Saturday, June 5, 2010

"It's Not My Fault...I Have a Disease"

To begin recovery, alcoholics must first admit and then accept that in their relationship with alcohol, alcohol has become the master. This small victory over denial allows them to become sober for more than a few days for the first time in months, years, or decades.

In my case, as I've already mentioned, my drinking binge started shortly after I separated from the Air Force in 2007. I spent almost every day of the ensuing two and one-half years or so with some level of alcohol in my system, and was probably legally intoxicated almost every day for the past year and a half, at times attempting to function with alcohol levels that, in my younger years, would have left me passed out in a pool of vomit on the bathroom floor (if I was lucky enough to make it that far). Despite all of the evidence, and despite the fact that I would openly admit that I needed to reduce my alcohol consumption, I had to be sober for three days before I was able to admit that I couldn’t stop drinking on my own and decided to seek help. It took me more than two weeks after that admission to accept that to remain sober, I would have to make substantial changes and avoid alcohol for the rest of my life.

The first three of the Twelve Steps of Alcholics Anonymous help the alcoholic accept that they have a disease, and provide the foundation for long-term recovery. They help the alcoholic become sober; by themselves, they cannot keep the alcoholic sober for long. The alcoholic may accept that they are unable to drink normally, but sobriety presents myriad challenges beyond simply staying away from alcohol. Failing to take continual action to confront these challenges will eventually drive the alcoholic back to the bottle to renew his descent into madness. As it says in the AA Big Book, "For us, to drink is to die."

Of the many killers residing in the alcoholic mind, guilt (along with the inevitable shame) is one of the most dangerous. Like denial, guilt plays an integral role in the destructive cycle of alcoholism. Unlike denial, which is solely a product of the alcoholic mind, our guilt has existential roots. As the cloud of alcohol lifts, we must face the consequences of our selfish behavior. The feelings of guilt that we had, in part, used alcohol to suppress comes acutely into focus.

My treatment program includes narcotic addicts, as well as "potheads" and alcoholics in various stages of alcoholism. Many of the narcotic addicts started their drug use after a major injury or surgery, becoming hooked on legally prescribed, and necessary, pain killers. Even though it seems from my layman's perspective that a narcotics addict bears less blame for their addiction than an alcoholic, who usually require several years of abuse to develop a dependency, these recovering addicts seem to carry more guilt and shame than those of us who abused alcohol or marijuana.

In one of my early sessions with my psychiatrist, as I expressed the shame I felt for my behavior while drinking, she responded, "It's not your fault. You have a disease." It's a nice, even a true, sentiment for an addict or alcoholic in early recovery. It is true, however, only in it's totality, and it is not an excuse. I remain accountable for my behavior, recognizing that I have a disease allows me to move past it. If anything, it is a charge to recognize the selfishness of my past behavior, and to carefully navigate every day I have remaining to live up to the expectations I set for myself.

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