“All or Nothing” is the twelfth part of a project called Terminally Unique. It features what was originally the sixth chapter from a piece I published in 2013 called Believed to Be Seen. To gain a better sense of what this broader series is, I suggest starting from the beginning with the introduction titled “A New Pair of Glasses.” For those of you continuing on through, here is “All or Nothing”…
“I can resist everything except temptation.” —Oscar Wilde
There are a lot of firsts in life that I do not really remember. I do not recall exactly when I had my first kiss or my first goal playing youth hockey, and to be honest I am not sure who my first grade teacher was either. I can tell you, however, when and where it was that I took my first drink. An aimless high school student at the time, I enrolled in a work-program which allowed me to learn to cook under a provincially licensed chef as an alternative to attending classes full-time. I could go to school for part of the year and work for the other, just so long as I agreed to the most important stipulation of the contract: by law, the first 1,000 hours of my internship would be unpaid. I did not blink an eye.
To learn the ropes in the kitchen I began as a prep cook, working with a dance music fanatic named Adam and a tireless, small-statured man who spoke only broken English named Ricky Lo. While my cooking career failed to last even two years, the immersion into that environment came with an equally eye opening introduction to alluring off-hours indulgences, used to help balance the daily insanity of the workplace. It was not at a party that I had my first drink, but at the restaurant itself. One night as we closed early to give the place a much needed cleaning, free beers were passed around and a friend, knowing I had not had a drink before, offered me a Budweiser. “It’s like fruit juice,” he said, talking it down compared to the higher alcohol-content of Canadian domestics. (For the record, Budweiser does not taste like fruit juice.) I slowly learned that drinking at work, as those who have worked kitchens anywhere might to attest to, is not nearly as frowned upon as it is in some other business-casual settings. Not Kitchen Confidential-hard drinking, mind you, but the occasional nip seemed alright. For example, following a particularly tough dinner rush one night, one of the front-of-house staff members came sauntering to the back with a tray of sambuca shots for everyone as reward. I distinctly remember a feeling of great pride while the licorice-flavored liqueur hit my throat as I stood in the dish-pit. It felt good to be included.
I have always cherished the associated feeling of camaraderie that accompanies celebratory drinking–its powerful warmth in the room of a party, and its faint lingering presence in a scattered barroom. For a generally lonely and depressed person, drinking has played a significant role in helping me feel companionship even when all I felt was an illusion. The confusion, the misery, the physical withdrawal–none of that really mattered when an empty sense of loneliness would be erased within the span of a few quick drinks. In part, that is why I never wanted to quit drinking: I did not want to lose that feeling, whatever it was. So, I tried to find a balance.
For reasons that might not be considered particularly funny, my family is sort of “funny.” Growing up, my dad and his siblings had less than nothing, were not loved by their parents, and were given about as little support along the way as might have been humanly possible. The child of a terribly abusive home, he left at a young age and tried to do the best he could with what he had. It is a tragic story, his family’s, but one that lends some perspective to how those once-broken children continue to live their lives now. Staunch advocates for sobriety, both he and his sister avoid and condemn the use of alcohol as it was so fiercely abused throughout their childhood. But aside from that, balance is not a word that would describe their lifestyles. Weight problems have been an issue for both, and both have always had odd consumer habits. Ever since I can remember, my aunt has had semi-trucks and a house full of stuff that she has picked up at garage sales or auctions, for example. Growing up with nothing as children seems to have left them with some sort of void, manifesting itself in these sorts of examples. I feel like I was raised with this tendency toward all or nothing as a blueprint for how to live my life.
Early on in my teens my parents came to me and told me they would give me $1,000 if I did not drink alcohol until I was 21. They have never had much money, so what they had meant a lot. It was around that time when I began working in the kitchen, and I mentioned their offer to friends at work. I felt that I wanted to honor their request, and at its most basic, I was 16 and a grand seemed like a lot of money to me. They laughed it off. I guess I did too. I do not know what I would have done if I was in their same position, but to this day I do not fully understand abstinence-only thinking.
Teaching those coming of age the merits of safer drinking rather than proposing a wholesome abstinence-only approach seems more reasonable to me. Drinking is like sex in that kids are going to do it whether parents like it or not, so it might be beneficial to offer more (real) information and support along the way so young people can recognize their own place along the wellness spectrum. This is self-matching at its most basic. But who is to say that someone will not be the exception, that they do not have the genetic makeup or some biological predisposition which might send them immediately spiraling out of control the moment they first feel the effects of alcohol take hold? Both having had abusive drinkers in their families, that sort of what-if scenario is what my parents were hoping to avoid. I am not saying that their proposition might have had more to do with my accelerated transition toward binge drinking than my friend’s casual Bud offering did, but I am not saying that it did not, either. Life’s not that simple and it is hard to gauge the depths of a child’s rebellious impulses.
We have all heard the alcoholic folklore, about the nameless so-and-sos who enjoyed several decades of sobriety only to give themselves a break of indulgence: Maybe a little weed, maybe a couple lite beers. What’s the harm, the stories always relate. Then a little turned into a little more, and before long chaos strikes and it is back to square one. Such faceless stories remain typical in the defense of abstinent lifestyles, but what about people who just want to have a few glasses of wine with friends over dinner, who are not prone to week-long drinking-sprees? The feeling of a solid buzz can be a beautiful thing, and who is to say that past lapses will speak to future drinking patterns?
Aristotle wrote that “the happy man lives well and does well,” arguing that happiness was to be achieved by living a life of virtue and continuously searching for the “golden mean” by striving to find balance between two excesses. The Greek sage Epictetus echoed this belief, praising temperance, and preaching that an individual could experience the most satisfying of lives by abstaining from over-indulgence. And when faced with a completely sober reality that left me dissatisfied, a sort of existential philosophy boiled over within me, leaving me feeling like I had to take control over my life. It was not someone else’s responsibility to tell me what I should and should not do, but I had to become accountable for nurturing my own sense of self-control.
A blanket assertion from authority figures, claiming that abstinence was a necessity in my life, discounted both personal experience and discipline. I had tried cocaine, for example, and it did not really do much for me, so I did not bother with it. I enjoy smoking weed, but never fell into similar patterns of heavy use as I did with alcohol. Aware that moderation of food had also been an issue for me since I was young, I took to approaching alcohol as I hoped to do for eating: I recognized I had poor habits when it came to both, but understood that habit, while not easily undone, can be overcome. Overeaters cannot stop eating altogether, and confronted by my own distaste toward abstinence, I felt a harm reduction model would help build a better version of who I was to become. After all, moderation has become more socially acceptable in heavy drinking nations like Australia and the U.K., and evidence suggests that a moderation goal would be wise if there have been numerous failed attempts at abstinence in the past. In a world where A.A. has a 5% success rate and I did not want to be sober, I figured an attempt at reducing unhealthy drinking behavior seemed nothing if not downright sensible. So, I tried to approach self-monitoring of drinking just as I did eating, making sure that I was not drinking or eating at things, or over-indulging because I was lonely or bored. And for a while it worked.
In March of 2000, Audrey Kishline turned west on an eastbound interstate, and driving in a state of blackout somewhere between sixty to seventy miles per hour, she crashed her pickup truck head-on into an oncoming vehicle. She killed both the driver and his twelve-year-old daughter. Kishline’s story of recklessness could well have been my own, far more times than I would like to admit. But one detail of her story lends it a particularly tragic twist: earlier that year she had personally shed her association with Moderation Management, the organization she herself had founded, relenting that she had not been honest about her drinking and she was going to change her “recovery goal to one of abstinence rather than moderation.” “For a long time I hid my drinking,” she later explained, adding that she had developed Moderation Management with an ulterior motivation in mind. “It would legitimize my drinking.”
At the core of my treatment was what boils down to the development of positive thinking habits. While we have thousands upon thousands of thoughts every day, it was repeatedly emphasized that the onus of deciding which thoughts are given attention remains with the individual. This idea is hardly exclusive to “Health Realization,” or even recovery – the concept rings true from Buddha (“Our life is the creation of the mind”) to Dr. Seuss (“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!”) – but a tendency exists to shrug it off or let it be forgotten, in part, because it is so effortlessly lost in its simplicity. Case in point: even after treatment, the mere thought of not drinking remained a nervous source of anxiety.
The stress tied to actually quitting drinking manifested itself in a resignation that I did not care to quit drinking, so long as sobriety was my only alternative. I did not want to confront my own capacity to step away, and challenge myself to actually begin to emerge from a numbed existence by experiencing life’s legitimate feelings. For years, fighting through aimless drinking goals, telling myself “I will not drink alcohol again” only left me with a feeling of dread. I was aware of the serious emotional and physical issues that such pronounced anxiety indicated, yet dismissed the feelings by remaining focused on how important drinking was to me. Not only that, but acting on such a statement would distance me from any long-term personal contingency plans that I was not ready to let go of: …but if I can’t make my rent, or my friends leave me, or I lose my job, or my parents die, or my dog runs away, then it’s open season on drinking again. This emotional undercurrent reinforced my drinking, but it also left me feeling hypocritical.
When thinking is continually rewarded by behavior that acts on addictive urges, it becomes more difficult to correct negative patterns than simply positively thinking one’s way out of self-destruction. While telling myself that “I will not drink alcohol again” made me nervous, seemingly speaking to the prolonged addictive effects of drinking, it also revealed that I was not ready to deal with the uncertainty that transformative personal change might bring with it. I was not suppressing emotions, childhood angst, or past regrets by continuing my drinking, I had simply become used to regularly dealing with everyday life under the influence of alcohol, and the sheer thought of not doing so was something I had so desperately avoided despite not understanding what I was really avoiding. And because I was suspended in this confusion, my thoughts remained cyclical in catering to patterns that my behavior was establishing as normal: A few drinks were necessary in order to cope with the day that started off sloppy because of too many drinks the day before.
Psychologist Joseph Bailey speaks to this confusion with the concept of “sincere delusion.” The idea is that a deluded person fails to realize they are in charge of their lives, and in the chaos of daily living they neglect to use gained wisdom and common sense, allowing their surroundings to dictate how they react to the world around them. What then happens is the individual begins to further latch onto whatever is comfortable in their world in order to cope. This leads to a narrow and predetermined perspective of reality, he argues, offering “Mondays” as an example. When the weekend ends we often allow pre-programming to trigger an internal response, leaving us with a variety of conclusions about how Mondays are going to be rotten, even before the day begins. What happens next is that we know Mondays are going to be awful, or that treatment will not work, or that whatever your position is on something is gospel because your thoughts have been validated time and time again by the elements you have selectively surrounded yourself with. Essentially, Mondays are terrible because we allow them to be terrible, and no one can just quit drinking because of a predetermined conclusion that quitting drinking is impossible.
Of the recovery methods I invested myself in, the base-concepts of Rational Recovery made the most sense to me, particularly its emphasis on “addictive voices.” In much the same way that Health Realization aims to reinforce thought recognition, Trimpey’s program recognizes that this sincere delusion exists, asserting that the primary key to recovery comes with learning to identify and dissect the nature of our individual addictive voices.
As arrogant as the proposition sounds, the statement that Rational Recovery’s foundation “permits anyone to recover immediately and completely from addiction to alcohol or drugs” is not far from the truth: The ability to recognize and confront addictive voices respects that individuals are the observers of thoughts and feelings – both positive and negative – and ultimately possess the control to support addictive voices or deny them. I believe this to be true, but the ability to face “any idea, feeling, or behavior that supports drinking alcohol” and practice the ability to control corresponding emotions is not an immediate process. Recognizing we have control over our thoughts is far different than maintaining control over our thoughts, especially when they have gone unchecked for so long.
When the words “I will never drink alcohol again” first coursed through my mind, I remember grimacing at the unbearable thoughts that followed, emerging in high contrast to the more welcoming rhetoric of 12 Steppers who champion a “one day at a time” approach to abstinence. Initially “forever” felt too heavy to bear – it is simply not realistic to flip a switch from hopelessly dependent to comfortably sober – and the crippling internal dialog and emotions associated with pulling the rug out from under a way of life that has become second nature is not as manageable as the statement regarding addictive voice recognition makes it out to be.
However manageable “one day at a time” might seem, it leaves the door open for future use, implying that I can not control tomorrow but can only make sure that I do not drink today. Saying “forever” is a bit of a moot point, considering that in its most reduced definition the word only represents an endless succession of future right nows. When I began to consider “forever,” my addictive voice pushed back in the form of anxiety, preventing a smooth transition into sobriety by stimulating every last ounce of physical addiction in an attempt to bait the desire for gratification. Current use produces quick predictable results, while it is mentally difficult and emotionally inconvenient to change. Regardless of whether or not my intent was sobriety (or not), physical and emotional urge resisted any deviation from habit. When I began to understand this it became clear moderation was not the answer for me – it was merely an attempt to legitimize my drinking, and defend my future use, much as it was Audrey Kishline’s.
Economist George Loewenstein has established the term “empathy gap” in explaining how thought and behavior cannot be predicted when people find themselves in hot or cold states of mind. Such emotions as love, rage, and sadness all blur general conclusions made regarding happiness. “If our decision making is influenced by these transient emotional and psychological states, then we know we’re not making decisions with an eye toward future consequences.” This is a key that much of addiction recovery fails to acknowledge, rational behavior remains bounded by our emotions, often leading to self-defeating and irrational actions despite people being fully aware of consequences. “We are not dispassionate information processors,” continues Loewenstein. “If we want to believe something, we’re amazingly adept at persuading ourselves that what we want to believe is true.” In my case, this often facilitated defiant binging; whether it be a response to loneliness or sheer boredom. If the circumstances were right, I have historically sabotaged myself by eating and drinking at depression, life, despair, loneliness, boredom, happiness, celebration, and triumph. I had little choice but to fail at moderation, because the concept was never possible through the manner by which I was pursuing it.
I do not really enjoy the taste of vodka or whiskey, but was willing to overlook that for the sake of getting drunk. I enjoy the taste of many beers, but to say that I am drinking them for the sake of some preferential taste (over soda, coffee, or tea) would be a lie, regardless of how full-bodied its complex flavors might be. But the deceptive nature of the addictive thoughts in my head twisted the reality of moderation into an illusion that I would continually fail to achieve so long as I attempted to pursue it. I would buy in bulk – to save money, of course – with the intention of moderating my drinking, while simultaneously dismissing internal red-flags: this particular handle of liquor was different. No dependent drinker is buying 1.75 liters of bottom-shelf vodka with moderation in mind. Continually neglecting the reality of my using-with-a-high-probability-of-abusing not only emphasized how hot and cold states guided my behavior, but how tightly addiction had become wound to my basic emotions.
This process of self-realization through behavioral reconditioning reflects a fundamental cognitive behavioral therapy approach to addiction, but the results are not much different than what A.A. promises when The Program claims to restore alcoholics of their sanity. Instead of developing mindfulness amid conflicting internal motivations, unchecked behaviors nurture addiction and reinforce habit. When I made the decision that I did not want to be sober I acted on urges without allowing myself to recognize what the likely outcome was going to be. In removing myself from this cycle by building reflective pause between thought and action, I began to buck complacency, assessing real wants while becoming increasingly aware of when I was acting on an urge that went against those “wants.” This complacency is something everyone faces, in some form or another, but it is how we deal with it that helps define us.
It is easy to grow comfortable with life regardless of whether or not we feel we are living it well. A sense of normalcy about what we are doing and how we are doing it will develop over time no matter the subject in question. Taking the kids to football practice can be normal. Going to work every day can be normal. Sitting on the couch all night watching television can be normal. Eating an entire pizza in a single sitting can be normal. Drinking a case of beer tailgating at a football game can be normal. Familiarity dictates normalcy and when we find ourselves in patterns, no matter how healthy or destructive, complacency remains driven by it.
No matter what we are doing, it is important to be mindful of past outcomes. What might the end result of action be and does it match the result we want? If you become complacent with a high anxiety job, ask yourself if going to work every day is helping you achieve the life you want. If you become complacent with drinking a fifth of liquor every night, ask yourself if what you are doing is helping you achieve the life you want. Pause your life and play the tape forward. If you are about to make a decision, think about what has happened in the past, and what might happen if you follow the same path in the present.
Just as I have felt uncertain and nervous about not drinking ever again, I have also noticed I begin to feel anxious when things become “normal.” If it has been too long since I have shaken things up I experience an urge to interject a bit of chaos into my life. In the past this has led to self-sabotage and destructive emotional mood swings. My complacency normalized this behavior.
In any given neighborhood there is likely to be a black sheep of a house that has seen better days. Maintaining a house is similar to maintaining the self in that becoming complacent with its current state, or its appearance of normalcy, is bound to distort reality. If your house is quite literally falling apart you might not realize it until you distance yourself from the destructive environment – the appearance of normalcy remains intact when what is on the inside is all you know. The same goes for people.
Stepping outside of complacency is a risk. It says we are not perfect. It says that what we are doing might not be the utmost brilliant way to live life. But it also says we are willing to grow, to adapt, and to live better. Once the ego is recognized and we resign ourselves to our imperfections it becomes easier to see how to avoid failure by stepping outside of complacency and honestly pursuing the things we actually want. There really does come a point when we are able to step beyond the role of being some sort of confused victim of misinformation, or an inmate trapped in a self-inflicted prison. In recognizing and combating these addictive voices we actually become the aggressor, seeking out and killing the vampires in our lives.
Vampires only go where they are invited and the people and situations that are most damaging in our lives have the ability of draining us of our livelihood because we allow them to do so. Similar to those who are stuck in abusive relationships, paralyzed by the fear of walking away, comedian and philosopher Duncan Trussell relates this analogy to how we often try to convince ourselves that these blood-suckers are not really vampires – instead proposing we do not have to cut them out of our lives, or we can somehow cope or manage while their grip tightens. Vampires can be seductive and manipulating, but acknowledging them for what they are is crucial.
As author Greg Carlisle writes, “Anything that inspires addiction or obsession – substances, entertainment, beauty, secrecy – is dangerous in that it can lead to isolation, self-absorption, and disconnection.” This includes the bizarre (eating dirt), the seemingly trivial (drinking coffee), and the overtly destructive (shooting up black-tar heroin). Binge-eating is like binge-drinking in that there are ways to master moderation for each, and techniques that can be learned to help avoid triggers that spark negative behavior. But drinking had become the opposite of what it was supposed to be for me. Instead of being enjoyable, or a “social lubricant,” it evolved into a mechanism of seclusive self-destruction. Alcohol had very much become a vampire in my life, constantly preventing me from succeeding, progressing, and simply being comfortable with myself. Instead of driving me outside myself to interact with others it kept driving me further and further in, closing me off to the world while I struggled to hold onto a mistaken image of moderation that propelled carefree weekend partying into reclusive week-long benders.
Even after accepting vampires for what they are, it becomes easy to back down from removing them from our lives because of the expectation that eliminating them will end up hurting us more in the long run. And it is true: killing our vampires might leave us temporarily crushed. Crushed, perhaps, but alive, and able to move forward. Actively purging these destructive blood-suckers from our lives will ultimately lend us liberation from unnecessary misery and grant us the freedom to figure out who we want to be and what it is we really want from life. And only when recognizing that I could not be the person I wanted to be – someone I could not even imagine under a state of drunken disillusionment – did I understand not only why it was important to change, but what I was changing for.
Moderation is a good fit for many. Maintaining functioning dependencies seems to work for others. But I struggle to even function, let alone thrive, when I allow alcohol into my life. On the flipside, sobriety for its own sake has never made much sense, which is why I never genuinely pursued it the various times it was imposed upon me. The biggest change came with the realization that abstinence from alcohol is actually something of a prerequisite for pursuing the few aspirations I have in life. Drinking prevents me from making sensible decisions, it grounds my motivation, and it serves as an active participant in hindering personal progress. To move forward beyond my unsuccessful attempts at moderation, I really had to move forward.