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.

More on Drinking Stories

Like I said earlier, my drinking story is boring. This is something I should probably be grateful for. But I have also wondered why we are drawn, with horror and fascination, to others’ “rock bottoms,” and feel compelled to share our own. In other words, why are stories so central to recovery work?

I started looking for some ideas about this and found one explanation in this article about what’s described as “autobiographical reasoning.” The authors claim that despite the central role of story in AA and other twelve-step type groups, the purpose and therapeutic role of story hasn’t received much research attention. Crazy huh?

“Autobiographical reasoning” basically means that we make sense of ourselves and our actions through story. Our autobiographies have two threads that seem at cross-purposes: On the one hand, our stories give us a stable sense of ourselves and our identities over time. On the other hand – and this is especially important for drinking stories – our autobiographies communicate change over time. You know: “I used to be this way; now I’m this way.” But there still needs to be an “I” who can make that statement right?

Too much metaphysics in that for a hasty blog post. But one take away for me was that we need others’ redemption stories. I was a little worried that reading drinking memoirs might be akin to rubbernecking when passing traffic accidents — that it might be gratuitous somehow to partake of others’ despair.

Instead, I think what we are looking for are roadmaps to change, and hope that we can change. After all, the tellers of dark drinking tales are those who have come out the other side. To appreciate their journeys, we need the full narrative sweep: origin stories, the fall, and the redemption. “Autobiographical reasoning” tells us that we need to see the possibility of change in stories, but also that there is a coherent person – an “I” —  who can learn, albeit often gradually and with some pain along the way, to make that change.

So, the bottom line is that I’m feeling a little less guilty about being drawn to others’ drinking stories. It seems a pretty human thing to be drawn to redemption narratives, and this isn’t a matter of being entertained by someone else’s suffering; its about hope for our own recovery.