Addiction is a Spectrum of Feeling
In the early stages of trying to control my drinking, I thought that moderation was going to be the key to happiness. I believed that it should work for everyone. Moderation was the middle way, the middle path. All it took was discipline and self-control. I thought there was no reason why people shouldn’t be able to control themselves when it came to drinking. If they couldn’t moderate, it was because they just didn’t want to.
I was used to seeing alcoholism as a spectrum, where on one end is rock-bottom, the other end is sobriety, and somewhere in the middle is moderation.
People fall somewhere on this spectrum, and in the moderation zone are people who just don’t have a problem with alcohol. I believed that this was some sort of sweet spot, that if I could only exert enough control, I could land there, and be just like “everybody else.”
Over the years, I got it well controlled. I had tons of rules. I didn’t drink brown liquors (whiskey, bourbon, rum, etc.), I didn’t drink when I was sad, I didn’t drink alone, I didn’t drink more than three days in a row, didn’t have more than three drinks a night. There were periods when I counted drinks per week and month.
When I would go out with friends, I would obsessively count how many drinks everyone else was having. I would try to pace myself with them. I would try to plan out if we were going to a second location, and I would have one drink here and one drink there. I was doing it! Moderation.
One day I had a conversation with a woman who was in recovery for an eating disorder. She told me that she had no real sense of hunger or satiety, so she often had to use others to gauge how much to eat. She would watch the portions that other people took and try to match them and try to finish if they finished. Sound familiar? I heard myself echoed in her words. I told her that as I’d struggle with alcohol, I’d had so many of the same thoughts. She said it made sense because the compulsion to starve felt addictive too.
The unique thing about alcohol, and what makes it similar to food disorders, is that it’s legal, it’s readily available, and it’s socially acceptable. You wouldn’t tell a cocaine user that they can use in moderation. But it’s socially acceptable to binge eat, and it’s socially acceptable to get drunk. Sure, in certain social circles it’s frowned upon, but if you want to do it, you’ll easily find friends that will help you.
Inevitably, I’d break one of my many rules. After an incredibly stressful event or week, I’d have one too many. I would feel like shit the next day, and my whole day or even maybe a couple of days would be shot. Not only did I physically feel bad, but I beat myself up so much. Why couldn’t I just moderate?
One day I heard someone say that for them, abstinence was moderation.
This kind of blew my mind. It seemed counterintuitive, but at the same time, seductively simple. What I was doing, with all of my control, rules, beating myself up, and sweating it out, sure as hell didn’t feel like any sort of middle path. It didn’t feel easy, and it wasn’t fun at all. What if I’d been thinking of it all wrong? Maybe moderation fell in the middle of the spectrum of drunk and sober — but what if there was another spectrum altogether?
Rather than looking at addiction as a spectrum between rock-bottom and sobriety, where you are either completely sober or completely ruining your life, I’d like to offer a different spectrum. Call it the “spectrum of feels,” where one end is complete avoidance of all feelings, and the other end is acceptance of all feelings, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And in the middle? Some feelings, and some checking out.
One thing I had noticed was that if I were using alcohol to try to change how I was feeling, I would inevitably over-do it. If I felt stressed and drank to feel better, I’d drink “too much.” And if I was depressed? Forget it. I was done for.
What “gets you through the day” is often what allows you to check out whether it’s Netflix, cookies, weed, booze, or even so-called healthy activities, like running or working out. If you imagine a spectrum of all the ways we check out, with being numb on the left, and being entirely in our feels on the right, alcohol and other drugs fall pretty far to the left. And the amount and extent to which we use them could push them farther.
From this perspective, moderation with alcohol is not a middle path. Moderation is still checking out, just spending less time doing it. Maybe Netflix falls above drinking moderately, and maybe it doesn’t. How many hours are you watching? Maybe running is on the spectrum, perhaps it’s not. Are you running barefoot in the woods? Or are you punishing your body to justify what you are binge eating? These are very different forms of the same hobby. A wine tasting with friends and delicious food, celebrating the senses, can still be a very mindful activity. Maybe not by the end of it, but in the beginning, yes. You might be fully present, in the moment, and not trying to escape anything.
But what about the spectrum of feels, the spectrum of checking out? Where do you fall on THAT spectrum? How many feelings are you repressing or avoiding? Myself, I decided that moderating my drinking was simply too much work, and not drinking at all while maybe a little less fun, was a huge relief.
But, I gave up drinking only to find myself a year later addicted to social media and junk food. I’d say I’m getting much, much better at feeling my feelings, but I had NO idea how much I was actually suppressing.
We can use anything to check out. And, maybe sometimes we actually need to. The thing with alcohol is that while it can be addictive to avoid feelings, alcohol itself is addictive period. So combining these two was creating a deadly habit for me.
Maybe all those people who can drink in moderation have a better relationship with themselves or allow space for their feelings more than me. Or maybe alcohol just isn’t the way that they numb out.
We all need to feel our feelings. Our bodies are here now, just waiting around for our minds to come back. To come home. Our body says, “ouch,” and the mind can either say, “shut up,” or it can say, “I’m here. Tell me what you need.”