“Until we lose ourselves there can be no hope in finding ourselves.” —Henry MillerFeeling a rush of pressure just below my abdomen, I pulled my truck onto a side street to stop and relieve myself. It was only after the vehicle’s springs shook off a sudden violent impact that I noticed the small median I had just driven over. As the truck settled, I felt the soggy pool that had formed around me. I pulled back onto the road and drove home. I remember the shame. The other details are blurry. I was drunk.
After graduating from college, I was confronted with the reality that I might not be in line for a dream job in a perfect economic marketplace. Rather, I was burdened with a degree that served more as a bill for services rendered than a representation of actual achievement. I was living with my parents and using the money I earned working at a home renovation chain to pay down my student loan debt. I was young and pursuing the career my degree had allegedly prepared me. However, spending my waking hours reworking planograms and hawking power tools did not make the four years spent obtaining that degree feel worth it. So, seeing as I was not happy, I figured I might as well be drunk.
Some days I would arrive at work at 6:30 in the morning and stay until close at 10 p.m. Many days I would end up spending 12 hours bathed in the fluorescent lights of the warehouse-sized store, counting down the minutes until I could join my co-workers at the bar where we would trade retail war stories over drinks. Slowly, the drinking edged its way into the workplace where I would have a nip before my shift or sneak in a few shots during my lunch break. One night I went out with friends, got blackout drunk, and woke up in the apartment of the girl I was dating. When I looked at my phone to see what time it was, I realized I was four hours late for my shift. I drove to work still intoxicated. When I arrived I felt a stabbing pain in my stomach. The pain continued and I was excused for the day. The next morning, a doctor diagnosed me with appendicitis. I was hurried to the hospital where I was quickly prepped for surgery.
I was not fired for my drunken indiscretions. Instead, I was given a week to heal after my appendectomy and figure things out. I decided I could not go back to work. I was embarrassed by what had happened. I decided to walk away, using the lack of opportunity for career advancement as my justification for quitting. I re-emerged with a desk job two months later, working as an internal point of contact for traveling salesmen. I moved into my own place and after six months of settling into the role, I positioned myself to purchase my very own suburban condo. I had done what I thought was expected of me: I had gotten my degree, I had secured a good job with benefits, and I had found a place to call my own. But still, I was not happy.
I did not feel like I was actually succeeding, only fulfilling expectations. I bought into the idea that following this blueprint would result in some larger sense of foundational satisfaction. I was focusing on a career and networking at social functions in order to develop opportunity-rich work relationships, but the results were hollow and I was not fulfilled. Something was missing. A year after I started the job it was already growing stale, and I could not imagine dedicating a lifetime to daily repetition, creeping up a corporate hierarchy, slowly gaining a few more vacation days with each passing year. On one particularly sunny Saturday morning while sitting alone in my condo, something inside me gave way; the result, a near week-long stint in detox and county jail after being pulled over for drunk driving.
I had been day-drinking and decided I wanted out, so I took off to visit some friends out of state. Already having finished what liquor I had on hand, I stopped to get a haircut before picking up a few bottles of wine to go for the trip. My memory of what followed remains faint. By the time I was pulled over I was in such a state of submissive blackout that rather than resist charges, I gleefully accepted my lack of discretion and offered the arresting patrolwoman a drink from the wine I had been nursing. Or, at least that is what I am told. When I finally returned home, what followed was a period of deeply-confused embarrassment. I felt ashamed when explaining my absence to friends at work, which was only made worse when I had to ask for help getting to and from the office. My license had been revoked. I could not even drive myself to the job I had already mentally checked-out of to pay for a condo I am not sure I ever really wanted. I had become an adult.
I began going to therapy and taking medication for depression, but the damage to my perspective was already done. I felt I was doing my family harm, leaving them to constantly worry about how I was doing, not to mention the trouble I thought I was causing my friends, who were now on the hook to usher me to and from work. I had been considering the option for weeks by this point, but with my head firmly encased in a hazy bubble of despair I recognized what I felt had to be done and quite literally prepared my deathbed. I went down the checklist of necessary motions: I collected my personal information for when someone found me (I could only think of how my parents might figure computer passwords to be important despite having a dead child on their hands); I explained my decision as best I could in written form; I shot off a few emails and text messages; and I even set the scene with a little mood lighting. I poured myself a glass of water and gulped down some sixty to eighty sleeping pills — at that point I did not really see counting as a priority.
I was not sad, I was not crying, and I was not lonely. I actually felt quite good. My decision made complete sense to me, and having acted on what I believed to be a wise and compassionate plan of action, I felt happier than I had been in months. The moment where the balance shifted from “is this happening?” to “this is happening!” was surreal. I was sitting in my bed dumbstruck by the simplicity of it all: The only thing between me and death was bottle of blue pills. I had not been drinking for weeks prior to that moment — and I was not that night either — but the therapy seemed ineffective at changing any of the feelings I was having. On top of that, the medication I had been prescribed was lending me none of the advertised benefits. In my eyes I was a constant source of pain for my family and I had drank my way out of every romantic relationship I had been in. All at once everything seemed to add up. I was ready to let go.
There are a lot of factors that lead someone to consider suicide as a viable solution. For me: addiction, depression, despair, loneliness, dissatisfaction, guilt, shame, and regret all contributed to a swelling belief that the world would be a better place without me in it. While those are all important details, this is not simply a before-and-after how-I-survived-suicide story. Nor is this about what led to that moment of ultimate resignation, my constant struggles with depression, or even the dysfunction of self-medicating my way through the years that followed. What is at the core of the following pages surrounds my evolving experience with the American addiction treatment industry, and how I finally found my way out of its maze.
My journey has been unique in some ways, while being very common in others. But the emphasis behind this book is on the constant consideration for individuality throughout the recovery process. Because of this, certain chapters might be personally relevant while others are unrelatable. My drinking led me to Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) where I toiled for years with the doctrine that any recovery from substance addiction could only be achieved through a spiritual means of surrendering oneself to a Higher Power. The second chapter explores semantic debate surrounding the term “alcoholic,” and how the evolving legal status of the disease-concept of alcoholism has driven the creation of this nation’s multi-billion dollar treatment industry. The chapter also examines why this treatment industry has developed under the 12-step model, how federal funding has been allocated to support it, and why a singular religious treatment approach continues to dominate the marketplace. Expanding on the first two chapters is the third, which contrasts the success rate of 12-step treatment with other modern treatment models. This chapter also reviews the importance of the dual diagnosis of mental illness and alcohol dependency with regard to systemic relapse rates, and how the commercialization of treatment is contributing to the manufactured demand of medication and therapy to combat addiction. If such a topics are unrelatable, your individual reading experience might be benefited by simply moving ahead.
Each respective chapter builds on the previous section, but none are essential prerequisites to the personal healing process that begins with the fourth chapter. The purpose of the first chapters is not to draw firm conclusions about the effectiveness of the American addiction treatment industry, but only to examine it in the pursuit of personal well-being. After being so tied up and confused about what was being sold to me as truth, I had a lot of wires to uncross in my own life, and the first three chapters reflect the struggle of overcoming misinformation which then helped me secure a position from which I could make healthy progress toward escaping my own addiction. It just so happens that my story — not entirely unlike many of those with alcohol dependency and abuse in their past — begins with the revered organization that has remained a cornerstone of the recovery model for the majority of a century: Alcoholics Anonymous.
Prologue: Letting Go (current chapter)
Chapter One: Surrender
Chapter Two: One Nation Under the Influence
Chapter Three: Untreatable
Chapter Four: A Crisis of Identity
Chapter Five: All or Nothing
Chapter Six: Reconsidering A.A.
Chapter Seven: Adaptation
Chapter Eight: Clarity