What's It Like To Have An Addiction?

By Anne Giles 07/28/16

That is what alcoholism feels like to me.

What's It Like To Have An Addiction?
via Anne Giles

I had half a century on the planet without any addictions in order to accumulate experience with which to compare my life before and after alcoholism.

What is addiction to alcohol like? How can I bridge the gap between what I understand now that I didn't understand then? What common human experience can I compare it to? Cancer and diabetes are medical illnesses often used to metaphorically explain addiction, but, thankfully, are rare enough for most people to have difficulty relating to personally. Eating chocolate? I appreciate the powerful call of chocolate. But addiction to chocolate? Compulsive use of chocolate despite negative consequences? I never became intoxicated from chocolate and tumbled down the stairs, slamming my head into the bottom of a stairwell after eating too many Hershey's Kisses. Repeatedly. No, that's not it.

Maybe this…

Several years ago, I was scheduled for outpatient surgery for an abnormal lump in my neck that needed to removed and biopsied. I was instructed to stop eating food and drinking water at midnight the night before. I had a bowl of muesli at 9PM and went to bed. I woke up at my regular time, did my regular thing, but had none of my regular morning food and beverages: no tea with milk, no fried eggs, no more muesli. My sister picked me up and we arrived at the hospital at 8AM for the 9AM surgery. We were told that an emergency case had moved my surgery up to noon.

I heard a quote in college and thought it was concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl who said, "Man can survive anything if he knows it will end," although I've been unable to find the source of that quote. But that's the wisdom I reassured myself with when I learned I had to go without food and water for another 3 hours, a total of 15 hours. My cognitive functioning was still intact but I knew it would begin to deteriorate. I gathered myself for an endurance test that would end mercifully when the anesthesia began.

I did a few mindless chores, rested, waited. My sister drove me back to the hospital at noon. Another emergency had come in and we were informed my surgery would occur sometime that day, but later, with an uncertain start time. They would call me.

I had been abstinent from food and water for 18 hours. I am physically dependent upon these substances. For me to maintain normal functioning and to feel normal, I need them. Without them I, essentially, go into withdrawal. I felt light-headed, dull-witted, so very tired. I could choose to use food and water again, but I would, paradoxically, risk my health. I needed the surgery that day, not in the weeks or months it would take to reschedule in my small town. I was in the double bind of having to endure life-threatening deprivation to potentially save my life.

What began then, even with a loving family member present, was a sense of endless, helpless, solitary despair.

That approximates what I feel without alcohol. Not always to that extent. But present is a low, constant, ever-present whimper of distress: help help help help help help help help please please please please please please please

For me, addiction created a new need beyond food and water. Since I became abstinent from alcohol 3 and 1/2 years ago, every conscious moment of every one of those days, I have denied myself what I experience as a need. My head knows that I am making a healthful choice, as if I were preparing myself for a needed surgery. But this isn't a mental game we're playing where I can just pretend some great mythical surgery ahead will relieve me of my need. When will my suppressed survival instinct triumph to save me and get this starving, parched woman a drink?

Or maybe this…

Although Cinderella and the handsome prince don't have a baby in their story, I assumed happily ever after meant marriage + baby. Two years after my husband and I married, we decided to attempt to conceive a child. I told my women friends and their eyes shone as brightly as mine. When I didn't become pregnant after several months, I checked in with my gynecologist.

For the next several years, I received the best medical care that money can buy from the top physicians and medical experts an urban area can provide. I complied 1000% with their treatments. I underwent every test, all requiring spread legs. I longed, I wished, I worked, I prayed to have a child. "Just relax!" I was told by my women friends, inadvertently being blamed and faulted for my infertility. If I would gather the strength of character to just say no to being uptight, a baby would be mine.

I willed whatever forces were operating within me to let my body do what I wanted it to do. And I could not. It would not.

That is what alcoholism feels like to me. No matter what I do, no matter how much I try or work or care, I cannot make this not be.

Nora Volkow writes in Advances in Addictions & Recovery, "People suffering from addictions are not morally weak; they suffer a disease that has compromised something that the rest of us take for granted: the ability to exert will and follow through with it."

Disease, illness, disorder, whatever term used, being powerless over one's will, one's very self, and no longer having a life story that makes sense is writhing in agony like an insect, pierced and pinned through the gut on a board, absolutely helpless to be free and whole ever again.

Relapse rates are high because doing without is simply unbearable in the moment and unsustainable over time. Anyone who stays abstinent, or survives on the bread-and-water rations medication-assisted treatment provides, is a human enduring the inhuman.

I have attempted to compile a list of every evidence-based addiction treatment known to humankind, to gain access to as many of them as I can in my small, rural town, and to comply with all of those 1000%, all day, every day. A report released just last month, in June, 2016, in the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics states, "[N]o [addiction] treatment has been shown to be far superior to another for a particular person. These findings may lead some to question whether any treatment for addiction can be recommended." What?!

Let me see if I've got this. I have a condition which is miserable in the moment, threatens to undo me in the next, and for which there is no sure, recommended treatment?


Oh, there's more?

"We have this idea that if we are just cruel enough and mean enough and tough enough to people with addiction, that they will suddenly wake up and stop," Maia Szalavitz said in an interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross. 

What's it like to have an addiction? In my personal experience? From my sample size of one? Cornered, wounded by something unseen, dreading the next clawing.

My neck surgery went well, the biopsy was clear (clean?), and my period of abstinence from food and water, as expected, ended. The duration of my abstinence from alcohol, an end to which I believe would return me to active addiction, is less clear. Without greater certainty about what treats addiction, without access to those treatments, and without, if not kindness, at least suspension of meanness, addiction for me - perhaps for many - may be too hard.

Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., as of this writing, is a 57-year-old woman with 3 1/2 years of abstinence from alcohol who developed alcohol use disorder in the preceding 6 years. She blogs at annegiles.com.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is a counselor, writer and business owner. As of this writing, she has been abstinent from alcohol since December 28, 2012, and is in remission from alcohol use disorder. You can find Anne on Linkedin and Twitter.