The Seductions of Relapse, or Should I Marry a Self-Confessed Alcoholic?

By Bill Manville 04/06/16

I went to an AA meeting and said I was powerless over chocolate. Nobody laughed.

The Seductions of Relapse, or Should I Marry a Self-Confessed Alcoholic?

At the end of a writing course I give at my local library, a student lingered. “Do you believe alcoholism is a disease?” she said to me. 

My answer began by noting the American Medical Association certainly does. "Which means the insurance industry—no bastion of lefty, liberal New Age babble—will pay for treatment, just as if you came down with diabetes or cancer."

"So I have nothing against calling alcoholism and/or drug use a disease," I went on. "It ameliorates shame and guilt, ideas that never got anyone sober. But I don’t use the term myself. You didn’t catch your habit by kissing the bartender. It’s an addiction and you do it to yourself." 

“Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” she said. 

“When Fred and I met,” she began (indeed in a coffee shop right near the library), “I said, how about a drink? He said fine, and led me to a table. He explained that he was sober eight years, but standing at a bar still made him nervous. He did not mind if I had a drink, he said, as long as it was okay with me if he did not. A little quirky, I thought, but we took it from there, and now we are to be married.” 

“Tess” was 26. “Fred,” 34. 

“I accept that he has an addictive personality,” she said. “Is there some giveaway clue that would warn me it’s coming back to life?” 

In short, how big was her risk in marrying him?

My answer began with a story of a recent re-awakening of my own addictive personality—a relapse not to booze this time, but to chocolate.

When I was living in London more than twenty years ago, and just out of rehab, I’d gotten into a routine of secretly eating a pound or two of cookies and sweets everyday when my (then) wife wasn’t looking. I ballooned up to 225 pounds in six months. 

I’d dieted strenuously, lost 55 pounds, and never put it back on. 

Okay—all that was long ago and in another country. What had seduced me into giving my chocolate habit a chance to come back into the sober, 165-lb. life I lead in California today?      

* * *

From Thanksgiving on, last year, the house had been awash with chocolate bars, Hershey's Kisses, peanut butter cookies, and on and on—getting ready for our annual Christmas party. By January 6th, when we took down the tree, Beverly said, "I'm going on a diet." When I got on a scale, it showed I'd gained six pounds. 

Okay, I told myself—no more sweets. But on January 7th, I told Bev I wanted a newspaper and drove into town. The lies had begun. I bought a paper all right, but a Hershey Bar too, the first in years. This won't hurt, I told myself, as long as you don't buy another tomorrow.

I bought a paper and a secret Hershey bar every day that week, and before long I was buying two Hershey's—one to eat in town, and a second to sneak past Beverly for when I was alone at my computer. 

Like the chicken pox virus left over from childhood that lay in wait for my immune system to hit a low point and suddenly came back last March as full-blown shingles, the chocolate addiction had come alive and was smiling, looking around.

I can see now a lot was going on. Two that I will mention:

One, a certain sly satisfaction in putting one over on Beverly.

Two, a certain shame that I was putting one over on Beverly.  

In other words, I was already treating her like a controlling co-dependent. (Which says more about me than her, since she knew nothing of any of this.) Bill, I said to myself, just don't go into town to buy another newspaper. And I didn't.

"What's happened?" said Beverly. "No newspaper today?"

I told her the weather was so lousy that I did not feel like driving in. What was really going on: if I wasn't going to buy a Hershey bar, what was the use of going into town? 

This so clearly paralleled the drunk who will not go somewhere unless he is sure a drink will be waiting, that I had to laugh at myself. 

Days went by, no Hershey's. Then I found half a stale chocolate cookie at the back of a kitchen cabinet. You know the feeling when you start a diet? Allow yourself one extra piece of buttered toast and immediately you say, well, I blew it for today. I might as well have some of that coffeecake too. I'll start fresh tomorrow. 

I ate that stale half cookie, got in the car, got a paper, ate one Hershey bar while reading the sports section in the car, ate a second driving home, with a third to sneak when I was alone at my computer.

This could not go on.

I went to an AA meeting and said I was powerless over chocolate. Nobody laughed. Driving home, I bought three Hershey bars. I did not sleep well that night.

Meanwhile, Bev and I had arranged to spend five days in San Francisco. Busy with friends, away from my usual haunts, the idea of buying chocolate never came to mind. Habit had not yet shaded over to full addiction. 

When we got home, I said to myself, Bill, you now have five days of chocolate sobriety running. Don't blow it. I told that story to my AA meeting that night. They all applauded. Driving home after the meeting, I stopped to examine my soul in the parking lot in front of an all-night deli.

What vacuum was I trying to fill with chocolate? (Agnostic/atheists please note this introspective questioning of my spiritual state had nothing to do with religion.) The answer was I'd been working on a new novel, gotten discouraged and used "the Christmas Season" as reason to pack it in, telling myself I'd go back to it again with fresh eyes in January.

I had not. 

Still sitting in front of the deli, I told myself, Bill, this is cowardice and sloth. The sweetness of life that's slipping by like time itself is the feeling of writing well. That's what you want, not chocolate. I went back to work, setting out afresh not only on the novel, but writing for The Fix too, and I haven’t had a Hershey's since.

Am I cured of chocoholism? No. But I have not had one today, don’t miss it, and am certainly not daydreaming about buying one when I go to teach my library class tomorrow. I've rediscovered the prime rule of habit formation: never allow the first exception to occur. 

* * *

All of which brings us back to Tess. 

Should she marry “addictive personality” Fred or not? 

I’ve found that some of the most important decisions we make in life, I told her, are based on insufficient evidence. If Fred has been eight years sober, there are no guarantees, but in my experience, that's a pretty good bet he will not go back to drinking. As for his “addictive personality,” just team up with him in never allowing that first exception to occur.

Or, as they put it in AA, “It’s that first drink that gets you drunk.”

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