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annals of addiction i: hungry ghost

The other day I realized that I’ve been sober for over a year. I’ve mentioned my addiction issues a few times on this blog, but I’ve mostly written around rather than about them. It feels a bit odd, because one of my original aims with this space was to actually put into words some of the ‘stuff’ that bubbles up from the mind into conscious experience. That’s probably not how I would have described it at the time, but even then I was aware of the difficulty of articulating what mostly presented as moods or states or anxieties rather than something held with any conceptual clarity. Of course in another way it’s not odd at all, because these are obviously difficult, sometimes painful emotions bound up with shame, regrets, and knowledge of the ripples and waves of harm my addiction and resulting behaviour had sent out into the world.

Another, perhaps less obvious difficulty has to do with those ripples themselves. Addiction is an issue that for me is generational. It has been in the family for as long as anyone can remember, and dominated my childhood way before it ever manifested in me directly. As such, what might be termed ‘my experience’ is closely interwrought with the lives and experiences of other people in my family. For that reason, I have never felt entitled to the full and open expression of that experience, because doing so would impact and impinge on other people. This used to be a source of a lot of stress and maybe even repression. While I have found a new way of seeing and framing it, I still feel like there are moral responsibilities that would not be honoured by naively or selfishly ‘telling my story’. And I think that applies to the ripples and waves I’ve caused as well as those I’ve felt. There are things that happened to me that also happened to other people or were caused by other people, and I can’t just splurge about them here without regard for the harm that might cause. There are also things that happened to other people that I caused, and the same is true in that case.

I say all this because when I created this space, I made a kind of ‘no bullshit’ vow to the effect that I would be straightforward and honest. However, it’s very clear to me that in this instance discretion really is the better part of valor, and I will have to be circumspect in how I talk about it. But I want to stress that it’s not an attempt to obscure, obfuscate, or avoid responsibility. I just don’t want to cause any more harm.

So in this post I’m going to talk about the barest brute facts of what was my main addiction, and broadly where I ended up because of it, just to give a sense of what that experience is like from a first-person perspective. Then in some future posts, I’ll go into the process of becoming sober, what worked for me and what didn’t, and finally what it’s like to look back on my addiction with the perspective offered by sobriety.

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Although like many addicts I’ve had auxiliary or tangential addictions, my primary addiction was always alcohol. As my alcohol consumption increased, other habits and behaviours accrued alongside it, and as it decreased they dropped away one by one as well. Sometimes it can be hard to separate the effects of good new habits from those of simply dropping the old, bad habit, but at least for me it’s fairly clear that my other issues were mostly bumming a lift from my alcohol dependency. None of them showed up until after I began drinking, which in my case is fairly easy to track simply because I didn’t begin drinking until I was 23. As I alluded to above, I’d already had ‘contact’ with alcohol addiction in my family, and as a result I decided I didn’t want to risk it recurring. It’s difficult to know whether this was fascination manifesting as fear, or whether the foundations of my addiction were being laid by my very conscious abstinence. It’s very possible that if it hadn’t been alcohol, it would have been something else, and that I was somewhat primed for addiction. But it’s pretty likely that if I’d never began drinking I’d have saved myself and others a world of hurt and harm.

I remember all my early tastes of alcohol very vividly. The first was a sip of my father’s Guinness when I was very young, before addiction had reared its head in our immediate family in a way that would have made that inappropriate. I don’t think I enjoyed it, but I have always remembered it happening. The second was a sip of Fanta that had unbeknownst to me been secretly mixed with Vodka, and at this point the substance was very much dominant in the familial landscape. The third was deciding to taste some of my then-girlfriend’s white wine when I was 23. I think I had already decided I wanted to break my abstinence, and in hindsight a growing fascination had already established itself. I even remember building a wine collection when playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – that Shadowbanish was powerful stuff!

It was also bound up with secrecy and dishonesty from the outset. I did not want my family to know that I was drinking, and for many years I would live two lives: one of pretended abstinence, and a parallel life of furtive indulgence. Again, it’s impossible to know how things would have turned out if I had been more honest and transparent, but it was certainly a dangerous framework to be drinking in.

Something that’s clear to me now is that from very early on, I was drinking to get drunk. There was a certain kind of chemical state that at least initially I could achieve with 2-3 glasses of wine, and I really liked it. In the early months, 3 glasses would leave me absolutely sozzled, and I was continually chasing that state. I specifically enjoyed the sense of relaxation and weightlessness of being a little bit drunk; there was some kind of base-level or underlying anxiety or stress that just melted away, and that state was really and truly blissful. It began as something I’d do once a week, then twice a week, and when I was away from home rapidly became a nightly habit. But over time tolerances built up, and the number of drinks required to get there increased as well.

It really only took a few years for my drinking to become problematic, even if that wasn’t visible as such at the time. By the time I was 27 I think the pattern was well-established, and the only question was how long it would take to overwhelm the rest of my life. Turns out quite a while! It is absolutely incredible to consider how much nonsense, bullshit and disaster-creation I engaged in while pursuing my addiction. On the one hand it fills me with disgust. It has taken a lot of habitual and conceptual work to be able to look back on that time, and really consider it fully and honestly, without engaging in figurative or literal self-flagellation (the necessary breakthrough only happened when I was on retreat). On the other hand, it is impossible not to be impressed by how much of my shit people put up with because they cared about me. People can be immeasurably good and kind, even to their own detriment and in the face of utter selfishness, and I don’t think I can put into words how humbling it is.

My alcohol consumption peaked and essentially settled at what I have taken to terming “1.5+ bottles of wine a day”. What this means is that I would typically drink more than the equivalent of a bottle and a half of wine. So it might start with a beer early evening, a glass or two of white during dinner, and most of a bottle of red by the time I fell into bed. Sometimes it might just be the glass or two of white whine, a whole bottle of red, but then another glass from a new bottle, or some spirits or port or something. Occasionally I would drink more than this, and occasionally I would drink less, but for at least 2-3 years a typical evening would see me consume some similar quantity of alcohol. The distribution of that drinking was also very consistent. I never really drank before 6pm, except on fairly rare social occasions where people might have a drink or two at lunch or something. Even when I wasn’t employed, I didn’t drink before evening. I don’t really know why that is, and maybe over a longer timeline it would have changed, but it was just the way my habit played itself out. I didn’t have to ‘resist’ drinking during the day, whereas I was incapable of resisting once evening came and it was, at least in my head, ‘drinking time’.

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That’s how my drinking looked in isolation in terms of observable behaviour. But taken out of isolation, it had a whole bunch of externally obvious impacts. In some ways they are classic and typical, which I’ll get into shortly. But in other ways they were not. I never had anger issues when I was drinking, or emotional outbursts, or really any destructive behaviour beyond the knock-on effects of the habit. I was basically a happy drinker. Obviously I’m glad I don’t have to look back on anything as emotionally toxic as abusive or violent behaviour, and the grievous harm that causes to others. However, it also meant my drinking problem was easier to disguise and normalize. That meant problems would build and accrue, and they were ultimately just as harmful as any momentary outburst.

The biggest was that my alcohol consumption resulted in me spending way, way beyond my means. A typical bottle of supermarket wine at the time would have been something like €7-12. Given 1.5+ bottles a night, that’s about €16 a night, which is about €112 a week, which is about €480 a month. And that’s at the low end, because that 1.5+ bottles wasn’t always consumed in the comfort of my own home. Add in drinks I would have while out, dumbass drink orders I would make because I was drunk, eating decisions I would make because I was drunk, taxis because I was drunk… it adds up. Looking back I would guess that I easily spent more on alcohol every month than I was supposed to spend on rent, bills, and food. I say ‘supposed’, because of course I ended up not being able to make rent, pay bills, or afford food. Not all of them all of the time, but some of them all of the time. I was not able to pay my way through life because I was boozing my way through life. And while I was very good at budgeting my alcohol consumption when necessary, i.e. figuring out how to get as drunk as necessary for as little as possible, I had no such energy for managing my actual responsibilities. Those would, one way or another, eventually land in someone else’s lap. And when I had more money, expanding the amount and quality of my alcohol consumption (or on auxiliary habits) would always take precedence over better spending habits or even repaying debts I had accrued. Just typing this, I feel a bit hollow and sickened at the practical implications of my selfishness in this state.

It also made me shit at doing the things I was supposed to be doing when I wasn’t drinking. You cannot drink like that every night and be good at your college work or job. I usually had just about enough ability to get things over the line in spite of myself, but for example my masters was completely sabotaged by my drinking habits. Early in the course I was easily able to get top grades without, frankly, anything like maximum effort. But I would drink instead of doing work I needed to do, then get stressed, and instead of dealing with it turn to alcohol again and let the situation slide out of control. My thesis in particular was a self-engineered crisis that resulted in extremely sloppy work that was of no philosophical value. Likewise, I had more than enough ability to be good at my various jobs, but I wasn’t, because I was either hung over or seeking distraction. I think the latter is another hint that I was using alcohol to mask something else, but the combination made me a mediocre employee and a really bad boss, who let everything land in someone else’s lap until the last possible second. I couldn’t get into work on time, I couldn’t do my work while I was there, and I created constant needless pile-ups of stuff that should never have gotten to that stage. When I actually did my job I was good at it, and by nature I was actually an easy person to work with and for. But my nature wasn’t what showed up for work at 10:30 – it was the tired, hungover, completely distracted human who really didn’t want to be there, or anywhere else in particular. I wanted to be nowhere, with nowhere to be, inebriated and relaxed and free of responsibility.

This really gets to the heart of my base state while drinking. I was always thinking, planning, or recovering from drinking. It dominated my existence, and everything and everyone else took second place. I fit my job, partner, family and friends into the gaps around my alcohol consumption. The same thing happened with my auxiliary addictions, like video games and compulsive consumerism. I think they all ultimately stemmed from the same thing, and I subbed in other habits of distraction for the times and places where alcohol consumption was just clearly not appropriate or practical. These became more prominent later on, when I had by necessity cut my drinking back to a couple of binges a week. But even then, I was absolutely thinking about those binges from the moment one was over to when I started the next. Everything else, even other habits, were planned around my drinking.

Even aside from being unreliable in every practical sense, a person like this is not fun to be around. And if I was fun to be around, it was wholly (and frankly miraculously) in spite of my addiction. I was consumed by my consuming and almost never present. The people who loved me were never first in my mind; not even I was first in my mind. It was always all about the next drink.

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I’m not going to get into too many specifics about the eventual outcome because as I said earlier, it involves other people. It simply wouldn’t be fair to lay it all out as if doing so only affects me. But in brief, eventually I ran out of money and goodwill one too many times. My partner left me, came back, and left me again, on both occasions with every justification. I owed money to our landlords that I couldn’t pay back, even as I ‘managed’ the rent for the house, and they ran out of patience and put it up for sale, effectively evicting me and my housemates (again, with every justification). My parents bailed me out, I moved back in with them, and had an outright mental breakdown. I was suicidal in a way that was frankly very serious. I never made an ‘attempt’, but that was because the plan I had made was very thorough and designed to ensure there would only ever be one. I engaged in some pretty nasty self-harm on several occasions.

Thanks to a course of antipsychotics (THANK YOU QUETIAPINE) and counseling (THANK YOU PIETA HOUSE/TATJANA) I was pulled out of that hole. I went on a non-residential addiction treatment programme, and for a while I was dry. But guess what? Yup, eventually I started drinking again. It actually took almost two more years for me to drop it altogether, and that was mostly thanks to meditation. I don’t want to get into the road upward and outward here, because it needs its own treatment. I mention it just to emphasize that even after all of that shitness, and despite all the work I did after, it was very, very hard to actually break the addiction.

You might be thinking “Woah, that’s pretty heavy – I thought you weren’t going into specifics?” Trust me when I say that I could write for weeks about all the shitty things that happened – the shitty things I did – and still not be done. As bad as it is, it’s only a broad outline; the surface contours of a great big block of harm in my life and that of the people around me.

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There’s no tidy or satisfying way to end this post. I think it’s best to let it bottom out in much the same way my life had. Next time I look at this ‘stuff’, I’ll try and offer some more perspective on eventually breaking the habit and rebuilding my wreck of a person.

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