Thanks to everyone who recently subscribed, or became a paid subscriber, to Donita Reason. I am sick this week, but wanted to write something. Your support makes me feel like this is my job (a job I actually want!), so here I am.🐛
This week I started the audiobook of Carl Erik Fisher’s The Urge, a history of addiction. I’m only a few chapters in, but feeling it so far. (Caveat: The narrator has one of those booming, gameshow announcer-type voices that calls to mind a large, middle-age, carved of man rock sort of dude that is both distracting and disturbing, but I am working through it.)
Fisher’s already given me a lot to think about. I like his description of the choices many people make despite desperately wanting not to make them as a “terrifying breakdown of reason.” He’s a psychiatrist who is also in recovery (which he writes about) so there’s no pretense of anything close to objectivity, and there’s a needful kind of searching to everything. He presents addiction as an idea—a cultural creation—as much as, if not more than, a medical condition.
The broadest-thinking and most creative scholars kept making odd and intriguing connections to fields beyond my usual horizons. They drew on ancient philosophy to clarify the problem. They looked to sociology to show how it is impossible to separate addiction from its cultural context, now and for generations back. They even delved into theology, to trace how legacies of thinking about morality have powerfully influenced the way we think about choice and responsibility.
I’m struck by this line: “It was clear that addiction was not just an issue of medical science but also one of identity, power, commerce, and fear—as well as one of devotion.” (Emphasis mine here, will be thinking about the devotion angle for years.)
Perhaps it’s obvious to you that someone doesn’t pick up a 400-page book on addiction casually? It wasn’t to me, which LOL—I’m obviously working through some stuff.
Reading The Urge reminded me that I’ve had a draft (“attempts at sobriety??”) sitting here, accumulating random notes for months. When I started what is now this letter to you back in March, I was partway through 100 days of sobriety. That’s how I decided to begin 2022. I wasn’t trying to get (become?) sober, but I definitely wanted to hit pause. I can’t for the life of me remember how I settled on 100 days, but I do know that I had just turned in the manuscript of Essential Labor and it felt necessary to close a chapter of my life and start a new one, both in regards to writing and living.
A few years ago I started joking that now, being over 40, I was more of a party asset than a liability. To be clear, I’ve always been very fun at parties, but I had a (fairly reliable) tendency to go off the rails a bit.
For a good stretch there I was the person rallying folks from the party to go to the karaoke bar, then to Sea Garden for salt and pepper squid, then to the lake to go swimming, or maybe to someone’s house to play Scrabble or Boggle or some version of Boggle where we couldn’t use real words, only invented names of Ikea furniture. Then I might pass out on your couch under a blanket, clutching a banh mi.
Did we really need all those tequila shots? Were these good choices? Debatable, but much more often than not it was a very good time. I don’t mind being messy.
At a party back in 2008, I drunkenly told a man (who would later become my boss) that I was concerned that his recent weightlifting was leading to triceps and deltoids that were disproportionately large for his body. I still have a scar on my left forearm from sloppily retrieving tray of Totino’s pizza rolls from the host’s oven. The only part of recounting this story that makes me cringe now is that I probably tried to tell it a few times for laughs.
At the start of the pandemic, drinking and getting high felt like a way to feel something, anything, besides dread. It seemed a very logical response to what was happening! A coping mechanism. But the pandemic kept going. The coping mechanism quietly morphed into a habit that I wasn’t totally into, that took a while to recognize, and that I felt ambivalent about breaking.
Writing the book required me to check out of daily family life on the regular (mentally and, when I went out of town on writing retreats, literally). Drugs—alcohol is a drug, I remind myself, a fact I learned in 8th grade health class—made it easier to stay checked out, took the edge off whatever guilt or tension I felt about being absent from home, enjoying being in my work hole. Drugs were also, lacking any other real release (or lacking the imagination to come up with another one), a way for me to “reward” myself for all my hard work. A little treat.
One thing I am continually trying to be at peace with is that I want basically every pleasurable experience and all the attendant sensations and all the dimensions of those sensations all the time (or at least a lot of the time). I just do. I’m just like this.
Another thing I accept is that I don’t have any interest in judging people’s drinking or drug use. I don’t associate substance use with morality. Seeing as I’ve always leaned toward indulgence, who am I to say anything? Also, haven’t people been getting high since forever?
The recent key realization for me is that just because I don’t care what other people do, it doesn’t mean I should not care what I do. Does that make sense? Believing people should live it up and play by their own rules doesn’t excuse me from the responsibility of having my own code.
I’m a parent to two young children now. Indulgence can get directly in the way of me being able to show up for them. Being able to show up for my partner, who has to do all the work if I’m out of commission. Not being sober, not being clear with myself about what my limits are, makes me less accountable. Perhaps that’s the biggest difference in my life—unlike my younger days, I actually want to be accountable to others. To myself. That’s love.
A story that I almost hesitate to share because I am not sure of its true source: Either a friend said it to me or one of my brothers or possibly my mother. Anyway, someone close to my family once said that they wouldn’t recognize my father if he wasn’t holding a beer in his hand. I remember laughing and then being uncomfortable because they way it was said or relayed made it clear that the person didn’t necessarily mean it as a joke.
My dad drank beers every night. He still does. I never thought it was a thing until I thought it might be a thing?
In my family, we never talked about addiction. I’ve never heard the word used even though it’s become obvious that it runs in the family—both sides. The cousin who kept hitting my mom up for money. The successful, extremely generous, charismatic, and lovable uncle who, it turns out, gambled as much as he smoked and drank and racked up massive debt that he secretly put up family property to try and cover—and who had to get bailed out by family from whom he is now semi-estranged.
My cousin from the Philippines (a full-grown adult, which is rude as I can still clearly remember her as a five-year-old) was recently at our house and we were talking about one of our uncles, now deceased, who had a lot of health issues and went through some reversals of fortune, the details of which were always fuzzy to us.
“I think he maybe had some substance abuse issues,” I said delicately.
“Well, yeah, I know he went in and out of rehab a few times,” she said. She went on to tell me how her brothers, my cousins, remember these aforementioned uncles forcing beers and cigarettes into their hands as kids.
It was comforting, actually, to talk about it, say the truth, sit with it, sit with the ways these people are very familiar to me.
My little foray into sobriety at the start of the year did change my relationship to alcohol. It’s easier for me not to drink, or to nurse just one. Now, at 5 pm when I start to get the itch, I make a little ritual of pouring seltzer over ice to see if it does the trick of helping me shift out of work mode into
work parenting mode. If often does.
But I still hold on to my moments of indulgence; they feel necessary to me. I’m not ready to dial down my devotion to feel (yes, sometimes too much), to escape, to defeat my mind, invite a little (non-terrifying) “breakdown of reason.”
I am enjoying the experimenting. In other ways too.
Recently I started playing the piano again, learned “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. On Instagram, I saw Elizabeth Ito (who made the excellent City of Ghosts) play the easy piano version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” I also saw a video of my young friend Javi play the opening bars of “The Next Episode.” That’s the kind of stuff I want to learn—not to be a master, but a decent dabbler, a solid noodler. I want to get comfortable trying new things, things I may never be good at, things like, maybe, sobriety.
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I'll be sober 1 year in 3 weeks. It's the best thing I've ever done and while I still think I'll be sippin a glass of delicious red wine in Rome or Paris one day, this year (and probably the next one too) it was the booze free world I needed to be in to reground myself, to show up for my kids and partner and I finally have a daily routine that centers Joy. I couldnt do or access any of that while I was riding the alcohol fueled anxiety train -- just how Im made. Doesnt mean I still dont think about it all the time tho -- when I do/ if I do drink again - it will be red wine. and this insane carrot juice mezcal cocktail that was one of my last drinks from this amazing Haitian restaurant here in New Orleans -Fritai. (It's the worst part of not drinking - I really enjoy a delicious cocktail. But my body and heart stopped loving the effects.) So if you don't quit drinking -- make sure to drink those extra extra extra yummy ones for me!! Sending Love. -Elysha
Really relating to this, as someone who is pretty clearly not an alcoholic, but doesnt always love their relationship with alcohol. I did my college thesis on alcoholic blackouts (not a joke) and the one thing that distinguished blackouts from other drinking experiences was not how crazy people got, but how ashamed they felt. I was sober for my birthday party this year, and I was actually just as impulsive and zany as always (my husband's work partner was wearing a very cool shirt and I touched her boobs many many times), but I didnt feel like an asshole the next day (maybe I should have??). Also makes me think about Cal Newport's thing about how if you're doing to detox from digital devices, half of the work is figuring out what else you meaningfully do with your time??