Why I don’t want to be labelled an alcoholic

Sure, I was self-medicating like crazy. I started smoking marijuana in 1978 at age fifteen, and drinking alcohol at seventeen, and kept the party going more or less non-stop (gave up the pot during my career as a cop but made up for it and then some with booze) until December 12th, 2013, when I finally saw what others took much less time to see, that I was drinking/abusing substances to the point where I was one stupid, alcohol and pot induced decision away from my life crashing down around me.

And my behavior changed for the worse (as bad as it already was) once I went back to getting stoned, after my law enforcement career ended. Unlike most stoners, the marijuana wasn’t enough for me, for some strange reason it made me want to drink (my poison of choice being Pinot Grigio) and I gradually escalated to doing both, first on my days off, starting around 11:00 a.m. and then I began doing it on days I worked, too, at first either a drink or two at lunch before work, or a quick toke off my one-hitter on my dinner break, and that’s when I realized I had to stop. I was impaired most of the time. And hiding it from others. Typical alcoholic behavior, right? So why don’t I want the label?

Because I have a mental illness, that I coyly referred to in AA meetings, for the five weeks I attended them, as a “treatment resistant mood disorder.” Yup. Hard for any treatment to take hold when you are consistently impairing yourself with depressants like alcohol (I’ve heard arguments both ways about whether pot is a depressant). I was on titrating up on lithium when I quit drinking/abusing, and after about a month of sobriety those nasty little insidious suicidal thoughts started to go away. Of course, my hands were also shaking badly and I didn’t want sex anymore, then I started to have thyroid problems, but hey, there are always trade-offs, no?

So in AA meetings, whenever I wanted to say something, which I did with less and less frequency as time went on, I introduced myself according to the rules, “hi, I am Tove and I am an alcoholic.” Then everyone would chime back, “hi, Tove (which, by the way, is confusingly pronounced Tova).” But I hated saying I was an alcoholic. I choked on it every time. My grandmother was an alcoholic. One of my siblings, my brother, is an alcoholic. But I self-identify much more strongly as someone with a mental illness. “Hi, I am Tove, and I am a self-medicating bipolar.”

But wait, even that’s not right. That’s like saying, if you have cancer, “hi, I am so-and-so, and I am a cancer.” No one says that. So instead, I should come out, here on this blog, as what I really am, “hi, I’m a person who, for too many years to count, self-medicated with drugs and alcohol due to having bipolar disorder,” and now I want to get better, and part of my journey is blogging about my thoughts on sobriety. (Hard for me to say that, publically, since no one knows the bipolar thing about me where I am employed, and I fear it would change their perception of my abilities. But no one where I am employed knows I write this blog, either. If anyone from work ever does find me, at least they’ll know I am sober!)

Sobriety is making me a healthier person, I will cautiously say, Perhaps, not yet, a better person, but hey, other than the truly stupid risks I took, and the bad decisions I made, due to either/both my illness and my self-medicating tendencies, I actually AM already a pretty good person. BUT I AM NOT MY ILLNESS. And even if I did self-identify as an alcoholic, like my brother does, I still would not be my illness. My brother embraces his alcoholism. He says drinking to excess and passing out every night makes him happy. But that is not the sum total of my brother. He is also a talented photographer, a loving husband, a responsible father, a caring brother, and an awesome fisherman.

So I am trying to think of myself as someone with an illness, but not who is her illness. Truthfully, what I think deep down is the label I really want but am afraid to give myself, is writer. Because having bipolar disorder and self-medicating for it is not condusive to getting much writing done, although I did knock off a quick novel, The Naked Truth. I guess I can start by saying I am a blogger who has written a novel. Maybe it’s time for a memoir.

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Final words on Philip Seymour Hoffman

I developed an obsession about this story, because while it is always tragic when someone dies as a result of their addictions, it seems especially so when that person is gifted at something that betters our understanding of the world in some way, as PSH was with his acting. And the other thing I am especially struggling with is that he relapsed after so, so many years of sobriety. From what I have read, a lot of people are looking around for something or someone to blame. Many blame Hoffman himself, and truly, no one (that we know of) forced him to inject a lethal dose of heroin into his veins. For someone who seemed smart and talented, that wasn’t smart. And the sheer number of bags the police found (was it 70? 20 empty and 50 full?) suggest, that just maybe, he did know what he was doing, and the overdose was not accidental? Addiction is often a result of self medicating to ease the pain of living. PSH may have been suffering from a mental illness. Depression, or perhaps undiagnosed bipolar.  I have never tried heroin but have heard the experience described as taking away whatever mental pain the person was suffering. Perhaps this was his way of committing suicide. He did say that if he continued to use heroin he would die.

But that brings me to something else that might be to blame. I was in AA for only about five weeks before I realized I would never be able to get comfortable with the religious feel of it and the concept of powerlessness over alcohol. Philip Seymour Hoffman was in AA, too, for a lot longer, and was said to be considered a “guru” for his lengthy sobriety. So what did I learn from five weeks in AA? If I went “back out” I would die. In other words, if I stopped going to AA meetings, and subsequently relapsed, as AAers think those of us who leave automatically do (I haven’t relapsed, but I am sure those nice people I went to meetings with day after day think I am drinking myself to death as I write this) I would die. PSH, as a long time AAer, had to believe this. That, and he had to believe he was powerless over his addiction. Because it says so right there in step one.  The theory is that if you believe you are powerless over drugs/alcohol, when you relapse, you don’t just have one drink and then come to your senses, no. You go full out, because in your AA world, losing your sobriety is losing everything, and you have to start the count all over again, going back to being a lowly newcomer, a guru no longer. And hell, rehab wasn’t going to help PSH because most rehabs use 12 step programs. So the thinking was reinforced. It’s just a theory.

The other people to blame are the dealers (four initial arrests made, three charged?) who sold PSH the heroin that killed him. Some people have pointed out the sad irony of the police jumping all over the death of the rich celebrity white guy, while how many poor, unknown and unwanted minorities die from drug overdoses daily and there is no swift police response to round up the responsible dealers. No story there. So I suppose we have PSH to thank for bringing some national awareness to the heroin epidemic sweeping this country. Let’s hope we can find some real answers, solidify better treatments, at least give secular options, instead of this reliance on a religious program with no scientific, medical basis. Faith is important in life, yes, but this particular faith based treatment is a dinosaur not keeping up with the times.

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Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the danger of relapse

Apologies for spelling Philip incorrectly.

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There’s a photo of Phillip taken at Sundance. He looks heavy, with puffy, red rimmed eyes. A half smile crosses his face. In the aftermath of knowing he was possibly high when the photo was snapped, it’s easy to say he was, and the eyes give it away. When I was drinking and smoking other substances that required me to use Visine drops in the event I was going out, going to work, going to pick up my kid or go to the grocery store or where ever I would go, drunk and high, getting behind the wheel of a car, driving, drunk and high, sometimes with my kid, yes, I did that, I didn’t want my cherry red eyeballs giving me away. But there was less I could do to cover up the rims of my eyes. One friend had once laughed and said my eyes were like Christmas, green and…

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Phillip Seymour Hoffman and the danger of relapse

There’s a photo of Phillip taken at Sundance. He looks heavy, with puffy, red rimmed eyes. A half smile crosses his face. In the aftermath of knowing he was possibly high when the photo was snapped, it’s easy to say he was, and the eyes give it away. When I was drinking and smoking other substances that required me to use Visine drops in the event I was going out, going to work, going to pick up my kid or go to the grocery store or where ever I would go, drunk and high, getting behind the wheel of a car, driving, drunk and high, sometimes with my kid, yes, I did that, I didn’t want my cherry red eyeballs giving me away. But there was less I could do to cover up the rims of my eyes. One friend had once laughed and said my eyes were like Christmas, green and red. I pretended to think it was funny, but didn’t really give a shit because I was so messed up on booze and drugs, but I wanted to give a shit, I really did. I suppose that’s what made me clean up my act. I was starting to mess up to the point where I couldn’t stop the boozing and the dope but neither was I comfortable with myself, I hated the bipolar self-medicating out of control bullshit, so I did at 50 what Phillip did at 22, I got clean and sober. That was December 12th, 2013, for me. Phillip got sober at 22 and by the news accounts was sober something like 23 years. He ended up in rehab in May, 2013.  And since they found him dead with a needle in his arm this morning in his NY apartment, it looks like the rehab didn’t take. The first thing I thought of when I learned all this, with all the morbid fascination of a recovering boozer/doper is damn, 23 years and he STILL couldn’t beat it, and it killed him. And I’ve got 7 or so weeks under my belt. A long way to go, one day, week, month, and year at a time. I wonder if it was the Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome monster that got him after he got out of rehab? I’ve read it can take up to two years to get over it, and it is what leaves you most vulnerable to relapse. A good article on it can be found on the “What….Me Sober?” blog. If I were still in AA I’d probably bring it up at a meeting. But I am not. I am, however, thinking of starting a SMART recovery group in Champaign, IL. First thing, though, is to deal with some medical problems I’m having. Imagine that, a recovering from alcohol and drug problems bipolar person heavily medicated with potent drugs with dangerous side effects having medical problems. Who’da thunk it? One day at a time. Rest in Peace, Phillip. I am so sorry the monster conquered you.

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Some additional arguments between me and my friend about AA

Written to my friend:

Sorry it took me a few days to get back to you, I was a little confounded on how to answer your lecture on your opinion of the need for me to be in AA and do the steps. I am very grateful to you for introducing me to AA, it really helped me in the first few critical weeks when I was still having cravings, but unfortunately my spiritual beliefs just don’t jive with AA teachings and I have not been able to get past that. I had a nice talk with Karen about it today and she agreed with me that there are many more choices on ways to stay sober now that were not available to her 26 years ago, and she is okay with me following my own path to wellness and continued sobriety. I promised her, that if I started to have cravings for alcohol I would come to a meeting. I am eternally grateful to you for your love and care. Please don’t worry, I will not fuck this up.

My friend writes back:

We should talk in person about this, but NO, this will never ever come between us.  There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with substituting “higher power” for God.  You simply talked to someone who thought differently.  Just because she – or anyone – has been sober as long as they have doesn’t mean they have all the answers, and it doesn’t mean you have to accept the way they see ANYTHING – including me.  “God” is just a short collection of syllables – GAH-UH-DUH – that means, for me, a vast unknowable that has something to do with the creation of, well, creation, and the continuance of same.  God is certainly NOT male OR female, in my estimation, and sure as hell isn’t some old dude with a white beard in a white robe on a throne floating in geosynchronous orbit somewhere between Uranus and Neptune.  I don’t buy into all that Christian cosmology (or hypocrisy) either.  There are lots of people in this program for whom their higher power is “G.O.D.” (Gang Of Drunks), nothing more than a room full of people who have found a way to stay sober.  What I’ve always been told is that you embrace (for lack of a better word) the higher power of your own understanding.  Anyway.  We should have coffee and talk about this more in person.  Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater at this stage of the game.  Remember, AA is a resource. Even if you find something that works better, you are still welcome at any meeting, any time, as long as you believe you have a drinking problem. 

Frankly, I don’t think AA is a perfect fit for me, but it’s all I’ve got and so I keep going.  I tried staying sober by myself for several years and it ultimately didn’t work without outside input.  If you want to try one of those other programs, I’d like to check it out too.  Above all, don’t worry about anything anybody tells you.  All they’re trying to say, basically, is that they’ve found that having spiritual beliefs to be very important in staying sober.  Many people choose not to believe in God (or the Christian conception of, anyway) because they had some creep like your grandfather in their lives who spouted that same shit and now they’re like, “I won’t believe in anything – I’ll show you.”  Don’t let a belief or disbelief in spiritual matters hinge on what your grandfather did just because he spouted that same nonsense.  Well, this has the potential to be a long conversation.  Many people in the program are seen as trying to push their spiritual (read: religious) beliefs off on others for no other reason than it works for them, they want good things for you, and so they speak to you in those terms.  
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Found a great blog on recovery and made a decision

I spent the day trying to figure out how I want my recovery to go. Do I want to continue to go to AA meetings, which I have skipped out on all week, work with my co-sponsors Karen and Peggy in doing the steps, and spend the next 26 years of sobriety, like Karen, going to meetings and helping other alcoholics? (What did my friend say in my last post? That I NEED to work the steps, and not be afraid of the hard work I will need to put into it? My friend, I am not afraid of the work. I just don’t believe in it.) Or, would my life be better served if I just quietly moved on from AA, secure in my belief that it’s me who is keeping me sober, not some higher power or male gendered God that I just can’t quite picture, let alone believe in. Secure in my own strength, and that of my loved ones, that I can do this without turning my will and life over to the care of an immaterial being I just can’t see caring one whit about whether or not human alcoholics stay sober. My higher power created the universe, but after that, she doesn’t meddle. So eventually I will have to call up Karen and Peggy and my friend who wrote me the e-mail to tell them it’s been interesting but it’s just not for me. I may be bipolar, but I ain’t crazy. And that, by the way, is how I self-identify, as bipolar. I need to go to Bipolar Anonymous. Sure, I was heavily self medicating with alcohol for 35 years, and maybe that means I am an alcoholic, or it’s the ever fashionable dual diagnosis, but for me, I am primarily bipolar with a tendency to self-medicate. Not anymore.

Found this great, non AA recovery website which is pretty classy in that it doesn’t slam on AA like some anti-AA sites do (and okay, as I have done a little) called recoveringfromrecovery. I think it’s on WordPress although it would not let me follow it. Another one I do follow is What…Me Sober? which is also on WordPress. It has a great article on Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome, which is about feeling much, much worse before you feel better. I had no idea what hit me, and not having gone through treatment or rehab, no one warned me (my sponsor, with 26 years in AA, had not even heard of it) that after the initial detox, when I expected to feel oh so much better, I instead had some severe, to the point of being life threatening, depression, mental confusion, physical awkwardness (dropping things, bumping into things, etc. — the root of the term “dry drunk”) and terrible anxiety. My therapist at the time didn’t have a clue what I was talking about, even after I told her about what it was, and she just kept saying, “you seem foggy.” Not helpful! In my blog, “Letters to her Therapist” I will write about firing her. I did it nicely. So there you go, time for a nice cup of antioxidant rich, decaf green tea.

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Welcome to my recovery blog where I rant about AA

Okay, so my drinking and other substance use had spiraled out of control. The therapist I was seeing at the time suggested I “try” an AA meeting. So I called up a friend who was a recovering alcoholic and I tapered down my drinking to the day we arranged for the meeting, my week long slow goodbye to Pinot Grigio and other substances. It was December 12th, which is now known as my sobriety date, a day that will live in infamy.

I admit, they hooked me in. I am such a sucker for people who pay attention to me and are nice. Plus I saw that my friend was clean and sober, and I’d known him when he wasn’t. So I diligently went to meetings, sometimes two a day, and got a sort-of sponsor, who was really too busy to be my sponsor but wanted to get me started, and now I have another sponsor, but I still kinda have the first sponsor, so I guess you could say I have two co-sponsors, or something. I had no problem with the first step, yes, I was pretty damn powerless over alcohol. Second step, sure, I can do the Higher Power thing. Third step, make a decision to turn my life and will over to God….uh, sorry, not so much! I told my sponsor I was confused, and instead of explaining it, she took me back to step 2! Ugh, this was getting frustrating. I was willing to try this on, but I feel I am getting nowhere, fast. It probably doesn’t help that I keep reading on the Internet (my other addiction) that AA is a cult, that AA has no better a success rate than quitting cold turkey on one’s own, that relapse in AA is common, that instead of empowering you (a modern ‘good idea”) it disempowers you. Just google it, you’ll see. So I expressed my doubts to my friend, and he wrote back that I just need to do the steps. Wait a sec, I will quote him without his permission:

“The Program:  I suppose there are other ways to stay sober.  But I STRONGLY suggest you work the steps before you go anywhere else.  You don’t understand what that does for you and you need it.  Especially steps 4 &5 and 8 & 9.  A lot more people (non-alcoholics) would be a lot better adjusted if they worked those 12 steps, where you get out what’s troubling you and make up for what you did.  Not working them is taking the easy way out.  Don’t be scared of the steps just because they’re hard.  All the things in life worth having are hard to get, and you don’t realize what an amazing burden gets taken off you after you’ve worked them.  As for the book, I’m not a big proponent of it either, but there’s important stuff in there to know, so it’s worth it to read it once.  Make yourself!  I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t love you.  Now quit screwin’ around and get through it.  I would never tell Karen or Peggy anything you didn’t want me to.”

Tough love, I guess. But it’s not working for me. I like the nice people I’ve met, the Peggys and the Karens (my co-sponsors) but dislike “The Big Book” mainly because some of it just doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it was written by the founder, Bill Wilson, who was a lying, cheating, and probably stealing s.o.b. So I am having trouble buying into a program put together but someone who was a complete asshole and hypocrite. The most amusing aspect of this was his experiments with LSD since modern day AAers frown on marijuana use. I have to say, in their support, that I don’t feel an authentic sense of my own sobriety when I am stoned, er, that is to say, if I were to get stoned. I gave that shit up.

And right now, even though I’ve skipped out on AA meetings all week long, I feel like my sobriety is going pretty well. I am not sure if I will attend one tonight or not.


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