Alcoholism and Free Choice

I was listening to an NPR program, “On Point,” the other day and a writer was being interviewed about his book in which he claims that alcoholism is not a disease but an ism of  choice.

I don’t believe there are too many recovering addicts or alcoholics who would give themselves over to the generalized assertion that all you have to do is “will” yourself into sobriety. Those of us who have been in the rooms for a while would not deceive ourselves into the naïve belief that one’s individual will can unilaterally “conquer” or defeat the enemy of addiction.

This does not mean, of course, that in sobriety we don’t make the choice to stay sober or other choices on our sober journeys. To choose to be sober, however, does not have the same kind of will-driven flavor as choosing a career, a partner, a house, a fitness program, a certain kind of cereal. And the choice to be sober is quite different from a choice to leave a relationship or to stay away from toxic friendships, although these kinds of choices aren’t always mutually exclusive.

For those who live in the worlds of intentional theory and  rugged individualism, or the pull-yourself-up-on-your-own bootstraps school, it is an easy jump to believe that any individual can just say “no” to a drug or a bottle of booze. Clichés make for good bumper stickers, but they trivialize addiction into facile and accessible one-liner ads.

Our entire culture, from “American Idol” to the Donald Trumps of the corporate world, continue to fool us into believing that we can be anything we want to be just by our intentions and will power.  Some you-too-can-have-ten-thousand-followers Internet marketers  also deceive us into believing that all we have to do is have the will to succeed, and life will just open us for us, our economic worries vanish into thin air, and our emotional lives cured.

For an addict, choice doesn’t have the power that it does for those who are not addicts. Addicts, like myself, are steeped in habit  and immediate gratification. And our addictions have a chemical memory reinforced by our drinking or using environments that become close to permanent fixtures in our lives.

Our dependence on drugs or booze also has a kind of rough-hewn intransigence that just is not applicable to someone  simply choosing a movie to go to. It is axiomatic to those who are trying to stay sober that deciding to stay home, instead of going to a bar, cannot be put in the same category as deciding to see a particular movie. Anyone who would make that comparison, quite frankly, just has not been there.

I haven’t met an alcoholic or drug user who doesn’t have a tendency to weave a web-of-a-world that is an island unto itself. In our drunken/drug stupors, we fall victims to grandiosity or I’m-just-a-piece-of-worthless-shit mentality.

We create a cosmos of deception trying to fool our families, friends, and co-workers that we have our acts together. We lie, we cheat, we avoid responsibility, we try to control  everything around us (the illusion of having all our ducks in a row can also give others the false impression that we are centered and stable). And we love to believe that we are being held hostage by a world that is inferior, weak, or just plain incapable of ever understanding us.

As addicts, we are seldom present to anyone, even ourselves. Our failure to be really anywhere in-the-moment is part of a larger dysfunctional tendency to distort what we encounter, especially if that experience has any degree of intimacy or fear (we are epic misreaders).

Choice? Yes, we can certainly choose to put down the drink or drug. Putting an addiction to rest doesn’t mean, however, that addiction is just about craving. The craving for must of us does dissipate, but the collateral damage of our addictions needs to be constantly monitored. Even those of us with twenty or more years have a hell of a lot to learn about that damage.

No matter how much sober time we have, there will always be work to be done to heal the wounds of our addictions (yes, I said “always”), and  we must constantly return to the reservoir of experience-based sanity offered to us by rehabs, a peer-group program, and, for some of us, psychological therapy.

In that sense, as addicts and alcoholics, we are chronic emotional and intellectual relapsers, even though we may never fall off the “official” wagon of our physical addictions.

This broader notion of addiction will probably not run well with the hard-core, either/or, sober/alcoholic, drunk/dry, using/not using believers out there. However, based on the alcoholic “isms” I have seen in my twenty-four years of sobriety, I would say that, as addicts and alcoholics, our mental and emotional issues are indeed chronic and that our other addictive-related isms will always be a challenge no matter how much “clean time” we accumulate.

The rabid free-choicers in our society represent a kind of conspiracy against those of us who believe in the need for a kind of Gemeinschaft world of  “others” to keep us on track. I do not personally subscribe to the notion of a “collective will” of like-minded sober individuals in a recovery program, but I do believe that the experiences of other recovering addicts and alcoholics is a necessary venue that needs to be constantly tapped into.

It is in that peer-group environment that we can truly practice a normal life by sharing our continuing crises and successes. In that transparent environment, we can continue to practice honesty, an essential trait for all of us in the rooms who continue to struggle with it. And we will experience a kind of freedom we have never known in our lives. In that free environment, we will truly be able to make more appropriate choices because we are truly present to our worlds.

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