It seemed like such a great idea at the time…
His name is Darin. Of course, that’s not his real name, but he is a casual friend of mine. A bright young man, possessed of good looks, a warm smile, and a soft-spoken demeanor. Darin is brilliant with computers–not merely competent, as many are, but a true geek, tear-’em-down-and-rebuild-’em smart, fearless in the depths of sockets and motherboards, Windows registries and Unix terminals. A true success story, you might say, bright future, make some girl very happy. But Darin was toolin’ down the freeway of goin’ nowhere fast.
You see, Darin had a little problem: a fondness for the grape and the snort which always seemed to get the best of him. Not that he didn’t try: he was in and out of AA rooms more often than a pastor’s wife at church socials, always returning beaten and remorseful, determined to do better this time. “This time” rarely lasted more than a few weeks or months.
Darin was quiet, but a man of passion. He was always in love. Intoxicated with the flush of a new romance, that rush of euphoria so real yet so maddeningly transient. Each new girl was “the one”, but nights of passionate, drug-enhanced sex soon proved impotent to overcome the waning charm of Miss Demeanor, the rumpled sheets, and the rumblings of his restless soul. Before long he was again cruising for some other codependent wench, herself seeking a sodden soul to save. Like an ugly tie wrapped up pretty under the Christmas tree, Darin’s package looked good at first glance, but he quickly proved to be a daddy’s nightmare: “no phone, no food, no rent”, as the song goes. Soon he was once again welcome only in his mother’s house, with whom he could do no wrong.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Darin: someone did him dirty, stiffing him out of a good deal of cash, and forgiveness was not one of his many charms. The details are murky: a computer built or repaired, promises made but not kept. There was much lighthearted chatter at the coffee houses–was it Darin’s fault, or his nemesis? No matter–like a quiet bubbling cauldron in a witch’s lair, Darin was cooking up his favorite dish: a rip-roaring resentment. Not visible on the outside, of course, but raging like a Jerry Springer slugfest in the conference rooms of his mind. It was the perfect mixed drink: a perceived injustice blended with that unique obsessiveness which addicts possess seemingly in endless measure.
It is not clear when the brainstorm struck–an idea so brilliant, so flawless, that it would right all injustices and settle all disputes: Darin would break into his detractor’s home and steal back the computer which tortured him so. No mere larceny, mind you, but the picture-perfect crime, a liberation to rival Paris in ’45. Carefully timed when the enemy was not at home, staged so not even Sherlock Holmes would presume that Darin might be the perpetrator. Sweet revenge, sweetly executed.
Like tightly-written computer code, Darin’s nimble mind set the parameters, checked the variables, and executed commands in a tight loop whose efficiency and speed wasted no cycles. The Day of Vengeance arrived, with only one small ingredient missing: courage. But Darin had that algorithm factored as well: a fifth of Vodka erased all fears, drowning all doubts. By stealth of night, with watches synchronized and bottle drained, the window glass parted to usher him to glory. The mission was underway.
No one knows whether anyone heard the shattering of glass, but despite his stealth the disruption somehow caught the notice of neighbors. When the police arrived, the cause of the disturbance became evident: there was Darin, passed out on the floor, beside the untouched computer he coveted. Fate had struck a cruel blow–his celebratory blackout had arrived on the wings of Mercury rather than with the spoils of Mars. He awakened to handcuffs and an open-ended reservation at the Gray Bar Hotel.
All good stories–even true ones–should have a moral, but Darin’s story eludes easy lessons. He was taken by that peculiar insanity which alcoholics possess in abundance, even while sober. When Darin hatched his master plan, he was not drinking, but engaged in one of his countless attempts to clean up. For the alcoholic, the danger lies not in the bottle, but in the brain. The sane among us make mistakes, to be sure: wisdom comes from experience, and experience often comes from lack of wisdom. But facing the inevitable consequences of bad choices, we generally rearrange our lives and priorities to ensure that such a travesty does not happen again. Not so the alcoholic. Obsessively repeating behavior long ago proven destructive, he nevertheless pursues the optimism of denial which says the next time will be different. This baffling disconnect from reality cascades from farce to tragedy, as the alcoholic perceives no problems other than those bastards who are out to get him.
There is much resistance to the idea that alcoholism and addiction are a disease. Much of this comes from conservatives, and those of religious conviction, whose proper emphasis on personal responsibility and moral rectitude sees in the alcoholic only reckless hedonism and wanton irresponsibility. These qualities the addict has in spades, but less obvious is the driving obsessive compulsion, the thought disorder which is their engine. The medical evidence for the disease model of alcoholism and addiction is deep and wide, as I have detailed in part elsewhere (see also this and this for more on the topic). The liberals have this one right: the alcoholic is a victim of his or her genetics, and the addition of a mind-altering drug–which one is probably moot–starts a swirling whirlpool whose vortex holds only misery, destruction and death. Not many survive its power.
Yet defining deviance from normal as disease also has its risks: the proliferation of social disorders redefined as diseases seems endless, and points to the abrogation of all responsibility for one’s actions. It can become laughable at times. Several years ago, I saw a patient, a healthy, athletic women in her 40’s, who was covered under Medicare. Medicare covers the elderly, but also those with chronic renal failure and the disabled, so I inquired as to the nature of her disability. I was informed she had “hyperactivity disorder.” Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? No, just hyperactivity disorder–she was restless. A black belt in Karate, she travelled around the country constantly, competing in tournaments and teaching seminars. She was disabled, in short, because she couldn’t sit still. No “cripple” jokes around her, no siree, unless you wanted your skull crushed by a foot you’ll never see coming.
The concern about labeling alcoholism, or any other behavioral disorder, as a disease is the tendency to tolerate and rationalize the resulting behavior, to use the “disease” label as an excuse for selfish, self-centered behavior destructive to one’s self, society, and those around you. The issue is not disease or no disease, but rather what drives the behavior and what can be done to change it.
The paradox about 12-step programs–which have the only reliable track record for successful recovery from addiction–is that they emphasize the disease as the problem, and honesty, integrity, and personal responsibility as the solution. They do not excuse the behavior while admitting the disease, and this blend of honesty and humility, acceptance and tough love, works like nothing else. It is, as recovering alcoholics are quick to point out, a spiritual program: the Catch-22 of a body which craves alcohol without limit and a mind which denies the resulting problems cannot be solved any other means.
But as any recovering alcoholic will tell you, the problem is not the booze; it is not even the obsessive, irrational mindset which drives the drinking. Both these problems are symptoms of an underlying decay, one of spiritual dimensions, characterized at its core by extreme self-centeredness. The pursuit of happiness by feeding this monster creates not the promised joy but rather pain and emptiness. Alcohol hides that pain for a while, until the monster, growing ever stronger by its constant feeding, kills its host spiritually, emotionally, and often physically.
But addiction is hardly alone as a symptom of this dark core. The list of destructive behaviors arising from its belly is endless: obesity, sexual promiscuity, compulsive overwork, materialism, computer obsession, gambling, the pursuit of beauty over character, the lust for money and power. Some may be biologically-driven; some learned behaviors or dysfunctional coping. All seek to fill a hole with no bottom, providing the wrong salve for the pain, and more of the same when the salve makes the wound fester.
And what of Darin? In many ways he is fortunate: his life is on hold, and forced reflection and change are his for the taking–should he choose to grasp them. The price is high; it might have been much higher. Yet his choice–and ours–is the same: feed the monster, or turn life over to One whose burden is light, who alone can fill that deep inner void.
I wanna live
with a cinnamon girl
I could be happy
the rest of my life
With my cinnamon girl.
— Neil Young
You can’t make this stuff up, really…
Joe is an old patient, been seein’ him since I started practice some 25 years ago. Nice guy, but a little — shall we say? — quirky. Big into herbs and alternative medicine, sees a naturopath who performs prostate massage on him until it stops hurting (or death, whichever comes first). Has some chronic prostatitis, and his love life leaves much to be desired — especially since his Asian concubine left him hanging, taking all of her magic potions with her.
“The thrill is gone,” as B.B. King would say.
So he comes in for his annual checkup.
“How ya’ doin’, Joe?”
“Pretty well, although my prostate still burns at times.”
“Been on any antibiotics for that?”
“Naw, don’t take those things, you know. Too toxic. But I did try another treatment.”
“Well, you know that cinnamon has healing powers.”
“Didn’t know that.”
“Yeah, I had a stubborn rash on my leg, and it cleared up after using cinnamon on it.”
“So I decided to try it for my prostate.”
Gulp. “How’d … you do that?”
“Well, I filled up a condom with it, and put it on, and worked it into the opening.”
Reflexly, I cross my legs, holding his chart tightly on my lap.
“How’d that go?”
“Hurt like hell!”
“Did it help any?”
“No — and I don’t think I’m gonna try it again. But I’ve got some other ideas…”
Perhaps next time he should blend it with sugar and berries, and make a tart…
Neo-neocon has discovered a peculiar but seemingly indispensable kitchen aid: the Tater Mitt, and bemoans the fact that it does not rise to the level of poetry, as some of her other kitchen items have.
Not wanting the good Neo to mourn her paucity of iambic pentameter, the muse descended and I answered her call, saving the fair damsel from her dismay:
As evening dawns, her eyes behold
The eyes of countless spuds heaped high
Their leathered skin so soiled and cold
As evening feasttime e’r grows nigh.
All hope is lost, the hungry crowd
With grumbling stomachs surly sit
The trembling chef, no longer proud,
From cavern’d drawer the dreaded mitt.
She gazes at the grizzled mitt,
With roughened palms, a ghastly green,
Now grasps the soiled spud which sits
With icy eyes and waxy sheen.
She rubs, she rubs, in frenzied rush
As feebled hope springs forth to wit
The shredded skin reveals the flesh,
All hail the glorious Tater Mitt!
Now, back to work…
A man who walks into a bar, and sits down on the barstool. He places a large duffel bag on top of the bar.
The bartender greets him, and says “Hey, buddy, what’s in the bag?”
The man says nothing, reaches into the bag, and pulls out a small piano. The bartender looks on, puzzled.
The man reaches into the bag again, and pulls out a small piano bench. The bartender, mystified, says, “What’s up with this?”, but again the man says nothing.
The man reaches into the bag a third time, and brings out a one-foot-tall man, dressed in tuxedo and tails, and sits him on the piano bench. The tiny man begins to play the piano, and suddenly the room is filled with the extraordinary strains of a Mozart Concerto.
The bartender is completely amazed. “Where on earth did you get this?” The man still says nothing, reaches into the bag, and pulls out an old lamp. He hands it to the bartender, and says “Rub it.”
The bartender rubs the side of the lamp, and suddenly, there is a puff of smoke, and a Genie arises from the lamp, beturbined, his arms folded. He bows deeply, and asks the bartender to make one wish.
The bartender’s face lights up, and he says “I want a million bucks!”
The Genie bows deeply again, and retreats into his lamp.
A few moments later, the barroom door swings open, and in waddles a Mallard, quacking loudly. A few moments later, another duck follows him, and another after that. Soon, the room begins to fill with Mallards, all quacking noisily. There are ducks everywhere — on the floor, on the tables, on the shelves, all over the bar. Pandemonium reigns.
The bartender turns to the man on the barstool, and says “Buddy, I think your Genie has a hearing problem. I asked for a million bucks, not a million ducks!”
The men on the barstool says, “Tell me about it! Do you think I asked for a 12-inch pianist?”