Alcoholism is Volitional

"When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat"
-- Charles Bukowski.

This article was first published in (Cult)ure Magazine, March 24, 2010.

If you had said to me, a little over two years ago, that I would go two years without a drink, I'd have laughed in your fucking face.

"Ha!" I'd have said. "Two years? You're fucking crazy! Two years without drinking is like two years without life."

Two years ago on a frigid January night, my friends pulled me out of the Cock n' Bull pub, an infamous drinking hole in downtown Montreal, now defunct. My bender had begun uptown at Dieu du Ciel, that excellent purveyor of homemade beer, where I had drained about seven pints of
Gaelique, my favourite. After that, I crashed a party on Parc Avenue, drinking all but one of a six-pack. Then I had the idea of making peace with R, an estranged friend of mine, so I told him to meet me at our old haunt: The Bull.
Hailing a cab, I finished my last bottle of beer en route.

Drunk On Arrival, I set to the task of rekindling my friendship with R. Our mutual friend S was there too. Our table was loaded up (on mainly my money) with pitchers of 50. The advanced state of my inebriation was immediately apparent to my friends; as usual, they found it astonishing and amusing.

After mending my broken bond with R -- because there's nothing like being hammered for making or breaking up friendships -- I proceeded to hit on a woman who was clearly a crack addict. S had even seen her pipe.

The next moment (I can recall), I was standing outside the pub vociferously defending my capacity for more booze. S offered me a lift home, so I spat on him. A little later I remember lying in an alley, presumably somewhere near the Metro.

I awoke in the Royal Vic, where they take all the drunks. An IV drip was stuck to my left arm. My bed was in a corridor with several others. All I had on was a green gown.

Slowly I sat myself up and regained my senses. A big, friendly-looking black nurse ambled up to me. "Do I have to stay here?" I asked her.
"It's a good idea if you stay put, young man," she said.
"But I don't have to stay here, do I?"
"No you don't," she said with resignation.
"All right then," I smiled. "Thanks."

In another minute I had torn the IV off my arm, ripped my piss-soaked clothes out of the sealed, see-through plastic bag, dressed, thanked a random doctor and walked out into the cold around 5 am.

By the time I was lucid again, two days later, the wound over my left eye had turned dark purple. There were more injuries up the left side of my body: cuts and bruises from a source unknown. My chest hair had been shorn in three distinct square patches, probably from the heart monitors at the Vic.

When asked what had happened, I said that I had slipped on some ice.
In retrospect, what scared me most about the event was not the event itself, but my casual and cavalier attitude about it. Despite the harm and humiliation, I was ready to go again.

Such is the allure of alcoholism, or any other dependency: the profound sense of invulnerability. The addiction, of course, makes you feel safe and in control. All of the escapist clichés are somewhat true. Chiefly, there is that inherent belief that you can take it and survive, and from this you get a strange feeling of accomplishment -- of personal achievement. No one can touch you. The world can't get you by the throat, and you are never alone because you join the ranks of many great suffering artists and visionaries. You know the blues.

Faced with yet another re-think of my life, I looked at the things that weren't working in it, and at how to fix them. From that list, which I called "Solutions," I realized that nearly half of my issues were booze-related, and that the other half were unsolvable until I dealt with the alcohol problems.

There has been all kinds of nomenclature developed, related to alcoholism and addiction. In Montreal, the word
dépendence is the usual moniker used in both English and French. Substance dependence is generally defined as persistent use of a substance despite problems related to its use. However, the word "dependence" seems to imply an involuntary need -- as for mother's milk. Such a perspective implies the addict has no will over the drug: they must have it or they will die

Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight
-Bruce Cockburn

"Need" and "want" have separate meanings, but we often use the words interchangeably. It seems to me that this designation of need or dependence creates a kind of distraction from a simpler "want vs. don't want" scenario. The argument "I want to quit, but I can't" continues to be made by many in the throes of addiction. Recognizing that one is in a state of wanting rather than needing re-affirms one's volition, and begins the long process of kicking out the darkness of self-harm.

The medical community has still not reached a consensus over the debate, which started in the early nineteenth century with the Trotter Hypothesis, in which alcoholism was first proposed to be a disease. Regardless of whether the Disease Theory eventually acquires full recognition from scientists, I think those who are out in the streets, in the bars, and hiding in their cups need something a little tougher than "you're genetically pre-disposed to the stuff" to inspire in them the will to quit.

Addiction is like any other desire, and its solution is ultimately up to the addict. If I do drink again one day -- and I hope I don't, because I am an alcoholic -- it won't be because I am
dependent on alcohol. It will be because I choose to drink. Would that be unwise? Yes, but it will be of my own volition: I want it, for whatever unfortunate reason.

The reason I quit drinking two years ago was because I genuinely wanted to.

Either you want to or you don't.

Adam’s Note: I continue to mark the anniversary of my sobriety from January 28th 2008.
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