The Perfect Metaphor for Addiction

One thing I keep reading about in my sobriety quest here is to watch out for the ways in which addiction can manifest itself in new ways. Master the alcohol thing, and whoops: something else pops in to the picture. My thing these days seems to be sugar: sugar, sugar, sugar. Bring on the sugar!!! That one is pretty common, apparently. Other “food issues,” may occur, or you find yourself drinking way more coffee, or smoking, or maybe you even swap out another drug – say weed – for your alcohol.

The prospect of cross-addiction is discouraging for those of us in early sobriety, but, as I discussed in an earlier blog, the same mindfulness and tools you use to stay sober can be applied to anything else in your life that seems to be claiming your attention in an obsessive way.

Obsessive craving can have any object. When drinking isn’t the object of my craving, it might be something else: Chocolate. Going for a run. Slow-cooked short-ribs. Another book I don’t have time to read. Another shirt I don’t need. So, the trick has got to be looking past the object of one’s craving and mull what the eff is going on when that craving is taking over your head and your body.

What is it with we human beings that we’re so damn needy? I’m convinced that the things most of us are after aren’t “things” at all, but feelings of belonging, recognition, and purpose. When we don’t get this, we go chasing after stupid stuff that feels like what we need, but isn’t. We want relief from the suffering that comes with feeling deprived, even when we don’t get what it is we’re really feeling deprived of.

Hungry Ghosts

hungry ghostsIn Buddhist cosmology (worldview), the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts is one of six human realms on the wheel of life. Each of these realms represents a human tendency in each of us that must be understood if we are to be liberated from suffering. Hungry ghosts are gory. This picture is typical. They look miserable, and they usually have these big swollen bellies because they are sooooo hungry. But the deal is they can’t eat. They try and try and try but the food bursts into flames when it goes down, or they have teeny tiny mouths or throats that won’t let the food down.

In traditional Buddhist/Hindu versions, hungry ghosts are getting their karmic comeuppance for being assholes in a previous life, but I’ve never bought the reincarnation aspect of Buddhism in any literal kind of way. Nor does Dr. Gabor Maté, who wrote In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. He’s all about compassion rather than judgement, and I like that.

Maté draws on the hungry ghost metaphor to describe the suffering of the many patients he has worked with in Vancouver’s east downtown: probably the most notorious catchment of poverty and addiction in Canada. The main message in Maté’s book is that addiction isn’t punishment for past misdeeds, nor the outcome of individual moral failings. Addictions are the outcome of unmet needs like that belonging, safety and purpose I mentioned above. The hungry ghosts are “ghosts” because they are trapped in past, trying to “feed” the gnawing emptiness of unresolved pain in their lives.

Maté’s patients are hard cases, and their unmet needs are obvious. Many are Indigenous Canadians who grew up under the worst of circumstances.[1] But this doesn’t stop Maté, an educated and comfortably well off white guy, from seeing himself reflected in the eyes of street alcoholics and heroin junkies. Cause he’s a junkie too. But his “fix” is classical music CDs. Yup. You just never know what your thing is going to be, right?

In one particular story that really stuck with me, he describes keeping his nine-year old son waiting for half an hour because he just has to go buy this one CD at his favourite classical music store. It really struck me because I thought about all the times when my kids were little that I’d pushed them beyond their limits of patience, hunger, or fatigue for just a little bit more shopping. All the times that some mindless hunger, that craving for something led me to make stupid, selfish choices.

We’ve all got a little or a lot of hungry ghost in us, don’t we? I’ve never been able to relate to the idea that I might be “drinking to numb,” which I know resonates with many. But when I think about alcohol addiction as the product of the wanderings of this sad, hungry human being with needs that feel insatiable: well, I see myself there. I still don’t know what to do about that, entirely. But I see the hungry ghost inside of me with some clarity now, and that recognition does help me to head that poor little sucker off at the pass. At least until I figure out what kind of nourishment she really needs.


[1] I want to note here that here in Canada we treat our Indigenous people like shit. Always have. So, the high rates of addiction and poverty in Indigenous communities are the outcomes of intergenerational trauma. Maté’s work illustrates this sharply.


Playing the Tape Through

tapeI guess this is an AA thing: a recovery tool you can use when you are experiencing a craving is to “play the tape through.” That is, instead of rationalizing your way into a drink, you “play the tape through” by imagining what happens after that initial, satisfying “Ahhh! Fabulous.” It goes like this: “Fuck it. Might as well have another one! And another.” And… hangover. Shame.

I recently spoke to a lady who had fallen off the wagon and quickly regrouped — how fortunate! — and this was precisely her experience. A drink with dinner turned in to an all-nighter, just like that.

The thing is, I wouldn’t do that. The first 24 hours of my tape, even the first few weeks, would be pretty tame. But you really do have to play the tape all the way through, whatever that looks like for you.

I was thinking about this a little bit last night when wine was calling out to me: “Drink me! Wouldn’t I be lovely with that big steak you’re about to tie in to? Steak is a special occasion! You can do it just this once!”

But I know, I know I know what this would lead to. My tape plays out something like this:

“Well. A glass of wine with dinner. That wasn’t so bad. Maybe I really can have a drink once in a while.”

One or two weeks later: “I think it is probably safe to have a glass of wine. I’ve waited a while.”

One month(ish): “Well so long as I’m having wine with this nice dinner a beer while I’m cooking wouldn’t kill me.”

Then the caution starts to dissipate, and false confidence kicks in: “Hey, I’m a responsible drinker now! I’ve totally got this. I will only drink if we are having a nice meal on the weekend, or if we are going out for dinner.”

Going out for dinner: “It’s a going out night so I’ll have a beer or two before we go out.” *Ends up hammered that night.*

“Oops that wasn’t good. I’d better be careful. I’ll do better next time.”

At this point I’m well on my way to getting back to daily drinking. “Being careful” is vague and means nothing, so this is about the time you start making rules for yourself, and you’re back in to the hell of moderating. Then you get tired of trying to moderate, and you just give up.

So, if you are a “high bottom” kind of girl like me and prefer the slow dull daily drinking to the more dramatic binge/bender pattern, your particular challenge might be like mine. Your “tape” might play out longer and more slowly than that of someone who cannonballs in to the deep end and gets smashed the first time they pick up the next drink.

This is a little bit sneaky. Well no actually its a lot sneaky because your ability to moderate in the early days of being off the wagon makes for a longer slower descent. So I find I’ve had to really think hard about all the stages of my rationalizing, because my tape plays out over a much longer time period.

I know this because I have had one experience with it already.  I’ve mentioned I quit for about 40 days three years ago. The first few times I brought a beer home — just one! Not keeping it in the house! — I was delighted that I’d achieved normal drinking. I think it took about two months before I’d fallen back in regular drinking, and maybe a couple more months before I was drinking daily again. But I was drinking daily again. This is the inevitable consequence of that first drink, months earlier.

In this sense, past efforts to quit or moderate are really useful sources of information. This means that any effort to quite for any period of time is a good thing. It might not stick this time, but it’s one more opportunity to learn about what your “tape” looks like.

“The Drinking Quiz”

If you’ve ever wondered about your drinking, you have probably taken a drinking quiz or two to figure out if you have a problem. I first did this a few years ago. Can’t remember the exact deal, but it would ask things like whether you blacked out, or missed work, or binged. In my case, quizzes would return something tepid like “you may have a problem with alcohol.”

In my head: “Okay this says I’m not an alcoholic per se but I may have a problem with alcohol? What does that mean? I’m not that bad right? I don’t black out. I don’t miss work. I feel bad about drinking sometimes but I like drinking. Do I have to quit? I don’t think I have to quit because I’m only a 7 out of 12. I’m okay. I’m mostly okay. I only may have a problem. That’s not the same as a problem, right? Now if I was a 10 out of 12…”

Etcetera. Etcetera. Etcetera. How. Exhausting.

Probably about six years ago, my doctor casually asked me about my drinking:

Her: Ever feel like you should cut down?

Me: Yeah. Sometimes…

Her: Do other people criticize you about your drinking or tell you to cut down?

Me: Not so much. Not really.

Her: Do you ever feel guilty about drinking?

Me: Yeah… yeah I guess I do. It does bother me a bit.

Her: Do you ever drink in the morning or anything? To calm down or nip a hangover?

Me: (I totally got this one). Nope.

Her: If you’ve answered yes to one of these questions, you have a problem, you know.

Damn. I was so busted. First I didn’t realize she had been administering a very short, and very effective drunky quiz. Usually I’m smart enough to know when I’m being cornered by a shrink or doctor. Not this time. The four questions she asked me are part of the CAGE diagnostic, which has been found to be highly accurate for identifying problem drinkers. Second, my vague “yes” responses didn’t deliver a comfortingly vague diagnosis with a middling score that might help me to keep downplaying my drinking.

I’ll say I responded with that typical mix of denial and recognition that messes with your head when you are asking yourself “Am I an alcoholic?” But this quiz caught me off guard because aside from the reference to morning drinking, it didn’t include any of those extreme behaviours (DUIs, criminal convictions, job losses) that many take to be the markers of “real” alcoholism. I kind of had no wiggle room on this one. Obviously it didn’t change my behaviour right away. But it sure as hell didn’t let me off the hook as “not a real drunk” like some of the other quizzes had.

I was thinking about this because I’m extra-reflecting on the occasion of my 100 Day Thingie yesterday. I was thinking about all the exhausting years of trying to decide if I was an alcoholic. If someone asked me if they were an alcoholic today, I would ask them these questions:

  • Does drinking make you feel shitty about yourself?
  • Do you expend a bunch of energy trying to manage your drinking?
  • Do you expend a bunch of energy trying to figure out if you’re an alcoholic or not?
  • Does the idea of living without alcohol completely freak you out?

For me, these have proven to be the core questions to answer. There are many variations on this of course. Nothing here will be a surprise to anyone who’s been in recovery for a while. But if you just happen to trip on this blog as one who is “sober curious,” maybe you can mull these questions in addition to others you might be asking yourself. I think if I’ve got a big point here it is this: whether you use the label “alcoholic” or not doesn’t matter. In fact it just interferes with the process of honestly answering questions like those in the CAGE, or the similar ones I just asked.

PS: I am no longer nearly as freaked out by the prospect of living alcohol-free. Still a little freaked out, but not terrified like I was when I started. There is hope.

Constant Craving

Caroline Knapp’s drinking memoir Drinking: A Love Story continues to be widely read twenty years after its publication. Knapp’s writing is emotionally honest yet unsentimental in a way that gets you right in to the mind games that we play with ourselves around drinking.

Like many others I’m sure, I’ve underlined and dog-eared parts of Knapp’s book (among others) to  reflect on my drinking. One section that really hit home for me was her account of a formless kind of need in alcoholics that nothing seems to satisfy. Swilling scotch from a bottle at the time, she recalls, “I just remember the hunger, the need….Most alcoholics I know experience that hunger long before their first drink, that yearning for something, something outside of the self that will provide relief and solace and well-being.”

Knapp goes on to recall her childhood…craving and obsessing over attaining things — party shoes, she says, or horseback riding lessons. Over time, the object of that craving became alcohol, but the underlying drive to fill a hole she just didn’t understand was always the same.

It was the little kid thing. “That was me,” I thought. I’ve always viewed my drinking behaviour as a long, slow evolution of my habits in adulthood. There was no alcoholism in my home, so no obvious need to go back to my childhood make sense of my drinking. But I immediately recognized myself as a child in Knapp’s chant: “Fill it up, fill it up, fill it up. Fill up the emptiness; fill up what feels like a pit of loneliness and terror and rage…”

The pit I have been trying to fill since childhood is one of profound loneliness. When I was a kid, I fantasized about being anything or anyone other than what I was, and what I was was a gifted little dork with no social skills, and big emotions that came out at all the wrong times. In retrospect, I would have been diagnosed with ADHD and childhood depression. ADHD People are often “divergent thinkers,” so my mind did constant acrobatics, trying to imagine ways of being in the world that might feel less sad and angry, where I might fit in with my peers, where I might not have felt the need to hide in bathroom stalls and the corners or rooms with books, and the diaries I wrote in constantly.

I am still lonely, as I’ve mentioned. Perhaps this is a blog and a journey as much about loneliness as about drinking. I had all this trepidation leading up to quitting drinking before I actually committed. Now I’m having trepidation about committing to some kind of sobriety community. It’s just like quitting drinking. I know I have to do it but I’m scared.

The Roller Coaster Sucks Rocks

There are a lot of things about quitting drinking that remind me of when I quit smoking. That was a long time ago now, but I still vividly remember The Roller Coaster. It looks like this: “Dammit. I need a cigarette.” (Smokes cigarettes.) Wakes up in the morning. Guilt, remorse, and frustration. “Dammit. I need to quit!” (Stomps around mired in self-loathing, resolved to make that change.) Several hours pass. “Dammit. I need a cigarette.”

Repeat. Again, and again, and again. Up to the top, down to the bottom. And you get exhausted and you want to barf, but you just don’t get off the fucking ride.

When I did finally manage to quit smoking, I remember that the most powerful tool I had in my tool-belt was really acutely calling to mind the awfulness that is the roller coaster. When I craved a cigarette, I would ask myself: “Do you really want to get back on that ride? Because that is where this goes. Not maybe. Definitely.” And I had umpteen past attempts to quit as evidence that even a drag from a cigarette was like handing my ticket to this guy:


The quitting drinking thing is really very similar. I have these fairly regular thoughts: “Maybe I could have just one.” And the worst part is that you get some sober time under your feet and you start getting all cocky about it. “Yeah. I totally got this.”

Only you don’t got it. One drink isn’t one drink. It’s one drink this time. And then a couple of drinks in a couple of days. And then just on weekends. And then….

Yep. I know how this works. Roller coaster. Every. Damn. Time.

An Angry Kid and No Answers

One of the first times I thought really, really seriously about my drinking was six or seven years ago with a pissed off teenager in my face. I had picked up my 15 year old daughter from a school rehearsal mid-evening, and said I’d just need a minute to (of course) stop at the liquor store.

“Why do you always have to buy beer?” she stormed.

I don’t remember the rest of the conversation specifically, but I do remember the voice of reason (not Drinking/Pirate Guy — I think I’ll call him Cap’n Mo,) screaming “You DO always have to buy beer. Red flag! Red flag!” I remember fumbling around like an idiot trying to soothe my daughter and explain myself in a way that would sufficiently minimize and excuse my daily drinking. Basically she called bullshit on me. I had nothing, and I knew it.

The whole thing blew over quickly, and I don’t think my daughter has ever brought up my drinking since. But that exchange and the shame I felt have never left me. What should I have said that evening if I could have been honest with her and myself? “I always have to buy beer because I feel uncomfortable and anxious if there isn’t alcohol in the house. I have to buy beer because I like to drink.  I couldn’t wait to pick you up tonight so I could get home and have this beer. I have to buy beer because I think I might have a drinking problem.”

Think. Six or seven years ago. All this time with the whisper: “I think I might have a drinking problem. Do I have a drinking problem?” This whole sobriety thing isn’t easy, but God it feels good to take the ambivalence out of that statement. To remove the question mark. To just accept that my relationship with alcohol has, over many years, developed in to something unhealthy, and that I will be a happier healthy person if I abstain.


One Big Mofo of a Craving

You just never know what’s going to set you off. I expect this is something one learns over time.

Last night I was perusing supper ideas. One of my recipes called for a 1/4 cup of white wine. And I was THERE, baby! Bring it on! 1/4 cup in the sausage and peppers, and the rest in the world’s largest wine glass. Noooo problem.

I spent my trip the grocery store desperately wanting to buy a bottle of white wine. The fact that I hadn’t been to this particular store and taken this particular route since I quit probably contributed to associations with alcohol, as I’d usually load up at the liquor store after groceries. I can see why people find driving routes triggering!

At any rate, I survived. Once again, having a craving just pissed me off. I’m not mad at myself per se; I am mad at the craving, if that makes any sense. I want to master it.

I seem to need a strategy, because I’m not about to stop cooking with wine! The trick would seem to be buying a baby airplane sized bottle and giving the rest to my partner and getting the damn stuff out of the fridge and out of my sight lines.

I’ll add that as I shared my craving episode and mulled “safe cooking-with-wine practices” with my daughter and partner, I was very grateful to have a supportive family. From my sobriety forum boards, it is clear that many women are struggling to overcome addictions while they are living in chaos, with assholes for partners and family members. I hurt for those ladies. I am so thankful to have stability in my life. I do not take that for granted for a heartbeat.

I’m a Drinkaholic!

I had the oddest realization over the weekend. As I mentioned, my weekend sucked. It was a big holiday weekend here in Canada — Canada’s 150th birthday — and I missed all of it because I was chained to my computer working. (I’m still not over it, clearly.)

Anyway, because I was sitting so much I was also drinking  a ton of non-alcoholic bevvies. Drinking, drinking drinking… holy hell how much can I actually drink? Only if you don’t drink alcohol, you don’t get drunk.


I know. Obviously. But I’m so accustomed to the anxiety of pouring a drink at night, that the anxiety is still there. This drinking without stress is going to take some getting used to.

I’ve never been a black-out drunk. But I have been a daily drinker, and quite conscious that if I had more than two pints of beer a night I was going to be good for nothing the next day. Seriously, I never did learn how to hold my liquor. But the anxiety of wanting more than two pints was constant. The first one disappeared so fast. The second one a little slower but I’d feel tense so I’d enjoy it less.

Sometimes we’d have wine with dinner too, but I’d have my glass and watch my partner finish off the bottle and feel really pissed off because there wouldn’t be any left for me just in case I wanted it.

And this, I have figured out, is the hallmark of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol: your pre-occupation with it. No matter how much you drink, if its a big deal in your head, if you obsess about it and think about it and count your drinks and want more drinks, you’re probably somewhere more or less along the road to fucked.

I know this weird anxiety I feel about pouring an drink, even though it is non-alcoholic, will pass. In the meantime, it’s teaching me a thing or two about the psychological weight I’ve been carrying around these past years.

And unless you’re pounding back sugary bevvies in lieu of alcohol, it’s actually okay to be a drinkaholic! Really! How cool is that?

It just makes me pee a lot is all.

I Thought I Was Different

On a sober forum, I mentioned that I couldn’t quite reconcile my daily drinking with my near daily fitness regimen. I know some folks take up a fitness regimen of some sort as part of their recovery, so in this context, I was wondering what the heck I was going to do with the antsy business that would inevitably come with not drinking. “You’d be surprised how many people are fitness freaks except for alcohol,” someone in the forum replied.

I suppose I had it in my head that I might be a bit different because I was fanatical about exercise. Wow. That was silly of me. People with alcohol dependency come in all shapes, sizes and ways of being in the world. One of those ways of being is using exercise to manage your drinking, punish yourself for drinking, or prove to yourself and others that you are well, and in fact “healthy.”

Okay. So I wake up a bit hung over. (Like not today. Before this abstinence thing, I mean.) And do a bunch of work, and then go for a run, and probably do a bunch of weight training after that. And if I can exercise and otherwise be productive like that the next day, alcohol can’t be a problem for me, right? I’m healthy. I’m fit.

So when I started in on Caroline Knapp’s “Drinking: A Love Story” (which is beautifully written), I twinged in particular when she described going for a long, hard row while feeling like hell after a bender: “That’s a pretty common strategy among alcoholic drinkers,” she said, “sweat away the hangovers.”

Man, did that burst my bubble. It also crystallized what I think, for me, has been a mounting tension in my life: a battle of sorts between “fitness me” and “drinking me.” I genuinely love yoga, running, cycling, and going to the gym. But it’s more complicated than that. It’s taken on shades of repentance, shades of addiction in its own right. I would have never imagined that fitness can be used as a denial strategy but hey… this is a thing I apparently didn’t invent. Can you be addicted to alcohol and then addicted to exercise as a way to redeem yourself for being addicted to alcohol?

It’s going to be interesting to see where all of this goes. There are wonderful, healing qualities to my workouts, but they are all entangled with something darker: the relentless push to “achieve” that probably has something to do with my drinking, too.

Am I good enough yet?

It always seems to come back to this question. And the answer has always been “no.”