Most of us go on with our destructive habits for years until something awakens us, and unfortunately it’s impossible to predict what it will take to make a individual aware of their condition. Early in my own recovery, I accompanied some AA friends who were going to tell their stories to a group of men who were confined in a minimum-security facility for alcohol-related automobile offenses in Connecticut. These inmates had repeated arrests for driving under the influence (DUI) and there were some who were there for what was then called “involuntary vehicular homicide while under the influence.”
I talked with some of these fellows, and to a man they just couldn’t wait to get back out and “have a beer.” They were locked-up, separated from friends and family, in deep legal trouble, and couldn’t connect the troubles they were in to the alcohol. In their minds, and I’ve worked with many substance abusers in various prison facilities, the problem wasn’t the substance at all, it was always something “else,” something totally out of their control that was responsible for their current situation.
It may sound as though I’m judging those inmates, believe me, nothing is further from the truth. I had tons of evidence, over many years that my drinking was out of control, and chose not to make the connection or do anything about it. Part of the reason is that I honestly believed that what I was doing was normal, and only a reaction to the way the rest of the world was behaving towards me. Additionally, there’s a normal human attribute that to a certain extent affects everyone, addicted or not: The tendency to discount evidence, even very strong evidence, which contradicts something we already believe. The more deeply-held the belief, the stronger the evidence needed to falsify the belief. Some of us need to be hit with a two-by-four.
In this stage, the addict hasn’t made a decision to change. They are either completely oblivious that their using is causing a problem in their life, or they are just becoming aware of the possibility. Some people realize quite early in life that alcohol or drugs are a problem for them, and just stop. Others, like me, continue to use, become dependent, and only realize it has become a problem when the evidence piles up so high it can no longer be ignored.
One night I was typing a kind of email to a friend. There really wasn’t email in those days, but the company had a bulletin-board system that was used for passing messages from those in the field to the home office. My friend was concerned about my drinking, and questioned me about it. I typed the words: “I only drink every night, and only to oblivion.” It was one of those “where the hell did that come from” moments. I typed the words without conscious thought, but there they were, out there where I couldn’t ignore them, and the worst part was, they were true. In spite of that “revelation,” I drank for another six months.
The day after the confrontation with my daughter, detailed in the first chapter, I had lunch with my best friend at the Lighthouse Inn in New London, Connecticut. At 2:30 in the afternoon, over my last Vodka martini (on the rocks with a twist) I told him that perhaps there was a possibility that maybe I was drinking just a little too much. He told me I should check-out AA, because he had heard it was a place where I could learn to drink like a normal person. It isn’t, of course, but I didn’t know that when I went there for the first time.
A couple of days later, I was convinced that I was through drinking. It wasn’t worth it, I had had enough! I had reached the point that professionals call “Crystallization of Discontent,” that is, I saw the connection between the booze, the pain, and the problems. For the first time, I realized the downside of drinking far outweighed any benefit I was getting from it.
I didn’t know it then, but I had moved from the precontemplative, through the contemplative, and into the action stage in the space of a few days. Unfortunately, it took me twenty-six years to get there. What I remember about those first few days was a feeling of tremendous relief that perhaps the long nightmare was finally over.
Addiction is such a complex issue that we never know what will bring us, or another person, to the point where they question their substance use. For some, prison isn’t enough, for others, an off-hand remark from a total stranger might do it. We never know. All we can do is continue to have compassion for those who cannot yet see the problem, and not enable them, or interfere with their being able to see it for themselves. That can be very hard to do, especially if it’s someone you care deeply about, but they will see their situation more clearly if they are allowed to face the consequences of their actions.