Am I an alcoholic?
Speaking at a 12-step meeting a few weeks ago I mentioned that old AA standby—that addiction is the only disease that assures you that you’re doing fine. Have one more drink and you’ll feel even better.
When it ended, a woman took me aside.
“Elaine” had never been arrested for drunk driving, lost a job or passed out due to booze. She’d come to the meeting—her first—to please her husband but the drunk rambles she’d just heard made her think maybe she was in the wrong place—AA was not for her.
“Eddie claims we fight because I’m an alcoholic. He says a lot of hidden anger comes out after I have a drink or two. My own feeling is that he doesn’t think it proper for ‘a lady’ to drink at all; he is very old-fashioned. I tell him the main thing wrong with our marriage is his nagging. But sometimes when I am alone with my feelings [I think] wouldn’t a little vodka right now turn the world right side up? I think maybe he’s right. Bill, how can I know if I’m just an occasional heavy drinker, or a real alcoholic?”
“Elaine, let’s do a little self-diagnosis,” I said to her. “Imagine you’re having a medical consultation with a doc who knows you very well. He looks up from your chart and says, ‘Mrs. Jones, you’ve had your last drink.’ How does that make you feel?
“For most people, the reaction would be, ‘Not even a glass of wine at a festive dinner? Oh, well, if it’s a matter of life and death, that’s not too high a price. Sure, Doc—I quit as of now.’”
When a rehab counselor said that to me, a chill went down my spine. Oh, no, I said.Never to drink again? That was death.
What made it difficult for me to see that I was an alcoholic was this: I had become unpredictable to myself. I could stop at a bar after a day at the office, have a drink and go home to dinner with my (then) wife. I was just like anyone else. See?
This ignored the fact that I could stop in the same bar at the same time the next day, order the same drink, and wake up three days later in Bermuda…so high only dogs could hear me.
At the end of my own drinking career, I flew the Atlantic in a blackout, and then boozed and pilled my way into two hospitals in 10 days. When I awoke in the detox ward of the second, a doctor came to see me.
“Do you think you’re an alcoholic?” she said.
I did not have to read the name on her lapel. I knew who she was. She was the end of fun.
“Oh, no,” I said. “Sometimes, I overdo it a bit, that’s all. I’ll be more careful next time, maybe just drink beer.”
Quite a concession, grandiosely I thought, coming from me.
Wasn’t I the big-time gin drinker, a Madison Ave. Seagrams’ copywriter at that, for Christ’s sake—hadn’t I written in my “Saloon Society” column in the Village Voice about inventing the famous 5-Martini Diet—pass out before dinner?
Addiction narrows the world. Drunks and dopers cannot imagine life without chemical acceleration. As W.C. Fields used to say, “Far too nice a day to spend out of doors,” and he’d head for the bar.
First of all, to themselves. I lied to the doctor at the Roosevelt Hospital because while I then knew very little about alcoholism, I did know that if you admitted to it, you could never drink again. Telling her the truth meant the end of (what I still called) fun.
You bet I lied.
One of my sources of strength during my drinking days was my secret belief that I had a good friend who was always waiting for me around the corner, one who never let me down. If I could just live through the current argument or difficulty, get past this time when someone—usually my weeping wife—was berating me for boozing so much; if I could bear her tears five minutes more, wait it out until she shut up, when she got tired and finally stopped moving her lips, I could go around the corner and find my secret friend, a pint of gin, and I would be all right again.
I have never yet met an addict who did not have this belief.
The turning point arrives when you come to believe, in your heart and soul, that this secret friend is not your friend, but an enemy who wants to kill you. To get to that point, denial must end.
When I was a facilitator at Scripps McDonald, the famous San Diego rehab, they had a four-point questionnaire for screening alcoholics and drug addicts. I sent it to Elaine by email. If you have come with me this far, maybe you’d like to take it too?
OK—in the privacy of your own conscience, go down the list:
1. In the last three months, have you felt you should cut down or stop drinking and/or using drugs? Yes? No?
2. In the last three months, has anyone annoyed you, or gotten on your nerves by telling you to cut down or stop drinking or using drugs? Yes? No?
3. In the last three months, have you felt guilty or bad about how much you drink or use? Yes? No?
4. In the last three months, have you been waking up wanting to have an alcoholic drink or use drugs? Yes? No?
These seemingly simple questions have been carefully thought out. Each revolves around a very important building block of addiction. Each affirmative response earns one point.
One point indicates a possible problem. Two points indicate a probable problem. If you’ve taken this test, and answered honestly, congratulations. You’ve taken a big step in breaking through the first great barrier to recovery.
Getting past denial.
As I write this, Elaine has taken the questionnaire herself. It’s opened her to the notion that perhaps she has a problem after all. She just sent me an email—she’s thinking of going to another AA meeting.
“Maybe we can have another talk?” she wrote.
I emailed back, sure and have since spoken to a couple of AA women friends about maybe becoming Elaine’s sponsor.
Incidentally, if you don’t like the Scripps four-pointer, there’s another more detailed self-diagnoser available. Just phone your local AA chapter and ask them about their 20-question test, “Are You an Alcoholic?” You don’t have to be a member, and it’s free.
However, Dear Reader, if you’ve come with me this far, my feeling is you don’t need me or Scripps McDonald or AA—no four-point questionnaire or 20-question test—to tell you what you already know. If you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired of the fights, the tears, job loss, broken promises and police action, I think going to a rehab is your best bet. It was for me.