Once an Addict, Not Always an Addict

By Jenny Oliver 12/11/13

Not everything is a disease; and quitting one thing does not mean I have to quit everything.

Photo: Shutterstock

I used to be a smoker. Well, sort of. I went from smoking here and there, to buying packs, to realizing that I might have a problem, to buying packs only when I drank and then flushing the remaining 16 cigarettes down the toilet the next morning. I wasted a lot of money on cigarettes, I suppose.

The point is, it wasn’t a “true” addiction in the sense that I never had a strong compulsion to smoke. I never felt much on cigarettes: no buzz, no high, just a slight dizziness and a trembling of my third finger. I didn’t even realize that I was, in fact, addicted until I moved to New York and realized that I could no longer afford cigarettes at $10 a pack! I had no choice but to quit. Sure, I felt cravings—when I drank beer, for one—but my “withdrawal” was nothing more serious than a low-grade depression that lasted for about two months. I resumed smoking occasionally, until one uneventful day I just stopped altogether. What was the point?

That circuit, those neurotransmitters, they’re part of a much larger organ. My neurochemistry is as complicated as my personal psychology, as it were.

It’s pretty much always been the same with hard alcohol, and beer to an extent. Of course, in my drinking days I could down a six-pack—if it was the only thing in the house to drink. I could keep vodka in the freezer for months, maybe years, without taking a sip. Like smokes, hard booze and beer didn’t work on my brain the way wine did. Red wine, to be precise.

They say in recovery all substances are bad; that once an addict, always an addict—as in, I’m susceptible to becoming addicted to anything and everything because I’m a boozehound. Not always so.

Over the years, I’ve tried a veritable medicine cabinet of drugs, none of which I became addicted to. In my “rave” days, I did ecstasy, cocaine, and meth. E was too jarring, with a near-suicidal comedown, and cocaine was the same, only with a much higher price tag. Who could afford to do these drugs regularly, both emotionally and financially? As for meth? Um, does anyone actually like being up for 72 hours? No-brainers, all of them.

LSD blew my mind once; I figured twice would be defeating the purpose. I found weed to be too unpredictable, making me alternately happy or nervous and paranoid (most of the time).

Even pharmaceuticals were hard sells. Vicodin might have worked—if I could keep my eyes open long enough to enjoy the buzz. One Xanax and I was napping in the maternity rooms at work for an entire week. Even malaria meds kicked me in the head: I was into my second week on them during a trip abroad and I started having visuals when I closed my eyes. The next 36 hours were probably the most hellish trip I’ve ever taken, including paranoia, extreme anxiety, and straight-up hallucinations. I was convinced that if I fell asleep, I would stop breathing, my brain would cease functioning, and I would simply not wake up.

Hallucinogens take mental work, and while I have had some good experiences on mushrooms, I’m terrified of ayahuasca and peyote, or DMT and mescaline. I’m not sure I can handle finding out what my brain does when it’s become completely unhinged!

As for hard drugs like crack and heroin—I’ve never tried either, but I presume that the return on investment would be pretty low.

Maybe I’m just a lazy addict. I like alcohol because it’s affordable and easy—it’s a “dumb” high, and I don’t have to work too hard. That’s not to say that all alcohol is the same. I’ve tried all kinds of booze, but I only became addicted to wine. Beer is not my friend. I probably wouldn’t even answer the door for vodka, or rum. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve hung out with whiskey or scotch, and I couldn’t tell you what’s in a martini. Does that mean I’m not a “real” alcoholic? Or, that I won’t be able to resist becoming addicted to beer, vodka, rum, whiskey, or scotch once I do recover? I don’t think so.

I see addiction as a relationship to a substance. Why is it that you click with some people, while with others it’s like staring at a distant galaxy? Similarly, why do I adore wine and have a so-so feeling toward beer? Yes, beer makes me feel full and grumpy, but really, wouldn’t I down just about anything if I was a “true” alcoholic? If I was a “true” addict, wouldn’t cigarettes mean more to me than a little less than nothing? Wouldn’t I be more interested in coke, or weed, or meth, if I truly had an addictive personality? What about sex? What about coffee, for crying out loud? (Actually, I do wonder about all those grande Starbucks coffee-drinking AA members…)

If you’re a self-proclaimed addict, it doesn’t mean you’re addicted, or will become addicted, to everything. When someone says that they can now drink in moderation, or that they WERE addicted to one substance (like, heroin or cocaine) and can now drink red wine with dinner, believe them! They’re not spinning lies or in denial. Right now, almost nine months into being sober, I could probably take or leave a beer. I could most assuredly LEAVE a shot of vodka. In fact, I think those two mini-bottles of Jagermeister that I purchased in a blackout about a year ago were sitting at the bottom of my freezer up until a few months ago.

That’s not to say that substances aren’t triggers for some people—I understand why recovery programs emphasize complete abstinence. Sometimes, I’ll get an urge to smoke, but it’s almost always preceded by a craving for wine. I want to drink, but since I can’t…maybe a smoke will do? I’m most definitely not going to go out and do lines of coke; even if I did, it’s not the coke that’ll make me drink, it’s the attitude I’ve assumed in doing coke: I might as well get drunk, too!

We forget that just because dopamine has gotten a lot of press in the “addiction as a disease” circles lately, your motivations, desires, and perceptions of what is pleasurable—your psychology—are part of a much larger brain! Why can I pass on a beer or refuse a vodka tonic—even when it’s in my house—when I crave wine? Because my history, thoughts, and associations—my world—is not simply neural reward circuitry gone bad. That circuit, those neurotransmitters, they’re part of a much larger organ. My neurochemistry is as complicated as my personal psychology, as it were.

And like everything, addiction is complicated. Not all substances—or behaviors—hold the same meaning, and therefore, pose the same risk of abuse or threat of addiction. I needed an emotional release, which goes to show why I picked wine as my substance of choice. There is something about red wine that calms, that soothes, that masks the pain in a gentle sort of way while allowing me to feel a version of my authentic emotions. I didn’t like hard booze for the very reasons that I found it too strong and too stimulating. It excited me, but I didn’t want to feel a rush; it also did nothing to ease my boredom and depression. For others, it might be different. No two people, or substances, are alike.

Did I finally get rid of the half-empty bottle of Stoli and the two mini-bottles of Jager that had been camping out in my freezer for six months too long? Yes, I did. Did I have ideas of drinking them? Of course. But I didn’t.

Jenny Oliver is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about blogging herself sober.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix