When I finally decided to get sober — after a long, arduous climb up from my existential “bottom” — I remember the most difficult thing was facing the stigmatization that came with labeling myself an “addict” and “alcoholic,” and the disbelief of most people who were close to me that this was actually the case.

I was the guy who brought life to the party — all smiles, with infectious positive energy and the ability to pound a beer within two seconds; I could outdrink anyone, and wake up the next day with a full head of steam and the insatiable desire to rinse and repeat. But what exactly is an addict or alcoholic?

According to the wisdom of the 12-step fellowship, an addict or alcoholic is one overtaken by insanity — “doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result” — and one whose life has become fundamentally unmanageable. If one abides by the foundational tenets of the 12-step program, the only way to nix the affliction and live a life of meaning is to find a desire to stop using or drinking, and commit to doing so.

I don’t think most people can pound a beer in two seconds. “Normies,” as many people in recovery refer to people who can drink normally (it’s not a negative or derogatory term), enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, or a few beers at a ballgame with old buddies, or a designer drink at a swanky hotel bar with the date of their dreams.

I think that’s what most people do after graduating from the ethanol-soaked world that is an undergraduate college or university. But in the midst of college, when many people who drink are binge drinking, it’s hard to see who will continue binging after college, or whose life is unmanageable — whose life is plagued by insanity.

For me, it was all or nothing when it came to drinking: The light switch was on, or it was off. I was drinking audaciously or I wasn’t drinking at all, and in the midst of my addiction, I couldn’t imagine the latter. Why would anyone in their right mind drink only a glass of wine with dinner? Wasn’t the whole point to feel the beginnings of a warm fire in your belly, and to kindle it to the point at which it raged like a full-fledged bonfire?

That is, without a doubt, why alcoholics and addicts who had the same “obsession of the mind and spiritual malady” that I have, came up with the 12 steps some 75 years ago. It’s an all-or-nothing disease.

Addicts and alcoholics — at least, the ones I know — aren’t capable of having one drink with dinner or one joint with a few friends every other week. And I think that the problem people in recovery face is that the disease is stigmatized, and you’re looked at like a crazy person if you elect not to drink — American culture is, for the most part, inextricably linked with social drinking.

Being an addict or alcoholic in recovery is something to be tremendously proud of, akin to graduating summa cum laude or winning a national championship. It’s a spiritual accolade; it’s not a “holier than thou” statement of character. It is rather, something personal to be cherished and worn as a badge of honor.

We addicts have come back from the brink of death, both of a spiritual and physical nature, and have found the strength to say “No more” to drugs and alcohol, and to live our own kind of love story that we write ourselves, not one written or dictated by the nagging persistence of our disease.

Whether to abstain completely, or attempt to control the desire to drink to excess and imbibe in a socially appropriate fashion, is for each individual to decide for themselves. But, from personal experience as a teetotaler, I’ve found that living a life free from drugs and alcohol isn’t half bad, though people don’t always understand why I’ve made the commitment I have.

It really comes down to the fact that it’s an insider/outsider perspective issue — people might be able to understand addiction from a medical or sympathetic standpoint, but only people in the midst of addiction or in recovery can truly understand the nature of the disease and the necessity to abstain completely from using and drinking.

It might be the case for certain people who have a tendency to drink to excess that they can find the means to control the urge to do so, but I’ve found that living a life without drinking at all is fulfilling in its own right. For me, further research or experimentation into whether or not I’m still an addict isn’t worthwhile or even necessary, for the darkness and despair it would likely bring back into my life.

As a good friend and lacrosse teammate of mine once said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

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