So we’re at “turn over a new leaf” time.
It’s a busy time for addictions guys like me. Actually, the busiest time will be starting in about two weeks. That’s enough time for the promises to start wearing thin, the wife to find the first new hiding place or smell the first whiff of “vodka cologne,” the first unexplained trip to the city (not for dope, of course) or the first “well, maybe it’s OK to smoke a little weed or have just one beer with dinner.” The disappointment cycle starts the new round of fights, which serve to justify a new round of drinking or drugging and off we go back into the merry-go-round of addiction.
Nobody in that scenario has yet come to understand that for the addicted, this isn’t just a matter of “quitting” or a matter of “overcoming the urge to “use” or “getting past the cravings.” For a heavy drinker or a social user, quitting or cutting down might be a good idea for health reasons or other good reasons and is completely doable with a little willpower and maybe the support of a program or counseling but for an alcoholic or addict, quitting is only the beginning. My experience is that most folks, especially those close to addicts or alcoholics can’t accurately discriminate between heavy drinking and alcoholism, in part, because the person doing the drinking is unable to and at some point unwilling to recognize when the drinking or drugging has taken control.
“Lisa” hid her drinking from everyone but her husband. To the public, she was a funny, animated Irish girl who went regularly to church, loved her family (third husband) and helped her neighbors whenever she was asked. At home, however, she stashed her wine, bought it at rotating locations so as not to be thought of as an alcoholic and drank until she was drunk most nights after her husband went to bed. A winter ago, she got loaded, decided to walk the dog (in order to finish the bottle), passed out in a snowbank and wasn’t found until hours later with a frostbitten cheek and a dislocated shoulder, which later required surgery straining their already-tenuous budget. Her husband’s explanation to those who knew her was that she had “slipped on the ice,” which was half true. Lisa swore she would quit.
Lisa lasted about a week before she began pressuring her husband to let her, “have just one to relax.” Within a month, the daily drinking and bottle-hiding was back along with a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication, which she found miraculously took the edge off during the day. Her husband saw a marked improvement (due largely to the alleviation of the worst of the hangover symptoms) but he didn’t realize that. Lisa started to skip meals because her appetite was gone from alcohol-related stomach issues and the fact that her liver wasn’t functioning properly. Within a year, she had lost 30 pounds and was hospitalized for “exhaustion.” Because she didn’t come into the emergency room smelling like alcohol, and both she and her husband were too ashamed to acknowledge the problem drinking, the hospital missed it and Lisa went home with some additional meds and a promise to her husband to quit for good this time.
Willpower isn’t going to get it for Lisa. Neither Lisa nor her husband have acknowledged the alcoholism, have avoided help out of pride and shame and so, unfortunately, we’re likely to go at least another round and we can only hope Lisa doesn’t perish from her illness before they call it what it is.
• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He hosts the weekly radio show Straight Stuff on Addictions at recoveryinternetradio.com. He can reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.