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.