Leaning against one of the bookshelves at the Strand this past Sunday, I reread Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. This simple and somewhat confusing story has always been, for me, a reminder of how difficult it is to capture love in words. What is love? What isn’t? Who has it, and who doesn’t? Perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to love and to be loved? In the story itself, the concept of love only becomes more elusive as the characters try to grasp it through their dialog. Ironically, from my standpoint, this conversation becomes further muddled by the copious amounts of gin consumed.
The truth is, I feel similarly when I try to talk about alcoholism. Who is an alcoholic? Who isn’t? What’s acceptable behavior and what is not? What’s the “right” way to get (and stay) sober?
These questions have been running through my mind especially since the death of Whitney Houston. Interviews with friends, family, and addictions specialists revealed some wildly divergent views of alcoholism and addiction. Many of Whitney’s friends remarked about how happy and relaxed she seemed that night, dancing and drinking champagne. I imagine her friends were relieved to see her finally having fun and drinking “normally.” The addictions specialists pointed out that Whitney could not and would never have been able to enjoy champagne normally, and that what her friends were witnessing was someone actively relapsing and spiraling out of control.
Then there was Whitney herself. Though it’s hard to discern the truth from the dozens of stories written about the days leading up to her death, one exceptionally sad story said she called her mom the night before she died to say that she had every intention of re-entering rehab, but that she wanted to enjoy herself one last night.
For many onlookers, it seemed obvious that Whitney Houston had a severe addiction that could only be treated with rehab, abstinence, and a daily commitment to sobriety. For some, this may in fact be the only reasonable approach. But I wonder, with so many people dealing with alcoholism and addictions of many shades, grades, and natures, might there be a range of “right” responses. And that the true challenge is finding the right one for the individual.
Through this blog, I’ve shared my own struggle with alcohol. I’ve pondered whether or not I am an alcoholic and whether that matters. I chose not to attend AA as part of my sobriety and instead went solo for several years before finding meditation, which I feel finally helped me look at the reasons I drank. This is part of the approach that has worked for me.
Yet, I’ve found that some others who quit drinking have pretty strong opinions regarding my sobriety. While most of the comments I receive on blog posts and other articles I’ve published are very supportive, several have meant to re-educate me. My favorite:
Four things that will kill me—rationalization, justification, denial and blame—your article describes what alcoholics do to deny alcoholism—if you look like a duck, smell like a duck, and quack like a duck, you’re probably a duck.
Um, OK. Quack? Still not sure.
The other part of what has worked for my sobriety is this blog. Writing about my experience–just putting it out there–has been essential to my staying sober and practicing meditation. Whether the approach to sobriety is AA, meditation, writing, exercise, prayer, or something else, I do feel that opening up the conversation allows individuals to gain insight into their own issues and de-stigmatizes what is still viewed by some as a character flaw or a failure to moderate. So I guess it matters less what we talk about when we talk about alcoholism (and addiction), so long as we’re talking.
Hi, Jenna, I’ve been following your blog for a while now and love the content. The topic of this post is especially dear to me because I’m frequently told, via the internet and face to face, that I can’t possibly be sober because… (the ‘because’ clause varies with the speaker and the context, but there have been several opinions advanced.) I believe as you that there are many shades, grades to alcoholism, as well as many paths to recovery. I’ll be writing a piece on this topic for my blog soon, with a pingback to here. Thank you for your honest and openminded posts.
Can’t wait to read it! Thanks for your comment.
Hi Jenna, I am so happy that I found this blog. I have been an on and off drinker for a long time. I resist being labeled an alcoholic if for no other reason than I hate to be pigeon holed into a one size fits all definition of who I am. I am denying a label not denying a problem.
Thanks, Steve. I feel much the same way. I think it’s helpful for people to have a set way of thinking about things, especially when dealing with something as confusing as alcohol (abuse, dependence, etc.). But the insistence that anyone who doesn’t identify as an alcoholic is in denial never sat right with me. I think it’s a much more complex issue than that. I thank you for reading and wish you the very best.
[...] at Drinking to Distraction, inspired me to write this piece with her well written and honset post here. What really stood out for me in her post were her thoughts concerning alcoholism and [...]
I’m really enjoying the connection between, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and your thoughts on alcoholism. There are so many shades and grades of addiction that you mention, it can be hard which category many of us fall in to. It’s even more confusing when we are in denial regarding our behaviors.
I have to agree with you that this blog being a huge therapeutic tool. From being able to discuss our thoughts, getting feedback on those thoughts, to being able to experience a little bit about other people’s addiction which may be similar or drastically different. I enjoy being able to learn more about your story.
Thanks for reading, Bartholomew, and for contributing to the conversation. It only moves us forward.
Best wishes to you!
That ‘do it or die’ mentality is what’s starting to drive me from AA, though I have no intention of drinking again. It’s a fear based program, and that fear is very real. But most of us won’t/can’t subscribe to fear indefinitely. I also don’t like the one-size-fits-all approach found in meetings, though the steps themselves are open to interpretation.
I personally believe the spiritual component is crucial to me staying sober and happy, and meditation seems a perfect way to do that. If you get and stay sober, who cares how you do it? We should all be more supportive and less threatened when someone succeeds (or fails).
Thank you so much for this comment. I agree there has to be room for individual approaches to sobriety (or any part of life). As someone who drank out of fear, I certainly would not stay sober out of fear. Meditation allows me to sit with all the feelings that drove me to drink without repressing or reframing. For me, that has made all the difference.
I have had the opportunity to start my life over and am real grateful for the chance. Today I am able to match my intentions with my actions while providing myself the attention needed to do so. Through meditation, mindfulness and the absence of drugs and alcohol I am able to treat others in a manner which is consistent to what I have always aspired. I quit drinking at 33 years old after experiencing the loss of jobs, a divorce, jail time and a dui. I was completely unable to participate in any community while intoxicated and was to selfish to really even care. I was not emotionally developed enough, honest enough, experienced enough nor educated enough to determine whether or not I was alcoholic nor was I sane enough to come up with a plan to stop drinking and using. I was emotionally paralyzed and using was the solution to my discomfort.
I drank when I was happy, I drank at funerals, I drank at Christmas, I drank when depressed, I drank at my wedding, I drank over my divorce. Basically,
I drank when I felt any emotion at all. I began my journey in AA and it (the 12 steps) provided a road map to accountability, honesty, reliability, community and many other great character traits I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn. I do agree there are individuals in that program whom choose to suffer and replace one addiction (alcohol) with another (AA).. There are many in those rooms who like the scare factor and there are also many people who need that structure to remain clean. I am not one of those people. I took what I could from AA and blended it with eastern philosophy, western capitalism and basic open mindedness. AA saved my life but meditation and mindfulness has allowed me to keep it. I hope everyone finds their way to a peaceful and pure place. Love
Thank you for this comment and for sharing your very impressive story. I believe there are many paths to “figuring things out” and it sounds like you have done well to combine many approaches. Thank you so much for reading.
[…] Love about two months ago, I have struggled to find my voice. Rather than the recovering alcoholic (quack?) who supports her non-AA recovery through meditation and writing, I feel compelled to sound […]