We Were Made for Addiction

There is an episode in season 3 of Sex and the City called “Are We […]

Stephanie Phillips / 8.14.19

There is an episode in season 3 of Sex and the City called “Are We Sluts?” and, as you can imagine, the premise involves Carrie sitting at her laptop contemplating whether she and her friends are too promiscuous. Away from the computer, Carrie wonders why her new love interest, Aidan, hasn’t yet initiated sex; Miranda finds out she has chlamydia; Charlotte’s new partner calls her dirty names in bed; and Samantha is ostracized by the occupants of her co-op because of the male-heavy traffic she brings through the building. I watched it yesterday with my seven- and four-year-old boys. (KIDDING.) In a ponderous moment over her keyboard, Carrie finally wonders:

If you’re a thirty something woman living in Manhattan, and you refuse to settle and you’re sexually active, it’s inevitable that you’ll rack up a certain number of partners, but how many men is too many men? Are we simply romantically challenged, or are we sluts?

Once upon a time, I was a thirty-something woman living in Manhattan, and I made plenty of mistakes. But now, most of my friends and I are (I daresay, most days, happily) married, and we don’t find ourselves asking each other this question. There are new queries that tend to pop up in our conversations: should we have our kids evaluated by an occupational therapist? Are our husbands incapable of closing cabinets? Is there such thing as a healthy chicken nugget? Oh, and this one:

Do we drink too much?

I have friends who have endured Dry January, who have been warned by their physicians to lay off the sauce, who have been to rehab, who have declared sobriety, and who have simply tried to manage their alcohol intake with resolutions (no drinking Monday through Wednesday, for example, which I tried but just led to extra-large pours Thursday through Sunday). It’s a topic that dominates our lives and our concerns, and — save for a few annoyingly healthy people who either stick easily to one glass now and then or are happily teetotaling — alcohol doesn’t exist in our worlds without some angst attached.

My husband is the (annoyingly healthy) type who can open a beer and be so unaffected by it that he leaves it half-finished on the coffee table until I ask him snidely whether he’s done with that (this happened JUST LAST NIGHT). Meanwhile, I’m trying to talk myself out of finishing that bottle of rose that my friend and I opened earlier in the afternoon because it was a special occasion (Friday). I often think that many things about my life would be better without alcohol in it: I wouldn’t ever wake up with a hangover, or have to scroll through my phone for regrettable sent messages/posts, or find a sea urchin stuck to my foot, or walk into my bathroom and encounter what looks like a crime-scene reenactment (all true stories, date of occurrence withheld).

HOWEVER. (And maybe that’s just something an addict says, but…) I haven’t yet made the decision to give up drinking any more than I’ve gone cold-turkey on social media, or chocolate, or coffee, or online shopping, or my kids, or any of the other elements of life that ride a thin line between good and bad, gift and curse

I still grapple, though, and for now I’m content to be in that position because, honestly? I love the grappling. Suffused as it can be with rationalizations and failures, it’s also full of honesty and grace. Sobriety (in the form of abstention from either alcohol or the J Crew website) may one day be in the cards for me, but for now… I’ve got a lot of questions to consider.

And the first one is why? Why, specifically, do so many women my age struggle with appropriate alcohol consumption? I have a few ideas, but one popped out at me recently via Scott Jones’ Give and Take podcast and the episode in which he interviewed sober opioid addict Timothy McMahan King. King’s recently-published book Addiction Nation: What the Opioid Crisis Reveals about Us dives into its own set of whys and, as such, this interview was my jam. I learned, for example, that although his biographers would downplay the fact, the British abolitionist and all-around moral standout William Wilberforce was addicted to opioids until his death. King penned this column about it and writes:

The logic behind this and other dismissals of Wilberforce’s addiction is simple, pervasive and wrong. The first misconception seems to be that Wilberforce showed great moral courage in one area of his life and therefore could not have experienced addiction. A stalwartly moral person, the logic runs, would not succumb to such a weakness. The truth is that we all are vulnerable to addiction…

The fact of Wilberforce’s addiction completes his story rather than tarnishing it. His losing fight against addiction shows the fullness of his humanity and should help us see the humanity of those who struggle in the same way in the modern world. 

“We are all vulnerable to addiction,” King writes, and, on the podcast, made the point of how often the substance one is addicted to closely resembles the real thing. In the case of opioids, it is a chemical similarity, but consider this on another level: how social media interaction can feel like real connection even as it alienates us from those sitting next to us while we text someone else. Or how the physical intimacy of sex can feel like an antidote to loneliness until…it’s not.

The thing that pierced me the most, though, was King’s point about trauma in relation to indigenous peoples in countries like America, Australia, and Ireland. Specifically, how many populations now thought to be composed of total boozehounds were never known to abuse alcohol until they were evicted from their homelands and displaced to new ones; then, the drinks started flowing. Trauma, in other words, can lead to a need to feel safe — which addiction can (at first, at least) provide.

Back to my question about women my age and alcohol, though. What would that have to do with trauma?

Have I ever told you about my childbirths and post-partum mental states? 

Life is fraught with trauma; we are traumatized just by being in this world (and, some say, by our entry into it). Trauma, in its inescapability, leads to inescapable helplessness and, it often seems, inescapable addictions. Often the first thing we reach for to ease our uneasiness is something good. For example, I am scientifically proven to be my best, most charming self after two glasses of wine. But the line between good and bad can run thin, and the thing that cures my anxiety in one moment may wake me up the next morning with overloaded levels of it. Gift becomes blight. And if you think this is just limited to substance abuse, look around at how many people are living through the good and perfect gift of their children these days (#blessed).

Thankfully for me and the others who know they need it, Jesus didn’t suffer a broken leg for our salvation; he died. We need ALL the help, especially at the moment we think we don’t. It just happens that people in the throes of addiction tend to know this better than most because they are daily confronted with the impossible.

Cue the man in the book of Mark who needed the impossible to be done, which was for his dying son to be healed. “All things can be done for the one who believes,” Jesus told him, and in one of the most honest moments in history, the dad replied from his self-recognized position of helplessness and contradiction: “I believe; help my unbelief!” As Will McDavid writes in The Mockingbird Devotional:

The place of impossibility, however, is the place of grace. God is always our rescuer; and crying out in a state of helplessness is — paradoxically — the most authentic act of faith that’s possible in the here and now. The man’s belief doesn’t come from strength, but weakness, and faith in God amidst weakness (“Help!”) is really the only Christian act of faith. The challenge isn’t to develop perfect faith; our only task is to recognize how far from belief we really are, and even this vision of desperation is a gift from God.

God has a really funny way of gift-giving, doesn’t he? Whales, crosses, rock-bottoms — has he never heard of an Edible Arrangement?! I’ve been on the rails of desperation more times than I can count, and it is there, in my own failure, where I encountered most closely the love of a God who never fails. Which makes me think that maybe it’s actually not addiction we were made for, but dependence. Or better than and beyond all that: we were made for Someone, One who comes to us in our darkest places and just will not ever go away.