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The Disease of More

I had my last drink – a neverending glass of rose, a goblet, really – about four years ago. I remember eating fries as my dinner and thinking that they would soak up the alcohol, that I was goooood. I remember talking about college, the endless blackout drinking of college, with a friend who was visiting Boston. I remember little else. I don’t remember getting home, saying goodbye, any conversations I had after 11:00pm.  I don’t remember caring about anything except that moment, about my next drink, about having fun, more fun, the most fun.

(Isn’t it interesting, the gendered experience of blacking out – when I re-read that paragraph, even though I know that I get home and nothing especially bad or traumatic happens, my stomach tightens when I read “I remember little else,” and my breath inhales sharply. Even though they’re my words, my story – that’s how conditioned I am, as a woman, to expect violence.)

I woke up the next day, as I had done thousands of times before, poisoned, retching, a wretch, barely making it to the bathroom to throw up, full of shame, guilt and regret, a pounding inside my head so severe that it felt like my brain got trapped, a rodent in a box, desperate to escape, was gasping for air, or at least water. Some sustenance, some nurturance, some necessity, other than fries and alcohol.

I went to work, puked, came home and surrendered to the couch, and my wife, furious, fed-up, fully possessed of her anger, lay into me as I listened, not moving, unmoved. It was in that moment, that I knew – some people might call it divine intervention, a God moment, my highest thinking – I knew in my gut, a small voice emanating from somewhere expansive and indistinguishable inside of me, that told me, calmly, gently, as a matter of fact: “You’re done.”

I was done with drinking, and I knew it, and I knew little else.

A friend of mine had mentioned, casually, that he didn’t drink anymore, after the 4th or 5th catch-up text that I sent in which I suggested demanded that we get drinks. I think that I had talked to him once before about not drinking –  I have a memory of me pacing my kitchen floor in an old apartment while on the phone with him – but it had been a false alarm, I wasn’t quite ready to quit at that time. When I reached out to him the second time, wondering how did he stop? What had it been like for him?, he immediately called me. I will always be struck by that immediacy of service, the urgency to give – I didn’t have the language for it at the time, this kindness, this understanding. I didn’t understand that sobriety was a gift that you could only keep by giving away.

I had many conversations about alcoholism with this friend in the beginning, who became, to my incredible amusement and amazement, somewhat of a personal sage. He was like a Bro Yoda. “Ahh yes,” he would say. “You’re wondering if you’re really an alcoholic. Sometimes I still wonder that myself, like am I healthy enough after some sobriety to drink again?” He would pause here for dramatic effect. “But, for me, it’s not worth it to try to find out because my life without alcohol is better than my life with drinking ever was.” He would tell me about his drinking lows, his sobriety highs. He would tell me what his life was like now, and all the things that he had done just! that! morning! that he couldn’t have done if he were hungover. I would listen. And then I would complain about how dumb recovery circles were, how dumb the expectations were, how dumb it was that I couldn’t even try a cocktail – I mean just try a tiny sip! – if I wanted to be considered sober. And he would listen. And he would re-frame, offer a more mature, experienced, sober perspective. And we would repeat this cycle for weeks, me calling to complain, him talking me off of a ledge. And then one day he said something that hit me so hard in the gut that all I could think, as I exhaled slowly, was fuuuuuuuuck. 

“They say that alcoholism is the disease of more,” my friend began, “and that’s definitely true for me. Whatever it is – food, a TV show, an experience – I want more of it. There’s never enough.” He continued to give examples, but I was stuck on that initial phrase, the inner knowing that had been jolted awake when I heard it: The disease of more. I repeated it to myself after we hung up the phone, letting it roll around on my tongue: the disease of more.

Yup. Definitely had that.

It was strange to consider that alcohol addiction could be described in this way. My understanding of it prior to this jolting revelation was that it was a disease, sure, but more of a disease for suckers and perhaps, more kindly, simply a brain disease. To have the other parts of self implicated in the disease – the emotional, psychological, spiritual – was unnerving and reassuring at the same time. The “disease of more” basically summarized my entire personality up until that point, my entire understanding of how to interact with the world.

And of course, by pinpointing it, or me, as the disease of more, the mostly silent, but solemnly understood belief that defined the other aspects of my personality was simultaneously revealed: I’m not good enough, I don’t have enough – my very being is not enough.

And with that, I think, we step into a minefield of questions about addiction that no one can answer: what comes first, the brain disease or the life circumstances that convince a person that they are less than? And if it’s both (and I personally think that it is), in what ways do they feed each other, and why do some people with the genetic makeup to be addicted never pick up a drink, or never develop the progressive disease of alcohol addiction if they do drink, and why do some people, like me, blackout from drinking the first time they consume alcohol, with no prior brain damage from its use?

Don’t look at me for answers, man. I don’t even get paid to write this blog.

But what I do know deeply is what it means to have the disease of more, and I think, if you live in a capitalist country, you also know what it means to have the disease of more, even if you didn’t develop a debilitating Smirnoff Ice habit in college. Couldn’t the same thing be said of capitalism? That capitalism is the disease of more? If capitalism is the disease of more, and addiction, in addition to being a disease of more, is also a disease of despair, than it’s not surprising that the public health crises of past and present – first the crack epidemic, and now the opioid epidemic – began in economically devastated communities in which there was little to no investment from our government – first in impoverished cities largely populated by African-Americans, because #racism, and then, in the case of the opioid epidemic, in towns that had relied on industries long shuttered. The opioid epidemic as we now it today, like addiction in general, doesn’t discriminate, and it’s everywhere, but it’s important to note where it began: in towns that had nothing, situated in a country that demanded more and more and more profit, to the detriment and increasing depletion of the natural resources found on its very earth, for free, in abundance only 200 years ago.

What does it say about you if you are struggling in a country that celebrates excess and greed, that lives and dies by the myth that the most successful among us reached the top through sheer grit and determination alone? When that country not only refuses to acknowledge the wealth that was procured on the literal backs of slaves, but also refuses to regulate the tenacious greed that is reaping despair for the rest of the planet? What happens when that country is in such denial about who it is that the poor are blamed for their poverty, despite living in a system that creates and maintains said poverty, and that entire groups of traumatized communities are criminalized for doing the best they could do survive in a country that left them to die, who become addicted to addictive substances that, at least in the case of opioids, were prescribed for their pain?

What it should say is that our country is insane, and reacting by wanting to use drugs to escape the misery and despair actually seems pretty sane, considering.

What we are told, however, in the crazy American ethos, is that: if we fail to achieve the American dream of gluttony, we are not enough. And we should want more, we should want gluttony!. And in our consumerism: if we just purchased XYZ product, we would be enough! For a moment.

So if we in America all are suffering from the disease of more, than why do only some of us end up addicted?

Without any irony, someone is going to have to pay for that answer, because Christ there is a lot of information and research and theories out there.

What I can tell you is this: since I was little, the disease of more has been pernicious for me. If I was offered one Twinkie, I wanted 12 more. If I started with one scoop of ice cream, I would inevitably eat almost the entire pint. If I were with friends, and someone made a joke that got a laugh, I carried that joke to its grave until it was dead and buried, and then tried to resurrect it. Nothing was ever enough. I was never enough.

I remember going to my friend’s houses who had the “good” snacks, stuff that we barely ever had at my house, either because my mom was on a diet or because, as I mentioned, I would devour the snacks in a sitting and my mom got annoyed at my lack of discipline. I remember stuffing packets of junk – Shark Bites or Fruit by the Foot , into my pocket for later. Sometimes I didn’t even eat them. Sometimes, we would have the same things at my house already – I didn’t care. I just wanted the relief, the comfort, that they were there. There, in my pocket, if I needed them – if life got uncomfortable, if I needed to escape, if I needed momentary relief.

For as long as I can remember, I always looked for comfort externally and I could never find it within myself. Some of this is normal, and developmentally appropriate: we don’t come into the world knowing how to soothe ourselves, and we have to turn to our primary caregivers in order to internalize these skills, to build this reservoir of reassurance and comfort, this habit and neural pathway of self-regulation. We have to get these skills in our early childhood in order to later thrive. It’s why parents and caregivers naturally over-exaggerate their facial expressions when their kids are upset as babies: “You’re so saaaaaaaaad!,” we wail, on their behalf. “You got so scarrrrred!,” we say, when they are startled by a sudden noise. We do this so that they can start to associate this internal experience in their body with a word – sadness, fear.  And then we comfort them by rocking them, or rubbing their back, or giving them a hug, while using a soothing voice, and telling them that it’s going to be OK. And then later, we hear them acting this very situation out in their play, with their dolls or with their friends. They have started to learn how to self-soothe and self-regulate.

When this happens, no matter how old they are, we can stop parenting for good,

Just kidding! Don’t do that. Unless you want your kid to become an alcoholic.

Just kidding!

Am I kidding about that one though?

Here’s the thing – some of us, for whatever reason, don’t develop an ability to self-regulate successfully or in a way that adequately addresses our fears or feelings. There are a vast array of reasons for that, each unique to us and to the circumstances that we found ourselves in as we grew up. Like addiction, not getting what you needed when you were younger transcends all socio-demographic categorizations, and it’s always complicated.

There are some general themes, however. Sometimes if we don’t know how to self-regulate, we didn’t have a caregiver who could adequately co-regulate with us, something we desperately need – the only way we can learn how to self-regulate, in fact. Often times, this is because our caregiver themselves never was given the opportunity to co-regulate with an adult as a child – an intergenerational trauma. Our parents, in turn, respond to our cries as infants with anger, frustration, a slap across the face, a shove to the body.

Sometimes the pieces are there for good co-regulation, but they just don’t quite fit. Sometimes the temperament of the kiddo is so different from their parents that the parents are at a loss for how to understand their child, let alone soothe them. I saw this scenario family regularly as a play therapist. My client would come in for therapy for anxiety or trauma symptoms, and there wasn’t overt abuse or even deliberate neglect happening – sometimes my clients were just very sensitive, in the best possible way, and their parents didn’t know how to respond to this sensitivity, or foster an environment that supported rather than exploited that sensitivity, and their kiddo became extremely anxious as a result of not getting their needs met.

Sometimes our nervous systems are just wired to be extremely reactive, and despite the most loving and responsive parents in the world, we can’t feel safe or at home in ourselves.

But we all want to feel at home, we all want to find an equilibrium, we all want to feel relief from the constant humming of unease that exists when we don’t know how to comfort our inner child, to lick our wounds, when we don’t know the road within to retreat, to reach the place nestled deep in our being for nourishment.

So, naturally, we start to look around us.

M Scott Peck, whoever he is, describes people with unhealthy dependence as: “It’s as if within them, they have an inner emptiness, a bottomless pit crying out to be filled but which can never be completely filled. They never feel ‘full-filled’ or have a sense of completeness. They always feel ‘a part of me is missing.'”

The truth is, no matter our story of neglect, of abandonment, of not belonging, all of us – even if we had the most joyous childhood – are all seeking, searching, aching, longing for something to fill the parts of us that we feel are missing, to avoid the difficult and arduous journey of coming home to ourselves, our whole reason for being here on Earth together. It’s just that some of us find solace – deep, comforting solace, the kind we have been searching for our whole lives, the kind that maybe our mother offered and maybe she didn’t –  in substances that ultimately betray, control, and destroy us. Others of us find it on Instagram, this dull, monotonous reassurance that everything is fine because we can float away from ourselves, the inherent discomfort, the inherent lack of ease of being eternal and expansive in a limited human body, of being a human in THIS fucking crazy country and escape, for a few minutes, for hours.

With few exceptions, none of us know or believe that we are whole and complete without someone or something else. We may discover this profound and holy truth – that we are lacking nothing –  for moments at a time, glorious, sublime, spiritual stretches of moments at a time, but at least for me, I am always left chasing that feeling of connection, of oneness, of serenity. I am always left wanting more, not knowing that in the longing, I am still enough. Not knowing that in the longing, I can find myself, find the comfort I’ve been craving but remembering that the truth is: I have more than enough, and I am more than enough.

I will leave you with this – research indicates that focusing on gratitude – such as creating a gratitude journal, or just writing down 10 things that you are grateful for on a loose piece of paper as regularly as you remember – can alter our brain to focus on the haves, rather than the have-nots. And also, I recently heard Dan Siegel , who does a ton of research on traumatic impacts on the brain, talk about how a loving-kindness meditation practice can offer us, as adults, the same things that caregivers ideally offer their children when they are young: acceptance, compassion, love, and a guide to an integrated experience of our wholeness. Finally, I am reading the book Braiding Sweetgrass and I haven’t processed it fully, but I think the antidote to our collective disease of more lies within that book.

I know, I know, gratitude, meditation, and reading – they aren’t sexy answers to age-old questions. But you aren’t going to find the answers on Instagram, and you aren’t going to find the answers in the bottom of a Smirnoff Ice bottle, either. (If you do, though, tell me because I’m suing!! Mine were all defective). You are going to find the answers within yourself – and gratitude, meditation, and reading give you pathways back to yourself, lead the way to cultivating the comfort for yourself that you seek.

It feels like I should end this blog by saying “namaste,” but instead of appropriating cultures, I will just say – go in peace, my children. As a recovering Catholic, I’ve earned that.

 

 

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