Busted Halo
column: what works

Practical tools for your personal spiritual life from Phil Fox Rose.

Click this banner to see the entire section.

March 11th, 2009

What Works: Am I An Alcoholic?

Our inaugural What Works column tackles the toughest question some people ever face



“Am I an alcoholic?” “Am I an addict?” At some point, many of us look back on our drinking or using and question it: question whether it’s sustainable; question whether it’s getting in the way of our life; question whether we’re becoming who we want to be. This happened for me at 23. I’d made quite a mess already in ten years. Some come to these questions even younger. Whenever it happens, we become spiritual seekers. We open to deeper questions of meaning that had been obscured. I’ve met countless others over the years who have come up against this or some other crisis and found that, rather than the end, it was the beginning of their journey.

In this new column, I will be exploring issues of personal spirituality. If life’s thrown you a curve and turned you into a seeker, and you don’t know where to start, I hope with my twenty plus years of ups and downs on this adventure I can offer a little light for your own path. If you are already a seeker or, as I prefer to call myself, a pilgrim, perhaps you’ll find something useful here — a new method, an unexplored area or a useful tool.

If life’s thrown you a curve and turned you into a seeker, and you don’t know where to start, I hope I can offer a little light for your path.

At 16, Nancy faced several years of wreckage and asked herself the same questions. It was easy enough for her to see the patterns. She didn’t need to suffer for a decade more, or two, to prove to herself that she was an alcoholic. She got to experience college and dating and early work life with clarity. Though my path is my path, I envy her that.

But not everyone who gets out of control with drinking and drugs is an alcoholic or addict. People often ask me whether they might just have been “enjoying” the years before they had to get responsible. Or whether they don’t just need to get their act together and be stronger.

There is no perfect definition of addiction. It’s a slippery beast. That’s because it’s not just about the physical phenomenon of craving. Most people focus on that. But if it were only physical, the solution would be simple: Just say no. And for non-alcoholics and non-addicts who get into trouble with drugs or alcohol, it can be that simple.

But I didn’t believe that when I was active. I used to think things like “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E. were absurd, naïve. Because I knew that understanding the consequences wouldn’t make me stop. And in ads, some of the portrayals of addicts made addiction seem more attractive to me.whatworks2

What are you thinking?

If you’re like me, then knowing the consequences, knowing the “reasons” for drinking — self-knowledge in general — will not keep you from drinking. It might for a while, but in the long run, we need a solution, not good intentions.

No one definition of alcoholism works for everyone. This, again, is because being an alcoholic is not just about some physical predisposition. The term allergy is problematic, but it helps make my point: If you know you have an allergy to almonds, that when you eat an almond you will get very sick and might die, you avoid almonds.

When Tony would decide to have that first drink of the day, knowing what might come when he did, he was defying that simple logic. And he can’t explain today what was going on in his head any better than he could when he was active. It’s as if his thinking suddenly went all vague and next thing he knew he was already two drinks into his run.

It’s easy to see why this phenomenon has been anthropomorphized throughout history. Tony describes it as if he was not making the decisions. Like some autopilot bent on crashing the plane had taken over.

Why? This question has baffled thinkers for millennia. Proverbs 23:29-35:

Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger late over wine, those who keep trying mixed wines. Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. At the last it bites like a serpent, and stings like an adder. Your eyes will see strange things, and your mind will utter perverse things. You will be like one who lies down in the midst of the sea, like one who lies on the top of the mast. “They struck me,” you will say, “but I was not hurt; they beat me, but I did not feel it. When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.”

You can feel the author’s frustration — that, after all that trouble, the subject goes right out looking for another drink.

So, am I?

So are you an alcoholic? In Alcoholics Anonymous, there’s a definition of alcoholism that’s helpful, even if it doesn’t cover every situation: “If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if, when drinking, you have little control over the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic.” The shorthand way of saying that is, You can’t stop once you start, and you can’t stay stopped.

Recognizing you can’t stop once you start doesn’t solve the problem if you can’t keep yourself from starting. And that, ultimately, is why the solution to alcoholism isn’t not drinking, though that is essential.

I saw my own physical predisposition plain as day. My father was an alcoholic, and I had years of experience to prove to myself that once I had a drink or two, all bets were off — I might be able to stop or I might have ten more. I knew I couldn’t stop once I started. But somehow, I couldn’t stay stopped. Time after time, I’d rationalize that first drink, or I’d blow right past without a thought, or with only a passing doubt, quickly dismissed.

Recognizing you can’t stop once you start doesn’t solve the problem if you can’t keep yourself from starting. And that, ultimately, is why the solution to alcoholism isn’t not drinking, though that is essential. The first step is not even recognizing you have a problem, as you often hear people say. The first step is recognizing that you are powerless over the problem; that unless you change your whole relationship toward your addiction, you will never be happy, but that once you do change, you can be free; you can live neither enslaved by it nor in fear of it.

In this column, I will be talking a lot about personal spirituality; techniques such as meditation and issues like recovery. We can’t make this journey alone. We all benefit from collective wisdom. In that spirit, I would love to hear from you, with your thoughts, comments, questions, concerns, joys, sorrows.

Today, though, I’d like to hear about your struggle with alcohol or drugs, or how a friend’s behavior worries you. Please comment below or send your emails to me at whatworks@philfoxrose.com.

Names are changed or represent composites.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
See more articles by (92).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Felicia

    Chris: I like the way you asked “What is wrong with me!?” because I have asked myself that for years….and my husband asks me too, and yet we both know the answer….WE are alcoholics. We openly admit it, and while I want to be sober, he still looks forward to his BIG bottle of white wine each night, every night, 365 a year. He won’t quit to help me quit, but wants me to stop. Its expensive, fattening, ruins health and mood. For a few fleeting moments, its fun, then it rears its ugly evil head and before I know it, I have cleaned the whole house and remember nothing of it. So, I am an alcoholic and am attending meetings….again and still. Thanks so much for a great “talk”.

  • Scott Tucson

    Thought there’d be more comments! I’m coming up on 15 years in sobriety and, like almost any other AA, esp. one who was glib BEFORE getting sober, I could write for hours and I think I’ll not allow myself to. A lifelong believer, before I came to (AA) I would have admitted to being almost anything; idiot, vile sinner, jerk-wad with no peer or even worse, just not an alcoholic. Believing friends all around me would stop after 2, 3, possibly four beers without effort. I just had to figure out how to gather or be given the requisite will power they and others had. Sent to AA for a DUI at 32 I thought I’d use it like a temporary counseling regime. Long story short WHILE IN AN AA MEETING I heard people talking about their own lives and their own thinking when they used to drink and I couldn’t believe that people were expressing my secret thoughts, hell, my secrets! That begun to melt my desperate arrogance; something that I could have lived and died without ever recognizing: If I could stop I would have a LONG time ago. That very thought was when I believe that God removed my blinders. And in that very moment my drinking and pot problem was effectively removed. I didn’t come to any conclusion; it came to me. Something happed TO me. Sometimes I want to put AA in my past, but I cannot deny that God did something to/for me in a meeting when He had so many other alternatives He could have used. And, it must be said, the drinking/drugging problem was only the beginning. I don’t know who could have helped me to go from there a 10th of the way like AA did. I was lucky enough to find a great meeting, another gift I could not have made up on my own. I’ve never been the same since.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Chris, thank you for that beautiful description of the victory that can be had through surrender — for so inspiringly describing the relief that comes from recognizing and accepting the truth. You may be on a pink cloud, but know that this is Truth, and that you don’t ever have to let go of it. Many blessings!

    And Bridget, thanks for your honest words. As I said before, I plan to devote a future column to having a partner, family member or friend who’s an alcoholic or addict.

  • Chris

    BTW I’m on such a “pink cloud” right now I felt compelled to start a website http://www.amianalcoholic.org

    which is how I found this website. Glad I did.

  • Chris

    OMG. I’m on the pink cloud right now. But not so much I didn’t realize that it did seem too good to be true. Or should I say I know nothing lasts forever. But I will tell you that I think my personal bottom left such a big scar on my soul that I won’t ever forget it. If you guys are interested here’s something I wrote for the grapvine. Just the other day.

    A personal story of discovery

    Why do I do “these things”? Why do I drink too much and make bad decisions? What in the world is wrong with me? I’m supposed to be smarter than this. These were the questions I was beating myself up about after I had gotten into an accident and received a 2nd DUI. Driving while under the influence of alcohol is one of the most dangerous actions a person can do. I always prided myself as being a respectful nonviolent peacemaking person. Definitely not a terrorist on the road. I was very angry and felt I could never forgive myself and started to feel quite depressed. It was the most upset I’ve ever been with myself and it was really starting to affect me. This was the first time in my life I felt I needed some guidance or someone or something to help me. Help me understand what to do, what my problem was.

    You see, immediately I never assumed the obvious, that I was an alcoholic. Because to me I didn’t fit my description of an alcoholic, someone who had a big red nose, needed to drink everyday, slurred their speech and was an outcast. No, I didn’t fit that. I drank maybe a couple times a month only in social environments and never craved alcohol. Sometimes I drank more than I should have but, at least to me, everyone else did too. That wasn’t my problem. It must be something else. I’m dumb, an idiot or just a loser. Anything but the obvious.

    Well eventually I sought out an attorney to help me with my legal situation and when I met with him he also suggested I go to AA. He said and I quote, “No one gets 2 DUI’s and doesn’t have a drinking problem”. Yes, that made a lot of sense to me and was undeniable. But I still said to him, “I don’t even really drink that much” as if I was trying to prove I didn’t have a problem for one last time. But he was right, and in the vulnerable state of mind I was in I started to believe that I could possibly be .. an alcoholic.

    The next day I called the number on the registration sheet my attorney gave me and a kind voice answered the other end. I told the man I was looking for a meeting. He said “well, where do you live,” I told him and he told me about a website I could check for any meetings in my area. Wow. That was easy. I found a meeting at a church near my work and the next day I went there during my lunch break. I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I came early because I wanted to be “prepared”. Prepared for what, I had no idea.

    People gathered around a table and put a dollar or two in a basket. We started with a prayer, and not just any prayer. I’ve gone to Catholic schools and said many prayers. But this prayer, the “Serenity Prayer”, was hiding from me my entire life. Or maybe I was hiding from it. But it just so happened to be the one prayer I needed the most. ‚ÄúGod, grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference‚Äù. I really needed that prayer. I soaked it up like a dry sponge. It felt good. And the meeting was good too. Eventually it came to my turn to share. I let it out. I let it all out. And it felt great. I was able to tell these people why I felt the way I did about alcohol and how it negatively affected my life. At the end of the meeting a friendly lady gave me a newcomer pack to take with me and read. Inside that pack was the key to my salvation.

    When I got home from work that evening I opened up the newcomer pack and inside was a beginner’s guide. Inside that guide was a list of questions to determine if you were an alcoholic. This was the first time in my life I faced these questions. And after reading through them all, I answered enough that I was convinced by definition, that I was in fact an alcoholic. Just like that. Just like that a rush went over my entire body. “Oh my God I’m an alcoholic.” At first I was a bit in shock. Then, after a few minutes of silence, after the dust settled, I felt wonderful. I felt like a film had been removed from my soul. I now know what is wrong with me. That day, was the first day of the rest of my life. I couldn’t wait to share this great news with the world. I couldn’t wait to get to my next meeting.

    The following day I went to a different meeting with different types of people. But all still the same. When we said the Serenity Prayer I said it louder than anyone there. And when people were sharing their stories I listened harder than I have ever listened to anything in my life. When my turn came to share I started out by saying, ‚ÄúHi, my name is Chris and I am an alcoholic.‚Äù Tears almost came to my eyes, tears of joy. By the time I left my 2nd meeting I had such a sense of clarity about myself and a feeling of unexpected happiness. This was a miracle. And I haven’t looked back since.

    I do however still have regrets. My biggest regret is that I didn’t find AA sooner. But I am still grateful that I found it now and am able to live the rest of my 24 hour days not beating myself up wondering, what is wrong with me.

  • Zbridget

    My husband is an active alcoholic and it breaks my heart to see how this addiction not only tears him apart, but also our family and marriage. If it was an allergy, like you say, you would avoid it. I know it is a disease, but it is the only disease where the patient has to be ready in order to receive treatment. I do miss going out for a glass of wine or a beer with him, personally I could take or leave alcohol, but I miss sharing a brew at a neighborhood establishment. I look forward to more entries from you.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience, Steve. Yes, there are plenty of priests who understand alcoholism, whether through personal experience or through close contact. I encourage you to seek the support you need, but also to keep clear about the roles of your confessor and your AA sponsor. I’m not saying how they should be separate and how they might overlap, but I encourage you to be very conscious of it.

  • Phil Fox Rose

    PhoenixRoach, thanks for that turn of phrase – your pink cloud became more substantial and moved closer to the ground – I love that. Of course, people face hardships in sobriety but I think a lot of the reason many people see their pink cloud dissipate is that they’ve never firmly anchored it by going deeper on the spiritual front. So when the initial enthusiasm wanes, rather than becoming more substantial, as you say, it becomes more tenuous. I will definitely be talking more about the spiritual anchoring work in future columns.

  • Uncle Steve

    I have been sober over 14 years by admitting I had a problem, I could not stop drinking, I came to believe God would help me, and turned my life over to him by praying for knowledge of his will. I made a personal inventory (examination of conscience)and told another human being and God all about it. I am in service to other alcoholics sharing my experience, strength, and hope with them. I still go to 3 AA meetings a week. After 13 years of sobriety and a 41 year absence I returned to the Catholic Church, go to mass 3-4 times a week and pray the Rosary and The Liturgy of the hours. I tried talking to my confessor about alcoholism but he doesnt understand, I am looking for one who does. There are priests who go to AA meetings. God bless us drunks and have mercy on us and on the whole world.

  • PhoenixRoach

    Thanks Phil.

    I’m 32 years old and 17 months sober myself after a long and winding road. I’d made many 1st steps before I ever took an honest 2nd and 3rd, but when I finally did it marked an incredible “restarting” point of my spiritual journey. It has been an incredible, joyful, grateful ride ever since. I sleep like a baby every night, and every day I’m filled with purpose. I was worried that the ‘pink cloud’ would disperse after the first couple of months, but in truth it is just become more substantial even while moving closer to the ground.

    I’ll be watching your column with interest.


  • Phil Fox Rose

    Yes, thanks “grateful member”. I plan to devote a future column to the issue of having a partner, family member or close friend who’s an alcoholic or addict. It is a challenging and sometimes painful situation.

  • A grateful member of Al-Anon

    May I suggest – if you’re reading this column because you love someone who you believe is an alcoholic or addict, give Al-Anon or Nar-Anon a chance. They are meetings for family and friends who are bothered by the drinking and/or drug use of someone they love. You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it and you can’t cure it, but you can find help if you ask for it! These programs helped me to come to peace whether my loved one was drinking or not.

powered by the Paulists