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.