So, last week I was sick. And while sick, I took a lot of NyQuil and this other Tylenol cold medicine. Both medications contain a small amount of alcohol. Not enough to get me drunk or anything, but certainly enough to get me remembering about alcohol. (Right now, the former alcoholics and addicts in my readership are going “Uh oh,” but I am fine, this is not a relapse story or anything).
I really do think that the reason I drank is because alcohol affected me far more strongly than it does most people. Like, when drinking, I could become so intensely euphoric. So much so that whenever something great happens to me in ordinary life (like when I got into Hopkins or sold my first story to Clarkesworld), I thought to myself, “Wow, I feel like I’m drunk.”
Even at those moments, the pinnacle of years of effort, the subjective feeling of happiness was about equal to a good night of drinking.
I’ve asked around a bit, and I don’t think that’s true for most people.
When I stopped drinking, I didn’t know that I would be putting so much distance between myself and that emotion. It’s weird to think that on one level, my happiest moments are behind me. I will never again have peaks that are as high and as frequent as during those years.
For me, drinking to excess was actually a really rational decision. The purpose of life is to be happy. And the happiness of an interval is basically (studies have found) the average of its peak and its ending. Drinking made my peaks shoot way up.
It was an entirely different way to live life. Those emotions are associated, in our minds, with moments of great triumph. When you unleash them willy-nilly every day, then every day starts to feel so full. I always knew that before tomorrow I’d be as happy and as depressed as it was possible for me to be.
But what’s great is that you don’t remember. I know all of this stuff intellectually, but I can’t really feel what it felt like, so it doesn’t pose much of a temptation. That’s kind of what a craving is. I start to feel a hint of what used to be possible, and the reason it’s so overpowering is because finally I’m coming up against the thing that actually fuelled the drinking.
But the craving passes. The body and mind can’t retain emotional memory without, in some way, reliving it. Which would be counterproductive.
The intellect really doesn’t help you when you’re in the throes of addiction. At that point, your world narrows down and it’s difficult to imagine a different world. It mostly takes a sense of desperate resolve to move forward: a willingness to face any future, if there’s even a chance it’ll be better.
However, once you’re sober, that desperation fades. And that’s where the intellect comes in. It’s my duty to remember, “Oh yeah, that happened. If I started drinking again, all of that would happen again. Even though I don’t feel out of control and I can’t imagine being out of control in that way, I know that it would all come spilling back immediately.”
So my intellect has created the 1% test: if there’s even a 1% chance of this leading to relapse, I won’t do it.
Many things pass the 1% test. I regularly go into bars and socialize with people who drink. I’ve held other peoples’ drinks in my hands. I’ve kept alcohol in my home. None of those things really pose much temptation to me. When I see alcohol, it’s just liquid. Even when I smell it, I mostly get only the ghost of a memory. The only really dangerous tests are the ones that, for whatever reason, make me remember what drinking really used to be like.
For instance, when I got my wisdom teeth out, I was prescribed Vicodin, and after taking them, I started to feel a flicker of that old haze and (after taking increasing numbers of pills over the course of several days) flushed the remaining ones down the toilet. And, after my third shot of cough syrup in two hours, I decided that it wasn’t quite worth the risk and threw it all away. Which kind of sucked. Because that stuff is good.