I’m not an addict, and I’m not an alcoholic. But as offensive as this may sound, I sometimes I wish I were, if only so I could have a language and a community to help me deal with what often seem like out of control urges—a structure surrounding me to help me cope with, well, life. But there are no 12-step meetings for people who simply have trouble getting up every day, who feel hollow and weak and unworthy, but who don’t gloss over those feelings with a single, predictable vice. Over the course of my life, I’ve certainly used alcohol, sex, shopping and food to help quell those feelings, and they’ve each worked, in limited doses, but eventually their effects wore off.
The thing is, though, my rock bottom moments don’t revolve around alcohol, though I’ve consumed my share, or drugs (I’ve attempted to smoke pot twice, and basically failed each time); sometimes it’s food, sometimes it’s sex, sometimes it’s shopping, but I fundamentally believe that the core part of me that hates myself in those moments when I’m eating an entire box of cereal, screwing someone I’m not that into, or buying a pair of shoes I don’t need and can’t afford, is the same impulse that drove, say, my father or grandfather to drink (both are recovering alcoholics).
When Caroline Knapp writes in Drinking: A Love Story, ”We become so accustomed to transforming ourselves into new and improved versions of ourselves that we lose the core version, the version we were born with, the version that might learn to connect with others in a meaningful way,” I’m right there with her. I’m not a sex addict, but I’ve certainly sought that completion—or numbness masked as completion—from relationships just as much as I have from alcohol. There’s a high I get from not just sex, but dating, that the other vices don’t entail, since the former involves other people. I’m not delusional enough to think that the dumplings or chocolate or chips I frantically shove in my mouth or the clothes I buy and never wear or the glasses of champagne I occasionally indulge in love me back, but I am foolish enough to hope that certain people do. Sometimes they genuinely do, but my addictive personality means that instead of simply taking these lovers for who they are, flawed human beings just like me, I all too often see them as some sort of savior who will rescue me from all those feelings I’ve been trying to avoid. No pressure on them or anything.
I don’t drink not because I’m an alcoholic, but because when I do, it’s so rarely for what I feel are the “right” reasons: because I want to, because it’s fun, because I’m kicking back and relaxing or I like the taste of a given drink. In the past year, I’ve had eight drinks, which isn’t a lot by any measure, but each looms large for me: I remember every single drink’s location and ingredients, along with the circumstances surrounding them. Save for one, all happened on dates where I was either trying to impress the other person with how suave I was, how I was able to handle drinking like an adult, rather than a giddy teenager getting away with something, or I was by myself in public and trying to convey a sort of sophistication—single lady sipping a drink on her own at a bar, perfectly content—that I fear I don’t actually possess.
If you don’t identify as an alcoholic, having the “I don’t really drink” conversation with dates, or even friends, is challenging. “Try this—you’ll love it,” they’ll say, or “Just have one.” When they ask why you don’t drink and you come back with, “Because it makes me feel like an awful person the next day” or “I don’t think it’s good for me” or “It’s a waste of calories,” the large majority of people take those statements as personal attacks, like I’m saying they’re awful people who treat their bodies poorly and waste their calories, not to mention cash, on bar tabs. Because I’m not seen as some clinical case who might be a danger to myself or others if I imbibe, my desire to keep myself alcohol-free is seen as less worthy, and I sometimes treat it as less important than an alcoholic’s insistence on total abstinence. I justify my occasional consumption as my attempt to prove I’m just like everyone else, that my genes won’t actually catch up to me.
My rock bottom moments surely look different than those of an alcoholic. I’ve had my share of drunken adventures, including acquiring a giant bruise on my leg as a teenager in Brazil, waking up in my bathtub when I was in law school and puking all over the inside and outside of my ex-boyfriend’s Mercedes and misplacing my glasses. The reason I don’t consider those rock bottom moments is that none of those evenings felt as emotionally disastrous to me as the times I’ve wondered if I’ll ever stop crying, the times I’ve gone to sleep or woken up feeling as if I have no reason to be on this earth, the times when darkness seems to be literally descending on me. When it burbles up, that feeling seems so gigantic that no amount of shopping or eating or drinking could fill it, which is perhaps why I’ve never developed a true addiction. Perhaps therein lies part of my jealousy: that addicts are better at staving off those feelings, at shoving them deep, deep down, albeit in dangerous ways. Still, I sometimes wonder which is the lesser of two evils, an emotional or a physical hell.
I wish there were some sort of 12-step meeting for the rest of us who don’t feel like we measure up, who are looking for wholesome and healthy ways to build our wrecked self-esteem. That empty feeling has caused me to lie to people I care about, sabotage my law school attendance and major writing projects, and behave in ways that only someone who doesn’t care about her future could. I’m only marginally religious, and can’t say I believe 100% in a higher power, but I’ve gained a lot from studying and practicing the 12 Steps—not always in order, but in my own particular way. I don’t think taking a searching and fearless moral inventory is something only alcoholics and addicts could or should benefit from, or that I need to wait until those rock bottom moments to assess whether I’m living up to my highest potential or down to my worst possible self.
Sacha Z. Scoblic writes in her memoir Unwasted: My Lush Sobriety, “When I drank, there were so many consequences. Happiness could scarcely make an appearance in a life spent shucking and jiving, lying and hiding, sleeping and zoning out. I was always late for work, loath to work, unmotivated, and apt to watch twelve-hour marathons of televisions shows I professed to hate. Sobriety didn’t cure those traits, but it did start to make me a lot more honest about them.” That will to failure is something I’m intimately familiar with; I’ve given up on promising opportunities and book deals simply because I didn’t consider myself worthy of them, and was sure that once the people offering them to me got to know me, they wouldn’t either. The only culturally acceptable word we have for that is “failure,” and I can’t help but think if I’d been drinking or drugging my way through those failures, I could somehow “blame” those self-sabotaging behaviors on a disease.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not truly envious of anyone struggling with alcohol or drug addiction. What I’m envious of is the seemingly built-in support network and forgiveness the 12-step community, to an outsider, seems to provide. Those are things plenty of us who struggle with our own brand of demons could use.
Rachel Kramer Bussel has edited over 40 anthologies, including Women in Lust, Obsessed, Fast Girls, The Mile High Club, Gotta Have It and Best Sex Writing 2012. She writes widely about sex, dating, books and pop culture, and blogs at Lusty Lady and Cupcakes Take the Cake.