7 Things You Don't Realize About Addiction (Until You Quit)
I got this voicemail from Cracked Editor-in-Chief Jack O'Brien two days ago:
"John, we have a slight problem. Editorial agrees that you're more interesting when you're addicted to something, and since that whole alcoholism thing is over, we'd like you to start doing meth. We've already sent you a 1-pound compressed brick that should be arriving today. You'll notice a bite taken out of the corner. That was Cody. He thought it was fudge. Meth fudge. And he was correct."
"There's also some porn-themed cocaine ice cream in there."
It's been two days, and no such package has arrived. I'm assuming it's because he addressed it like the last package he tried to send me, thinking "Some Farm Place" was close enough. Regardless, something he said got me thinking. That my alcoholism is "over." As if I had completed all of the requirements to graduate from alcoholic to normalcy. And that's when I realized that it wasn't just my clinically insane boss who thought this. It was most people. No, I'm as much of an alcoholic right now as I was 10 years ago -- I just don't drink now.
I don't blame people for not knowing that. Two years into sobriety, I'm still learning things about the disease and recovery. For instance, you don't butter your dick nearly as often when you're sober. As well as other things, like ...
Alcohol Turns You into George Lucas
If I'm out doing errands and I run into someone I haven't seen in years, within 30 seconds they'll mention that I sound like a completely different person. At first, I thought that was just an age thing, but the more I talked to people, the more I remembered how much of an annoying jackass I used to be. And then I realized that my loud, "look at me" personality was the only one they ever knew.
The problem is it's easy to miss the drunk version of somebody, like that was the "real" them. When you're drunk, your inhibitions vanish. Even nondrinkers know that. We've all seen at least one movie where a quiet church mouse of a person drinks a little spiked punch and then, suddenly, he's transformed. Dancing on top of tables. Taking off his clothes. Insulting people. Lighting his farts in the middle of a laughing crowd.
"Quick, someone shit on my chest! This will be hilarious!"
But when you sober up, that voice comes back. The one that warns you, "This McDonald's cashier has heard the 'Mc' joke 300 times today. If you make another one, she's going to salt your fries with her own shit." It's what keeps you from hugging random strangers and screaming obscenities at your friend from across a crowded children's library. So it's easy to think, "When you're drunk, all of those filters are gone and your true self comes out."
That's bullshit. Your "true" self isn't represented by a single facet of your personality. It's the collective effort of a complex system of checks and balances. That uninhibited, somewhat stupid wild side is your Star Wars prequels-era George Lucas, throwing out whatever comes to mind at any particular second without a fear of consequences or how it appears to others. Your sober, rational mind is the entire crew from The Empire Strikes Back, constantly reminding him, "No. What you're about to do is retarded. This 'Jar Jar' thing belongs on the cutting room floor -- you'll thank us later." Saying that your drunken, uninhibited side is your "true" self is an insult. Without those voices to keep you in check, you're The Phantom Menace.
No, that's not a good thing.
Once you give up booze, the balance returns, and you start to understand that the way you were acting while under the influence was not only immature, but immeasurably embarrassing. So when people see you truly sober for the first time, their reaction is always a genuinely surprised look that says, "Oh, wait, you're human? I never noticed that before!"
You Will Lose Most of Your Friends
Most alcoholics run in drinking social circles. You don't realize it until you've been sober for a while, but many of the friendships that you thought were deep and meaningful were nothing more than drinking buddies. In those groups, alcohol is the binding thread that holds everyone together.
Once I removed that thread, the whole sweater fell apart, exposing my nude George Wendt tattoo to a sea of horrified onlookers. And it turned out that nobody wanted to be associated with that. At least not while sober.
"Sorry, but this place closes in an hour, and after that, I have to switch to mouthwash."
Little by little, the drinking friends realize that hanging out with you means doing it without a beer in their hands. And at the same time, you find that if they do drink around you, it's only a matter of time before they start offering you one. The more they drink, the more persistent they become. And the more persistent they become, the more tempted you are to just give in. Just this once.
It doesn't take long before they stop showing up at all, and after years of building relationships that revolve around alcohol, you have no idea where to even start looking for real-world friendship. As you try to figure out how you're going to build a whole new social life from scratch, the dread and panic of being totally lost is just enormous. You are in social limbo. How the hell do you escape that? Where does a guy even go to meet a woman, if not a bar or a party?
After two years, I still don't have an answer to that. As much of a hermit as it makes me seem, I've since resigned myself to a few very close relationships, like the ones with my kids, my fiancee and my best friend. And the rest are all Internet friends. On the Net, if someone gets drunk and starts acting like a dumbass, I can just close the window and talk to them when they sober up.
Current Alcoholics Just Piss You Off
I get a lot of messages from people who are going through the same ordeal I went through. It's incredible to me that I'm in a position where I can help people, but it's as frustrating as swimmer's dick at a porn audition to see them going through the same "set yourself up for failure" motions that I mastered over years of protecting my own disease.
I've gotten stories from people who have been evicted from their apartments because they drank away their rent money. A mom who woke up to find her 8-year-old son trying to cook his own supper because she was passed out on the couch. People who tell me that they are incapable of moderating their intake -- if they drink one, they have to keep going until they're at their physical limit. It is beyond their control.
"I just like to have a few with friends. I'm a social drinker!"
Then in the same email, they'll say, "You've convinced me to finally cut back on my drinking."
Wait, what? Cut back? You just told me that you don't have the ability to stop yourself from getting blitzed. Where in any of my writings or correspondence have you seen me use the phrase, "Cutting back is a good idea"? Don't blame me for this about-to-buttfuck-you-into-a-stupor decision.
You see these people doing the same exact things that you did, and you know for a stone-carved fact that there isn't a combination of words in the collective languages of our entire species that can convince them that they need help. Just like when I was an alcoholic, they're not looking for help or advice. They're looking for validation.
"I only had six. See, I'm fine."
They'll tell you what they think you want to hear -- that they have it all under control. "I'm an alcoholic like you. I haven't had a drink in six days, and I just wanted to thank you. I finally have this thing beat, and it feels great!" Then a week later, "So I slipped up and drank at a birthday party. But then I realized that I don't actually want to stop drinking. I'm making enough money that I can afford it without going broke, and I proved to myself by quitting that I'm not an alcoholic. Thanks for helping me see that."
Wait, wait, wait ... you just told me a week ago that you were drinking so much that you were waking up with cuts on your arm, and you had no recollection of doing it. When did it become an issue of finances? When did you modify the meaning of "alcoholic"? Was it shortly after you told me that you are one? Or was it right before you made the decision to start drinking again?
"I found it on the road. What was I supposed to do, just let it go to waste?"
The reason it's so maddening is because you've done the same thing so many times yourself that you can write their responses for them, a week before they even know they're going to say it. And I'm not exaggerating on that. I've predicted the relapses of four complete Internet strangers based solely on what they type. Not just the fact that they would relapse, but how it would happen, and what excuse they would use when they came clean about it.
And mine is not exactly an anger that's aimed at them. I don't know them. Whether they drink or not, I'm the same guy, living the same life -- whether they succeed or fail, I autograph the same number of naked breasts at the end of the day. It makes me angry at myself because at the moment they're making their excuses, or lying, or defending their disease, it's like looking into a mirror and seeing your old self smirking back at you with a look that says, "Pfft. You don't know what you're talking about. I have this under control."
"You want some of th- STOP COPYING ME!"
It's enough to make you want to pull your past self through that mirror and beat him until the backward lettering on his T-shirt is obscured by his own fallen teeth.
Boredom Changes Everything
For the first couple of weeks after giving up alcohol, you won't know what to do. You're used to a routine of "drinking plus X," and when you take away the booze from that equation, most people find that the "X" kind of sucks. I remember spending entire nights playing my guitar and singing while pounding enough beer to dissolve my kidneys. I loved playing music. I couldn't imagine going a night without it.
Until I took away the beer. Suddenly, I didn't like the guitar very much, so I packed it away and haven't really touched it since.
Along with all of my burial urns and women's clothing.
Don't mistake what I'm saying here. I didn't betray an old love by tearfully putting it in the back of the closet against my will. It was a hobby that I enjoyed only when I was drinking -- because I was drinking. Sober, I never had much interest in it. I just didn't realize that until I committed to getting clean, heard myself through clear ears and discovered, "You're that guy the movies make fun of. The one in the corner of a party, playing acoustic guitar for girls, thinking he's super cool. You're that twat."
I started to hear my voice without the shroud of drunken ego, masking all of the imperfections ... and there were a lot of them. I hate the way I sound when I sing. I hate that when I'm drunk, my guitar playing sounds flawless to me. But when I'm sober, I realize that I sound exactly like every other average guitar player in existence.
Plus, you have to constantly deal with the bees.
Again, I'm not saying that you're going to walk into your house on Day One and throw away everything that means something to you. If you enjoyed making model clown beards out of pipe cleaners whether you were drinking or not, there's a good chance you'll still love it in your newfound sobriety. And if, only when drinking, you find yourself stuffing a dozen of those beards into your ass, and then farting them straight into the air, screaming, "BEARD GEYSER," then chances are you're probably not going to hang on to that hobby when you cut out the booze.
Over time, the more hobbies you drop, the more holes you'll find yourself trying to fill with other activities. Strangely, I picked up cleaning and cooking. I developed this almost OCD level of cleanliness that probably drives the rest of my family insane ... but if I don't fill that hole with something productive, I'm going to fill it with beer.
My neighbors have threatened to file for a restraining order on behalf of their pets if I don't start drinking again.
Any Conversation About Alcohol Is Now Awkward
It's going to come up at some point. You simply can't avoid alcohol forever, and you're going to find that even complete strangers default to assuming that you drink. My neighbors drink, and if they happen to see me in the yard, they'll make friendly conversation and eventually offer me a beer. To them, it's the polite thing to do. I'll decline with a simple, "No thanks, I don't drink." And the reaction is always the same: "Really? Why?"
That's when it gets weird. If you tell them that you used to have a problem with drinking and you chose to give it up, now they feel like they've offended you in some way. They'll either tiptoe around the subject and wrap up the conversation as soon as humanly possible, or they'll try to relate. "Oh, wow. Good for you! I really need to quit, myself, someday." Then they'll take a drink and glance at their watch.
"Oh, hey, will you look at that. I need to go over here and not talk to you anymore."
If you try to blow it off with something generic like, "I'm just not a big drinker," they automatically assume you're an ultra religious "thou shalt not drink" advocate. Their tone and language immediately change into a more respectful version of their normal state, as if they're talking to a preacher, and I'm not going to lie here ... I find that reaction to be funny as hell.
But it's not just awkward for them. You will find yourself actively avoiding the subject, because if it turns into a full-on conversation about addiction, you're going to sound preachy. Nobody likes that guy who tells everyone else what they can't do. And even if you're not being that type of douche bag, you're going to come across as accusing and holier-than-thou simply by having an honest discussion about why you gave it up. You might as well be telling them, "Well, I didn't want to end up like you. I mean, look at you. Fuck your mother, you goddamn alchie."
And then you just stand back and soak in their shame.
And keep in mind that we're not just talking about my neighbor here. I run into this problem at least once a month, and it never gets any easier. Help a friend move, and they offer to buy you a 12-pack. Meet someone new, and they invite you out for a few drinks. Go to a restaurant, and every woman in the place buys you a drink with her hotel key in the glass.
We have a grab bag gift exchange every Christmas at my grandma's, and last year, I had to trade in three gifts back-to-back because two were bottles of wine, and one was a "beer of the month club" membership. The one I ended up settling on was a thermos -- in the shape of a beer mug. Which I ended up giving to my brother, walking away without a gift that year.
And again, I had to give him that quietly under the table because the conversation would have been too awkward to handle. "Why did you give away the gift I bought? What kind of asshole does that?" Then you'd have to explain to them how any little thing that reminds you of beer is dangerous. That something most people consider small and harmless can be the trigger that makes you relapse, and it's best to just avoid that altogether. There is no way to have that conversation without them walking away feeling insulted and offended.
God, just look at the expression on my grandmother's face.
You will have moments like these for the rest of your life.
You Are Not Prepared for the Guilt
After you have a few months of clear-headed living under your belt, you're going to have a night where you put your past under a microscope. And all the little slimy, deformed crawlies you find in there are going to make you want to vomit.
It will start with the obvious: feeling guilty about all of the booze-fueled bullshit you shoveled on people. The pointless arguments at three in the morning. Waitresses who had to deal with you after pulling a 14-hour double. People you embarrassed by acting like an uncontrollable dumbass in public. Friends who took care of you when your head was dangerously close to sea level of an unflushed toilet.
"This is the last time, understood?"
But the next level will really get to you. You'll remember specific people who, at the time, seemed like the biggest assholes in the world. They criticized you. Made you feel worthless. Told you that you needed to grow up. Threatened to end their relationship with you if you didn't change. You'll remember thinking, "Fuck them! If they can't accept me for who I am, then they're not my friends." And that's when it hits home ...
The booze wasn't who you are. It was just something you did. Those people weren't trying to hurt you -- they were trying to fucking help you. They weren't the enemy ... they were the strongest line of defense you had, fighting tooth and nail to keep you alive, and you didn't even recognize it. At that point, if your gut doesn't drop into your shoes, there's a good chance that you were born of evil intent. Because if you're like the millions of addicts who all react in the same way, you cut them out of your life.
"Later, dickweeds. I'm gonna go get ripped, like an adult.
That guilt will follow you around until you do something about it. And I'll be straight with you here -- I just had to swallow my pride and start apologizing to people. Even the ones who had all of me they were willing to take for the rest of their lives, who I knew would simply give me the finger and say, "I told you so. Now fuck off. I'd rather spend the day drawing close-up portraits of my dog's asshole than devoting a single minute to remembering the many ways you made my life suck."
If there's another way to deal with it, I haven't found it. I'm not sure there is one, because the truth is, it wasn't the alcohol making you do that. That was you. You destroyed those relationships. You were the one calling the shots, drunk or not. You were the one who pissed in the dolphin tank at SeaWorld in front of 200 screaming children. Quitting drinking does not wipe away those old emotional debts you racked up. You did the crime, and you are accountable for it. A celebrity entering rehab does not wipe away the time he vomited a slew of racial slurs on stage. It was not alcohol's fault. Beer did not introduce those thoughts into his brain. He did. And he damn sure owes an apology for it.
And there had better be some goddamn chocolate involved!
You Will Still Have Cravings Like It Was Day One Again
The longer you go without drinking, the easier it gets. But that doesn't mean you get to ride off into the sunset while victorious cowboy music plays you out. (Even though I actually do pay people to do that for me every time I leave a building.) But after two years of sobriety, I still have occasional days where the cravings for alcohol is so bad, it feels like I'm right back at my first day of quitting.
Obviously, it's not the physical chemicals that are making me want it, because that's been out of my system for quite some time. It's not like my body is screaming in pain because it's used to a steady diet of alcohol and doesn't know how to function without it. No, it's the broken cog in the brain -- the mechanism that makes an addict. That's the really crazy part of being an alcoholic: The actual alcohol doesn't matter that much.
It's the cravings chips that the government put in there when you were born.
Even if you were to completely erase booze from the annals of time, alcoholics would still find something to get addicted to. Drugs, sex, cigarettes, video games. It's a twisted form of obsession that we have to appease or we go nuts. The trick is to point that addictive behavior at something positive. Like I mentioned earlier, for me that's cleaning, cooking and work.
But every once in a while, for no reason whatsoever, that old feeling springs back up, and you would sell your own mother into Third World prostitution for a free pass to drink. Just for one day. One day wouldn't hurt, right?
"Alright, pray time is over -- get your bitchass in the boat!"
To give you an idea of how bad it gets, I had cravings last week that were so powerful, I actually considered calling my bank and having them put a 24-hour stop on my debit card so that I couldn't cave in to the pressure. The pressure that was coming from my own goddamn brain. Over two years after I quit drinking.
Like I said earlier, it's never over. Not for me. Not for any addict.
For more Cheese, check out Quitting Smoking: 6 Things You Notice About the Stupid World and 5 Things Nobody Tells You About Quitting Drinking.