A male in his late twenties — let’s call him Jim — was recently in my office to inquire if he is an alcoholic. While I did express some thoughts on the matter, I replied that that designation was ultimately for him alone to decide.
Jim came to me because of unsavory experiences with alcohol. Often he would drink too much, black out, then do things he would later have to apologize for — although he has no recollection of doing those things.
His conundrum was that he did not want to give up alcohol. He thought that would mean he had failed, and he would be a failure if he had to remain sober the rest of his life. I advised him to reconsider his thinking: “Let’s consider sobriety a one-day-at-a-time thing for now; rest-of-your-life proclamations can wait.”
What was keeping Jim from realizing sobriety was most likely best for him was the fact that there were times when he could “hold his liquor,” and not turn into “Mr. Hyde” when he drank. The problem was that Jim didn’t have control over those times when Mr. Hyde appeared, and when he did, he wreaked havoc on his close friends, partner, and family.
There is an adage I strongly believe in: people only change if they are in pain. If these incidents continue, and Jim is honest with himself, the social and emotional consequences of his drinking will eventually be too much bear — unless he can gain greater self-control while intoxicated, which as an addictions counselor, I would say is unlikely.
My primary point here, however, is not to consider whether Jim can hold his liquor, but that sobriety is not a failure. In fact, it’s a sign of health and sanity. As another old adage goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results. Thus, it would be healthy for Jim to look honestly at his drinking and give sobriety a chance i.e. to try something different. Sometimes people in the contemplative stage of change need to have some time to experience what sobriety is even like in order to experience its eventual benefits. It takes courage to take the first step, and it will take courage to allow the inevitable vulnerability that accompanies sobriety.
Really, failure here would be to continue to drink in the same manner, idly hoping Mr. Hyde and his misbehavior will stay away. A sign of health would be for Jim to realize that he has the ability to be sober without losing his life. In fact, if he sticks with it and garners support from those around him, he will gain much, much more.
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