Why Addictions Make Unwanted House Guests


What we call the beginning is often the end.  And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” (T.S. Eliot)

Or, in the immortal words of Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, “Operation self esteem — Day F–king One.”

There have been a lot of day ones in my life. I have about eleven separate journals from as many years that begin with “Today is the first day of the rest of my life!!!” or some exclamation-point-ridden derivative thereof. Quitting some vice or another. Starving, bingeing, purging, drinking, smoking. The list is long, and seems to have grown longer with the passage of the years. And this time I mean it, she said each time through gritted teeth, with the unshakable confidence of one who has yet to discover just how deeply psychic demons can be entrenched. My name is Legion, for we are many.

And they can be dogged tenants at times; I tend to be, even under the best of circumstances, a magnanimous host rather than the autocratic landlord of my own soul. I have grown to accept the demons, to make halfhearted peace with them, to rearrange the furniture to make room for the hideaway bed, to clean up after their broken bottles and cigarette butts and tuck them into bed after a particularly debauched bender. For years I have pursued negotiations with them that make the Treaty of Versailles look like a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. I am still at core the fat kid on the playground apologetically maneuvering my weight on the end of the see-saw to play nice with the two svelte suburbanite second-graders on the other end. Politics make for strange bedfellows, but even more so addictions.

Ultimately, they are the presumptive houseguests we are too polite to ask to leave. We spend years on the psychoanalyst’s couch, thousands upon thousands on endless hospitalizations and rehab and therapy and pills and hypnotism and acupuncture, carefully deconstructing our every childhood disappointment and reconstructing the genogram of our family of origin — but until we tell the squatters to pack their bags and get the f-ck out, we are Nero fiddling while Rome burns. And we are damn fine fiddle players. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not that we fail to notice the havoc being wreaked upon our house; rather, we require years of convincing that it is, in fact, our house.

Much has been made of the elusive concept of rock-bottom in recovery literature. I think this is a mistake. The hippest of the hip addiction memoirs — Marya Hornbacher’s award-winning Wasted for the eating disorder set, Elizabeth Wurtzel’s More, Now, Again for the speed freaks, Joshua Lyon’s Pill Head for the Vicodin junkies, and Koren Zailckas’s runaway New York Times-bestseller Smashed for the good old-fashioned alcoholics among us — make for fascinating reads but tend to capitalize on raw and lurid sensationalism. This may do more harm than good in the long run. I have a T-shirt that says BAD CHOICES MAKE GOOD STORIES. If this is true, I should have several Pulitzers by now. All too often, we expect our addiction stories to be like a Michael Bay movie: thin on the exposition, heavy on the explosions.

Wired magazine reported in 2010 that Alcoholics Anonymous is known for “doing a better job of retaining drinkers who have hit rock-bottom than those who still have a ways to fall.” Which begs the question — what the hell is rock-bottom, anyway? As addicts, we like to haggle over semantics. We admitted we were powerless over [insert drug of choice here], that our lives had become unmanageable, reads the first step of all 12-Step programs. But what is powerless? We quibble. How unmanageable is too unmanageable? Over the years, I have been alternately diagnosed as bulimic, Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (ED-NOS), and anorexic, binge/purge subtype (which as best as I can figure just translates to “skinny bulimic”). I have fought tooth and nail in rehab — twice — to avoid being diagnosed as an alcoholic. I am NOT an alcoholic. I just drink when I’m stressed. F-ck you. There’s a DIFFerence. Yeah, there is, but who gives a sh-t? Whether you’re chemically dependent or just plain irresponsible, YOU STILL PUT VODKA IN YOUR CEREAL THIS MORNING. Do we praise the cokehead for not mainlining heroin? Was Tiger Woods a sex addict or just a cheating asshat? Either way, were his actions justified? Hooray, you haven’t killed yourself or anybody else yet — what do you want, a cookie?

Look around you.  Are people still giving you that Look the addict knows all too well — the Look of the rubbernecker at the scene of a fatal car crash? Then no, you’re right, you’re not at rock-bottom yet. Because rock-bottom is not a destination. Rock-bottom is a trip to the morgue. As Caroline Knapp writes in Drinking: A Love Story, “Really hitting bottom means death . . . it’s a choice you make.  Get off or keep going until you end up six-feet under.” This is the way the world ends / this is the way the world ends / not with a bang but a whimper. Platitudinously but truly, rock bottom is where you stop digging.

It’s taken me 10 years and seven months, but I’m turning in my shovel.

Day F–king One.

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image – Todd Huffman