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Top Ten Signs You Might Be An Alcoholic:  Holiday Edition

Solemn guy with drink on Christmas

After overcoming her own addiction, EHN alumna and current EHN Patient Care Specialist Carlee Campbell shares ten key experiences that she remembers struggling with during the holidays.

Despite being in recovery for several consecutive years now, every year when the holidays roll around, I find myself wandering back down memory lane of what life was like before recovery.  In all honesty, the journey is down much less of a lovely lane and more of a trash-filled alley.  It is a trip my mind ends up fixated on, whether my spirit wants to go along or not.  Every December, the Ghost of Christmas Past shows up, jangling the locks and chains of addiction that used to hold me captive for many years.

So, this year, I decided I might as well put all those painful memories to potential good use, both for myself and others.  I know the anecdotes that follow will remind me why I continue to prioritize recovery during my Christmas present.  For without my sobriety, the Ghost of the Christmas Future carries a very foreboding vision of what might be.  For someone else, I can only hope these stories get them curious enough about their own relationship with alcohol or other substances to seek the support they deserve.

Thus, without further ado, I hope you enjoy these festive signs that helped me realize that I was at the bottom of the pre-sobriety holiday barrel:

1.  You enjoy taking online quizzes

Unfortunately, I am not talking about those fun Facebook quizzes that enlighten you as to what flavour of potato chip you are.  I am talking about those medical ones, where you tick off the symptoms of a disease.  For example, The World Health Organization Audit Screen or Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Questions.  Towards the end of my drinking career, I started to take these tests, usually while drinking.  Sounds like a fun way to unwind after a holiday party, right?! When my score came back unfavourably, I would then then argue with the scientific validity of the test.  Of course, that argument was between me, myself, and I.  Nothing quite defines “festive” like social nights alone in one’s apartment wondering if one is addicted to alcohol over a nice glass (read: bottle) of Chardonnay.

2.  You’ve reinvented Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

If you need to brush up on your high school biology, have a look at the Hierarchy here.  Essentially, these are the things we humans require to thrive.  Unfortunately, as Joel Hughes (Clinical Director of Edgewood) uncomfortably pointed out to me, my addiction overtime had become more important than every single one of my basic needs.  My desire for alcohol somehow was my entire hierarchy of needs.  From the top of the pyramid (right where booze blocked any ability I had to actualise my potential right) on down to when I was scraping the bottom of the triangle, starving myself to try and get a better buzz.  I mean, who “ruins” a good drunk by eating a delicious turkey dinner?!  Someone who’s not addicted to alcohol, that’s who.

3.  You’re a Darwin drop-out

Survival of the fittest, the classic Darwinian theory, where organisms best suited to their environment are those most able to survive and reproduce.  Unfortunately, for us alcoholics, we behave towards alcohol the way cavemen behaved towards food.  We are acutely aware of our supply and the level needed to achieve the desired end: altered consciousness.  We know exactly how much alcohol is in the house, even if that house is not ours.  If you have ever found yourself visiting the garage beer fridge, rec room bar in the other room, or that flask in your bag, for just for a quick “top-off” no one else will see, you may be protecting your supply.  Yet that supply is just not the one you need to actually thrive in life.  We alcoholics and addicts will develop elaborate schemes and excuses to get the quantities we need, even on the most special of holiday occasions.  Those who attempt to limit our supply will often encounter incredibly disproportionate, dramatic, and even rage-filled responses to what we perceive as a threat to our survival.  The unfortunate part is that the thing we think we need to live, namely our substance of choice, is actually the thing killing us.  Insanity at its finest.

4.  You could give up chocolate

When I was in treatment, Patrick Zierten, Clinical Manager of the Vancouver Outpatient Office, gave a lecture on alcoholism.  During the lecture, he made a very interesting point I have never forgotten.  He conjectured how differently I would be reacting if the treatment team was asking me to give up chocolate instead of alcohol.  He postulated that if the doctor at Edgewood told me surviving a life-threatening illness depended on giving up chocolate, I would be quite willing to do so.  I thought about it.  I really love chocolate, particularly those little individual ones wrapped up in a fancy advent calendar.  Delish!  However, if there was even a possibility that they were killing me and destroying my life, I would give them up without hesitation.  When I swapped alcohol for chocolate in that same scenario, the reaction became very different.  I was defensive–defiant even–at the proposition of having to surrender alcohol to make the physical, mental, and emotional lives of myself and those around me significantly better.  That incredibly unusual allegiance to the thing that was destroying me was in fact evidence of the problem itself.

5.  You’re obsessed with Addicts/Alcoholics

The medium didn’t matter: news, blogs, magazines, books, or TV shows.  I loved them all.  In fact, one of my favourite holiday past times used to be watching a marathon of AE’s Intervention while sipping (read: guzzling) Gin and Tonics.  After all, that’s what a “real” problem looked like, and I was ever so unlike “that.”  Stereotypical scenes of the homeless, crime-ridden drug addict were so unlike my life that I could re-entrench my already very fortified beliefs that I just enjoyed alcohol more than some.  After all, I knew what “the good life” was really all about.  In great irony, and because the universe has a sense of humor, I ended up in treatment with more than one person from the show Intervention.  It turns out we had an awful lot in common, at least in terms of our pain and the effects of our diseases on our mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual condition.

6.  You’re friends with Jim, Johnnie, Jose, Remy, Bailey, and Captain Morgan

Most individuals who partake in casual drinking tend to have a preferred drink, particularly over the holidays.  Whether it is that drop of Bailey’s in their coffee, or draught of rum in their egg nog, there is a simple tradition to maintain.  If that drink of choice is not available though, they are perfectly happy to forgo the indulgence.  Those of us who have a pathological relationship with alcohol are not quite as capable of doing the same.  Sure, I had preferences, but there was no way I was turning down a drink even if I hated the way it tasted.  Eventually, the taste or the enjoyment was entirely beside the point.  The point was to get drunk.  I craved the effect that alcohol, any alcohol, had on me.  All I cared about back then was changing the way I felt, and the means to that end was irrelevant.

7.  You’re on the downhill side of the curve

Despite my steadfast determination that the way I drank was uniquely justified by my special combination of trauma and tragedy, alcoholism and other forms of substance use disorders are actually incredibly predictable diseases of a progressive nature.  Lauren Melzack, Deputy Clinical Director of Edgewood, uses the Jelnick Curve to illustrate the alcoholic’s decline.  A few particularly apt examples of this for the holiday season might be “avoiding friends and family” and “unreasonable resentments”.  For example, if Aunt Betty’s question last year about “whether you really need another glass of wine” led you to want to avoid all family gatherings for the next century, it might be an interaction to get curious about.  If Aunt Betty’s comment was also made at an event where you swore you would only have two drinks, but that glass of wine she was referencing happened to be your fifth (read: fifteenth), you might be at the stage of the curve where “efforts to control fail repeatedly”.  Simply follow the curve down until you spot familiar behaviours to help you determine which phase of addiction has taken hold.

8.  You’re an eternal optimist

As in, “tomorrow, all these problems in my life will get better.  Tomorrow, I will go stop drinking.  Tomorrow, I will stop risking my health.  In fact, right after this holiday, on New Year’s Day, I’m going to get healthy, just you wait!”  Unfortunately, when tomorrow would come, I was hungover and rather unmotivated to do anything differently at all.  I felt anything but festive, let alone prepared to let go of the one thing I thought could make me feel better.

9.  You’re hopelessly in love…

….with alcohol.  And love can make us do very foolish things, incomprehensible, demoralizing things.  Caroline Knapp describes this situation perfectly in her book, Drinking: A Love Story.  To describe her relationship with alcohol, she writes the following:

“It’s about needs so strong they’re crippling.  It’s about saying good-bye to something you can’t fathom living without… Anyone who’s ever shifted from general affection and enthusiasm for a lover to outright obsession knows what I mean: the relationship is just there, occupying a small corner of your heart, and then you wake up one morning and some indefinable tide has turned forever and you can’t go back.  You need it; it’s a central part of who you are.”  (Read on here.)

This shift from casual to compulsion is actually a result of complex neurobiological changes in the brain.  However, I much prefer Ms. Knapp’s summary of the emotional experience of the biological reality of addiction.  Much like a love affair gone wrong, I would wake up the morning after drinking and wonder why I was still sticking with alcohol when it usually ended up bringing me way down.  It turns out persistence in substance use, despite negative consequences, is actually a classic trait right out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

10.  You just made a mental list of all the reasons you’re  different than the items listed above

Fun fact: normal drinkers don’t ever question whether they are alcoholics.  That question takes up exactly zero percent of their headspace in a day.  They don’t take quizzes or obsessively watch documentaries on addiction.  They don’t skip meals to get a better buzz.  The booze doesn’t negatively impact their relationships, health, or livelihood to any significant degree.  They just have a glass of wine, or even half a glass of wine (who does that?!), and move on with their lives.  In fact, a person who doesn’t have a pathological relationship with alcohol, doesn’t need to mentally argue with this list at all.  Most importantly, this list surely doesn’t leave them with that nagging feeling in the pit of their stomach that something needs to change.

Give Yourself the Gift of Recovery

If you find yourself relating to these stories, my only hope is that you do not wait another holiday season to get the help you need.  Do you really want to risk ruining another holiday, even if it is the pandemic version?  I assure you, spending the holidays in treatment is far better than waking up hungover and filled with regret.  Perhaps this Christmas, the gift you most need isn’t the new Apple iPhone or a post-pandemic tropical vacation.  Perhaps the gift you most need this year is to give yourself–and those you love–a new way of life.  I finally gave myself this gift and now my life is filled with true joy and peace, unlike anything I ever found in a bottle.

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