R is for Realizing We're Powerless
This one is a hard one for a lot of us alcoholics at first. We are so often pig-headed, stubborn and in such a desperate need to control every aspect of our lives and the lives of others that admitting weakness of any kind is out of the question.
In the 1976 song 'Bad Liver and Broken Heart' Tom Waits describes this powerlessness perfectly, "I don't have a drinking problem 'cept when I can't get a drink..." There are no problems as long as a steady supply of booze is readily available but when that stream runs dry the whole world falls apart. This was certainly how my short-sighted brain saw things.
There have been numerous times in the face of issues, incidents or inconveniences when I would say to myself, "Let's get a drink and then figure this all out." Nearly every time I only got through the first half of that. I think that there was this genuine belief that things would work themselves out and if they didn't? Who cares? Let's have another drink. Alcohol was always in control. Every plan, outing, gathering, social engagement or night alone revolved around it. Ubiquitous, intrinsic and ever present perfectly described alcohol's place in my life.
The word powerless seems so apropos. Coming up on five years sobriety I have learned a great many habits, skills and tools (powers if you will) to keep me from that first drink. I have identified triggers that make me want to drink. The old H.A.L.T. system is a great one. It is a checklist to see if I am hungry, angry, lonely or tired. We all have triggers or buttons that people can push to set us off. It is up to us to decide how we react. I was told once that the way to true contentment is to identify and remove those buttons. Easier said than done. I have let go of some and loosened others but some are still stuck under my skin.
I remember one summer as a kid my little brother an I spent in Arkansas with my Grandparents. I was nine years old and we did not know them very well. I believe it was supposed to be a bonding trip of some kind. I also believe my father may have wanted time away from us. My Grandfather was an abusive alcoholic from a long line of abusive alcoholics. One sweaty day in particular he beat my little brother with a boot horn because he did not address an adult as Sir. I watched on in fear as my brother wailed. To this day I do not know why I was spared the same punishment.
One of the more pleasurable parts of that visit was running through the hot, muggy Arkansas wilderness. The trees and creeks were thick and strange in a way I had never seen growing up in the desert. This exploration of the unknown did have one drawback though: ticks. Ticks attach themselves to your body by biting into your flesh and burrowing their entire head under the surface leaving their bodies exposed. They then clamp down with a death grip and begin to suck; their abdomens bulging as they feed. It is just as terrifying as it sounds. You can't just rip them out with your fingers either. Doing that only serves to detach the body leaving the head under the skin to eventually fall out if you are lucky but infection is the more likely route. So after a day of running through the woods my brother and I would strip down for grandma's tick check, also as terrifying as it sounds. If she found any she would cover them in clear nail polish. Because ticks breathe through their skin this would cause them to suffocate to death and thus loosen their grip. She would then gently tweeze them out head and all. Arkansas may have some lovely places but I saw very little of them.
I think our triggers are much like those little blood suckers. We have to understand how they live so we can render them lifeless and remove them entirely. I think many of my triggers are rooted in defense mechanisms I developed to cope with the violence and trauma of growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father. My father is no longer alive and no longer a physical threat to me but I believe subconsciously I still look for similar threats, imagined or otherwise and react as if they can hurt me. They cannot. I am an adult. I can assert myself without retreat or retaliation. Still, those ticks that were planted there as a kid haven't been completely pulled out while others feel deep and infected. I work on it everyday. Little by little some bits of myself are regained but I know that if I ever drink again I will lose all that I have gained.
A couple of years into sobriety I took a bite of butterscotch pudding that had actual scotch in it. My heart rate raced as my face flushed and my whole body went hot and tingly. My chest got tight and my breath shortened. I felt the shame and guilt that came with so much of my drinking. I excused myself and this whole episode only lasted a few minutes but it was a stark reminder that it wouldn't take much to fire up the old furnace and burn the house to the ground.
I continue to hone my skills and develop my tools for coping with life. I look for the ticks and watch out for the pudding. I work to remove the former slowly with understanding and allow the scars to heal with minimal infection. How ever longer that takes. I have a great deal of power in my decision to take that first drink. It is second and the third and the fourth and the nineteenth that will lead me to the one that finally kills me. It would be like walking across a freshly waxed floor in a pair of socks. I might be able to make it across once but then I would get comfortable and ultimately cocky. It would only be a matter of time before I slipped and fell and broke my ass. Besides, I am more of a barefoot on the carpet kind of guy these days.