We have a dachshund. Crazy pile of bark on stumpy trunks, but he’s ours. I have been known to walk him now and then (I am not the true
enabler fusser-over of the dog – that’s my wife’s job). The great thing is that when we talk to or run into other dog owners, we can discuss such earth shattering issues like how our dogs like to bark at squirrels. Or drool on the pillowcases (mine specifically…I love waking up smelling like a kennel cage floor). Or about them being the cutey-wutey-est shnoogy woogies in the whole pwanet (again, my wife). It’s a simple way to shoot the breeze and have a laugh and see the ridiculous and wonderful nature of these animals.
Now, while we enjoy the Shnauzers, Shih-Tzus, Labrador Retrievers, Great Danes, Beagles, Whippets and Irish Setters that litter the neighbourhood like an old school canine Benetton ad, there is something special when we run into other dachshund owners. Now we can connect, get down to brass tacks, call a spade a spade. We talk about the stubborn nature of our charges, the aggression they show to other dogs (namely larger dogs, which means pretty much all of them) and their tenacious yet fiercely loyal ways. There is something about the interaction with those who know what it’s like and have been there that is soothing and centring. A feeling of inclusion. (I love what E.B White says about his own dachshund, Fred: “I would rather train a striped zebra to balance an Indian club than induce a dachshund to heed my slightest command. When I address Fred I never have to raise either my voice or my hopes. He even disobeys me when I instruct him in something he wants to do.” Very true.)
Around recovery circles, there are some who pronounce that “a drug is a drug is a drug”. The idea being that all drugs, including Ethyl alcohol (i.e. ethanol i.e. CH3CH2OH i.e. booze) are all the same in terms of what their intentions are – to alter or change one’s mood, behaviour, physical, mental and/or emotional state. They may be used for perceived beneficial effects on perception, consciousness and personality (the key word being “perceived”). Coping mechanisms, for many of us addicted to one or more of them. And so, the general axiom attended to here is that we’re all in the same boat and we all have the same things going on beneath the surface.
Now since we are talking addiction, I am also going to include non-chemical addictions that while do not put anything toxic into our bodies per se, do change the chemistry of our minds and blood and tissue. So into the pile we add gambling, sex, love, co-dependency, emotions, pornography, internet, social media, eating disorders, food, sugar and any other thing that takes us out of ourselves or overrides any sort of emotional and mental checks and balances. So there we have it – a plethora of drugs that is part Columbian cartel, part Freudian wet dream and part ABC After School Special.
I’ve been hearing this “a drug is a drug is a drug” thing for a while now, and while I agree to some extent, it’s been through some contemplation and experience with others with other addictions that I find I have to draw a line at some point in the identification process. Some may (and do) disagree with my opinion on this. And that’s wonderful. I would expect nothing less than a passionate discourse on something like recovery that has saved countless of our lives. But understand I do not write this to cause derision or division between the different addictions and those afflicted with it. In fact, I do find more similarities than differences, but it’s in the differences that I find a truer connection with those with like coping mechanism. Like with other dachshund owners, I find a stronger and more compelling fellowship that I can relate to and identify more with. I can open up further as I know I am preaching to the choir. And that is never a bad thing when dealing with life and death issues.
Now I want to state for the record that I am an alcoholic only. Drugs aren’t part of my story. Sure I smoked a few sage-like things here and there, and maybe dropped some paper that may have been laced with LSD, but those were rare instances. And frankly, they did nothing for me. Luckily. I did take anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills, however, but never abused them. I don’t even like taking headache medication. If I do have another vice (oh wait, I do) – it would be sugar. Nothing to be locked up over, but certainly something that alters my mood, my brain chemistry, my body, my sleep, my emotions and gets me in the grip of old thinking (lying, deception, a wonderful case of the “fuck its”, etc.) Enough that when I get caught in the grips of the granola bars, I can get all Willy Wonka on your ass.
So, like walking my dog (in this case, my alcoholism), I run into a whole other lot of others walking their little and big addictions – a French Mastiff on Facebook, a Cocker Spaniel on coke, an Afghan Hound of anorexia…we are all in the lobbies and in the parks and on the pavements all doing our things. We are online and in the rooms and social media and in the meeting places and squares. We all stop and chat and compare paw prints and fluffy sweaters and dripping wagging tongues. We share our stories of pain and hurt and love, of Paradise lost and found. We compare wounds and show off shiny badges of victory. And for that, I am grateful to be part of larger pack, circling and protecting our own.
But there comes a time when I need to be with the weiner dogs. It is only with my fellow alcoholics can I share the true graces and disgraces of my illness. The dirty laundry kind of stuff. The real way that alcohol and alcoholism worked in my life. The offshoot branches of whisky marinated minutiae. The bottle hiding, the shakes, the mental obsession, the dehydration, the lies, the cover ups, the vomiting (there’s always vomiting, isn’t there?) and the other accessories of alcoholism. The Pandora’s box pendants of gluttony and sloth and ambition crushed.
In treatment, I was one of the rare breeds – pure alcoholic. Most others were drug addicts or both. No doubt we all had some other -ism’s going on in the background – work, gambling, sex, etc. but treatment only dealt with chemicals. A drug is a drug is a drug, remember. And yet, listening to these other men’s stories was illuminating and brought me closer to them. While I could identify with the guy who did Oxycontin, or crack cocaine or crystal meth, I had to leave them when it came time to discussing the particulars. I had to break off when it came time in describing the cravings, the needs, the jonesing of that next fix. My identification only held up so long.
The differences between alcohol and drugs are certainly striking, on the surface. For one, alcohol is legal. I can walk into a store, tally up my chump change and walk out with something liquidy and not worry about getting busted. When it comes to drugs (not the over the counter stuff), it’s a whole other animal. You have to know people. You need to meet up and bring cash…public spaces need not apply. After hours in dodgy areas, the additional weight of being robbed or raped or beat up or arrested on top of the already addled addicted mind. It’s a whole different world, tinged with criminal elements and higher risks.
There is also a difference in cravings and effects on the body and mind. The damage opiates can cause long term are much different than what alcohol can do. The carnage that crack causes on the nervous system is significantly different than what too much booze can do. Alcohol leaves the body in about three days. It can take a year or longer for the residue of drugs to leave the system fully. Also, alcohol, unlike most drugs, causes the cravings to kick in once it gets into the system, as opposed to losing the craving once the fix settles in. And on it goes. The detox from alcohol is one of the most deadly – seizures and heart stoppage can easily occur to a badly afflicted alcoholic. But detox from other drugs can be just as brutal, but I have no idea what they are like. I have no experience of that.
Also, the stigma of being a drug addict is something that I am not familiar with. There are so-called high functioning alcoholics, but there are no functioning meth addicts out there that I know of. There are no hardcore heroin users who can be CEO for very long. Societally, the idea of being a pill popper or coke user or marijuana smoker seems to be pegged a rung below that of pounding back too many martinis at lunch. It is almost more accepted to be an alcoholic than a sex addict, or bulimic, or a compulsive gambler. Certainly no one wants to get into discourse about online porn or internet abuse. People don’t take the social media addict or video game addict very seriously. “Just cut down” is what they would say, as they might have said to a problem drinker.
I had a call from my treatment center about a year ago. It was a man who was leaving the house and needed someone on the “outside” to take to meetings, talk, etc. I agreed to meet up with him for coffee, and it was only after one or two minutes talking to him that I knew he was just a bit different. He did identify as an alcoholic, but I got the sense it wasn’t his first choice. After a few more minutes, I cut to the chase.
“When you are thinking about going back out, what are you thinking of? Alcohol or pills?” I asked him.
“Pills,” he answered.
We continued to talk about all the other stuff that comes along with addiction – the loneliness, the isolation, the sense of not belonging, the fears, the angers, the pain. We did connect on that level, but I knew that I wouldn’t be able to sponsor him or work with him, as I just didn’t have the experience of drugs, and specifically over the counter drugs, which was his particular poison. I wouldn’t recognize someone high on back pain relievers. I wouldn’t be able to spot someone who ingested too many T3’s. I wouldn’t be able to detect the sickness that comes with either coming off pills or the frantic lead up to a spree of pills. I just wouldn’t have anything to offer in that category. But talk…we certainly could talk about the stuff on the side.
Just the other night someone mentioned that they had a cold and had to go to the drug store to buy some medicine. But as a recovered addict, it was difficult for her to do it, as it was in a way going right back into the belly of the beast, and there is always the slightest temptation to over medicate. You see, that never even occurred to me. As an alcoholic, I don’t think of those things because I have never had the experience of standing in front of the pain relief and/or cough and cold section and treating it like a liquor store shelf. I don’t have that sort of thing on my radar. Nor do I think of a buffet or a casino or turning on my computer or talking to a woman not my wife as challenges to my sobriety. I don’t see them as potential associations or deal breakers or “triggers”. Or potential relapses. I am not wired that way.
The whole “so” of this is that while I am tattooed with alcoholism, with decals of sugar on the side, I am not necessarily defined by it. But I do need to be around fellow alcoholics to get the vibe, to get the real juice, to feel a part of something, because my whole life was spent feeling that I didn’t belong to anything. That is why being a part of a whole is so vital to me. To be amongst my peeps, so to speak, is what I sometimes need to motor through this whole thing. Being alone and isolated doesn’t serve me and knowing that there are many out there who think like me, act like me, and more importantly, drank and behaved like me puts me in a rarefied company of those who have survived…and continue to survive and gives me comfort.
But the greater joy is just being that branch on a larger tree. A dachshund is a groovy dog, but they can’t pull sleighs or jump over fences or rescue skiiers. Being part of a greater and glorious brother- and sisterhood is a joy beyond reproach. The things I have learned from addicts of all kinds – compassion, generosity, inclusion, heartfelt ups and downs, love, support – have strengthened my own recovery, even if I am recovering from something else. Or am I ? Listen, sure we all have our paths, and mine was navigated and powered by the bottle, but I can’t dismiss the fact that at the core we all have that -ism – that core thing that blocks us from the need to connect, to be loved and give love, to feel useful, to be happy, joyous and free. To be blocked from the Creator. It has been said that the addict is someone who is running as fast as they can away from God.
We’re all different breeds at the dog park, mixed in company, bonded by fate, energized by the light within. My struggles and your struggles are still struggles, and while we wear different faces, our eyes are the same and our spirits all want to soar to the same majestic plane. A drug is a drug is a dog is a dachshund. Now tell me your story.