“Think you’re different”? read the tagline on the poster my first C.D. counselor would point to the second a new patient entered his office. The words, printed in a cheerfully comic balloon-lettered font scrolled over a depiction of thousands of densely massed European lady bugs, bright red with big black polka dots.
“I’d relate better” I said “if they were cockroaches” I said.
I understood it, though; I was already getting the idea: Find the common ground.
Whether in treatment, or in the “rooms,” addicts come together from wildly different backgrounds, cultures, levels of formal education and religious upbringing. If the poster struck me as kitsch, as a bromide, that was fine. A more nuanced relationship to aesthetics had kept me sober for not one nanosecond.The point here was to reach as many people, as simply and effectively as possible. The Big Book, with all its archaic phrasings and presumptions — guys named “Jenson” and “whoopee parties” and chapters such as “to the wives”— is still an extremely effective tool because it never lost sight of the fact that, no matter the particulars of the audience, it was always talking to the lowest common denominator. Or, rather, any denominator at its lowest point. Bill Wilson himself expected the Big Book to undergo stylistic revisions — by the time he died some of the language already seemed a bit “square” — and he’s written that A.A. should and would change with the times. However the brilliance of AA’s approach is that it is a general idea that can absorb many different specifics. And with addiction, the specifics are thick, thorny, and more like a buzzing rain forest floor then a bunch of ladybugs.
Let’s face it, we are all, if we were to be classified, part of the kingdom Addictia. However we can be further taxonomied. We are encouraged to see that we are NOT different, but it is fun, and even useful to note the obvious variations in the way the disease of addiction, to jump terminologies and use medical jargon, “presents”.
The first division I noticed in treatment was between up and down. Or rather opiates and cocaine. Your average opiate addict is something of an introvert. If the addiction has been going on for any length of time, their objective is not pleasure, but the absence of pain. The pain of withdrawal is actually kind of the physical manifestation of whatever it is the addict was fleeing from in the first place. Opiate addicts tend to be especially good at the “hider/sneaker/ manipulator” phase of addiction, right up there with the soccer moms who hide airplane bottles at strategic points all over the subdivision. Opiate addicts tend not to speak too loudly, if they have to get away with something, they will choose skulking over swagger and even when speaking cordially they seem to look sidelong at the doors and windows— searching as much for an exit as an angle.
Cocaine addicts, on the other hand are drawn to cocaine in the first place because it is associated with upper level partying, with success and status. It then creates its own neural loop by making the user feel they have that which they’d craved. The dumb, chemical pleasure circuits cocaine activates tell the user “yes, this is what it feels like to be successful. This is what it feels like to have the world at your feet”…. you become a dictator in your own little universe, with a dictators inevitable descent into paranoia and destruction. You end up where all dictators end up, shivering in your spider hole, the troops breaking down the walls. Cocaine addicts, in treatment, tend toward grandiosity and appetite. They can get fat, or consume truly astounding amounts of pornography. They can have a problematic relationship with ambition and the best way to use it. Meth addicts are harder to pin down, because whoever they were before, meth has erased, whatever they were before, they are not that now. Meth, like crack, gets you to where you were going to end up as an addict anyway, with warp velocity, blasting your environment clean of anything but what’s left of your physical body. Meth addicts in treatment are stunned and blinking, like weapons of mass destruction or a tornado had come through: for the first month they seem to be in shock, surveying the wreckage.
Alcoholics have probably the hardest road to sobriety, since their drug of choice is not only legal and available, it is woven into the fabric of much of the planet’s adult life. We have had time to develop a long standing mythology around it. Alcoholism is truly the most democratic of addictions. You can have functional alcoholics around for years before anyone but their family notices. Maintenance drinkers can literally drop dead of cirrhosis at work.
Then there are people like me. I was what you’d call a garbage head. I loved heroin but alcohol was the boy next door, the one you could always rely on. I loved cocaine, but only if heroin was there to cushion the rash and prevent the absolute terror that went with cocaine’s intravenous injection. I would also sniff industrial solvents, or spin around in a circle until I vomited, if that was all that was around. In that I am an opiate addict by species: I didn’t care what the drugs actually made me feel as long it wasn’t whatever I felt when I was awake and sober.
It was this that AA relieved me of, more than anything else. By showing me that I could be both awake and not in psychic pain at the same time, it relieved the constant urge to take a drink, a fix, a blow to the forehead with a two by four. It didn’t relieve it permanently, or “cure” me for all time. But the simple following of the steps produced a change in my way of being alive. Being alive, for me, is no longer synonymous with “being in a state that needs altering”. My default consciousness is no longer consciousness of discomfort. And that, I think is universal. You can be a Muslim physics professor, or an ex cheerleader from Eden Prairie, you can be an aspiring artist or a would be real estate mogul, you can be this, or you can be that: everyone knows what it feels like to have a gag removed, or to surface from water after it had held you down too long, everyone knows what it feels like not to be able to breathe, and then to take that first, unspeakably sweet breath of air, actual and real, simple as a the first soft wind of April.
Emily Carter is a freelance writer.