In seven days, I went from being sober for eight months to sitting in a chemical dependency center after a relapse, being evaluated for a potential outpatient rehab program.
I remember the bitterness and resentment that I felt as I exhaled into a breathalyzer until it clicked, sitting motionless as the nurse asked me what I meant by a glass of wine – big glasses? Small glasses?
I remember saying repeatedly – to anyone that would listen – that I couldn’t be an alcoholic because comparatively, I didn’t drink as excessively as an alcoholic should (whatever that means).
And no matter how many times I was diagnosed with a substance use disorder or gently told I needed help, I’d stamp my foot and insist that getting drunk with some regularity didn’t make it a problem.
And maybe it doesn’t. But there were a hell of a lot of other red flags that did make it a problem.
Substance abuse exists on a wide spectrum, and I’m a big believer that no two people struggling with it will look exactly alike.
But some narratives perpetuate the idea that substance abuse is simply using excessively and using often – and while these can be indicators of a problem, they are by no means the be-all and end-all of substance abuse.
I certainly got drunk and maybe more often than I should have, but that’s not why I made the decision to enter rehab. Here are five signs that helped me realize I needed support – regardless of how many drinks I had in a night.
1. My Drinking Became More Important Than The Consequences
In a single week of relapsing, I’d managed to jeopardize my employment, my relationships, my health and my sanity (including stopping my psychiatric medications because they didn’t mix well with booze).
And at the end of a night, sobering up, I was absolutely ready to do it the next day – even as I watched my job crumble, grieved as the people I loved distanced themselves from me, risked legal troubles (drinking in public, FYI, is a terrible idea), and lost my mind as my bipolar disorder started to seize hold of me again.
I had rapidly gotten to a point with my drinking where the potential consequences didn’t matter, even if it might kill me. Somehow, drinking had become more important – and I started to wonder why this substance had so much control over me.
When I talked about this with a therapist specializing in substance use, she simply looked at me and said, “I see what you’ve lost. What else are you willing to lose?”
2. I Repeatedly Compromised My Values
I’m not a liar. At least, when I’m sober I’m not a liar. When I’m not sober, I’m willing to lie straight to my partner’s face as I’m walking out of the door to the liquor store.
I try to be fair, caring, considerate. I love my friends to pieces and would never want to hurt them. But like a tornado, I willingly create chaos and fear for my loved ones when I binge. Everyone in my path has to endure a lot of pain as they try to protect me or push me away.
I put them in an impossible position again, and again, and again.
I love my job. At least, sober Sam does. But drinking Sam will miss entire days of work and blow past deadlines with complete and total numbness, leaving others to clean up the mess.
I think about who I am when I’m sober, and I think about who I am when I’m drinking, and I see all the ways my values don’t line up. The ways in which I can be selfish, hurtful, and deceptive.
And even knowing all this, I desperately still want to drink.
That sounds like a problem to me.
3. I Dehumanized Other Addicts (Because I Wasn’t ‘Like Them’)
The stigma around addiction is so real, and I found that even as someone with social justice values and ideals, I treated other addicts like shit.
I may not have the healthiest relationship with alcohol, but I’m not like them.
I don’t belong in rehab, I won’t be able to relate to these people.
This place is for addicts, not for someone like me.
I continually employed an “us versus them” mentality, othering people who struggle with substance abuse in an attempt to elevate myself as being better than, above, or more enlightened.
In my denial, I treated addicts as categorically subhuman – people I could never relate to, understand, or have empathy for. The further I distanced myself from them, the more secure I felt in my substance use.
Ever heard the phrase “thou doth protest too much”? I spent so much time and energy defending myself as a “not addict” – and no time cultivating any kind of empathy for those who were.
Why did I feel the need to do that?
4. I Wasn’t A Social Drinker – I Was An Emotional Drinker
I remember going to my first AA meeting and explaining to someone that I didn’t really think I was an alcoholic. She asked me casually, “Do you ever have just one drink?” To which I blurted out, “What’s the point of that?”
“You tell me what the point is,” she replied. And then I realized I’d never really asked myself why I was drinking in the first place.
I drink for a lot of reasons, some of which I’m still working on understanding. I use it to cope with my mental illnesses. To self-sabotage when I can’t handle the pressures or stress of my life. To put me in another headspace when I don’t want to be in my own. To slow down time when I’m dreading something.
I drink to take the immense avalanche of emotions I deal with on any given day and subdue it so that I might survive it all.
Notice nowhere on my list does it say “to have fun with my friends” or “to get a good buzz.”
Alcoholic or not, addict or not – I don’t think these terms are necessarily useful for everyone – nothing screams red flag like “I use alcohol to deal with my emotional problems.”
5. Everyone Around Me Could See It But Me
This. Is. So. Common.
And it is no exaggeration when I say that I felt like I was losing my mind. Here I thought I didn’t have a problem, and an abundance of therapists, psychiatrists, friends, and loved ones told me numerous times that I did.
For my short time in AA, I refused to call myself an alcoholic and sat bitterly in the back row, murmuring about how none of this resonated with me because I wasn’t like them.
Instead of being open to recovery and community, I left AA, and tried to do sobriety alone, much to the dismay of everyone around me. It worked, until it didn’t work at all. And here we are.
I believe that only you can ultimately decide to take on a label like “alcoholic” or “addict,” but I also believe that when there’s writing on the wall – and on literally every inch of that wall – it might be time for a conversation.
About nine or so months ago, when people were trying to tell me I needed help, I wish I would’ve taken the initiative to find a therapist and talk through it. It didn’t mean I had to go to rehab, or AA, or commit to any kind of substance abuse support group or program.
It meant I would’ve gotten some support from a professional as I decided, for myself, what my substance use meant in the scheme of my life – and what I might want it to mean moving forward.
It can be hard to hear folks when they’re trying to impose a terrifying and life-changing label. Take it from someone who knows. The word “alcoholic” still makes me cringe (forever unpacking that stigma, even now). But these days I’m willing to accept that if everyone sees something except me, it might mean that I have something I need to work through.
It can be hard to see your own substance abuse when you’re in the midst of it, especially when the narratives around it can be confusing and limited.
I by no means drink heavily. And for varying reasons, I don’t drink every day. And I’m still working to admit to myself that I can be an alcoholic despite that.
When I took the time to honestly evaluate how drinking operates in my life, I finally started to see the red flags I had been missing while I was too busy counting the number of drinks I had.
It doesn’t always matter how much or how often. It never did. For me, so much of it was about the kind of person drinking made me, and the consequences waiting on the other side.
And that’s a good enough reason for rehab as any.