Are You an Addict, a Normie—or Neither? - Page 2

By Will Godfrey 04/10/12

Most people think they're either an addict or not. But a growing school of thought defines addiction as a much more nuanced condition. The Fix asks some "almost alcoholics" how they see themselves.

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Tales from the Gray Zone: It can be hard to know where you belong. Photo via

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Lee claims drinking itself was never his issue: “My problem was with one specific type of narcotic. Other drugs [like cocaine] and alcohol never took hold of my life in the same way. Drinking never interfered with my life in a lasting way.”

But he explains, “When I was a kid I was reckless and self-destructive whenever I drank…I always did hard drugs in tandem.” Following an unsuccessful 12-step experience and a stint in rehab, he now hasn’t used opiates for eight years.

He still admits, “I do drink too much…but I don't see it as a problem if it doesn't adversely affect your health, relationships or work.” Apart from “a few sexually-charged drunken arguments with my wife [when both are drunk together],” he claims, “I can safely say this isn't the case for me. My days of getting in bar brawls, sleeping in alleyways, and blacking out are long over.” Describing the idea of total abstinence from all drugs for someone like him as “bullshit,” he credits learning self-control through cognitive conditioning for his better life today.

“I'm about a seven, somewhere between the average and the most addictive personality.”

Jen also had a drug problem that she finds is no longer a problem. But the 34-year-old Manhattan-based accountant not only drinks socially these days; she also occasionally uses her previous problem drug—cocaine—without noticeable ill-effects.

She got seriously into coke soon after leaving college. “I was doing it at least three times a week for about a year,” she recalls. “I’d be home on the couch with my roommate, and we’d sit up all night doing it. To begin with it was just a little, then we’d do a gram or more per night.” She feels it happened because “I was depressed, bored and it was the only way I found I could somehow ‘pause’ in my life at that time.” She was having trouble finding permanent employment, and drifting between temporary jobs.

“It became this thing where when I was on coke I felt like I understood everything and was at peace with everything,” she says. “I actually felt I was smarter!” But after a while this feeling changed to one in which “I couldn’t get enough and it was like this terrible itch. After my roommate went to bed I’d scrape through the empty bags. I used to hide stashes for when I ran out. Sometimes I hid it too well, then I’d go crazy when I couldn’t find it!”

One morning she went to work after an all-night session. “I was shaking and sweating so badly I told them I was sick and went home.” That prompted her to say to her roommate, “’I need to stop. I can’t control myself. If you’re ordering, don’t tell me.’ And she was good enough to do that.” She also told other friends that she had a problem, and asked them not to take cocaine when she was around, although she still drank alcohol.

About five cocaine-free years later, Jen met a group of people who use the drug socially while out drinking. She joined in and enjoyed it. “Weirdly, I found drinking at the same time helped me control it,” she says. “I was more aware of [the potential for problems] and kept it ‘recreational’—only at the weekends.” Since then, she’s used coke “every few months, but less and less. The last time was over six months ago.” Asked how she thinks she’s been able to do this, she shrugs: “Life changes; you slow down. I’m just older now.”

“I think I was an addict. But I don’t think I am now,” she says. “I know that won’t make sense to some people. But that’s how I feel. I just don’t crave it now.” On an addiction spectrum, she’d place herself “about a seven, somewhere between the average and the most addictive personality.”

As befits such a shakily-defined group, some potential members doubt whether they really belong to it, and whether such a thing really exists. “I'm not sure there is a ‘gray zone,’” says Keith, a 41-year-old editor who lives in Connecticut. And asked about no longer having a problem with alcohol and drugs, he admits, “I would not quite say that I don't. I would say I've just found a way to tamp it down.”

Back in his college days, “some blacking out and stupid behavior—fights, vandalism—kicked in.” That’s when he “figured I was basically defective with regard to what other people called ‘partying.’ Later on in college I ingested unusual amounts of hallucinogenics. Those are still largely happy memories.”

For over a decade after leaving college, Keith took copious amounts of ecstasy, marijuana, “oceans of booze” and cocaine. “My ‘social’ life was almost completely centered around substances,” he says, adding that intoxication helped him to conquer his shyness. “During this same period, my favorite alone-time activity was to snort a modest amount of heroin and lie in bed.”

In recent years, he’s cut down, due to “sort of an uneasy truce, on account of my wife and children.” This takes the form of “occasional pot-smoking, though I no longer keep a stash,” and “no more ‘real’ drugs for a while now.” His alcohol intake, meanwhile, is regulated by “regular drinking punctuated by periods of abstinence... I know, I know.”

Although Keith says that for him to be “truly impaired” is “very occasional,” he’s seriously contemplating sobriety. “I read something the other day in a novel that floored me: ‘He must stop. At his age, he either had to join the resistance or become a collaborator with death.’ I sort of consider that I inevitably have to stop."

Proponents of abstinence, Moderation Management and the rest won’t stop arguing about the interpretation of these kinds of experiences any time soon, and neither will the psychiatrists.

Are people like Ian just addicts whose problems will inevitably come back to bite them? Or does the self-management of problems like Mark’s just show that such people were never “real” addicts in the first place? Can substance problems be compartmentalized as Lee has found? Can being an “addict” be a temporary state, as Jen’s experiences have led her to believe? Or is Keith arriving at a resolution that all of them would do well to follow?

Not every different answer is mutually exclusive. A decision by the American Psychiatric Association to reclassify addiction as a spectrum, for example, wouldn’t damage any practical validity of an addict/normie dichotomy that 12-steppers believe vitally clarifies things for people in desperate need—although it would raise the volume of external criticism. But in an emotionally-charged debate, it’s worth remembering that many people don’t fit easily into categories—however carefully the borders are drawn—and that the nature of any help required may be as nuanced as the people requiring it.

Will Godfrey is Managing Editor of The Fix.

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Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.