Bill, Am I an Alcoholic?

By Bill Manville 02/27/17

"I'm not a joiner, so don't talk to me about AA."

The top of a man's head, wide-eyed, staring at a bottle and glass on a bar or table.
The line isn't clear to an alcoholic, but it is to everyone they love.

Long after my final burn-out on booze—unable to pee “unassisted,” two hospitals in 10 days—I began a local phone-in radio show in the small California town where I now live. Addictions & Answers was lively and well received. The “Anonymous” part of AA never meant much to me, so it was reassuring to troubled listeners to know I’d been in the trenches myself—often beginning my shows with this or that anecdote about my years on “The 5 Martini Diet” (pass out before dinner).

And while I hold no medical degree, I’d not only gone through rehab but also been trained and done a two-year stint as a facilitator at San Diego’s Scripps McDonald Center for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Treatment.

Very important too, I always had an eminent phone-in authority on the air with me, a biochemistry professor from Harvard, a Stanford PhD in addiction, a counselor from Hazelden Betty Ford, etc.

Whatever scientific opinion or medical advice was offered came from them, not me. All of which led to our local newspaper asking me to do a weekly “Addictions & Answers” column for them too.

So I was not entirely surprised when someone recently stopped me in our local supermarket—“Aren’t you Bill Manville?”—and offered to buy me a cup of coffee to discuss a question that had begun to weigh on her mind.

“Bill,” she said, the two of us at a window table in the coffee shop next door, “maybe because I know your voice so well from your radio show, I feel I know you. Have a jelly donut and tell me what you think. Am I an alcoholic?”

“What makes you ask?”

Being a writer, I took notes; since I was going to change her name, “Lucy” did not mind.

“When Roger and I first met,” she began, “we both lived in the Bay Area, and were married to other people. The affair was a little risky and naughty. We got through it by saying to hell with trouble, we'd face whatever happened together. I was always wearing perfume, heels and my ‘little black nothing’ mini. We were always meeting in bars, always in a part of town where nobody knew us. I'm afraid we drank a lot. But that was 12 years ago, and now it seems like the most romantic time in our lives. We're married now, two children, but sometimes I want to have that extra cocktail with him—'get a little looped before dinner' was how we used to put it in those days. You know, Bill, re-live those exciting times?

“Roger says we're beyond the age for that kind of drinking. They're downsizing at his company and he says he can't afford to go into work with a hangover. I think maybe he's afraid of turning alcoholic. In fact, sometimes I think he's already had one or two before coming home from work.”

“How old are you?”

“I'm 44. Roger is 46. I know why you ask—because as we age, our livers don’t burn up the alcohol as they did when we were 20. At our age, how much is it safe to drink?”

“I think,” I said, “we may first have to handle the dark outrider of any discussion like this—denial. I notice you keep talking about having a few drinks. Are you saying you and Roger do no dope at all?”

Lucy smiled. “I don’t know why I held that back. I thought you might disapprove."

“Okay,” she went on. “The whole story is that Roger and I like our beer and wine and the occasional cocktail I just mentioned. We smoke some pot almost every night in our bedroom, sometimes go for a little crystal or cocaine. I never have tried any of the opiates, never will, and I give up smoking dope every year for a couple of weeks just to prove I can, and go on the wagon just to give my system a rest. So, now that you know me, would you call me an addict? And PS, Bill, I'm not a joiner, so don't talk to me about AA, NA or any 12-Step programs.“

Over a second jelly donut (alas) and a coffee refill, I told Lucy about the orientation lecture I used to give to new rehab patients at Scripps McDonald.

“You’re in a hospital,” I used to tell them, "but you don’t have a disease where the doctor cuts you open, takes out your diseased gall bladder or appendix, and cures you. This is not a disease you caught by kissing the bartender. You are suffering from addiction which is the one where you are the doctor and you cure yourself."

“Lucy,” I said, “it's not for me to tell you whether you are an alcoholic or not. Let's see if I can help you diagnose yourself."

* * * 

The essence of addiction is: it speeds up. That's why it's called progressive. It runs faster and faster on a predictable course.

The first stage for most of us is experimentation, usually in some social situation. You and your friends try beer, booze or pot, maybe cocaine, whatever. It cuts down boredom and/or pain, breeds confidence, it feels good, you like it. You progress from doing it only at parties or with someone else, and now occasionally have a drink and light up when you are alone.

Use becomes customary: maybe a drink or two before dinner, TGIF, Saturday night becomes party night…New Year's Eve's a big blowout…maybe so is Thanksgiving…Christmas… the occasional stroll on the other side of the moon in between times…and so it goes…

I've just described 80% to 90% of the population.

After a while, the consequences of drinking/using ensue. Hangovers, DUIs, fights with loved ones, getting fired... We get older, a little less adventurous. Non-addicts will say, I've been overdoing this.

And they are able to stop, or cut down.

The remaining 10% to 20% of us do not.

For instance, our cure for a hangover is a beer first thing on getting out of bed, maybe a hit off the stub of last night's roach or a good big jolt of Jack Black. We begin drinking and drugging earlier than we used to—and later too.

Booze and pot and maybe a little crystal meth—it begins to hurt our health, job and family, but the first question we ask about any place we are invited is, what will there be to drink or smoke? And if the answer is nothing, we won't go: indication that we're speeding up, "crossing the line," as they put it in AA. Our drinking is verging on the pathological. Medically, we've entered a diseased condition. 

That notion of a "line" is difficult to the alcoholic, but very obvious to friends and family around him. And it's like ringing a bell. It can never be un-rung. As a Key West friend of mine used to say (Hello, Marianne), "They don't call it ‘alcoholwasm,’ do they?" 

In my experience, no one has ever been able to go back across that line and drink or dope socially again. No exceptions. I haven't had a drink for over 20 years, but—as sure as the law of gravity says, one step off a roof and you will fall—I know one drink and I will fall right back into addiction again.

“So the question for you, Lucy,” I said, approaching the end of our discussion, “is: are you drinking more today, using more, than you did last year? It used to be you never had a drink before 6pm. Now you have two at lunch, the cocktail hour starts at 4:30, you've gotten to like a brandy or a joint at night to mellow you out for sleep, and maybe a little crystal to get you going in the morning... In a word, are you speeding up?

"’Am I an addict/alcoholic?’ is the most often asked question in the booze and dope industry, but I am not naïve enough to believe this little coffee-and-donut talk with me will convince you of anything if you are truly addicted. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (800-622-2255) has a very good, free 22-question self-diagnostic. But Lucy, if you’re anything like me in my drinking days, you've already decided it's too much trouble to call that 800 number, maybe you'll do it tomorrow. Which we both know means never. So give me your email address and I’ll send you a hip little quiz to take when you get home tonight.”

And for readers of The Fix who may be worried about themselves or a loved one, here it is right now, right on this page. (I got it from John T. O'Neill, Editor of Findings/Sci-Mat, a newsletter published by the Betty Ford Center.)

  1. Do you consistently break promises to yourself about drinking and/or using?
  2. Do others have a different version of your drinking/drug use than you do?
  3. Are you paying an emotional price for your alcohol/drug use?
  4. Do you do things under the influence that violate your own values?

And here comes the crunch: 5. Did you lie to yourself when you answered the first four questions?

The official answer is even one yes means you better get "professional assessment." But aren't we past that? Like the young, philandering St. Augustine who used to pray, “Dear God, make me better but not yet," if you have read me this far it says you know you should go to a 12-step meeting. You're just hoping to grab onto something I write to give yourself cover for saying "not yet."

* *

I've come to believe that when the old timers thought up the phrase, the demon rum, they were onto something. Addiction is a form of demonic possession, an alien presence living within your heart, body and soul, and which in your sober moments—for instance, I hope, right now, while reading this—you know is not you.

When Lucy told me not to advise her to go to a 12-step meeting, that was her addiction talking, saying it did not want to die.

“Do yourself a favor,” I said to her, shaking hands goodbye, “Get yourself to a 12-step meeting tonight. My bet is you'll find they're singing your song.”

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