We know that celebrities like Philip Seymour Hoffman die of addiction. He is not the first and sadly will not be the last. Addiction taken to the point just before the addict dies is a hopeless condition. Right at that breaking point before death is the best time to admit that he or she needs help.
There are millions of people in the world right now who are at that breaking point. I would not be surprised if the majority of people in the world at least know someone who has been an addict at some point. It is that ubiquitous. I was at that breaking point a few years ago. I stood at the turning point between death and doing something else. I chose to do something else. I stopped drinking.
But I want to qualify this a little.
I stopped drinking not because I believed I was an alcoholic. I believed alcohol was actually solving my problems on a daily basis. Nothing in my life had become totally unmanageable to me. So what if I was unemployed, depressed, scared of life, lonely, morally bankrupt, and in debt. Everyone had those problems once in a while. So what if I drank a few glasses of wine (at least a bottle’s worth) followed by a couple of gin and tonics and maybe a couple of white Russians to cap a night off. Going to bed a little drunk helped me sleep. I hated myself, but I could always rely on alcohol to make me feel better when I needed it to. Normal stuff, right? Alcohol was my solution not my problem.
Until I stopped.
Two days after I stopped I was like a lion in a cage hungry for a steak. I paced around the house with anxious sweat hungry for a hit of my favorite juice. As the anxiety increased, I knew something was wrong. This was Wednesday. By Friday I was sitting in my first meeting shaking and holding back tears. I could barely hold a cup of coffee, and my mind raced faster than it had before. I knew that my drinking habit was not normal.
Most people can have a drink after a meal and put it down. Most people can drink half of a glass of wine or not finish a beer and be ok with that. Most alcoholics will drink until they can’t physically drink any more. The last time I got really wasted I was in Louisville, KY to celebrate with a good friend. Before we even got to the bar I secretly pounded two beers. I drank a pitcher at the bar. Everyone else left to go home. I hooked up with another group of people and collected all of the half consumed pitchers from my previous group and finished all of them. I then got back to my friend’s place where I drank three more beers and had two glasses of wine to cap off the night. To me this was a normal pattern. I drank like this when no one could see it. I drank with friends and then got drunk alone.
Upon waking the alcoholic will either have a drink to stop the craving, or will crave all day until the clock strikes “drinking time.” This craving is like drinking water in the blazing summer heat. Yet you always feel parched no matter how much water you put in your system. Even as your stomach can’t hold any more, you are still thirsty. Imagine stopping with that feeling in your mouth. It would drive you insane. That is kind of how an alcoholic feels after he or she comes full stop. It is agonizing.
The problem starts in the mind that says, “I must drink to feel normal.” Then it becomes physical where the body says, “I need to keep drinking because I cannot stop whether you like it or not.” Getting out of that cycle requires long-term re-wiring of the brain and that means approaching life in a totally different way. This is a chronic illness of the mind and body that requires ongoing treatment. But you have to want that continued treatment for it to work. As soon as the addict stops that treatment they are at risk of dropping back into the vicious, self-devouring cycle of the body and mind.
There are millions who are trapped in that cycle right now. Some are well aware they are in it and are either not sure how to break free or are too damn scared at the prospect of not getting the next hit. Some are using alcohol and drugs to subdue symptoms of mental illness they are unaware that they have. These are the people who want to stop, but are so trapped and broken they don’t even have a clue where to start.
Those who really don’t want to stop their addictions or who want an easy way out won’t stop feeding. It’s unfortunate, but we can’t expect everyone to walk into a 12 Step group and stay sober. Once in a while – it could be 22 years from the first day of sobriety – that thirst will creep back in and without a group of sober people to help ward off that feeling of needing a drink, the addict places him or herself in great danger. Staying connected with sober people on a regular basis is the path to continued sobriety.
I am glad that one death has sparked a national conversation about addiction. My fear is that after the media bump dies down, addiction will be a news story that bores us unless God forbid someone like Robert Downey, Jr. gets drunk again.
Here are some places to get information and lifelines if you think you or someone else needs them. Remember, this works only if you want it. Sobriety can’t be forced, it must be chosen.
- If you think a life is in danger, go to your local emergency facility. Bear in mind that they are obligated to provide care in life threatening situations. The US Hospital Finder is a quick way to locate the nearest facility.
- See what alcoholism is according to Alcoholics Anonymous.
- For drug addiction a good place to start is Narcotics Anonymous.
- If you are in need of a treatment center or need other resources, find a treatment center and call a phone number at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Website.