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Why I am an addict I stopped drinking because I wasn't ready to die

The cocaine addict is neither rational nor in control. Credit: Getty

The cocaine addict is neither rational nor in control. Credit: Getty


January 25, 2022   5 mins

I have never seriously asked myself why I went insane when I was young. It didn’t occur to me to ask because I thought it was fate, and who questions fate? I didn’t like to remember what happened to me; or, perhaps, what I did to myself. Those are the two potential narratives for the addict, and they are at poles: victim or persecutor. Which am I? I don’t ask but the tension is always with me. I carry the trauma, which I usually call shame; I carry it in anger and in the fat on my body.

I stopped drinking because I knew I would die, and I wasn’t ready. I went to AA, clinging on to a willingness, if not a pleasure, to live, and recited the dogma. Jonathan Franzen said his friend David Foster Wallace, who killed himself, was so terrified of what he had seen of his id while using, it decimated his trust in his lovability. I understand this perfectly. I know I became a writer to form myself, but I wonder if I invented the person writing these words to disguise the monster that is my true self. I am 20 years sober, and this is my settled state. Fear.

Some addicts think critically about their condition: or they can try. Carl Erik Fisher, a child of alcoholics, is a psychiatrist and he was, during his training, addicted — a phrase that has no settled meaning — to alcohol and pharmaceuticals. He was, “greedily grasping after a new identity for myself”. Fisher used, denied, hallucinated, and collapsed. He believes that denial, a crucial and hitherto mysterious element of addiction, allows the addict to lie more effectively to others, and this makes perfect sense to me. He was tasered by the police in his flat in New York City, “dangerously near the peak of my heart”. He recovered, in the sense that I have: he stopped using. Instead, he wrote The Urge.

It’s a seeking, of course: an attempt to make sense of his life. It is a search for reason because he lost his, and it is as diffuse as his using was simple: just give me more of it. The Urge contains history, memoir, science, miscellanea, literature and polemic. There is a mountain of information out there about drug use — if only we could process it meaningfully — and Fisher read it all, amid his sullen, yet hopeful, quest to return to psychiatry.

It asserts the primacy of the psychiatrist over the primacy of the addict. It is Fisher’s internal conversation with footnotes, and the reader is the listener and, in my case, the patient. Addiction need not, he says — primarily, I suspect, to himself — be a mystery filled with fear.

I found using drugs a return to early childhood state because the feelings I remember are those of childhood: wild freedom; wild hunger; wild sensibility; wild terror. They are life, magnified, and life runs out. Drug use is both a metaphor and a paradigm of the human tension that exists in our consciousness: between the ego and the id (if you are a doctor) and between the sacred and the profane (if you are a priest). It is a truism that they expand our consciousness. For the addict who cannot stop taking them, it expands too much. Then — I speak for me — it dramatically contracts, and that is when I went insane.

But the terror itself moves from the internal life of the addict to society itself. Almost no one here is rational or in control. Most people do not become like Fisher and I, because drugs, he writes, drugs “are not ‘addictive’ in themselves”. They are not the draught of a demon king, then; they need a social hinterland to flourish, which we summon glibly and continually. “Pray for her,” my friend was told when he rang 999 to say I had collapsed with alcoholism, as if medicine had nothing to offer me because I was peculiarly cursed. Yet there is no definitive personality type for a drug addict and no evidence that addiction is genetically determined. Of those who become addicted — those who continue to use long after it is pleasurable and, as AA says, “unto the gates of death” — most get better.

There is a predictable narrative to drug use. A drug is discovered and sold — morphine, cocaine, alcohol, cannabis, oxycontin, LSD. There is an epidemic, a panic, and a repression: a very metaphor for the id itself. Drug epidemics, Fisher writes, are chiefly a response to “social wounding”, which occur when familiar structures fall apart, and drugs are too-easily available. Native Americans suffered a drug epidemic as their lands were stolen. So did the women of Gin Lane,  as the population moved from country to town. America is suffering one now, chiefly among whites without a college degree. According to Fisher, there were 150,000 “deaths of despair” in America in 2017. Individual recovery, he says, should not be exempt from social change, but that seems remote.

Those with a full life do not need a fantasy one; or at least, not just a fantasy one. The addicted need treatment and societal change but rather we offer criminalisation. This didn’t happen to Fisher or to me, of course. We are both white and middle class. Yet drug laws are used to criminalise and intimidate vast swathes of society. The War on Drugs, Fisher writes, was really a war on some people who use drugs. White women suck down legal pills in their homes, or drunk themselves insensible and, though they suffer, they do so in comfort. Billie Holliday was hounded to her death by racist prohibitionists.

To wound yourself with drugs you need easy access to them, and we have that: the alcohol industry is worth $1.5 trillion and few of its profits go towards rehabilitation. It’s cheaper to punish the addict: for the manufacturers, at least, who through lobbyists, push the fault onto the individual, and the cost onto the state. Four disparate African nations, Fisher writes, have drug policies drafted by alcohol salesman, and I find that more debasing than anything in Thomas de Quincy’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

Writers tend to make addiction a mystery too thrilling to be solved. Who wouldn’t rather read Hunter S Thompson than ponder the carnage the illegal drugs trade has inflicted on the people of Mexico? The Temperance movement — a drug panic in response to a drug epidemic — commissioned novels like Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There. It was the second best-selling book of the time, after Tom Sawyer. Walt Whitman was paid to write Franklin Evans, a tale of a boy lost to alcohol, which he did, in three days, while drunk. I laughed at this.

Fisher asks: is addiction part of me, or is something apart from the self? Mexican American drug users in southern California, he says, speak of the “tecato gusano” – an indestructible junkie worm that brings evil on the innocent. Addiction, whatever it is, is not boring. It is a battle between good and evil, and within you: something pleasingly self-important for the essentially alienated and prone. I thought of it as a female demon, which now I think was only a strategy to protect the non-demon part: to make her stronger. It was a coping mechanism. I knew it was me. I read Fisher, and I can accept that it was me. Even so, his question is a better way of phrasing the question we have asked for as long as we have used drugs, but have never answered: whose fault is it?

The useful but disappointing answer is we don’t yet know. And perhaps we should stop asking. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps it isn’t even a fault. To panic at the altered state of the drug user — to criminalise, to prohibit, to write cautionary, overblown memoir — is to panic at the essential state of being human. And I suspect, that is where the real fear lies.


Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I have never read such a aimless article on something as everyday and common as addiction. Endless cod-psychology, blaming, incorrect statements, wild generalizations….

“Erik Fisher, a child of alcoholics, is a psychiatrist and he was, during his training, addicted — a phrase that, he says, has no settled meaning — to alcohol and pharmaceuticals.”

What a spouter of psycho-babble he is, everyone knows what addiction is – unless you want to do some postmodernist foolishness and say nothing can ever really be known but dialectic…. and so reduce discussion to drivel.

“Native Americans suffered a drug epidemic as their lands were stolen.”

So where did you get that line from? I have been around them a good bit, and this is absurd. A great many factors are involved – have you lived in communities of Native Americans?

Anyway – I have been addicted to a few things, alcohol always – and I did get rid of it – and life became dreary every since. I loved getting high, I loved it till the end, but it was quit or death, so I quit..

The first time I got buzzed I thought – ‘Why would anyone ever be strait when you can be like this?’ at about 14 or so….Being strait is like being in Kansas in the Wizard of Oz, black and white and dull….But one gets used to it eventually – I have, but getting high was my love for 40+ years – I suppose it has been about 8 years now since I had anything…. I no longer miss it really – but now life is like food without salt, bland.

I would say the total, life destroying, addicts usually come to it by despair – they were harmed, unloved, and never secure growing up – damaged people. A great many come to it by just the love of being high – but they seem to be functional addicts and more prone to quit. The ones who come to it from despair just return to despair when sober – so they have it really bad, not a good odds.

I think you over intellectualize it – when a drug/alcohol habit becomes where you cannot resist it – you are an addict. The earlier you give it up the easier it is. Many causes make people prone to addiction, many characteristics (artists, writers, musicians seem particularly prone – something about the creative brain I suppose.) Some get it genetically, Native Americans, and I heard Polynesian Islanders, and a lot of us Whites. Some just love the pleasure – I would think it likely for some brain function reason maybe – but really, for many it begins just for the fun and then they do it too long. Life is dull, getting high makes things more interesting. And damaged people get addicted because their life is hell, and they want to escape that hell by getting high to get relief. Idleness and hopelessness are real big causes of addiction too. It is a mixed bag.

And the more permissive society is – the more addiction you get. Enable people to get high – and many will – like the Homelessness (I was homeless – I know that world too – and I was with the rough stoners a lot, I know the scene – and I have been around every kind of messed up person at some point), it is not so complex really though – if life suc*s, then getting high is good, if bored, going no where, utterly alone, damaged, addiction claims a lot – and just for the fun of it – that gets a lot too…

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes. Also, through endless movies from Hollywood drinking became a fashion along with smoking and it wasn’t until relatively recently that heavy drinking was seen as an addiction. Then, from Hollywood again came endless movies where the hero made speeches at AA meetings. Matt Scudder (fictional detective) spent most of his books in AA meetings.

Every night at 7 o’clock I have a glass of wine. Every night at that time my brain interrupts what I’m doing and tells me that I would really like a glass of wine. This is addiction. When I decide to fight it my brain gives in and thinks about something else – so it is a very mild addiction. I suspect that many millions of people are addicted to alcohol in this way.

All it takes is for the addiction to escalate to two glasses, then three, then a bottle. I can see how this happens. Like all things in life, people have a responsibility to themselves and their families and friends. To write about it suggests that someone is looking for sympathy.

O Thomas
O Thomas
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I agree it was a bit winding at points. But I enjoyed the article, and what I particularly appreciated was that it wasn’t padded out with salacious personal confessions and was actually concerned with addiction itself. I think this is now quite unusual.

Alex Stonor
Alex Stonor
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

To be human is to be addicted to some kind of drug, food, activity or mindset. I have been told that muslims don’t drink because Mohammed considered the path of moderation too difficult for most people. It’s not that hard.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
2 years ago
Reply to  Alex Stonor

Being religious does not stop people drinking or taking drugs. I know many Muslim men who drink alcohol but never with other Muslims. The same with Sikhs. It may depend on where they live or who they mix with, but it doesn’t stop them.

So it might be harder than you think.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I identify very much with the boredom aspect you mentioned. I’ve abstained from booze for long periods at times but god sobriety can be dull unless you spend the rest of your life hanging out with other non-drinkers. There is I think a spectrum and we’re all on it, although I think alcohol does press some people’s buttons easier than others.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Butcher

If I was advising a young person I would say to never drink more than two times a week. Keeping it spaced out means you are in control.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

“Some get it genetically, Native Americans, and I heard Polynesian Islanders”

I think it is generally believed that genes play a role. I had a Native American professor who said we English (but I think Irish and Scots too) were ‘as bad’ as her own people for tolerating drunkenness. She told us some shocking stories of near-fatal drink-fuelled shenanigans back home, and then scolded us for laughing.

As a therapist, I have asked many people about their addictions and have decided that those who end up with a real problem often seem to clearly remember their first drink, or whatever, as an almost magical experience. They certainly give the impression of having a stronger than average positive reaction to first use, and the love affair grows. A quote I remember is: ‘I felt like a cross between Einstein and Superman’.

I’ve personally never seen any evidence that addiction is caused by difficult childhood experiences, though personality is a factor. I’ve known middle class alcoholics from privileged backgrounds and the half dozen I know best I would describe as potentially having been indulged as children. The alcohol became the ‘reward’ system that replaced the sweeties.

On the subject of cannabis v alcohol, anyone familiar with drug induced psychosis, and specifically the potential for cannabis to put young men on psychiatric wards, will hesitate to campaign for its legalisation. People are rarely the same after a brush with extreme paranoia.

I do think there are good arguments for legalising drugs other than alcohol, but there will be casualties, and these will often be young and beautiful.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

I am not pro legalization – and also think strong marijuana very bad for mental health. There is nothing as worthless as a habitual pot smoker – it is like they are mere shells, their personality and drive gone and not much left.

. Middle class alcoholics just do not compare to the junkies and meth heads and such hard addicts. I recomend any documentarie on Meth Heads, Southern rural drug addicts, or street walker prostitutes, or junkies. But I have been around so many hard core users, and rough people, and almost all were people damaged in their childhood. They feel worthless, hopeless, alienated, alone, and often angry, and just completely an outsider and know they never will get a real life. (anger in personality is almost a symptom of a painful childhood, I think)

Drugs are their relief from the hell they exist in – just imagine how you would feel if you were never going to be anything, your life is endlessly harsh, no one trusts you (they are usually F***ed up people, and not loveable) you have F—ed up your life, as was inevitable as they was what you were raised to be. But then I have been on the hard side of places.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Yes, the crystal meth types don’t tend to pay for therapy
 I know you have no love for the NHS over here but it does provide some basic assistance to addicts and those with severe mental health problems that maybe doesn’t happen in the US?

But many overpaid celebrities have become serious hard drug users, going back to the 60s, The Stones, Lennon, Whitney. Some got past it but not all, it’s a risky game and not, in these instances, a result of hardship or lack of prospects? If you abuse a substance long enough (including alcohol) it damages the brain and you’re going to end up on the streets.

Once on the streets, and amongst those you describe, you are inevitably going to hear tales of hopelessness and despair, but, when a drug dependent prostitute is murdered, a perfectly average family often emerges to mourn them.

Not saying I disagree with anything you say, just that we are probably talking about different cohorts, and I still think it’s true that privileged people can and do become addicts. They maybe just have a better chance of not ending up in the gutter?

Virginia McGough
Virginia McGough
2 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Your honesty is really impressive, and I hope and pray that you recover your joie de vivre.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

Another fine essay from Tanya Gold. I still remember her Life on the Cornish Breadline essay with admiration.
I was lucky to grow up in a time and place where hard drugs were rare, expensive and scary. I was never seriously tempted by cocaine and the like.
But drinking was the favorite pastime of young people in my neighborhood and there was little social stigma. We routinely got wasted and the only thing that saved me was the ferocity of hangovers from hard liquor. There was no better aversion therapy.
So I became a lifelong beer drinker; at first a binge drinker with my buddies and when the novelty wore off, then a “three-beer buzz” drinker. To this day I love the gentle buzz of three beers. Top it up with one beer an hour and you can have a mellow evening with few consequences.
Most of my early drinking buddies outgrew it but a couple became full-blown alcoholics and I’m not surprised. They always reacted differently to alcohol; with them it was quickly a private conversation with the booze. They weren’t interested in socializing and the rest of us just provided an excuse to be out drinking. That’s why I was a bit surprised when Tanya Gold wrote there’s no clear genetic propensity to alcoholism. In my limited experience some people react very differently to booze and they’re the ones who end up having a problem.
As for the “war on drugs”, we all know the drug epidemic is mainly caused by the massive dislocations, especially blue collar unemployment, of the past thirty or forty years. To permanently fix the drug problem you’d have to fundamentally reorder society and provide the displaced blue collar workers with a meaningful future. I don’t see the one percent giving up their windfall profits to engage in that social experiment. So instead we ratchet up jail terms for drug offenses and we turn the CIA loose to wreak havoc in Mexico and the Central American countries that produce most of the drugs (anyone who thinks the movie Sicario is pure fantasy underestimates the CIA).
Good luck to the author and all recovering addicts. I shudder to think what would happen to me if I was growing up today with ready access to the hardest of hard drugs.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

This mirrors my experience exactly, and I know exactly what would have happened to me if hard drugs were easily available to me in my teens.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

me to – sounds like a ‘me to’ movement tho of no consequence to someone in despair . the older psychiatric term ‘melancholic personality’ goes some way to clarify those who may be susceptible – because of the ‘holiday from oneself ‘ that drugs enable.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

A very similar experience for me as well. What struck me most about the piece was the final thoughts on “who’s fault is it?”

I’m not sure that’s the right question. The question is “who can fix it?” Ultimately the answer to that can only ever be the individual. That’s not to say society shouldn’t help but fixing it can’t be delegated.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“So I became a lifelong beer drinker; at first a binge drinker with my buddies and when the novelty wore off, then a “three-beer buzz” drinker. To this day I love the gentle buzz of three beers.”
This describes me in my late 50’s: typically dry from Monday to Thursday, 3 pints on Friday, and another couple over the weekend.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

There were hard drugs around where I grew up but living in a rough area where the consequences were all too clear, and the users were anything but “cool”, they held no glamour for me. (my kids went through a similar trajectory)
I soon got bored of marijuana which usually reduced me to apathy . I know it doesn’t work that way for everybody, and I shared a house in the 70s with some very active “wake and bake” types who could go and do a day’s physical work, but it just wasn’t like that for me – or most people as far as I could see.
Last night I went out and had a half-pint and 3 whiskies with a friend in his 70s who had the same. Unusual to drink during the week but it was a special occasion. I enjoyed the buzz and slept well afterwards.
I have wine with my dinner at weekends. I drink as I feel like, really.

Scott S
Scott S
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I humbly disagree. Tanya Gold has a lot to learn, she may become a good writer. However, when writing about Jimmy Savile last week, she made quite a few illogical assumptions. As, someone who enjoys walking on the moors alone etc should not want to raise money for charity. And if they do, there is something not right with them. Obviously, Savile was an odious character, but to blurt assumptions as stated above is utter rubbish, Gold is currently not a great journalist or writer.

Last edited 2 years ago by Scott S
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I really don’t understand this perpetual conflation of alcohol with drugs, as though they are somehow equivalent. Presumably writers do it in an attempt to draw the reader into the cesspit with them, and kid them that if they drink, they’re a drug user too, and it’s only a question of degree, and we’re the same really, crackhead me and social drinker you.
Well, it’s bo11ocks. The key, absolutely fundamental qualitative difference between alcohol and heroin – or whatever actual drug – is that you do not always and only consume alcohol with the sole aim of intoxication. You do not consider alcohol ineffective if it fails to intoxicate you. You do not refuse to drink if you can’t get blind drunk. You consume alcohol because unlike any pill, powder, or shard of crystal meth, it tastes nice and has astonishingly complex flavours. You can drink one glass of wine and it is pleasant. You don’t neck the whole bottle every time. Alcohol before, with and after food improve each other and particularly do so in moderation, which is how both are ordinarily consumed.
The important difference between alcohol and drugs is not that you don’t know what poisons they contain, nor how many Mexicans or Columbians got killed producing them, nor even that you can walk into a legitimate shop and buy alcohol, whereas to buy drugs, you must choose deliberately to seek out and associate with criminals. The important difference is that only alcohol abuse resembles typical drug use; all drug users need to get intoxicated, whereas most alcohol consumers do not need to and do not.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

There really isn’t that much of a qualitative difference between people having a brandy after dinner and people passing round a spliff. I don’t honestly see how legalising weed is a problem. You posit drug use as a binary stoned/ not stoned but alcohol as somehow different, as if there aren’t different degrees of intoxication with other drugs. Yet I’m sure lobster would taste just as great without champagne. How much of what you believe is social conditioning? After all, a lot of that wine-tasting stuff is clearly nonsense as well.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

At last, a truly profound and important point that distinguishes alcohol from drugs: I have never, and never wanted to, try any illegal narcotic, but I am an alcoholic, now 19 years sober: I wish that I could bottle and sell my love and enjoyment of not drinking!

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I mostly agree with you when it comes to those of us who genuinely enjoy a well made cocktail before, during or after dinner or a social engagement. However, there are those who use alcohol no differently than heroin for the sole purpose of finding that special place where nothing else matters.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Exactly the argument I’ve used over the years.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I stopped smoking cannabis because it got stronger and I could not moderate its effects and turned to alcohol because I did not want to get ‘out of it’ – you are correct !

D Hockley
D Hockley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Alcohol is a drug…so alcohol comes under the general term drug and is a subset of that group.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

When I look at the countries in the world where alcohol is banned, they seem
. constantly angry.

“In the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.”

– Paul Claudel, French diplomat. Much better philosophy.

Good article. Beautifully written.

Jeff Butcher
Jeff Butcher
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

Thanks for that what a great quote!

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago

This essay is a bit wordy and pretentious. But there is also a lot of honesty in what she is writing, and so I read it with great interest.
Good luck to Tanya in her recovery. I hope she can find more balanced forms of joy. I’m rooting for her.

Ian Burns
Ian Burns
2 years ago

FEAR – the settled state… here is the dogma, F**k everything and run or Face everything and recover. Fear you keeps you sober as in off the booze, it also tells you when you are in danger of self destruct, the choice at that point is always yours. But dealing with fear takes more than self reflection in the end, well done on your 20 years.

Penny Adrian
Penny Adrian
2 years ago

The majority of people who become addicted to drugs and alcohol do NOT recover.
The recovery rate is only about 30%.