand for a couple of months. Even though I do not have the compulsion to drink, I am one of those adults who lives in suspended adolescence to varying degrees. I decided to make up for lost time and went on all the rides (mushrooms, ecstasy, weed), but avoided cocaine. During this period of time, I engaged in behavior that was likely to get me right back to where I started. But soon the novelty of intoxication wore off and that, coupled with the fear of a DUI, caused me to change my behavior.
I settled into a routine of going out a couple of times a month for a couple of drinks (no, really, a couple of drinks) and very small amounts of weed. This went on for a couple of years and very gradually my drinking days increased to once or twice a week. I did not notice this as I was still only having a couple of drinks (sometimes three). During this entire time, there were no blackouts or hangovers, no big red flags. I did not miss sobriety or AA. But I was still unhappy. While AA might not have been the cure for all my ills, it was not the cause of any of them.
Eventually, I ran across some cocaine and, of course, had the same experience I’d had in the past. When the guy who provided it suggested that my comedown would be a lot smoother if I followed my cocaine use with some "landing gear" (opiates or benzos) that made sense and he was right. This pattern was very short-lived as I realized very quickly how fucked-up it was. I woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and identified myself as an unfit parent.
I went to a few meetings and while I felt welcomed, I also felt like an outsider. When I said the words, "My name is Steven, I am an alcoholic,” it felt like a lie. I know that it is not a perfect fit, but I also know that since I stopped being sober, I filed bankruptcy, got (gently and lovingly) kicked out of my house, have struggled to make ends meet... I know, sounds "unmanageable." I should probably take a look at that.
I am off to a meeting. When the snow comes, ill-fitting boots are better than going barefoot.
Steven Quay is a writer in Los Angeles.