ALCOHOLISM: "I'M CONVINCED THAT MY NEED TO ESCAPE THE WORTHLESS FEELINGS THAT I HAD ABOUT MYSELF ARE DIRECTLY RELATED TO MY ALCOHOLISM."
Steve’s anxiety, fear, and negative feelings about himself directly contributed to the development of his alcoholism. When he drank, he drank so excessively that it put his life in danger. He became hostile, aggressive, and completely self-destructive.
I started drinking very early. I was like fourteen when I started really drinking.
By fifteen I was completely out of control. And I was almost dead uh several times but I, I, I, I finally hit the bottom on on my twentieth birthday.
Steve had spent the majority of his childhood being extremely cautious and feeling frightened of all the negative things that could happen to him. But when he began drinking, he “had no inhibitions at all. And I would go anywhere and I would do anything. (Laughing) You know it was . . . was crazy.” When I asked him whether he was reckless when he drank, Steve replied,
Absolutely. I mean I was violent, I was, I was vicious. I mean I, I used to hurt people. Really bad. Uhm because I was just angry. You know. Uhm. And I regret that a lot. But then I h- I didn’t have any any you know there was no uhm . . . no buffer. (Laughing) You know there was no . . . the- you know the once the alcohol took over it just made me . . . absolutely fearless. And ah it made me do a lot of terrible things. But before that you know I was always really careful.
Being sent to the hospital for detoxification on his 20th birthday was what finally made Steve stop drinking for good; at the time of our interview, he had achieved 31 years of sobriety. But prior to getting clean, he had a long battle with himself through his addiction. Steve was drinking as a means of escape, and this was exacerbated by his depression. He said, “I’m convinced that my need to kind of escape my feelings about myself and and the w- the w- the worthless feelings that I had about myself uhm are are directly related to my alcoholism.” He continued, “I don’t completely you know uhm . . . blame my my alcoholism on on on my my other problems but I’m sure that they played a part. You know, uh they had to, somehow.”
Steve’s interactions with his father during this time changed. Drinking made him less fearful of his father and allowed him to express his anger, completely unfettered by any inhibitions. In a sense, alcohol enabled Steve to challenge his father’s treatment of him and to put a stop to the abuse that he had experienced over the years.
And and as you might imagine once I once I became a teenager and I started to drink, then I was more inclined to to rebel. You know? And I can remember you know, I can remember times coming home and my father would be so angry that he would like threaten to hit me and I would say “Do it. Do it. I’m not (laughing) afraid of you. You know hit me.” I mean he would call the police and tell them to come and take me away and they’d say “We can’t just take him away.” You know they’d say “he’s a” you know it was pretty pretty messed up.
Naturally, standing up to his father did not completely resolve the issues in their relationship, as is evident by Steve's dad calling the police to take him away.
Steve’s alcoholism also led to a lot of extremely self-destructive behavior. It would take Steve many years to reconcile himself with the pain that plagued him in order to change the course of his life. When reflecting back on his experience within the larger context of his family and their individual mental health issues, Steve said, “I was the one problem in my family. You know. (Clears throat) I was the one that almost didn’t make it. And everybody’s really really kind of grateful that I that I did.”
As might be expected, Steve’s drinking took a toll on his development as well. He had spent a large portion of his formative years drinking as a means of coping with his problems, and the result was that when he finally did become sober, he felt that he was many years behind where he thought he should have been in terms of his emotional development:
You know I mean it was very hard to get sober initially ‘cause you know my whole formative years of my life were an absolute blur. So here I was a (claps) twenty year old with the emotional you know capability of a thirteen year old, and uhm, and it was hard, but it was uhm it was great (actually becoming sober).
Steve had been exposed to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) from a very early age. As soon as it became apparent that he had a problem with drinking, he was legally mandated to go to meetings as a consequence of actions committed while under the influence. Later, when he decided to get sober it was easier to do so because he had had this exposure. As he said, “I bought into it right from the beginning.” Initially, however, he engaged with the meetings in a perfunctory manner; they were a requirement and no more, and they did little to alter his behavior until he was ready to change. Steve said,
As a kid when they started noticing I had a real problem, from like fifteen on, (sniffs) every time I got in trouble which was a lot, I would be you know when I’d go to court they would they would- part of their ah punishment would be ah that I’d be required to attend AA meetings, and I had to go there with a book and have the person sign it, and you know report to the probation officer. And you know I would go to the meetings, and I would put my beers outside the in the bushes, and I’d go to the meeting and ah, and sign my book, then grab my beers and go out with my friends.
Even though his drinking continued over the span of six years, Steve ultimately credited this early exposure to AA for his ability to become and remain sober once he decided to do so. It had offered him a framework for thinking about sobriety and becoming healthy. It also provided him with a sense of hope that if he put his mind to it, he could actually achieve his goal of sobriety.
That cumulative effect by the time I got to the end of the road, which was you know my birthday in 1980, when that particular day I had to either (taps on table) die or get (tap) well. There was no in between and I knew it. Uhm . . . I knew I couldn’t kill myself I just I didn’t have the the nerve. But I also knew that if I wanted to get well, that I could. That there was a way. I had seen the proof of it.
Steve spoke about his road to recovery as a form of humble surrender. He recognized that he was struggling—and failing—and embraced the tenets of AA. He acknowledged that he had a problem and that his solutions so far had been unsuccessful. At that point, he decided he would just have to rely on the support of people who knew better than he did in order to address his problems and become healthy once again.
When I went into the to the hospital, uhm, you know they say you have to just break down and kind of allow other people to just tell you what you need to do and not think that you- you have to kind of stop thinking for yourself there in the beginning because you know if you could- if you could figure this out, you would have (laughing) figured it out and you wouldn’t be here. I, I, I, I believe that, I bought it all. And uhm, and I was very very lucky that way.
Ultimately, Steve’s recovery from drinking became a blessing in his life because it forced him to address the issues he was trying to escape and in the process, he became a better person. Becoming sober altered him profoundly because in order to do so he had to examine his feelings, his behavior, and himself in ways that he had avoided doing for many years. In a way, Steve expressed gratitude over having become an alcoholic. For, after becoming sober, his perspective on life changed and he seemed to feel that he had only been able to achieve this new understanding as a direct result of having experienced and overcome his addiction. Steve sounded appreciative when he said the following:
I used to tell—and I still do tell people sometimes—that you know uhm being an alcoholic is is sort of the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Because it w- if it weren’t for that, if it weren’t for that process that I had to go through to get sober you know that self-reflection and and things like that. I never would have uhm I n- ah I would be a different person. I would be a different person I wouldn’t be as compassionate a person as I am I wouldn’t be as, concerned about other people, I wouldn’t be as uhm, as as you know selfless as I am, (laughing) most of the time. Uhm I would be a different person I’m sure of it.
I interjected, “If you hadn’t . . . ” and Steve elaborated, “If I hadn’t, if I hadn’t had to go through the process necessary to become sober. You know. Uhm, you know taking a fearless moral inventory.” He continued,
It was a (laughs) great thing. I mean it- you know, it’s the reason I’m still here. And and you know there’s some great things about- like my children have never seen me drunk. You know? My wife saw me drunk all those years and and she’s still my wife, which is, just mind-boggling to me. Heh. Uhm, yeah, so I have nothing to complain about, and I’m I’m not you know I’m one of the happier per- people you’re probably (laughing) going to come across. But it ta- you know it’s taken a little effort to get there.
It took a lot of effort and many years for Steve to fight his way out of addiction and the depression that had been consuming his life. He suffered for a long time without being able to recognize what was happening to him. It therefore came as a huge relief when Steve finally met with a psychiatrist for the first time and was given an explanation for what he had experienced for the majority of his life. The following is his account of that first encounter and the many encounters that followed that eventually helped him get to where he is today.