Dreams & Drink

Work with kids and families for a living and you can’t help but bump into the issue of alcohol and drug (ab)use. I am approached often by parents concerned about their children, students concerned about their parents, one spouse concerned about the other, and so on. I might not be able to prove it, but my bet says that substance brings far more havoc than happiness to families.

In any case, I have come to one conclusion: Too many folks spend too much time, energy, and anxiety trying to figure out whether or not they are alcoholics (or addicts).

“…imagine what your life would be like if you were truly excelling physically, academically, professionally, personally, spiritually…Recall the biggest dreams you have had for yourself”

Much of that wasted time can be linked to another conclusion, one I often tell our seniors at Hyde before they head off to college: “Man is the only animal in the forest that bullshits himself.” And bullshit can really get in the way of trying (especially when you’re trying to make it look like you’re trying) to analyze your use of alcohol.

The problem with the question “Am I an alcoholic?” is the inherent human failure to discount the extent to which you hope that a particular answer will turn out to be true (i.e., No). So, people tend to pay close attention to the signs that tell them they are not (an alcoholic) and give short shrift to those signs suggesting that they are.

Therefore, I recommend a different tact. First, put aside the idea of whether or not you are an alcoholic or a drug addict. Instead, imagine what your life would be like if you were truly excelling physically, academically, professionally, personally, spiritually, etc. Recall the biggest dreams you have had for yourself. What would your life be like if you were living those dreams? Get the idea? OK, once you have that vision in your head, ask yourself two questions:

1. How closely does your life today resemble that ideal version you have just imagined?
2. Is alcohol (or drugs) a force that is currently moving you toward or away from that vision?

I possessed a limitless capacity to BS myself when I was looking at my own use of alcohol. I remember those tests with questions like: Do you ever drink alone? Do you ever drink before 5:00? I freely answered “no” or “yes” at will. For example, I did a fair amount of drinking in a Boston pub where there were at least 50 other drinkers at any given time. (Maybe I wasn’t talking to any of them, but I was definitely not drinking alone!) As for the second question… well, it’s 5:00 o’clock somewhere in the world . . . right?

“When the drinking starts causing problems you wouldn’t have if you weren’t drinking, then the drinking is a problem.”

So, as easy as it was for me to “game” those self-assessment tests, I knew that the life I was living was a far cry from the dreams I had as a younger version of myself – and this was despite an Ivy League master’s degree, a wonderful wife, and an enviable job at a nationally respected corporation. I also knew that alcohol was indeed a force that was moving me away from my personal best.

When I decided to quit drinking – not the 16 false starts, but the time I made a true commitment on May 15, 1985 (but, hey, who’s counting?) – I soon found that I needed help from others. This led to some invaluable wisdom. For example, one guy said to me, “When the drinking starts causing problems you wouldn’t have if you weren’t drinking, then the drinking is a problem.” That shoe fit.

It also dawned on me (once I decided to get honest with myself) that every time I drank I wasn’t in trouble, but it seemed that every time I was in trouble I had been drinking.

I also discovered the perfect antidote to the aforementioned line about BS: “If you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.”

As much as all that wisdom helped, it was the desire to take another shot at my best self that ultimately motivated me to get the help I needed to put the drink aside… and do so with grace. Prior to that, all those years I spent trying to determine whether or not I was an alcoholic never proved all that useful to me. In my professional life, I haven’t seen it be all that useful to many of the people I encounter.

So, am I an alcoholic? My first response causes me to sigh, So little time and so many definitions… My second acknowledges that I would likely qualify given any definition one might offer. However, here is my main point: Not only have I come to question the question, I have come to believe that the pursuit of the answer might fuel just as many problems as it solves.

Onward, Malcolm Gauld