Many people assume that alcoholism must be defined by the amount of alcohol that you drink on a regular basis.
This logic would tell us that if a person only drank, say, 3 drinks or less per day, then maybe this would somehow disqualify them from being an alcoholic.
It doesn’t really work that way though. Addiction is not necessarily defined by the absolute amounts of drugs or alcohol that we ingest. It’s more complicated than that, unfortunately.
What really defines an addiction
Why we self medicate every day has a big role in whether or not we are addicted to a substance. The alcoholic falls into a pattern of drinking and they drink in order to escape, to avoid having to feel their emotions.
In every case we are running away from ourselves when we self medicate every day. There may be some external events that we are “running” from as well, but in the end we are always hiding from ourselves when we self medicate.
For practical purposes, there is a difference between your thoughts and your feelings. If you have a feeling then you can pinpoint that feeling as being sad, mad, glad, or scared. Those are your four basic feelings and if it is something more complex than that (entirely possible) then it is merely a combination of two or more of those basic feelings.
These are different from your thoughts. Notice that you can choose your thoughts, you can choose to change your thoughts, right? You can direct your mind to an extent. You can choose to think about something else.
But if your dog dies and you truly loved your dog, then you are going to feel sad. The feeling overwhelms you and you cannot just turn it off like a faucet. You have that feeling of sadness and you cannot just escape from it by telling your brain to think about something else. The feeling is not something that you get to choose. The feeling chose you. You did not wake up that day and decide that you wanted to feel sad. It just happened.
So if you have feelings in your life that make you uncomfortable, what can you do about them? One option is to medicate them away. If you don’t have any tolerance to drugs or alcohol, then getting drunk or wasted on drugs will do very nicely at first. In other words, if you are not normally a drinker, then drinking a large amount of alcohol will definitely medicate your feelings away. If you are sad then you can drink so much that you will completely forget about your sadness. Complete oblivion is possible simply by drinking more and more alcohol. If you don’t like your feelings you can eliminate them entirely, at least temporarily.
Of course after you sober up again then your feelings will come back, and sometimes they will be worse and complicated by the fact that you got so drunk. So medicating your feelings in this way is a temporary fix.
When you are trying to live a life of sobriety, your feelings are an important part of maintaining your sobriety. This is especially true when you consider relationships. There will be times in your life when you have an argument, a disagreement, when your feelings are hurt or you don’t get along with someone. There will be many bumps of this kind in various relationships that you have with other people. In order to maintain sobriety through all of that you are going to have to learn how to feel those feelings and process them without drinking. How do you do that? It is a learning process. You must stick to sobriety, you must give yourself time and space to process the feelings, and you must learn how to communicate those feelings with other people. Not exactly the touchy-feely sort of process that most people want to embrace in recovery, but that doesn’t mean it is not necessary. In order to stay sober in the long run you are going to have to learn how to process your feelings.
Now then, what does all of this have to do with the amounts of alcohol that we drink?
The above explanation about feelings and how we medicate them in our addiction is proof that the amounts that we take in don’t really matter. Some alcoholics drank a six pack every night and other alcoholics drank a case of beer plus a pint of liquor on top of it. But in terms of recovery it makes no difference who drank how much or what they drank each night.
In fact, to carry this example a step further, it doesn’t even really matter what drug or substance you were addicted to. One person is an alcoholic while another person is addicted to prescription painkillers. But they are both self medicating and trying to escape from reality, trying to medicate their feelings, trying to deal with life as best they can by altering their mind every day. The exact substance that they use for this is sort of beside the point. The point is that they are addicted, they are suffering, and they are trying to run away from themselves and just causing all sorts of pain and misery in their lives.
It is not what we drank but what we were escaping from, and the pattern this established in our lives
Alcoholics fell into a pattern.
They started drinking for whatever reason, they didn’t really need a reason necessarily because in our society drinking is expected at some point. It is culturally accepted and even expected so there it is not uncommon for someone to be introduced to alcohol at some point in their lives.
Now if they have been searching for a way to medicate their feelings and their fear then they might fall into this pattern that leads to addiction.
I became an alcoholic because I really liked what it did for me. I was normally a very shy person and alcohol seemed to “fix” that part of my personality almost instantly. In a way it raised me up to be on a level with other people. I felt like I was “normal” again when I had a few drinks because it relaxed me and allowed me to open up to other people. For example, I would have a conversation with a stranger in a bar and actually establish a connection with them, something I was never able to do when I was sober.
This may sound like a little thing to some people but for me it was huge. It was my whole life, it meant everything to me because it completely fixed me and my biggest problem. I lived my life in fear and anxiety without really knowing it, and alcohol was the cure for that. It helped me in a way that I never could have predicted.
Of course alcohol ended up causing many more problems than what it solved, and in the end the way that it “fixed” me also ended up failing miserably (it isolated me in the end). The real fix for my problems was to be found in sobriety, by doing the hard work in order to address those problems and issues that I had before I ever picked up a drink. But I did not know that back then, I just knew that I was normally shy and anxious and when I took a drink all of that negativity melted away. Alcohol made me happy. I had found my miracle cure, and I wanted more of it. So I was off to the races.
Of course alcohol was wonderful for me, how else would I have become addicted to it?
Over the years the amounts that I drank changed considerably based on my shift in tolerance. It also changed a bit based on the other drugs that I was combining with the alcohol. Luckily I did not end up killing myself over these combinations. The amounts that I drank and the specific drugs that I used were not the important part of the story though. The important part was that I was self medicating, I was living in fear, and I was trying to run away from that fear through the use of chemicals. In the end the solution was to face that fear and to face myself, sober. But that was a very hard lesson to learn. It takes guts to get sober.
Why you cannot “cure” alcoholism by treating the underlying causes
They used to believe that if you could identify the underlying causes of alcoholism and then treat them (such as childhood abuse for example) then you would effectively treat the alcoholism as well.
Later on the substance abuse community learned that this is not true.
Alcoholism does not need a reason. It is not a secondary disease. It is primary.
Alcoholism is a primary disease. It arises out of nothing, for no reason at all. It exists unto itself, for itself, to try to destroy a person.
This means that the old ideas about treating addiction were wrong. In other words, simply doing psychotherapy and dealing with childhood trauma in counseling sessions was not going to treat anyone’s alcoholism. This is also why you can certainly recover without going to AA, if you so choose. Working through your past resentments and finding a higher power is not the only path to recovery, nor is it even required for long term sobriety (though it definitely helps some people).
Going to the AA program can certainly help you, but there is also an interesting paradox in that program. They tell you that you have a disease when you get to AA, and that it is not a moral failing on your part to have alcoholism. But then when you work the steps you do a moral inventory and attempt to assess where you were right and wrong in your addiction, and then to go back and right the wrongs that you are able to. In this sense they seem to be saying both things: One, it is not a moral issue to have alcoholism, but two, you must fix your moral behavior in order to overcome alcoholism. Interesting concept and definitely worth thinking about.
The bottom line is that you cannot cure the disease of alcoholism by simply trying to treat the underlying causes. That may be part of the recovery process but real recovery is much more than that. It is not about eliminating negative things but also about building a positive life in recovery. Recovery is much more than avoiding alcohol.
What is cross addiction?
There is a term in the substance abuse industry known as “cross addiction.” If we used this label on my own example then I was cross addicted to marijuana, even though alcohol was my primary drug of choice. I preferred alcohol but I also smoked marijuana on a daily basis in order to supplement my addiction.
When I was very early in my addiction I imagined that if I could just give up alcohol then I would be just fine; I could continue to smoke marijuana and keep those benefits while eliminating the negative consequences that my drinking was bringing upon me.
This didn’t work.
In fact, I tried it directly one time. I went to rehab, got clean and sober through detox, then came home and tried what is known as “the marijuana maintenance program.” But because I was cross addicted to the drug, this was simply substituting one drug for another. I was not drinking any alcohol but I was still self medicating every day, and I was avoiding “doing the work” that needed to be done in recovery.
This work is what you need to do in order to be OK with life without self medicating. That is a pretty broad definition, but it is also very true. There were certain things that I needed to do in order to rebuild my life in recovery, and none of that stuff was going to happen while I was still medicating every day. Remember, the exact drug or substance that you are using (or the amounts) is not really what matters. What matters is that you are still running away from yourself and medicating your feelings. You cannot make progress or growth while you are medicating your feelings.
I lasted a few weeks on the marijuana maintenance program before I relapsed on alcohol. What happened is that I could not smoke enough to properly medicate myself. It was just not practical. I was spending way too much money trying to stay medicated when I could just take a sip of liquor and it would fix my whole world. This is how cross addiction works against you. If you substitute drugs then eventually they lead you back to the old problems. I was very upset one day and this continued to build and to build. I don’t even know why I was so upset but I think it was because my “medicine” was not really working, it was not medicating my feelings away. I was uncomfortable having to feel my feelings. And so I relapsed emotionally before I actually bought that first drink.
How to get over being a dry drunk in recovery
Now if you get clean and sober (and you are not substituting one drug for another either) then you will be what is called a “dry drunk” unless you start taking action in your recovery.
If you happen to go to AA meetings then they will generally refer to someone who has stopped going to meetings as a dry drunk. But this is not entirely accurate, what it really refers to is someone who is no longer actively working on their recovery. They are not working a program. They are not doing a daily practice.
In truth, you don’t need a structured program to recover unless you need the structure to avoid relapse. This will undoubtedly be true for some people and therefore they can do just fine by going to AA meetings every day. There is huge value in AA meetings if you care to participate and do your best to help others (and get help yourself). Of course this path is not for everyone though, and you can still work a recovery program without being a part of AA. I have done so for years.
Finding an alternate path in recovery still requires work though. You can’t just sober up, go on about your life, and expect for everything to work out nicely. It takes far more effort than that. In order to avoid becoming a dry drunk you have to do some serious work.
Remember all of that stuff about dealing with your feelings, and how we used to medicate those feelings in our addiction?
In recovery, a dry drunk is someone who has not yet learned how to process and deal with their feelings. They could potentially relapse at any moment because they are not really processing things, they are not happy with themselves or their life, and they are not in a learning process of recovery.
Is going to AA the answer? Yes, it is one answer. But it is not the only answer.
The other answer is to take positive action and to start doing the work outside of AA. Either path is possible; simply do whatever works for you.
The daily practice means that you are actively taking care of yourself every single day through the use of positive action. This means that you take care of yourself physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and socially. You cannot neglect one of these areas for too long and expect to thrive in recovery. You must make it a holistic effort by attempting to improve all of these areas of your life.
Reversing alcoholism or drug addiction is entirely possible but it takes real effort. This is the “work” that I am referring to when we talk about the recovery process. Whether you are in AA or not, whether you are working a formal recovery program or not, you still have to do the work that is required to maintain sobriety. This work is always going to involve personal growth and improving your life, your health, and your life situation.
Many of us want for recovery to be dead simple. We want to put the process of recovery in a neat little box, follow these exact steps, and get the perfect life in return. Of course the real truth is always a bit more complicated than that. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot find a path of real growth based on our daily actions.
Ask yourself: “What am I doing for my recovery today? What am I doing to work on my overall health–physically, emotionally, spiritually, mentally, and socially?” Tick off those check boxes and make sure that you are taking care of yourself in every possible way. Don’t allow yourself to fall into a pattern where you are neglecting one aspect of your health. This is how your disease gains a foothold in your life and can lead you back to relapse eventually. Your recovery effort must be comprehensive. Thus, the holistic approach. It covers all the angles.
Have you ever experienced being a dry drunk in recovery? How did you manage to overcome this? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!