When I got to rehab in the spring of 2000, I was entirely 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 these people were out to convince me that I was an alcoholic even though, at that point, I didn't even like drinking. I knew because a sober friend had taken me to a few AA meetings a year or so earlier and I remembered very clearly her friend calmly explaining to me that my distinction -- that I was an addict and not an alcoholic -- didn't make 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. Had I had more notice, I'd probably have prepared actual flow charts. I was fairly certain I'd won that argument, too. I got the official word on that a few days later, when the friend who'd been taking me to meetings stalled when I asked if I could go with her to another. She explained that I made her friend uncomfortable. "She said you remind her too much of what she was like when she was still 'in her disease,'" my friend 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. But then, when things got undeniably worse, I made a deal with myself: I'd go to rehab but I 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 -- about how I didn't even drink that much and about how drinking didn't ever motivate me to do drugs -- were ignored.
So I was prepared when my counselor at rehab asked me if I was an alcoholic. "Nope," I answered. "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 un-crossed my arms, sure that he would be so swayed by my honesty about all the drugs I'd been doing that he'd let me off the hook.
"Uh huh," he said, nodding. Now, I really liked this man. This was a man who, though I was as lost and terrified and overwrought as I'd ever been, made me feel safe and comfortable. He was so very 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. And that next question went like this: "Given that you're not an alcoholic, why don't you take some time off of drinking?"
"Sure," I responded. 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, 10 days during which I'd taken a liberal amount 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. I tried to figure out if he was kidding and quickly determined that he was not. But who in God's name took a year off of drinking, I wondered. This thought might have given me a clue about my situation, if I'd had the ability to absorb one. 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 I decided that, because I liked him so much, I was willing to believe this. For him. I nodded, slowly. "I'm willing to believe that they might be the same thing," I said.
And so the next six months progressed, with me fully admitting that I had 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, a drug 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 I met there. (I never went to NA or CA for the simple reason that I was so out of it and confused during that time 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 and not alcoholics or talked about drugs instead of drinking. I was perfectly 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 what they'd said about how a head full of recovery and a body full of booze or 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.
Shortly 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, and he shrugged and said he wasn't anymore. "That whole thing was bullshit," he said.
I'm not sure how, exactly, these two conversations fused in my mind but 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 the things I heard there, 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 and tell him I was on my way. When I got to his house, where we were planning to have a drink before going to dinner, I introduced the topic simply by saying, "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 his enthusiasm as 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 I reasoned that he could think whatever he felt like.
Once he poured me a glass of wine and I took first a sip and then a gulp. I remember feeling mystified by the fact that this innocent little beverage, this thing that tasted and felt so benign, had caused all those endless hours of 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." I nodded and we probably did a "cheers" to that happy thought. One glass led to us finishing a bottle and then he opened another bottle and at some point, like in some Fitzgerald novel, the dinner plans were forgotten and I was lying down and maybe feeling 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 his palm, which contained 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'd only said "I can't" before popping the first pill in my mouth. And then, 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 drunk two bottles of wine and had 4.5 hits of Ex 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 by the entire night, 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, a fact I'd never known before because I'd always done drugs all the time -- without ever needing alcohol to ease the transition or give me the idea.
It was probably a good year or so afterwards that I saw the situation a little more clearly -- that I saw, specifically, that I'd always drank 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 thing and my vision of my life had been so small that it hadn't ever registered to me as "alcoholic." This became even more obvious when I started going to parties again and discovered that not everyone who entered a party ran right up to the bar to start doing shots before looking around for the best bathroom to use to do coke. That was just what people like me had done.
It was probably a year or so after that I saw what a good thing it had been that my experiment in alcoholism vs. addiction had only lasted a night, and 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 had decided that the "whole thing" had been "bullshit" because they both still go to meetings where, for the past decade-and-a-half or so, one or the other of them is always a newcomer or in their first 30 days again.
I'm not any different than 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.
This post originally appeared on AfterPartyChat.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
For more by Anna David, click here.
For more on addiction and recovery, click here.
We’re basically your best friend… with better taste. Learn more