Column

Atwater: Recognizing drinking as a problem

Rick Atwater
Rick Atwater

“Don” was the youngest of a large brood from a good Catholic family with high expectations and high performers. He had a hard working hard drinking Dad and a stay-at-home Mom. His brothers and sisters were always a little hard on him because he was overweight and subsequently shy.

His survival mechanism was generally withdrawal into a fantasy world of who he wished he was. His weight was always a cause of great distress and shame for “Don” and his high school years were both miserable and formative.

By the time college rolled around “Don” had lost weight through heavy exercise and discovered a talent for sales. He never, however, lost the overweight, shy “little fat kid” inside. This is about the time he found the magic elixir. Alcohol, for “Don” washed away the social anxiety, the low self-esteem and made him the person he wanted to be. He could talk to women, charm people with his self-deprecating humor and, as his new boss told him, “sell snow cones to Eskimos”.

Alcohol was a part of life for “Don.” He had never been a big drinker and wasn’t now. He had a few cocktails at business dinners and a few beers at home on the weekends but was often the designated driver for his associates and had no complaints at home. As time went on and the demands of a family and a high pressure job increased “Don” found that a few beers at home after dinner helped him relax.

What used to be a few cocktails with customers a couple nights a week turned into three or four late nights of expensive dinners and heavy drinking. Before he knew it “Don” was drinking every evening and found himself explaining to his wife that he needed a few drinks to relax. He’d never heard himself say the “NEED” word before.

His first wakeup call was an email from his boss questioning the expense report; especially the liquor tab. The second was a suggestion from his boss that he visit the company Employee Assistance Program since his numbers had nosedived and he was “looking rough” most mornings.

“Don” grudgingly went to the EAP office intent on explaining his anxiety and low self-esteem problems. To his great surprise, the counselor suggested that drinking might be an issue and told “Don” to try to stop drinking and go to some AA meetings.

As it turned out, “Don” had been thinking about the drinking issued for some time and so trundled off to a few meetings but less than convinced, went back to some “controlled drinking” after a three month period of abstinence to prove that he could do it.

Within six months of the experiment, his drinking had spiraled out of control and his understanding wife threatened to leave. He quit drinking again and went back to a few meetings but decided that he could handle it. He did stay long enough to learn the difference between “not drinking” and “recovery.”

The subsequent eighteen months were filled with periods of abstinence followed by weeks of heavy drinking, developing ulcers, trips to the E.R., increased use of addictive antianxiety drugs and steadily falling self-esteem. Once again “Don” applied the brakes and stopped drinking but the constant battle in his head was almost more than he could bear.

He had what is called “an allergy to alcohol coupled with the compulsion to drink.” He knew he had alcoholism but hadn’t been able to surrender. He knew he could will himself to stop drinking for a period of time but he couldn’t stay stopped.

I called him and asked him how he was doing and, with a pained voice, he gave me a two-word answer. “Not drunk.”

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He hosts the weekly radio show “Straight Stuff on Addictions” at recoveryinternetradio.com. He can be reached by email at rickatwater@northwestcommunitycounseling.com.

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