“You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice.
If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.
You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;
I will choose a path that’s clear
I will choose freewill.”
Sometimes there is something that sticks in my craw, the way that the thought of a cheeseburger sticks in Jughead’s crowned craw and I just can’t express it properly. Or I just over think it and it takes on a life of its own, like Frankenstein’s monster, and instead of trying to communicate something with laser like light and focus, I end up splattering the page a la paint-ball shotgun fired by Jackson Pollock on a trampoline. But I will do my best to keep it on target. I think.
Anyway, “choice” is the word that keeps creeping up on me these days.
The idea that alcoholism is a choice is something that has been a topic of debate since they started debating things like alcoholism and addiction. I will be honest – I have no clue what the prevalent thought is amongst health care and addiction workers, doctors, counsellors, therapists, treatment center staff, legal minds and countless others who work in the field of addiction and in periphery and related areas when it comes to the topic of choice. What I do know is that I have read countless thoughts on this, and it’s something that brings up a lot of passion and viewpoints on a grand scale.
You see, talking about choice in alcoholism is something that can branch out into many arenas – is alcoholism a disease, an illness or choice? What is choice, really? Need I start looking into such things like casual determinism, free will, fatalism, or divine foreknowledge? How deep does this well go and to what extent does this bear upon the idea that perhaps, and just perhaps, that alcoholism and addiction in general is considered a non-choice? What of external and genetic influences? Is DNA a deciding factor, the fatal death knell to an unsuspecting victim?
You can see why I have had a problem hot wiring and gearing up on this HMS Overkill – got too much spilling out from this. So this is where I jump ship and tumble into a tawny tugboat and keep it simple. Push off the big ships and focus on what it’s my field of vision. Because the only thing I can talk about is my experience, and the experience of others who have been generous enough to share theirs with me. I have also been doing some reading around this, and have been involved in many, erm, passionate discourses in the past on the ideas of choice v.s illness v.s pre-ordained fate.
So, for some, this is how they see things roll out when it comes to the idea that alcoholism, via drinking, is a choice:
I choose to put my shoes and coat on.
I choose to get in my car.
I choose to turn the key and drive to the liquor store.
I choose to go inside said store.
I choose to pick up a bottle.
I choose to pay for it.
I choose to take the bottle home.
I choose to pick a glass and pour a drink.
I choose to drink the drink.
Pretty simple, yes? No long division involved. Notice the lack of gun to my head there. Notice the lack of marauding and raging biker dudes forcing me to gulp down the booze. Notice the incredible amount of God-given free will that I am imposing as I easily decide my own fate and outcome with the ease and grace of a greyhound through the final quarter turn of the track. See how that works, then? By choosing to engage in this activity, by my own accord, I am showing who is in control. I can control the amounts I drink (because I choose the amounts) and if ever I get a wee overboard or run amok, it’s purely my problem. Nothing that aspirin, a quick apology and a Gatorade can’t fix.
Now, this is a common position. And I can see where someone observes the action in someone else or themselves, and then the subsequent consequence. Action – reaction. I drink – I get drunk. I get drunk often – I get addicted. The worm turns, the line gets crossed, the cucumber turns to a pickle and never turns back. I choose to ignore the warning signs (Divorce! job loss! Hangovers! DUI’s! Emotional Pain! Relationship problems! Etcetera) and I suffer what is due to me. My cognac comeuppance crashes through and I have no one to blame but me, myself and I. I am the fly and not the wind shield any more. Boom splat.
And of course, along these rational lines of thinking, if I can choose to be a slovenly, urine-soaked drunk, I can then choose to be a cleaned-up, tee-totalling Ward (or June) Cleaver. The same thought patterns, logic and free will that determined and coloured my “Before” picture certainly can paint an illustrious and sober “After” that would make Mother and Father Dearest proud. Choice goes both ways, in other words.
The only problem with this point of view, in my humble opinion, is that it doesn’t dig deep enough, doesn’t take into consideration thought patterns, habits, emotional spent capital. It doesn’t consider underlying causes and conditions, robust and devious mental twists, descending darkness and the insanity that steers the ship. For this alcoholic, a mere choice to just not drink is not enough. I needed more than a Hallelujah and an Amen, Brother. I needed stronger medicine.
If I could go back to the choice of driving to the store and picking up liquor – there isn’t anyone holding a pistol to my temple and demanding I get my poison. Or is there? For a social or moderate drinker, choice is easy. For a take-it-or-leave-it kind of person, going to the magical unicorn wine aisle at the local mega mart is as eventful as sorting through the brussel sprouts in the produce department or picking up Aunt Mabel’s dry cleaning. For an alcoholic like me, going to the liquor store is often life and death. I do have a gun to my head…and it’s alcoholism.
I know – I can still hear the echoes of the chorus telling me that I am bigger than the alcoholism, that I still have choice. Or I hear others say that it was my choice until it was no longer a choice. I can see some validity in that, sure. But what others don’t see or understand is that I don’t have that off switch, and I can’t see the blinding light ahead, and by the time I realize it’s time to turn down the dimmer switch, the fuse has blow already – too late. Have you ever heard of an alcoholic stop before they became an alcoholic? Hard to say for sure, because we would never know. Someone may have maybe become a hard drinker and that’s it. And we know there is a big difference between a hard drinker and the alcoholic. Namely, that the hard drinker, given sufficient reason to stop (court order, threat of firing, husband / wife about to leave them, etc.) will and can stop. They can do it. Might not be easy at first, but they do it and it’s no issue. To the hard drinker, yes, it’s still choice. We, however…are cut from a different cloth.
Hey – do you like going to the movies? And do you love eating popcorn there? There is something about stepping into the lobby and smelling that hot melted butter and hearing the pop-pop-popping of the corn. There is an entrenched association of watching a movie and the squeaky crackle of tooth on popcorn. Most of the audience chomps away too. Isn’t it magical? Bring up any memories as a child of when Uncle Ted (who is married to Aunt Mabel, just so you know) would bring you in and buy you that tub of popcorn? There is a deep connection going on there. Now, next time you go to the movies, don’t have popcorn. Eat nothing. Feels odd, eh? Now, take that craving you’re getting and multiply by 100. Now multiply that by 100 again. Now, add to that the fact that you now sleep, eat, and work in that theatre. You can never leave, and the smell, sights and sounds of popcorn swarm the senses at every turn. Got that feeling now?
Welcome to just the tip of the iceberg of alcoholism. That is what’s it’s like, at the best of times.
For me, my entire day was that theatre – just the act of breathing could set me off into craving alcohol. I was so used to self-medicating, I knew no other way of handling life. And when I didn’t get the medicine, I thought about it. A lot. I would re-prioritize things so that King Alcohol would be first on the dance card. The King always leads, don’t you know? So add in all the things that come with being alcoholic – the madness, the insanity in thinking that it will different the next time around, the justification, the rationalizing, the actual physical need, the mental anguish, the anxiety, the depression, the loneliness, the fears, the anger, the resentment, the sheer inability to steer this pathetic excuse of a raft of a person…and that “choice” to go to the liquor store, the “choice” to get the only thing that we think will take away all the noise and debris of our souls, that “choice” to die just a little bit more to just live a little bit more…doesn’t seem so much like a choice any more. It’s just a matter of trying to survive.
No one would bat an eye if I crossed the seven seas for a scrap of bread for my starving family. But there’s a scowl that crosses the face of someone watching a problem drinker head into the booze barn. That need to venture the high seas is how it feels inside, when you’re an active alcoholic. There is no choice, there just is. Is is what I do to survive, to get through the next few minutes, the next few hours, the next day. I am dying inside and no once can see it. They just see a dude in a nice coat paying for nice whisky with a nice credit card driving a nice car. And yeah, that’s the choice really – live or die. That’s not much of a choice now is it? To live I must drink. To not drink is to plunge into an icy crevasse head first with my limbs ties with cord. Drowning without liquid…how ironic.
There’s good news though. At some point, through the haze of pain and unmanageability, in hitting new depths of hurt and suffering, we are given some sort of grace. Call it what you want – divine intervention, a moment of clarity, pixie dust, mad cow disease – we are given a pause to reflect, and then we see that we no longer want this life. We don’t want to be the walking dead any more. We want to rise up out of our own filth and become part of the human race again. We want to stretch our palms up to capture the heat and the light from above. We just know in our heart of hearts that we weren’t meant for this kind of existence any more. We want off the carousel.
When I was in treatment, just a few scant days separated from my last drink, I remember being on my knees, and praying. I wasn’t much of a praying bloke until then, but I suddenly had found a willingness to do anything I needed to do to stay sober. I said something like “Please God, I don’t want to drink any more. I want to live, I want to be sober for good”. And I heard a voice say “That’s all I want to hear, Paul”. I thought there was someone behind me, playing a trick. But I was alone. And that’s when I knew I had been given grace. The Creator revealed a little bit of Himself to me, and I have never turned back since.
You see, when it comes to sobriety and my recovery, I do have some say and choice in it. I choose to work with others, to reach out, the branch out, to lean out. I choose to write about it, to talk about it, to read about it, to hear others share about it. I choose to meet with other like minded folk, to talk to the despairing, to help someone along with the work, to return a phone call. I choose to do the things that I know will keep me on the beam, as they say. But I know that my sobriety itself, that the want and need and mental obsession for alcohol itself, was not removed by me. I call spiritual interference on a Hail Mary pass that my alcoholism was tossing with my life into the Dead End Zone. I didn’t will or choose or decide that part away. It came because I was open to it and in doing the work needed to find that space. High five The Coach.
So here’s the odd thing – alcoholism had a grip on me that I couldn’t shake. I couldn’t choose my way out of it. And recovery also has a grip on me that I don’t want to shake. In some ways I too had no choice in finding the divine within. It just burst forth when I was ready. The difference though is that one is borne of fear and anger, the other from love and compassion. It’s easier to dive into the darkness, in some ways, because that has been my default position. Keeping in the sunlight of the spirit takes a little more effort, but the benefits are in direct proportion to the pain I suffered in my active alcoholism.
Today, I choose to stay in the light. Today, I choose love. Today, I choose to stay in tune with the Universal Harmony about me.