I can certainly see why people get addicted to cough syrup

0030045025708_180X180So, 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.

The process of becoming yourself

3883345813_7566f19532When I was growing up, I felt like being yourself was all about distinguishing yourself: asserting your own importance by highlighting all the ways in which you’re different from other people.

I remember, when I quit drinking, I was so worried about losing who I was. I thought I had a pretty good sense of myself. I was witty and slightly out of control and sometimes mean. I provided value by being interesting and extracted value by being obnoxious. (I mean, who knows how true any of this stuff was, but it was certainly my sense of myself.) I wasn’t going to restrain my opinions and I wasn’t going to be all bourgeois. I guess I considered myself a little bit counterculture (just a little bit, but amongst the people that I ran with, a little bit was more than enough). I wasn’t going to live in a commune or anything, but I did have one ironic tattoo and plans for several more. I was, in some weird way that I wasn’t altogether able to map out, going to be live life on the edge, like my literary peeps: F. Scott Fitzgerald and all the rest. I had a sense of myself as somehow set apart from everyone else.

And I swore to myself that even if I quit drinking, I was going to keep being who I was. I was going to keep being living on the edge.

But that didn’t happen. My relationship to the world is totally different now. When I meet people, I am happy to make small talk with them. During our conversations, I often I try to remember peoples’ names and interests so I have something to say to them the next time we meet. I do my best (not always successfully) to corral my contrarianism. I don’t remember the last time I got into serious argument with someone or had a really negatively-charged interaction. I try not to even argue with people on the internet. Obviously, interacting with me is not all sunshine and roses. I still love to hear myself talk. But, believe me, I am so much nicer to people than I used to be. In fact, it’s difficult to believe that I ever got away with acting the way that I did.

Culturally, I’ve become extremely bourgeois. I wake up at 7 AM (even on weekends). I don’t smoke or drink coffee or eat junk food. I exercise (a little bit). I go to coffee shops and pop-up cafes. I talk to newly-met acquaintancs about their jobs, children and/or dogs. I go on vacations. My last tattoo was not at all ironic. Sometimes I send people thank-you notes. I buy groceries. I do my laundry at least once a month. My living room was looking a bit sterile, so I purchased posters and then I framed them and hung them. I own a hammer and a tape measure and several screwdrivers. I buy my soap in bulk instead of one at a time. My wallet is full of loyalty cards for various stores. I shave every day. I floss. I get my hair cut oftener than once every three months. I go to the dentist. I often begin work on an assignment a week or more before it is due. Every six months, I take my car in for preventative maintenance.

There is nothing edgy or countercultural about me. In many ways, I’m pretty similar to all the people around me.

But, weirdly, I feel more like myself than ever. Like, I’m not even saying, “This is the new me and the new me is great.” This doesn’t even feel like a new me. I have exactly the same sense of myself and my character as I did back when I was drinking to excess and borderline non-functional.

Maybe it’s something to do with being a writer? I don’t know—I mean, my individuality does come out every day in my writing and my blogging. But, I’m not sure that’s it. I wonder if maybe our model of individuality is a little bit flawed. We try to become individuals by adopting cultural markers that scream “individuality” and by asserting our own importance when we’re in social situations. But I wonder if maybe individuality is a bit more complicated than that.

You know, when you’re a writer, you eventually find that—at least to a certain extent—you can’t imitate other writers. You might try to imitate someone, but it always ends up looking more like an interpretation. Your worldview, your mode, is all over it. And the more you write and the more you study and the more techniques you learn, the more your individual voice comes through.

Similarly, in life, I wonder if individuality is something that deepens in you when you start to live purposefully.

Three years sober

4533192657Around this time in 2010, I went on a weekend-long bender. At the end of it, I experienced severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms that made me realize that if I kept drinking like this, I was going to die. And it was not going to be one of those genteel F. Scott Fitzgerald-type deaths that would strike me somewhere in my middle age. No, I was pretty sure that I was going to die, like, next year.

Previous attempts to control my drinking had taught me that moderation wasn’t an option for me, so I knew that I had to quit entirely. And I did. I’ve been alcohol-free for three years.

It was the best decision I ever made. My life almost immediately became much easier. When I quit drinking, there were two non-functional cars outside my house: both had dead batteries; one had a broken axle; another had a broken serpentine belt. For weeks, I’d just stared at them with this feeling of helpless dread. It was my responsibility to fix them, but I had no idea how to do it.

A month after I quit drinking, I had a Sunday free, so I called AAA and had the cars towed. It took a few hours and a lot of money, but the whole thing was shockingly easy. It was an out of body experience: my life was fixing itself.

On February 3rd, 2010, I started writing again. Before that, I’d had 14 days of writing (9,4000 words) in the previous three months. In the next three months, I wrote for 76 days and produced 79,000 words (including the story that would become my first sale to Clarkesworld). My writing productivity shot up (it doubled in 2010 and then doubled again in 2011).  During the years before I quit, I wrote around 400,000 words and I only wrote on around 1 in every 5 days. In the three years since, I’ve written about 1,400,000 words and have written for about 17 out of every 20 days.

Within a few months, my time horizon had expanded. I stopped living month to month and starting planning for my own future. My emotional health improved dramatically. I stopped feeling so angry and resentful and worthless.

And my social relations improved. Almost immediately, people started to treat me better. It was like everyone had always wanted to treat me like a functional human being who could be trusted to take care of himself and other people, and the moment that became possible, they were happy to do so. None of the sorry, disreputable things I did have ever come back to haunt me.

Oh, and my work life became substantially better. I no longer felt as overwhelmed by all my tasks (although it still took me years to learn how to hit my deadlines).

None of this was a simple or easy process, of course. But it also didn’t take that long. Within three months, sobriety had dramatically reshuffled my life.

And now I’ve been sober for three years!

Since I quit without any kind of formal program (I never did any kind of rehab and I don’t attend recovery meetings), the temptation is to say that I wasn’t really addicted to alcohol. But I’ve still never met anyone who drank in the completely out-of-control way that I used to. Even the sheer quantities were mind-boggling. In any case, there is no doubt in my mind that I was addicted to alcohol (whatever that means) and that if I began to drink again, it would soon spiral out of control and destroy everything I’ve gained.

But that won’t happen. Although I’m frequently around alcohol (since quitting, I’ve been to hundreds of parties and bar-room gatherings, held peoples’ drinks, bought liquor for parties and kept it in my home, etc.), I rarely feel tempted to drink. When I look at alcohol, I don’t even think: “Hey I could drink that.” I go weeks and weeks without ever thinking about how I don’t drink.

But sometimes I feel shocked by what’s happened to me. Alcohol has killed so many people who were much smarter and had much more willpower than me: the canon of American literature is a list of brilliant writers who were mastered and then destroyed by their drinking. I cannot explain why I escaped. The closest I come to believing in God is when I think about that day, three years ago.

Of course, I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in miracles and I do have a few explanations.

  • I stopped drinking after I left college, lost my community of fellow drinkers, and entered a social milieu where drinking to black-out was much more unacceptable.
  • It also happened shortly after I started working and waking up every morning; the structure of my life meant that drinking got in my way to a much greater degree than previously.
  • One of my best friends had also recently quit drinking (studies of social contagion show that people tend to quit drinking in clusters—when you quit, your friends are almost 100% more likely to quit as well).
  • The frequent travel for my job meant that I adopted a sober and binge cycle (it’s hard to drink when you’re working every day) that exacerbated and prolonged the negative effects of alcohol on those occasions when I did drink (meaning that drinking became much less pleasant).
  • While drinking, I read tons of the sobriety literature and slowly took in the idea that total abstinence was a good method of avoiding the effects of alcoholism. I think that people who try to quit drinking in isolation often tend to repeatedly fall into this trap of trying to moderate their drinking, succeeding for awhile, and then losing control, until they eventually die.

Notice what is not on this list: willpower. I don’t believe in willpower. Willpower means expending energy trying not to drink. I mean, sometimes, you need willpower, but it should be absolutely your last resort. Willpower has saved me maybe a dozen times in the last three years (and most of them were very early on). If you’re relying on willpower, then eventually, maybe one in a hundred times, you’re going to fail. And then you’re kind of screwed.

No, quitting drinking feels more like a structural problem. If you build the right systems into your life, then you don’t need to try to do it. For some people, this means avoiding alcohol. For me, it meant the opposite. Whenever I didn’t drink in a situation where I normally would’ve drunk, I felt like I was overwriting the programming that would’ve led me to drink. I’m also proactive about telling people that I don’t drink and, if it comes up in discussion, I don’t mind if people learn that I used to have a drinking problem.

Anyway, that’s all a subject for another post.

Sometimes I think that it was almost inevitable that I would quit drinking. So many factors were in my favor. But, of course, it could’ve gone a different way. I could’ve learned to downcycled to a form of daily drinking that allowed me to get to work on time; I could’ve quit or lost my job; I could’ve died. I don’t fully understand why those things did not happen.

But I am awed and grateful by the way that things turned out. I haven’t mentioned it on my blog until now because I’ve been in the working world and the timing didn’t feel quite right. But I do have tons of things to say about alcohol recovery and, since I belong to no sobriety communities, I have had no one to say them to. From now on, I will say them here.


  • Occasionally, I’ll have a friend who, upon learning that I used to have a drinking problem, takes it upon themselves to police me. They start asking, “Is it okay if I drink?” or they won’t invite me to a gathering because “It was at a bar.” There is no need for you to do this. First of all, I am literally never bothered by other peoples’ drinking. Secondly, I find it very easy to avoid or escape from social situations that I’m not enjoying. Thirdly, you have absolutely no responsibilities vis a vis my sobriety.
  • Similarly, there is no need to be concerned—you know I am talking to you, Mummy—that this confession will hurt me on the job market. Any employer who thought “Oh, I don’t want to have an employee with this really healthy character trait” would be a huge fool. Also, if they acted upon that thought, then they would be breaking the law. Alcoholism is a protected condition under the Americans with Disabilities Act.