When I left the dentist’s office on Monday, I suddenly found myself sitting in a fairly dangerous combination of emotional states. I was feeling extreme ELATION (that is was over and that I was brave) and TERROR (that it was about to start hurting like a motherfucker once the anesthetic wore off). I felt like I should be celebrating (YAY, COURAGE!) and also girding my loins for the inevitable onslaught of pain that surely was just around the corner. I deserved lollipops. I deserved parades…… I deserved vodka.
The thought entered my mind without any active participation on my part. In a split second, the entire process flashed through my head like a film in fast forward: Me in the liquor store and then me at home with a glass full and then me dicking around aimlessly on the internet until I passed out. It was the middle of the day and no one was home. No one would know. I’d have plenty of time to get myself in working order and shower and flood my mouth with Listerine to cover one antiseptic smell with another.
SHUT UP, STUPID FUCKING IDIOT. I said this under my breath and pushed the thought back out of me. In total, the entire rapid fire thought process probably lasted no more than 2 seconds. It never turned into a real craving. My mouth didn’t water. I didn’t feel the rush of the recreated warmth that your body can so easily reproduce if you think too long about swallowing liquor. That feeling I got just now as I typed this out. That burn and momentary hug. How frightening that my mind can make that feeling happen without a drink.
So, after I cussed myself out on the street, I went to the drugstore, got some extra gauze and some treats that I could eat, and went home where I rested and took care of myself like a human being who just had a tooth ripped out should.
Thoughts like these flicker in and out of focus from time to time. Towards the beginning, they happened regularly and I managed them by checking in with other alcoholics, immediately binge listening to recovery podcasts, or hopping online and reading old posts from sobriety bloggers just like you might be doing right now. As time has gone on, the thoughts have become fewer and further between and are easily quieted by a swift kick to my own ass through internalized self-talk. Sometimes even OUTLOUD if I’m really taken aback at my brain’s stupidity. And I am very fortunate that up to this point, I’ve never really had a close call where such thoughts ran the risk of turning themselves into a relapse.
Monday was no different and I knew I had no intention of drinking. And I didn’t drink. But in hindsight, there is something a little more unsettling about the chain of thoughts I experienced when leaving the dentist when compared to other random drinking thoughts I’ve had in the past. Usually, drinking brain farts seem to be random for me. They are rarely motivated by anything specific. But these thoughts were connected to a traumatic event. Something had just happened that was, for me, extraordinarily stressful and frightening. And for a split second I not only considered alcohol as a solution and a reward, but I also considered myself DESERVING of getting drunk because of what I had just experienced. IT’S WHAT PEOPLE DO when something hard just happened. It’s how people cope. And you are no different. That was scary, you are about to be hurt, and you overcame fear. So go be like everyone else and claim your reward.
A dentist appointment and tooth extraction are not anywhere near the worst I will ever experience. But still, here were the thoughts of self-medicating and using my old friend to cope. It got me thinking about my preparedness for life events that could… will… eventually come my way. Relationships can end. People can die. Jobs can be lost. Houses can burn down. And am I ready? Surely the same thoughts will bubble up in one of those instances and I would also assume that the intensity of the thoughts are proportionate to the severity of the trauma experienced.
NO FUTURE TRIPPING. This is something I hear a lot. Just do the work thoroughly, reach out, and if/when those fleeting thoughts convert themselves into actual cravings that threaten sobriety, think through the drink. Think it through from start to finish. See where you’ll end up before you put the glass to your lips. Live one day at a time. Don’t create problems that haven’t happened yet.
Yes. All of those suggestions are valid and helpful and it all makes sense. But I think it is entirely normal to ask the question: WILL I BE READY WHEN SHIT HITS THE FAN? As of right now and at this very moment, the resolve I feel to remain sober seems unbreakable. But I know that confidence can be vastly misleading. It’s evident by the countless people we eventually come in contact with who have suffered a relapse in the past. Myself included. Six months before my big breakup happened in 2008, there was no way in hell you could have convinced me that six months down the road I would be passed out drunk on the living room floor of my empty apartment. Not possible. I was sober, strong, and had NO desire to drink, thank you very much. But that’s exactly what happened.
As someone who has relapsed in the past, I suppose the good news is that I have a reference point. I know that leading up to that relapse, I had stopped doing any recovery work. I had stopped seeing or speaking regularly to people immersed in sobriety. I was flying solo and seemed to be doing okay as I surrounded myself with busy work, art, etc. It wasn’t enough and it all came falling down.
I now know that should something awful happen like a death, I am DOOMED if I’m not in active recovery. That’s not the same as simply not drinking. Because for me, relapse wasn’t conscious. It didn’t happen gradually. I didn’t think to myself Oh. Ok. This is painful. This hurts. Let’s have a drink. It just suddenly WAS. It was as if I was forcefully strapped down to a chair emotionally and I watched myself do the things that led me to another six years of misery. Yes, I was DOING the things. I suppose possession is a fairly accurate way to describe it. Or when you get put under for surgery and that few hours of unconsciousness feels like alien abduction. It just is gone and you don’t remember it or how it could have possibly came to pass. All because I was unprepared. I wasn’t at the ready. I let my guard down. I stopped treating my disease.
The little stupid shit storm that went through my brain on Monday was easily snuffed out. These days, I always have on armor. And I guess the real issue here is not whether or not I have the ability to stay sober in the face of great obstacles. The question is whether or not I’ve kept myself armed when those things eventually come.