Talking It Over

I watched the tail end of an Oprah rerun featuring a young HIV-positive man who vividly described his use of drugs and the wild reckless behavior that caused his HIV status. He told of deliberately “hunting the bug” by looking for sick men in bathhouses and having bareback sex with them and others.
As dramatic as his testimony was, I know there are countless young gay men and lesbian women who use drugs and alcohol, not to work out misery and despair but to enhance pleasure. Some get away with it. Some do not.
Everyone who uses alcohol or drugs believes that he or she is not an addict. For those who are addicted, denial leads to a climactic crisis that resolves in treatment or in continued misery. There is nothing as sad as someone who finally wants to be clean and sober but cannot get there.
Drugs or alcohol do relieve psychic pain. People “need” a drink after an upsetting event, or they need a toke, pill, or shot to calm themselves after the stress of a hard day. We are taught these truths from childhood on. The world itself is one big winery flanked by drug stores that promise cures for our pains. Is it so surprising that we turn to substances for relief?
These substances also give us courage to act in ways we wouldn’t act if we weren’t a little out of our right minds. In fact, we use substances to shut off those inhibiting critics in our brain and raise the euphoric dopamine so we can be anyone we want to be and do any thing we want with impunity.
Under the influence, we imagine ourselves as the greatest lover, confidante, writer, executive, solver of world problems, psychic, bully, whatever. Yes, alcohol and drugs have been catalysts for great achievements. We can’t deny that—but for most of us the imagining, under the influence, is all we achieve.
The trouble comes when the drug wears off There is punishment. Maybe it’s just a hangover. Maybe it’s the memory of something we’ve done that has harmed us or others. Maybe it’s embarrassment for uncharacteristic behavior. Maybe it’s shame that haunts us. Maybe it’s a lost love or a lost job.
If we drink or use after suffering negative effects, we have a problem. Most of us at first handle such problems with excuses to our friends, half-hearted apologies, denial—or simply by drinking and using more to forget our behavior. Even if we feel we have successfully handled the negative effects, we still drink or use because we feel justified that we are not addicted. This drinking and using leads to still more bouts of arrogance and reckless behavior. With our inhibitions turned off, we may engage in sexual behavior that brings us trouble with our health, with our families and friends, or with authorities.
This cycle is the merry-go-round of substance abuse. Round and round it does indeed go, but the results are hardly merry.
I know more about alcoholism than about drug use. In my young married life, friends of mine were taking a new substance to lose weight, an amphetamine. They told me how wonderful it was, giving them energy they never had before. I was skeptical. Something told me to stay away from it. Pretty soon my friends were being treated for sleeplessness and nervous anxiety. They got off the drug before it hit the streets and became know as “speed.”
Later, while living in Hawaii, I was asked if I wanted some marijuana. I declined saying, “I have problems enough with alcohol. Why would I want to do drugs?” Of course, I didn’t think I was addicted to alcohol. I just thought it brought me problems.
I loved parties. I had many as I moved with my naval aviator husband to different places. In California, I made a great fondue with nearly a quart of bourbon in it, and in me. That was just before flying with my two children on a cross-country trip. I remember getting on the plane, but nothing else until the flight attendants woke me to tell me the flight was over. What had I done in the airplane with my children for those lost hours? I felt the fear and shame of that trip for many years.
There were times in Hawaii when the party was loud and raucous, when I threw a drink in the face of one of our friends just to feel the power of the act that I had seen in movies, or when I awoke under a palm tree in our back yard.
It got worse. I left the house at night to drink and to flirt at bars in hotels where there were rooms and opportunities. My shame deepened. Still, I wasn’t addicted. I finally thought I had a problem when, in a blackout, I smashed into another car, fortunately hurting only the cars. The policeman told my furious husband that “we don’t charge women with drunken driving!” That was before MADD and the education of the masses. I was lucky. Maybe. It took another year, more misery, and a psychiatrist to tell me who I was. By that time, I was ready, willing to commit to treatment.
On May 1 this year, I celebrated 33 years of sobriety.

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