By not telling my story, too many people are able to keep lying to themselves about what alcohol dependence looks like.Most people with some level of substance dependence would have an easy time cutting back or quitting if they realized what many of us took too long to realize: habitual, non-abusive use is what leads to addiction.Plus, An Open Letter to Myself About Sobriety had a positive response.
My First DrinkHere's something that might surprise you. I wasn't one of the cool kids sneaking alcohol at parties in high school.My drinking didn't start early. I didn't even try alcohol in my first year of college.
I was twenty when I had my first drink, and I was on a trip to Spain, so it was legal.It wasn't like in the books or movies where I felt like I had found my drug. There wasn't some click in my addict brain that made me want more.
I got dizzy and the hangover the next day didn't seem worth it. This should already dispel many of your misconceptions about who can become addicted.Many people think there is a genetic difference - that an addict's brain lights up from those first uses and the relationship turns abusive.
They can't have just one.
I'd eventually get there, but I made my brain that way from years of non-abusive drinking.It sounds obvious, but addictive substances are addictive. You don't start addicted to them.Using them is what makes you addicted, and this includes alcohol.
(Obligatory caveat: obviously genetics plays some role. There's a small percentage of people with dopamine receptors that do light up and form dependencies very, very quickly. Other people might drink normally their whole lives.
Both of these are outliers, though.
)The WarningsI'll stick an aside here.
Before going to college my parents warned me about alcohol. They told me abuse ran in our family.First off, I didn't see it. So, it was kind of hard to believe. It turns out people with alcohol problems are pretty good at hiding this fact.But I also assumed this was just something most concerned parents did.
I thought it was a scare tactic more than anything real.My parents had seen that college kids died from alcohol in hazing rituals and drunk driving accidents. I assumed they weren't concerned about addiction but random, dangerous binges in college.
Instead of hearing what they were saying, the message got translated into something different: don't do something stupid and dangerous.This gave me a kind of permission to drink as long as it fell into the "normal and safe" range. I don't blame them. I wouldn't have understood even if the message had been more accurate and clear.
It's pretty hard to get someone to understand how subtle addiction is if they haven't experienced it.Forming the HabitLike I said above, I wasn't in a fraternity drinking gallons of beer every night. The early, abusive binge drinking people associate with alcoholics was not something I did.
I did something much more dangerous.
I formed a habit of normal drinking.
This allowed me to lie to myself about what was happening.As long as there was a reason to drink, it was okay.Celebrations: birthdays, holidays, end-of-semester parties.
Social functions: Friday afternoon happy hour, conference dinners, dates.Other: food/wine pairings, new craft beer release, unwind after a long day, on vacation.It started harmlessly and as a way to ensure I wasn't abusing alcohol, but in a horrible reversal, it was the key thing enabling it.
My brain lied to me with things that seemed obviously true.I couldn't have any addiction because the drinking was moderate, with other people, and there was a reason for it.The problem is that when you want to find an excuse to drink, you can.
Happy? Drink to celebrate.
Sad? Drink to forget.
What isn't an excuse to drink in our society?Forming the IdentityAfter years of this, it became a part of my identity. The excuses became more elaborate.I was the person that owned and studied Karen MacNeil's Wine Bible. I wasn't drinking for the effects of the wine, I just wanted to experience the subtleties of the varietals.
It was a culture thing.
People even suggested I become a sommelier.I wasn't chugging beer. I "needed" to try some limited-time craft brew to rate and review it on the Untappd app before the run ended.Our culture's binary about people being alcoholic/non-alcoholic kept me going like this for years.
Once you're known as someone who drinks, it can be really awkward to not drink.I distinctly remember going to several functions where I thought I'd try not drinking. When the opportunity arose to turn it down, I chickened out.
If I wasn't drinking because I had to stop, then I would be labeled an alcoholic. If I wasn't drinking for some other reason, I was being rude to the people who got a wine they knew I'd appreciate.Another part of my identity was health. People knew me as the person who ate healthily, knew the latest diet trends, ran half-marathons.
Because I was so obsessed with every other aspect of my health, I lied to myself about alcohol. The red wine had antioxidants. It was healthy.I assumed eating right and exercising probably canceled out any negative effects on my health. It also made it so much harder to admit I had a problem.
Everyone around me in my life couldn't see how much I was drinking. I wasn't behaving dangerously. If I tried to stop, I imagined them saying, "Stop being so obsessive. You're perfectly healthy. You're allowed to let loose every now and again.
"This habitual cycle went on from 22-30.
That's eight years.
By this time, I was drinking pretty much every day, not to the levels that most people associate with alcoholism, but too much: about a bottle of wine a day.Oftentimes less, but sometimes more.Moderation RulesEight years of "normal drinking" is exactly how you become addicted.As you can see, it was kind of hard to even tell if I had a problem.
But these thoughts had started to creep in. I kept thinking back to the warnings my parents gave a whole decade before.My health wasn't the best, either.I was tired all the time. Year after year, my doctor was baffled by my high blood pressure considering my athletic pursuits and eating habits (I told him I "had a few now and again," which was something I believed, not a lie).
He wrote it off as standard doctor visit anxiety, but after some research, I started to wonder if drinking until I was drunk every night was the cause of many of these symptoms.The solution was easy: I'd moderate. I'd cut back. If the problem was drinking too much, then the solution was to drink less.Because of how far along I was on the dependency spectrum (and my identity as a casual drinking connoisseur of fine Scotch and wine), it never once crossed my mind that I might need to actually stop.
As a Type A personality, I knew that if I set my mind to something, I could do it.Set the goals; accomplish the goals.It was how I got through grad school. It was how I trained for a half-marathon. It was how I learned Japanese on my own. If I could do those things, this would be easy.
I set the rules:only on weekendsone glass of red wine while at dinner with friendsonly for important holidays like Christmasif at home, only one drink ever and then done for the nightThese went on for years. I can't even remember them all or what combinations I used at what times in what order.Needless to say, they were a complete failure.
I found ways to bend the rules.
I found excuses and loopholes.
But worst of all, once I had one, the rules didn't matter. One always turned to many.Always.And that's when I started to panic. This thing that had been building for thirteen years and looked normal and healthy the whole time had turned into a full-blown addiction.It was so obvious and right in front of my face by my very actions and inability to follow the rules, but I couldn't admit it.
It seemed so unfair.
I'd done it right.
I hadn't gone crazy in high school or college. I wasn't using it to cover up some emotional trauma from my childhood. I wasn't an addict with a rock bottom, living under a bridge, drinking from a paper bag.
This lack of rock bottom made it so hard to admit there was a true problem because that is what AA has ingrained in us.Attempting to StopAll I can say is thank goodness for sobriety podcasts.I got what they call "sober curious." I'd just take a break. Maybe I wouldn't completely stop forever, that way I didn't need to lose my identity.
So, I downloaded some podcasts to hear what people were saying on the topic. This Naked Mind by Annie Grace and The Recover Elevator by Paul Churchill were the two I listened to faithfully.I'm talking literally hundreds of episodes of each.
I heard people's stories.
I spent over a year doing this, struggling with moderation.The more stories I heard, the angrier I became. These people were just like me. Why had no one told me that it was habitual normal drinking that led to alcoholism? Why is there a cultural assumption that the alcoholic is fundamentally different from the start?At some level, I knew alcohol was an addictive drug.
I'd been told that.
But no one had ever made it clear that it was exactly like every other addictive drug. It just happens to be legal.Regular use of an addictive drug leads to addiction. Substance abuse is the consequence, once addicted, not the cause.
It became clear that moderation was not an option. I needed to stop all use indefinitely.I did a 30-day challenge in July 2018.This timing was terrible.My dad's funeral fell in this timeframe. He specifically left wishes for everyone to have a shot of Scotch in his honor. The expensive bottle was purchased specifically for this.
I'm sure my family thought I was being an obnoxious ass, especially the ones who vocalized how disgusting they found Scotch and didn't want to do it.My five-year wedding anniversary fell in this timeframe, too.I abstained.By the end of the thirty days, I felt invincible.
I'd made it through the two toughest non-drinking scenarios imaginable.This was not good. I used this as proof that my problem wasn't bad. The thirty days were a reset and now I that I knew I could take time off whenever I needed to, I'd be able to moderate better.
If it seemed like moderation wasn't working, I could do a week or thirty more days off. The method was foolproof.This led to my worst year of drinking ever. The first few months would have looked like a success to most outsiders.
I had a few 10-day streaks, but the fact that I know that shows how carefully I was paying attention.I fell right back into my old habits except that my successes in moderation were used as excuses to go harder when I was "allowed."SobrietyAlmost exactly a year after that first 30-day challenge, I knew I had to quit for good.
The thought terrified me.
I thought I'd lose friends and my identity. I was afraid that every time I turned down a drink I'd have to admit I had a problem.That would lead to people assuming I had some horrible rock bottom and had to go to rehab and attend AA.
If I told them none of that happened, they'd assume I didn't "really" have a problem.It seems so ridiculous now to be afraid of such silly things, but I have to assume that a lot of those scenarios playing in my head were formed by the addiction that didn't want me to stop.Luckily, I played the tape forward. All those assumptions would probably become a reality if I didn't stop in the next few years.
I kept listening to people's stories, and they gave me the courage to stop. And that's why I had to tell mine here. Maybe someone, someday will read this and realize the path they're on before they get to where I was
What happens if you inhale carbon dioxide for just a second?
One day when I was young and foolish (still in graduate school), we'd gotten a shipment of something on dry ice, and we were playing with it. We'd put some into a lab sink (which are fairly deep) and run hot water in to create a thick fog, which filled the sink and slowly flowed over the edges. The gaseous part of the fog was mostly carbon dioxide, of course, and the mixture was dense enough that you could see waves in the surface if you disturbed it with your hand.
So far, not so foolish. Then I thought it would be interesting to stick my head in the fog and see what it looked like. And while my head was in there, I inhaled.
You know that burning sensation you get in the back of your nose when you burp after you've been drinking soda? That's carbon dioxide reacting with the moisture in your nasal membranes to form carbonic acid. I had that same feeling, but all the way from my nose down into my lungs. It triggered a cataclysmic coughing fit that brought me to my knees, hanging on to the edge of the sink for support.
So that's what happened when I inhaled carbon dioxide. Your mileage may vary.
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