Staying on that wagon…

I was chopping carrots the other evening and flipped the television to CNN’s Headline News channel.  On a program called, Issues, Danny Bonaduce, somewhat infamous celebrity and one-time self-identified alcoholic, talked about why he chooses to drink again. It disturbed me, in part because as a person in recovery myself, I know how dangerous this season can be, and how many people struggling with alcoholism can be lured by such talk.  I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially what he said was:

“After one drink, I’m taller; after three, I can dance; after five, I’m Zach Ephron.  In the morning I wake up and I’m a middle-aged man with skin like a Shar pei.  Why wouldn’t I reach for the bottle of Zach Ephron again?”

What's not to love?

What's not to love?

He talked about the definition of insanity being doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results, which is a well-used phrase in Alcoholics Anonymous.  He said if he fell off the wagon once, hitting his head and hurting himself, and got back up only to fall off again,…. if he did that same thing; over and over, always falling and always hurting himself, well, that would be crazy.  So, why would he get on the wagon again, since it clearly only leads to a tumble and more pain?

The real reason our friend keeps falling...

The real reason our friend keeps falling...

I’ve heard such flawed thinking from people who want to drink again many times over the years. It breaks my heart.  If someone is determined to drink or do drugs, they will.  And short of chaining an addict to the wall for the rest of her life, there’s little one can do to help someone who doesn’t want help.  Agony to watch, especially if you love the person. It’s like watching him or her walk stubbornly into the train tunnel toward that huge oncoming engine.  But, when faced with someone in that mental state, I have little recourse but to say, “Look, if you really want to drink, I can’t stop you.  It’s your choice.  Just remember AA will be here to help you get and stay sober again if ever you want it, and if you’re still alive.”

The truth is that most people won’t ask for help until they have nothing left, and are in so much pain they have no other choice, save suicide.  And many chose suicide, far more often than people realize. Many others have caused untold pain to others along the road.

It never occurs to Mr. Bonaduce, or others like him, that staying safely “on the wagon” is a viable option to falling off.  Then again, I guess it hasn’t occurred to him that staying ‘on the wagon,’ that sort of white-knuckle effort not to drink, isn’t the point of sobriety — living free of the compulsion and obsession, living with peace and joy, happy in our own skins, and in our relationships with others — that’s the point. I used to think about very little except where my next drink was coming from, or how I’d deal with the consequences of that drink.  Now, I rarely think of alcohol at all. Happily, my mind is full of all the wonderful things in my life — my husband, my friends, my home, my career — none of which I’d have if I was drinking.  Let’s face it, I probably wouldn’t even be alive now if I hadn’t quit drinking.

It never occurs to people with alcohol-warped perceptions, like Mr. Bonaduce and his Zach Ephron example, that perceiving yourself as something other than what you are — being, in a word, deluded — might also be a definition of insanity.  It never occurs to such folks that they’re just fine, beloved, in fact, exactly as they are…Shar pei skin and all.

My heart goes out to him.  Although he would probably deny it, I heard a lot of pain in his answers, and he reminds me a lot of myself. I’ve felt a lot of that same pain.

Before I quit drinking, over fourteen years ago, I, too, felt I wasn’t good enough just as I am.  I didn’t feel pretty enough, or smart enough, or thin enough, or talented enough.  I felt socially awkward without a drink.  I felt as though the whole world had been given a rule book I’d never read. And when I drank alcohol, POW, suddenly I was, albeit briefly, all the things I wanted to be.

Or so I thought.  I didn’t know then what I know now — alcohol is a liar, whispering falsehoods into my impaired ear, seducing me with mirages.  I might have perceived myself as prettier and smarter and funnier, etc., but I was anything but.  I was puffy and slack,  I never listened to anyone else (so fascinated was I to hear what I might say), I told jokes, but they were often unkind.  I couldn’t be trusted with a secret.  I couldn’t write, at least not anything worth publishing.  I was often argumentative, with no reason, and my arguments made little sense. I passed out almost every night and called it ‘going to bed early.’  I made phone calls I didn’t remember.  Thank God I didn’t drive.  I probably would have killed somebody.

Mr. Bonaduce also said that alcoholism is not a life-threatening disease. He said cancer is a life threatening disease.  Well, cancer certainly is just that, however, as someone who has lost, among others, two brothers and a grandmother to this disease, and a number of friends, I cannot deny its seriousness.Alcoholism is a disease which seeks to kill its host. Let’s look at some figures (because those are ALWAYS fun, no?) Mary Finn, an eHow contributing writer, says:

Statistics on alcohol-related deaths are bleak. Every year approximately 75,000 lives will be lost due to alcohol. Countless family and friends left behind will be greatly affected. No one is immune; a chronic alcoholic or an innocent bystander can become a victim. Each death is tragic and often avoidable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), alcohol abuse is the third leading “preventable cause” of death in the United States.

She thoughtfully put together these stats:


  1. Cirrhosis is a form of liver disease that can be caused by alcohol abuse. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), in 2005 almost 13,000 Americans died from alcohol-related cirrhosis.
  2. Crashes

  3. Approximately 39 percent of all traffic fatalities involve alcohol. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2005 over 16,500 individuals lost their lives in alcohol-related accidents.
  4. Abuse

  5. 2005 data from NCHS shows over 21,600 individuals died from problems related to alcohol abuse, including alcohol poisoning, cardiomyopathy and pancreatitis.
  6. Water

  7. The CDC reports alcohol plays a part in up to half of water-related fatalities of adolescents and adults each year.
  8. Suicide

  9. CDC statistics show one-third of all suicides involve the use of alcohol.

That doesn’t seem to take into account domestic and other violence, so add those in.

There is no such thing as managing your alcoholism, there is only dying slower.  For years I tried to moderate my drinking, and I was able to –for a while.  Then I was back drinking even more than before, and the consequences were increasingly serious.  My health suffered, my relationships suffered, my work suffered.  My life got smaller and smaller, well on its way to disappearing altogether.

And then I stopped fighting.  I realized, as a friend said, “The war’s over.  I lost.”  Alcohol beat my ass.  I was done.  No more.  No more.  I asked a good friend to take me to one of those church basements where other alcoholics help each other out.  And oddly, once I’d surrendered to the fact I just couldn’t drink, not for any reason… it was surprisingly easy to STAY stopped.  Didn’t take much — 12 steps, a relationship with a power greater than myself, some good friends at meetings, and a whole new life.

I wish Mr. Bonaduce well, no matter what he decides.  I hope it all works out for him.  Maybe he’s one of those strange rare folks who can manage his drinking, but if he finds he’s not, and he’s still alive, I hope he remembers there are people in a nearby church basement who are waiting to reach out their hands to him…


  1. Cathy on November 30, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    Another great article, Lauren.

    My dad battled alcoholism and it almost did him in but he found the
    courage to quit and is still with us at 75 years old. He was in the
    military which breeds alcoholics with its focus on drinking as a
    form of socializing. You were an outcast if you didn’t drink with the boys.
    Many a time, I went to bed with the sounds of loud drunken parties
    going on. I don’t drink myself as I hate how it destroys people and
    I can’t stand the taste.

    I’m so glad you escaped the chains of alcohol dependency. Thank you
    for sharing your experience.

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