Addiction and Freedom

I found an essay I wrote last year when I was just starting to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In it, I ponder the question of addiction — which, by its very nature, takes control of your life — and the freedom from addiction, in which you regain control of your life; and how some aspects of AA seem to work against that regaining your freedom part.

Most everyone is familiar with the Twelve-Step Program. It’s an easy, and very comforting way, of working through the process of casting off an addiction. During the first few meetings I attended, I was struck by how insistently and repeatedly the veterans of AA emphasized the importance of the first three steps; so much so, that I became a little suspicious of them. The three steps of which I speak are:

1. “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

2. “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

3. “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.”

The first one is obvious: I could easily see that, once I started drinking, I would not stop until I was staggering drunk. Although my life hadn’t become unmanageable — yet — I could see an abyss yawning in front of me, and it was getting wider and wider. I kept telling myself it’s stress: my impending layoff, my worries about money, my adversarial relationship with The Fates that seem to enjoy putting what looks like a nice safe rug in front of me, waiting until I step upon it, then yanking it out from under me. It’s no wonder I drink!

The second is a problem. I have real trouble believing there is a caring God, or Higher Power, or Great Spirit, or whatever out there. And it’s not just that I’m resentful that He or She or It apparently hasn’t been interested in helping me, personally, whenever I ask. It’s just impossible for me to believe that there exists some sort of benevolent being that can keep track of and worry over every living thing. I tried to pray and my prayers just seemed to drift off into empty space. I usually wound up feeling like I was yelling into a black hole.

So, if the second one is a problem, the third one is nearly impossible. How am I supposed to turn control over to something I don’t think is even there? Not only that, but I don’t like the thought of turning complete control of my life over to ANYone, let alone some ethereal mythical being. On the other hand, I have allowed something as noxious as alcohol to wrest control from me; perhaps this non-existent mythical being can run my life more effectively.

Still, it seems to me that the third step is merely encouraging me to exchange one dependency for another; I’m tacitly being told I’m really not required to take personal responsibility for my life. Flip Wilson (remember him? I loved him…) was fond of saying “The devil made me do it.” Replace “the devil” with “the booze”. Now replace it with “God”. There’s still no personal accounting for my actions.

It doesn’t help that there are people in my life that insist on making excuses for my behavior; telling me that something must be triggering the drinking. Because my drinking is not constant and steady. It’s sporadic, but brutal. I’m a binge drinker. I can stop for days, weeks, a month. I have a ninety-day coin from AA that proves I could stop for a whole quarter of a year! But, once I start in again, that’s it. I’m off and running. There doesn’t seem to be anything in particular that sets me off.

Which is why, when I introduced myself as a newcomer at the AA meetings, I had trouble choking out the part where you’re supposed to say “…and I’m an alcoholic.” My impression of an alcoholic is someone who can’t get out of bed and face the day without taking a bracing drink. And that wasn’t me. I could wait until 5:00 pm, by God, before downing a whole bottle of wine, then chasing it with a beer or two. I’m a drunk, I’d tell myself, not an alcoholic. It’s different.

In my mind, my problem with booze isn’t something that’s easily explained by troubled times in my past or present. The troubles provided a convenient excuse. Oh, my father died. Oh, my house burned down. Oh, we got fleeced out of hundreds of thousands of dollars in rebuilding it. Oh, my job is ending. Oh, I can’t find another. Oh, I can’t sleep. And so forth. None of that should require alcohol to cope. It’s a disease, says the AA Book, an allergy to a substance. Which seems kind of counterintuitive, and I’m having difficulty wrapping my head around that. I prefer to think of it as a bad friend who seems comforting and sympathetic at first, but is really only there to share the misery.

It’s okay, and probably fairly easy, to put your faith in this mythical being if that’s what helps you get through the day. Even if you find yourself questioning your faith, a little mental conversation with your spiritual guide, a psychological smack upside the head, and you’re back on track.

It’s so, so much harder to put your faith in yourself, isn’t it? To have the conviction that you are making the right decisions, that you are doing the right thing, that it will all work out in the end because you are certain it will. If only we could see the consequences of our actions; wouldn’t that make the decisions that much easier? But, if we could see the future, it would also spoil the surprise. And isn’t that what makes life interesting? The surprise?

Yes. Interesting. That’s what life is…

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