When I last wrote here, over a year and a half ago, I said that in my next post I was going to publicly admit a major addiction. Was I talking about my alcoholism? Seems unlikely, since I was still drinking at the time. My original intention has long since been buried under the sands of time, but for the record, yes, I am an alcoholic. I quit drinking December 28, 2012, and the farther away I get from my last drink, the more sure I am about that.
A lot of us have had addiction on the mind recently, since yet another celebrity, Philip Seymour Hoffman, fell to the disease the other day. A well-liked and critically-acclaimed actor, he was found dead in his bathroom with a needle stuck in his arm. What made it even more maddening and hard to understand is that he had relapsed after 23 years of sobriety. He had a great career, a loving partner and three kids. Senseless, people said. Selfish, as though he chose to die alone and broken in a bathroom. Just a quick glance at the comments following the news stories shows that very few people really understand the nature of addiction, and what it feels like to those of us who have struggled with it.
Many years ago I read The World According to Garp by John Irving, and in it a little boy mishears the word "undertow" and imagines that a horrible monster called the Under Toad lurks in the depths of the sea, waiting to pull him under. His family comes to use the word as a metaphor for all the dark and scary forces in life that want to suck us down into misery and oblivion.
That's how I imagine my disease. I have my own Under Toad lurking in the darkest recesses of my psyche. It came to life down in the basement many years ago, rising up out of the primordial slime of low self-esteem and my own traitorous genes. I didn't know back then--couldn't have known--that every time I got drunk to feel like one of the cool kids, to untie my socially awkward tongue at parties, to numb uncomfortable feelings of not belonging, I was feeding it. And let's face it--it felt good. It's a natural human impulse to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. I fed it with booze, pot, meth, coke. It grew bigger and stronger over the years and still I kept unknowingly feeding it, confusing its appetites with my own. Gradually the other substances lost their appeal for me, but the alcohol remained. It was and always has been my drug of choice.
Of course eventually, as always happens with addiction, there began to be consequences. But because the Under Toad was now running the show, I kept drinking, in spite of the downward spiral in which I now found myself. And with the consequences came self-loathing, because I knew at this point I needed to quit or cut down, and I couldn't. I made and broke promises to myself, again and again. That's the thing with addiction: once you realize that you have a problem, it's too late to solve on your own. The monster is stronger than all your promises and best intentions.
Finally, for some reason, I was blessed with a moment of clarity and the willingness to surrender and admit my complete and utter powerlessness over this thing. I am grateful for that moment, because for many addicts and alcoholics, it never comes. It's the paradox of recovery, but in powerlessness lies the way out. So I stopped fighting the Under Toad. I left it in the basement, closed the door, walked up the stairs and into the light.
Now it's more than a year later, and I don't go anywhere near the basement. I stay on the upper floors, close to the light, just to be safe. But here's the thing: it's still down there, lurking. It only wants one thing: to get drunk. It never sleeps, and it will never die. It's not stupid. It is clever and voracious and unimaginably patient. It knows it needs me to deliver the booze, so it whispers to me in the dark. It knows just what to say to me, because it knows me better than anyone.
"Come on, you weren't that bad," it says.
"Aren't you making too big a deal about this?"
"This sobriety thing is just a phase, like all your other phases. You'll be back."
"You're a drinker, that's just who you are."
"You used to be fun. You're not fun anymore."
"No man is going to want somebody who doesn't drink."
I'm getting better at ignoring the whispers, and some days I barely hear them at all. After all, I'm so far above it now.
But what if….what if someday I get curious? What if it gets quiet, and years go by without a peep? What if I become so convinced I'm solid in my sobriety and invincible in my recovery that I decide to venture downstairs just to see if it's still there. It's human nature to be curious.
I'll tiptoe down the stairs, put my ear against the door, and listen.
I'll put my hand on the knob, thinking I'll just take a quick peek.
What I won't realize is that the Under Toad will be right on the other side of the door, panting and slobbering in anticipation, barely able to contain its glee. Because the day it's been waiting for all those years has finally arrived: the day I finally let my guard down and open the basement door.
If that ever happens, I won't have a chance. The Under Toad will blast that fucker off the hinges, and take me down. Down into the dark and the mud.
That's what addiction is like for me.