The 13th Step 

How I Realized I Wasn’t an Alcoholic

Almost five years ago, at the end of a particularly hedonistic summer, I decided I was an alcoholic and checked myself into a treatment center. I fondly call this place "The Dryer." In the year following I did everything an alcoholic who had checked into a dryer should: I reflected deeply, I appreciated greatly, and I received with gratitude every damn disaster-strewn day I'd been lucky enough to live through. I cried, agonized, and apologized, and even sermonized, because that's what I needed to do in order to live with my disease without giving over to it--even though the reality of facing life without booze left me retching with fears I'd never experienced before.

As a good alcoholic should, I declared myself to be powerless over alcohol, yet never quit hanging out in bars. Nor did I quit my stress-filled job, as I had been advised to do by every single counselor I'd invited to assist in my recovery. It was a crazy way to stay sober, surrounding myself with whooping drunks unchecked in their destructiveness and deadlines heaped upon deadlines--but I felt it was necessary to face the obstacles of my past in order to attain a future.

At one point during this time I wrote: "I hate when people ask me why, if I don't drink, am I sitting in a bar. Someone once compared it to a lion tamer who'd been mauled yet still hangs out in the cage to watch. That's exactly what it's like. Sometimes I make myself sit there on a Friday night so I can watch all the grossness, just so I remember that the good times were almost never as good as they seemed. I've learned to recognize the light that shines in the eyes of someone who's experiencing a blackout, and I can pick out the people who are trying desperately to be seen so they won't have to look at themselves. I'm not there to judge, by any means. I'd be drinking right beside you if I could. I'm simply there to keep sober, and no, you don't have to tell me how crazy that sounds."

A Death Grip on Control

As it turns out, I was full of shit. Not because I fell off the wagon a couple of overly dramatic, highly stylized times, but because--wait for it--I'm not an alcoholic. Yes, this is a signal for all devout and struggling 12 Steppers out there in Reader Land to haul out your stepladders and climb upon your very high horses. I'm telling you to giddy up and beat tracks to the nearest computer so you can fire up the ol' email cranker, because I'm about to fuck with your deepest passion, your highest achievement, your life's work.

I'm not an alcoholic, and I believe that for me and for perhaps a growing number of others, living under the 12-step mandate is a hoax. Yeah I said it. Of course it took four years, three drunken occasions, a couple of cocaine-and-anti-depressant-triggered seizures, a bad concussion, and the stagnation of my career as a writer to figure out how exactly I had misdiagnosed myself as someone who is powerless in the face of intoxicants.

My first step to a new and real recovery had been a necessary one, thanks to my brain-rattling concussion: 17 months ago I got myself a psychiatrist. Not a counselor, like the gentle 12-Step pushers I spent time bullshitting with before, but a bona fide capital M capital D. Because of the concussion I was having blackouts and doing some pretty silly things, so my general practitioner gave me a number and told me to make an appointment with a doctor who specializes in assisting people whose lives are entrenched in the local music industry. AND, he doesn't preach 12 Step.

After only two sessions spent absorbing my personal biography, he implored me to take a medical leave of absence from my job, because the anxiety I was facing was about to hit the boiling point. The subsequent three weekly sessions were dedicated to the same imploring; he even wrote out a goddamn prescription for time off that I was supposed to take to my employer. But I didn't, and why I didn't is the key to this whole recovery deal. I didn't do it because I didn't want to loosen my death grip on being in control. Ding!

It made no sense to me. I was out of control. I was the one who, in front of God and everyone, had declared myself to be powerless, and from where I was sitting that was the exact opposite of being in control.

"You don't trust uncertainty," my shrink told me simply, and the tiniest bit of light began to glow in my head.

Inventing the Drama

My confessions of life-long slavery to substance were largely fictionalized or at the very least, greatly exaggerated, because inventing this drama gave me something to control. Ironically, declaring myself powerless actually provided me with an outline to life, a script, really, complete with cues for dramatic scenes. If anything scary or disturbing happened, it was my excuse to fall off the wagon. I was powerless and thus, I had to drink.

Take, for example, the day when I got a surprise from an ex-boyfriend I hadn't spoken to in years: When we were dating, he was an asshole and a nasty drunk--but now, apparently, he was working the Ninth Step and felt he owed me an apology. Which he did via email. Let's just say that in his aim to heal himself he ripped a gigantic scab off of me. So I took myself to the bar and lushed. Not because I really wanted to, but because I thought it was what I was supposed to do. Alcoholics fall off the wagon when they get knocked for a loop, right? Well, I was doing what alcoholics do.

Afterwards I could be all ashamed and full of remorse, but grateful that I lived to tell about it. See how sneaky I was? I had it all there in my script.

The fact that I was exerting such control over my vice made me seek out other vices to control. I began to think I should take advantage of all that blow everyone was doing, and used it to make sure I could get things done. Then I had something new to feel guilty about and enslaved by, even though I was always aware that I was making a choice to do blow, rather than needing it. So what? The more control, the merrier! And I loved the fact that I shed pounds like a duck sheds water, because I'd been "controlling" an eating disorder since I was 18. It was all there right in front of my eyes. I'd admit that I was too self-restricting, so I'd allow myself to give up all the restricting, then restrict something else.

The Secret

Finally, and now obviously, I got it. And towards my ever-improving health, I take note of it every day. Less than a month after I stopped reporting to work, I quit smoking, not out of fear of the uncertain health threats lurking in the future, but because right at that moment, I realized I wasn't powerless over cigarettes, and it stank. I haven't felt like a cigarette since. I don't drink hard alcohol anymore because the truth is I can't hold my liquor. I do order the occasional glass of wine with dinner, and usually it's left unfinished. Imagine that. The blow? Man, I'm too old for that shit--but I admit that for a while there it did help me concentrate (even though I had to go to the bathroom every fifteen minutes). I liked that part, actually. I have ants in my pants.

No doubt many of you reading this think I have shit in my pants, claiming enlightenment and living what might appear to be a foolish life. Go ahead. I can't control what you think. I can, however, follow the advice given to me by a very wise musician with a medical degree, who I still see almost every week.

I do the best that I can to my ability. The secret is, there is no secret.

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