It takes a lot for some people to realize that addiction and alcoholism are the same thing: A sleazy date finally taught me what even a wise counselor could not.
When I got to rehab in the spring of 2000, I was sure of exactly two things: that my life needed to change, and that I was in no way an alcoholic so I didn’t need to quit drinking.
But I knew how crafty and manipulative those rehab and AA types were. I knew that they were out to convince me that I was an alcoholic even though, at that point, I didn’t even like drinking.
A sober friend had taken me to a few AA meetings a year or so earlier, where her friend calmly explained that my distinction—that I was an addict and not an alcoholic—made not one bit of difference to her.
“They’re the same,” the girl said, while sighing in what I perceived to be a sanctimonious way. And boy did I argue her down—trotting out every example, defense point and anecdote I could. With more notice, I’d probably have prepared flow charts.
I was fairly certain I’d won that argument, too. I got the official word on that a few days later: The friend who’d been taking me to meetings stalled when I asked if I could go with her again—explaining that I made this girl uncomfortable. “She said you remind her too much of what she was like when she was still ‘in her disease,’” she explained. “You can’t come to meetings with us anymore.” Shortly thereafter, that friend drifted away from me.
You’d better believe that I used this as ammunition against AA and meetings and sobriety for a good while.
When things got undeniably worse, I made a deal with myself: I’d go to rehab, but wouldn’t subject myself to any of that AA stuff. AA was where they told perfectly nice drug addicts that they were also alcoholic. AA was where my incredibly logical arguments—how I didn’t drink that much and about how drinking didn’t ever motivate me to do drugs—were ignored.
I immediately recognized the enthusiasm of a sleazy guy who’s just received information that leads him to believe he will be getting laid that evening.
So when my counselor at rehab asked me if I was an alcoholic, I was prepared: “Nope. I’m a straight-up drug addict. Cocaine. And pills, too—but those aren’t for fun, they’re just to sleep or calm down or whatever.” I uncrossed my arms, sure that he would be swayed by my honesty.
“Uh huh,” he said, nodding. Now, I really liked this man. This was a man who, though I was as terrified and overwrought as ever, made me feel safe and comfortable. He was so kind and gentle, and he was the first person I’d ever heard talking about recovery in a way that didn’t make it sound awful. So when he posed his next question, I was only willing to take it into consideration because I liked him so much: “Given that you’re not an alcoholic, why don’t you take some time off of drinking?”
“Sure,” I replied. I didn’t tell him that I’d quit drinking once before and had made it 10 days—10 stressful, horrific days where I’d talked incessantly to anyone who would listen and many who wouldn’t about how I was “x” number of days off drinking. Ten days during which I’d taken plenty of painkillers and hypnotics. But things were different now. I was in rehab. I could make it longer than 10 days—and without the pills.
“Great,” he said. “How about you take off…I don’t know—a year?”
I looked at him evenly, trying to figure out if he was kidding. Who in God’s name took a year off of drinking? This thought, if I’d had the ability to absorb one, might have given me a clue about my situation. But I said nothing.
Then he asked: “Are you willing to believe that addiction and alcoholism might be the same thing?”
I thought about that. And because I liked him so much—just for him—I nodded, slowly: “I’m willing to believe that they might be the same thing.”
So the next six months progressed, with me fully admitting that I’d been a drug addict who took so much Ambien at night that I sometimes found myself driving around the next day not knowing where I was going or really who I was. An addict who stayed up for days at a time doing fat lines of cocaine by myself. I shared these stories with the people I met in rehab and then, when the rehab started taking us to AA meetings, with the people there.
I never went to NA or CA for the simple reason that I was so out of it and confused that I just went where I was taken—and the rehab took us to an AA meeting, where I met people who told me to go to another. About half the stories I heard in AA were about drinking and the other half about drugs; nobody seemed too concerned when people like me identified as addicts, not alcoholics, or talked about drugs, not alcohol. I was fine with this mash-up of addicts and alcoholics as well, since the whole time I was telling myself that I was willing to believe that addiction and alcoholism might be the same thing. In many ways, I thought I’d even convinced myself.
Then a friend from rehab relapsed, on cocaine. I grilled him for the details: Had he had a horrible time? Was it true that a head full of recovery and a body full of drugs was a terrible combination? Did he hate himself and want to die?
Nope, he told me with a smile. The night had been amazing.
Soon after that, I ran into a guy I’d dated years earlier, a guy who’d been sober for a long time. I told him I was now sober, too. He shrugged and said he wasn’t anymore: “That whole thing was bullshit.”
Somehow, these two conversations fused in my mind, and the thought occurred to me a day or two later that alcoholism and addiction were very much not the same thing—that even though I was going to AA meetings, and liking and relating to what I heard, all those people must be crazy. Because how could addiction and alcoholism be the same thing when they were two entirely different words?
I chose not to call my sponsor with this thought. I instead chose to call the guy I had a date with that night. When I got to his house, where we were planning to have a drink before going to dinner, I introduced the topic: “Remember how I told you I don’t drink because I have a drinking problem? Turns out I don’t have a problem, so I actually do drink now. Do you have any wine?”
This guy nodded like he couldn’t believe his luck, and I immediately recognized the enthusiasm of a sleazy guy who’s just received information that leads him to believe he will be getting laid that evening. But what did I care? He was just going to be my evening’s drinking buddy and he could think whatever he felt like.
He poured me a glass of wine and I took first a sip—and then a gulp. I remember feeling mystified that this innocent little beverage, this thing that tasted and felt so benign, had caused such endless discussion. My partner in crime seemed to feel similarly. “I can’t believe you thought you had a drinking problem,” he said. “You’re not drinking alcoholically at all.” We did a “Cheers” to that happy thought.
One glass led to us finishing a bottle, so he opened another, and at some point, like in some Fitzgerald novel, the dinner plans were forgotten and I was lying down, a little woozy, and he was sitting next to me, saying that he didn’t feel bad about giving me alcohol but he did feel bad about the drugs.
“The drugs?” I asked, popping up. He held out a handful of ecstasy pills. “I can’t do that—drugs were my problem” was a sentence I attempted to get out of my mouth. But I think I only said “I can’t” before popping the first pill in my mouth. Once I’d done it, it seemed silly to not go all out, so I took another. And when I couldn’t even feel that one, he suggested a third. By the end of the evening, I’d had two bottles of wine and four-and-a-half hits of X, and it turned out that being high and drunk and aware of a different way to live felt awful—like the volume on a horror movie turned up. Perhaps that’s what made it easier for me to escape the sleazy guy without giving him so much as a kiss.
Horrified and chagrined, I went back to a meeting the next day, where I explained what had happened and declared myself a newcomer. I announced that I finally understood what everyone had been saying about how alcohol was a clear gateway to drugs, which I’d never known before because I’d always done drugs all the time, without needing alcohol to ease the transition or give me the idea.
It was a good year or so later before I saw the situation a little more clearly—when I saw, specifically, that I’d always drunk alcoholically. From my very first drink, I’d been doing things I didn’t intend to do and drinking to get drunk. I’d just been surrounded by so many people who were doing the same, and my vision of my life had been so small, that it hadn’t registered. This became even more obvious when I started going to parties again, and discovered that not everyone who arrived ran straight up to the bar to start doing shots before looking around for the best bathroom to do coke. That was just what people like me had done.
A year or so after that, I saw what a good thing it had been that my experiment in alcoholism versus addiction had only lasted one night. I’m even more grateful for that today. I still know both the guy from my rehab who relapsed and the guy I’d dated who had been sober but decided that the “whole thing” was “bullshit”: They both still go to meetings where, for the past 15 years or so, one or the other is always a newcomer again.
I’m not any different to them, really. We’re all three addicts—or, if you will, alcoholics. The main difference, as I see it, is that the night I decided to experiment, I happened to have access to enough supplies to overdo it in a massive way—and I happened to do it with such a sleazy guy that I simply couldn’t avoid admitting that there was a serious problem with my behavior.
If only sleazy guys could always be put to such good use.
Fix columnist Anna David is the author of Party Girl, Bought, Reality Matters and Falling For Me. She served as The Fix’s Executive Editor for over two years. Her previous columns have covered going back to school for addiction, dodgy doctors, AA-haters, being a so-so AA sponsor and the unpredictability of making amends.