During the final days of my obsession with alcohol, it would have been a relief to know for certain I was a hopeless case – that my fate was out of my hands. This realization wouldn’t have been so bad. I would have been like the person who has been diagnosed as terminally ill and come true the denial to accept the reality of the situation. This comparison isn’t so far-fetched because I probably didn’t have long to live if I’d carried on drinking. You see, I could accept the misery of end-stage alcoholism – the real torture was the troublesome idea that my life could be better.
How Low Can You Go
I entered my first treatment center in 1988, and I was still failing at sobriety in 2006. I doubt even Steve Jobs had enough tenacity to put up with this level of repeated failure. I remember reading somewhere that the average alcoholic dies within 15 years unless they are able to stop – so I suppose I was doing well to still be alive. I must admit, it didn’t feel like much of an achievement at the time.
I used to hear experts talking about the ‘downward spiral of addiction’, but it didn’t accurately describe my situation. It wasn’t so much that my life was steadily getting worse – it was more like my behavior led me into different arenas of suffering. My lowest point would have been at age 25 when I had an alcohol-induced mental breakdown and ended up living on the streets. I drank for another 8 years after this and never again experienced that level of dysfunction.
I knew after that first time in a treatment center that there was always going to be a price to pay for my drinking. I didn’t mind giving up on the chance of living a ‘normal life’ – I could fool myself into believing that a life without alcohol would be a living death. The idea of dying young didn’t bother me either – in fact, there were hundreds of mornings when I woke up upset because I was still alive. I could survive most of the lows of addiction, but it was the knowledge that things could be so much better made it unbearable.
The Hopeless Drunk
During my years of struggling with alcohol, I did have periods of staying sober – I once managed two years. These periods of sobriety were mostly wonderful, but I always felt like an imposter. When I entered my first rehab, they told me the best I could ever hope for was to become a ‘recovering alcoholic’ – my new life was always going to be conditional, and I’d heard lots of horror stories in AA about old-timers who missed a couple of meetings and ended up back drinking. I couldn’t relax in recovery because I believed it was only a temporary reprieve.
At the end of my drink, I’d almost fully accepted the idea that I was a ‘hopeless case’. I’d first heard this description years before at an AA. I met this old Donegal woman (at least she looked old) who was returning to the meetings after her latest relapse. She told me that she was a hopeless case, and from our short conversation, she suspected I was a hopeless case too. I was just young guy, so I easily dismissed her comment as the ravings of a crazy lady – later on, it felt like her prediction had cursed me.
The term ‘hopeless case’ is used to refer to those people who seem unable to ‘get on the program’ – usually the Alcoholics Anonymous program. In the AA Big Book there is a description of this poor unfortunate hopeless case:
“Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.”
I couldn’t give myself completely to the AA program, or to any recovery program, so it seemed obvious that I was one of these hopeless cases. My periods of sobriety gave me a real hunger for this life, but I also knew that it wasn’t possible. It was this combination of desperation and hopelessness that made the final months of addiction so horrible.
No Such Thing as a Hopeless Case
I no longer believe in hopeless cases. I began my new sober life at a temple here in Thailand called Thamkrabok. On my first day at this facility, a monk told me his simple theory of addiction. It didn’t involve words like ‘disease’, ‘daily reprieve’, or ‘recovering alcoholic’. He suggested that I’d somehow lost my way in life, and I’d been using alcohol as a tool to cope with this discomfort. The monk promised if I stayed sober, I would be able to get on track, and the need to drink alcohol would disappear. This theory sounds naively simplistic, but it made complete sense to me, and it has proved to be correct.
I’m not suggesting that all the hopeless cases should come to Thailand and follow in my footsteps. My point is there is no such thing as a hopeless case – if you are capable of hoping, you are going to be able to find a solution. It doesn’t matter how long you have been struggling, and how many times you have failed, there is always the possibility of a better life.