By Bob Aronson
Alcohol abuse, especially outright alcoholism is a leading cause of the organ shortage because of its destructive effect on the heart, pancreas, liver, kidneys, reproductive organs and stomach. There are over 123,000 people waiting for organ transplants in the U.S. and with only about 30,000 transplants a year, many on that list will die.
As a former drinker, a heart transplant recipient and the author of most of these blogs, I am always intensely interested in stories or postings about alcohol and drug abuse, so I actively seek the latest information about those subjects.
In that light, I was surfing the internet recently when I came across a group discussion of the issue. What caught my attention was this statement, “If you make the decision to start drinking you can make the decision to stop. Just say, NO, I’m not going to drink anymore, then pray for sobriety and it will come.”
When I saw that my immediate reaction was that the writer was unaware of what it’s like to be an addict and the total misery in which the alcoholic lives. It is a life no one would wish on their worst enemy. It is a life no one would live if they had a clear choice to get out of it. I wish it was so simple as to just, “quit.” or say, “NO,” but more on that, later.
***(A note to the reader. Throughout this blog I refer to the alcoholic as “he” for convenience. Please read it as he/she or him/her because everything I relate here applies to both genders. Also, I can only relate to the disease as a male. Women have many of the same experiences as men, but many more that are totally different. In many ways women suffer even more than their male counterparts)
I am writing this in my role as a recovering alcoholic of some 34 years. I have not had a drink of alcohol in all that time, I am not drinking today and I don’t plan to tomorrow, but I live every moment of every day with the knowledge that I am just one drink away from returning to the greatest misery man can inflict on himself whether physically, emotionally or both.
This is not one of those “tell-all confessions.” Since the birth of this blog in 2007 I’ve received dozens of requests for more information on alcoholism, but not for the usual fare, many of our readers want to know what it’s like to be an alcoholic. This is an attempt to answer that question, to explain the agony of alcoholism and to help you recognize that the alcoholic can’t “just quit.” I hope it offers some insight into the alcoholic mind and answers at least a few questions you may have about what it’s like to be a drunk.
Those who say, “Just quit,” or, “just say no” have no idea what it’s like to be a full-blown, full-time, uncontrollable drunk. If it was a matter of choice, a matter of will power, a matter over which alcoholics had control they would not choose to live that way. It is a life of absolute misery, dishonesty and risk. Your best friend and worst enemy is the bottle, it totally controls your life. Every minute of your existence revolves around making sure you have access to alcohol. If you have to choose between eating and drinking, you’ll drink. If you have to choose between bleeding to death and drinking, you’ll choose bleeding and if you have to choose between those you love and alcohol, you will choose alcohol and all the while knowing it’s wrong — totally and absolutely wrong. Worse yet, as you continue to choose alcohol over what’s right, that cloud of oppressive guilt that follows you around will tighten its stranglehold forcing you to consume more in another feeble attempt to stop the agony.
One other point about “If you can choose to drink, you can choose to stop.” The initial choice to drink is usually made while sober and for many, it is the last sober choice they make. Once the brain is supersaturated with alcohol, how do you get it to make a rational, logical choice? You can’t. The only time choosing to stop drinking might work is if you choose to get HELP to stop drinking, because you cannot do it alone. You must, as the AA Big Book says, realize and admit that you are powerless over alcohol and your life has become unmanageable. Only when you are willing to put your life in the hands of others (usually highly qualified addiction professionals) do you stand a chance of getting it back.
I stopped to read the post and comments I mentioned earlier because I have an interest in the subject. Addiction runs in my family. I was a practicing alcoholic for a long time and the practice paid off, I became a perfect drunk. It started when I was a teen who thought a weekend of beer consumption was normal behavior. I realized at that early age that while others could have a can of beer or two and then quit, I couldn’t. I always drank until drunk (sometimes unconscious) or until we ran out of alcohol whichever came first.
My early adulthood was not unlike most other people, I was young, struggling to pay the bills and unable to afford alcohol so my drinking problem wasn’t all that obvious. I knew, though, that anytime alcoholic beverages were available my old pattern continued. Once I started drinking I couldn’t stop. As time went on and there was a little more money, I drank more. At first it was just In the evening and on weekends but before long I was following my father’s habit of having a little “bump” upon arising each day. That progressed to several “bumps” and finally arriving at work drunk and staying that way. I was not a bar fly, I did most of my drinking privately and…I was good at hiding it. From jobs in broadcast journalism to serving as a Minnesota Governor’s Communications Director and then back to broadcast journalism I was a full-blown alcoholic and almost no one knew it. I was under the influence of alcohol even when I was on the air several hours a day and yet, no one ever mentioned it. Not then and not since. .
I had tried a hundred times to quit drinking and each time I did it with great resolve, but my best efforts never lasted longer than a week or two before I was back to my old habits. Finally, though, I hit bottom. It was 10 o’clock in the morning and I had already consumed nearly a quart of vodka and hadn’t eaten in days. I was very sick. Sicker than I had ever been before. While my head was nearly in the toilet bowl I made the decision to get help. I crawled to the phone, found the yellow pages and located a treatment center a couple of miles from my home. I then called my brother, told him what I wanted to do and asked him to drive me there.
It was about noon on Saturday July 17, 1982 and my blood alcohol was 3 times the legal limit. I was so wracked with guilt and pain and so sick I just wanted someone to help me feel good again. I was, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
The Mounds Park hospital and treatment center in St. Paul, Minnesota no longer exists but they were the right people in the right place at the right time. I have not had a drink since, but I could not have done it alone. “So,” you ask, “Why are you writing this?” I’m doing so because I’m hoping to bring some understanding to the issue.
The first few days in treatment were awful. When I wasn’t in the bathroom emptying my stomach, I spent my time trying to think of a way to get out of there and get a drink, but the papers I had signed had me in voluntary lockdown. Saturday, Sunday and Monday were probably the most tortured moments of my life. I was so sick I prayed for death. Even though they gave me tranquilizers this “purging” period was awful. I later learned that withdrawal from alcohol addiction is among the worst and can be deadly. As I dried out I never left my room, talked to none of the other patients, didn’t eat and drank what seemed to be gallons of water and even that wouldn’t stay down. Anyone who has ever had a hangover, has experienced just a smidgen of what alcohol withdrawal is like for the person who consumes it by the quart or liter every day of his life. It is why the alcoholic needs some “hair of the dog that bit you” in the morning. it’s the perfect way to cure a hangover. If you never stop drinking you never have a hangover. Well — almost.
I’m sure there are many who have been heavy drinkers, made the decision to quit and did. Others counted on God’s intervention and it worked, but for the vast majority of alcoholism sufferers quitting is beyond their ability. That was and is e nature of my condition. I am absolutely convinced that my ability to quit drinking was unrelated to will power. An alcoholism counselor once told me, “If you think will power will work, the next time you have diarrhea, use will power to stop it.” Just the thought of drinking again scares the hell out of me.
So, you might ask how and when you know you are an alcoholic and that’s a great question. In the deep dark recesses of your mind you probably know from that first drunk when you couldn’t stop drinking. The great test of whether there is something amiss is for me quite simple. Most normal, social drinkers can have one or two drinks and quit with no discomfort. I can’t. I know I can’t because I tried it many times. I find it impossible to believe the claims of some who say, “Addiction can be cured.” I will only accept that when they can show me highly supervised, peer reviewed, large group, long term clinical studies that clearly show patients who were cured can drink again and stop after one or two. Anyone or any organizations that claims to have a cure and cannot provide that evidence does not, in my view, have one.
Only others who share my experience will really understand this, but once I have a single drink of alcohol something is triggered in me that is so strong, so incredibly powerful it will cause me to have another and another and another. As the adage goes, “One drink is too much and a thousand are not enough.”
To further the point you might ask, “Well what if you had that drink and then thought real hard about the consequences like, Hey Bob, you could lose your job, your marriage, everything that is dear to you and wind up in prison for life as well, wouldn’t that stop you?” I guess a rational mind would immediately agree that those considerations would cause you to step back from the bar, but – you must remember the alcoholic mind is not one that is rational. It is driven by a craving so deep and so irrational it will violate every moral and ethical standard you ever had in order to spend more time with its best friend forever, alcohol.
That is not to say the alcoholic has no conscience. Once he has done whatever horrendous thing it was that relieved him of all that he loved he will feel great guilt, depression and sorrow. He will swear to change and to make things right, but when the agony of the hangover (withdrawal) begins he will again turn to the bottle. Does he have a choice to drink or not to drink? Of course, and the alcoholic will vow time and time again to make that choice, to quit drinking and will be incredibly strong in his resolve as long as he is under alcohol’s influence, but the resolve diminishes right along with the influence.
“One more drink,” he says, “will get me back on the road to sobriety,” and he really believes it, but one leads to six and to ten more and then to a repeat of the very behavior that caused all the guilt and there’s only one way to deal with it, more alcohol. It is a powerful drug and while it can cause one to lose his inhibitions (read that “good sense”), it also helps one forget, until you start getting a little sober and then you start all over again.
So you see, the alcoholic knows he has choices and he is willing to make the right one, but he never gets to a point where he feels good enough to make it, unless he is drunk and then even his alcoholic mind knows he has failed again.
Alcoholism is not only the failure to say “no” to the drug, it is also a complete abandonment of all that you know is right — a behavior change so great as to be unbelievable. The image of an alcoholic that many have is of a foul-smelling bum in dirty clothes who sleeps in a cardboard box in a dark, trash cluttered alley. He is inarticulate, uneducated and offensive. That’s the stereotype, but you know what? That’s only a partial picture.
The rest of the story is quiet and invisible. Every day millions of alcoholics get dressed for work in a stylish suit, and works right alongside you. When I was drinking heavily in the 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s I wore expensive clothing, drove very nice cars and was always presentable and functioning. I anchored TV and radio news shows, hosted a radio talk show and functioned as the press secretary to a state Governor. Few who knew me would call me a drunk. They might know that I drank a little, but no one would suggest I was an alcoholic.
Like many alcoholics I was pretty good at functioning while inebriated. Even the people with which I worked most closely had no idea that I had a secret life. They didn’t know that the double wide briefcase I carried was not full of office work. H, it carried a quart of vodka and a carton of cigarettes. They didn’t know that when I arrived at the office in in the morning, I had already had several drinks or that I had slept in a chair in the clothing I wore the day before. They were unaware that I hid my bottle in the bottom of the men’s room waste basket so whenever I wanted a drink, I just went to the men’s room. They didn’t know that behind the wall mirror in my bathroom at home, I had built a carefully hidden compartment to house my liquor supply. It was constructed while my wife was at work to ensure secrecy. The hidden latch on the wall mirror let it swing open to reveal several bottles sitting on a 2 X 4 shelf. It is where I got my first drink of the day, just a little something to get the hair off of my tongue and get my heart started. Neither friends nor family knew about the sandpit about six blocks from my home. It had a bottle of vodka hidden under the “No trespassing” sign that was only recoverable under the cover of night. There may have been other places as well and the bottles may still be there because I forgot where I put them.
Not all, but many alcoholics suffer from “Blackouts” and I was one of them. I know one fellow traveler who says he missed the “entire Carter Administration.” Blackouts are periods of time that cannot be remembered. They are periods when you can walk, talk and work and remember none of it. There are huge gaps in my memory of those years and it is attempting to recollect them that threatens my sobriety even though they were a long time ago and I might have just fallen asleep. It is not knowing and suspecting the worst that beckons me to have “just one.” The flashing red, white and blue neon “Liquor” signs act as strong magnets that seek to pull my car into their parking lots. I shudder to think of what I might have done that I cannot remember. So far, though, my recovery program and support system have proved to be a stronger force and I fear the liquor sign more than I fear the memories.
When you are a practicing alcoholic you have to spend a whole lot of time making sure you have an uninterrupted supply of alcohol. There’s a lot of planning that goes into being a drunk because our greatest fear is running out of liquor. In Minnesota you can’t buy hard liquor or even strong beer on a Sunday. The liquor stores close at 10 PM on Saturday night and don’t open again until 8 AM on Monday. It is critical that the flow of alcohol not be impeded. An ample supply must be available at all times in a place that is always accessible.
We drunks spend a whole lot of time hiding our addiction, even to the point of having a hidden secret stock that can be consumed privately so when attending a party you can be seen drinking a Coke or Pepsi not liquor, wine or beer. During that time I had many people comment on the fact that I rarely “Drank” and I always agreed.
When I was Anchoring a regional network radio news show five mornings a week, I sat across a desk from my producer. We were almost in each other’s faces every day and I was never sober. One weekend I called her and said, “Christa, I won’t be in on Monday, I’m in treatment.”
“C’mon Bob, is this your idea of a joke? Why are you calling?” She was quite indignant.
“I’m in treatment for alcoholism, Christa,” I said.
“I told you it’s not funny,” she responded.
It took a while to convince her. We had worked across from each other for three years and she never knew I drank even though I was almost never sober. While on the air I labored mightily to keep my enunciation crisp and to be an errorless reader. Face to face I interviewed Governors, captains of industry, super stars of entertainment and men and women of the cloth while at the same time increasing the profitability of not only the liquor companies but also the businesses that make, distribute and sell Certs breath mints, and Binaca breath freshener.
I think I mentioned that it takes a lot of planning to stay drunk and hide the fact that you are. I worked hard at keeping my drinking preferences and practices secret so I made sure I didn’t frequent the same liquor stores too often. I did not want to be seen frequenting bars and nightclubs, so I didn’t go to them. I almost never drank in a bar. I knew the hours of all the liquor stores, their locations and their prices. I even went so far as to deposit my empty liquor bottles in someone else’ trash cans and often not even in my neighborhood. At work I once put an empty vodka bottle in the corporate President’s waste basket.
Sobering up as I mentioned earlier was not easy. It was terrible. When finally the alcohol was out of my system I vowed to go public with my addiction as a means to help me stay sober. Treatment, AA meetings, being public about my problem helped, I’ve not had a drink since a little before noon on that day in ’82.
While I respect those in the scientific community who insist that alcoholism can be cured and that drinkers can choose to stop, I vehemently disagree. I know scores of sufferers just like me. We talk, we relate, we empathize and our stories are nearly identical. Furthermore I have attended hundreds of AA meetings and read scores of books on the subject. They all verify the fact that those who suffer from alcoholism also suffer with feelings of helplessness, depression, resentments and most importantly — overwhelming guilt.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on addiction I am but a single case among millions. My evidence is anecdotal and not scientifically acceptable, but I know that my story and my experiences are repeated thousands if not millions of times every day. I don’t know why people become alcoholics and I don’t understand the psychology behind it I only know it very nearly ruined my life, hurt my friends and family immeasurably and affected the lives of many others as well.
If someone in your family or circle of friends has a problem with alcohol you can try to help, but don’t be surprised if your offers are perceived as threats and you lose your relationship with that person. The alcoholic didn’t drink for you and is not going to stop for you or for anyone else. He will only stop when he hits rock bottom and can no longer stand living that way. Then he will either seek help and keep seeking it for the rest of his life, or return to drinking and alcoholic bliss where unpleasant memories are washed away in a sea of 90 proof alcohol.
Alcoholism is slow suicide. It will kill you one way or another. Either you will succumb to some disease, or you will drink yourself to death. It’s suicide but very slow, very painful and very effective.
My closing thought is the same as the one with which I opened this posting. The life of an alcoholic is a life of misery, shame, guilt and fear. No one, no one, would choose to live like that if choice was really an option.
Below are some resources for Alcoholics, their families and friends.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services AdministrationExternal Link—For information about substance abuse prevention and treatment services:
- 24-hour Help Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- Treatment Facility Locator and Other ResourcesExternal Link
- Prevention of Substance Abuse and Mental IllnessExternal Link
- Publications StoreExternal Link: 877-726-4727
- Rethinking Drinking
- NEW: Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help
- A Family History of Alcoholism: Are You at Risk?
- Alcohol: A Women’s Health Issue
- Beyond Hangovers
- Drinking and Your Pregnancy
- Harmful Interactions: Mixing Alcohol with Medicines
- Older Adults and Alcohol: You Can Get Help
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s over 4,200 member Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) and the author of most of the nearly 300 posts on this site. You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love. You can register to be a donor at http://www.donatelife.net. It only takes a few minutes. Then, when registered, tell your family about your decision so there is no confusion when the time comes.