Booze and Hungry Ghosts

My dad always drank two Milwaukee’s Best light beers every night, “the Beast,” as we called it in college. It was cheap, and he limited himself to those. The smell of that beer on his breath when he’d kiss me goodnight or put his arm around me on the couch is all tied up in my memories of childhood.

Eric was there to bring in harder liquor. I had a glass of vodka with orange juice in the basement with him and his friends when I was 14 or 15; I got drowsy, and it wasn’t that fun. His friends would treat me nicely, but then would sometimes hit me or make fun of me, and he would never do anything about it. His one friend Joel hit me more than once when I was a teenager (as an aside, the only time I remember the wind being knocked out of me was by one of Eric’s friends, in the entryway of the house where we lived till I was 12).

One of his friend’s girlfriends climbed on top of me a couple times, hit me, mocked me, but was really intimate in a way I found confusing; I was looking right down her shirt. She had a baby in high school.

As an aside, here’s a story I never told anyone, but I ran through in my head hundreds of times. When I was in third grade, seven years old, Todd from down the street came over to ask if I wanted to play at his house. I was in my room, organizing my bookcase with Craig’s toy plastic wagon. I had several cartoon collections of Family Circus and Garfield collections. I loved newspaper comics, and Far Side, Calvin and Hobbes, and Fox Trot were my daily reading. I said, sure, and went over to his house. Was my mom home? Had she OK’ed it?

Their parents weren’t there. They were watching Gremlin’s 2 on the TV in the living room, which I hadn’t seen. One of them pulled my pants down and spanked me on the ass. There was some kind of struggle, and their older sister was pinning me down. I hit her, and then Todd got on top of me, hit me a couple times, and spit in my face three times.

I went home, and washed my face. I didn’t tell my mom. Was she there? She worked nights, and she would leave us. This was 1990, and kids went back and forth in the neighborhood. I thought about it a lot, and wrote Todd into my stories for more than a year, as the villain in my self written and drawn comic book, Animal Man (I wasn’t aware of the DC/Vertigo character or Grant Morrison series). He was Claude Ness, evil scientist who exposes our hero to the potion that gave him the power to transform into any animal.

I look back on this event now, and I’m horrified to think about something like that happening to one of my children. First, those kids were getting beaten up at home. Second, there were two households, mine and theirs, which didn’t have any parents around watching. Third, if one of them had gotten a weapon, or if their had been a sexual component . . . Even so, I had no vocabulary to describe trauma at the time, but today I would classify that as a traumatic event. I felt angry, embarrassed, ashamed, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.

That was around the same time my parents got divorced. Eric got suspended for throwing a desk at the teacher. Craig couldn’t stay in day care because he was biting the other kids, at five years of age.

I’m really good at getting off onto tangents, but this tangent’s related to the theme. After one of my Psychiatry lectures in medical school, I listened to the Land of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate. He’s a Vancouver psychiatrist who treats patients with substance abuse disorders. One of the themes was the role of abuse and dislocation in the creation of an addiction. (There’s another source for this, which I can’t remember). For abuse, he cites the dramatically increased incidence of childhood sex abuse in patients with substance abuse disorders. For abuse, he points to the example of the Native Americans, who were dislocated from their land, community support, means of production, and now have a disproportionately high rate of substance abuse.

Addicts have a drug of choice. For me, I liked a cocktail. I’d probably still smoke cigarettes if I hadn’t gotten off them when I was eighteen. Alcohol is part of our social life, like a ceremonial cup we all pass. We take a sip of wine, or beer, we smile and start talking to each other.

For people with opioid addictions, they love to get injected. They’ll request any medicine as an injectable. For people who snort, they love to snort anything they can, and they view injections as disgusting.

In Naked Lunch, in one of his more cringe inducing passages, Burroughs relates his hedge against withdrawal. He’ll let a drop or two of junk fall into his pocket with every hit. He carries a safety pin and a medicine dropper in his shoe. If he’s out, he can poke a hole in his skin, fit the end of the dropper over the wound, and feed in the heroin he’s reclaimed from his coat. Icky icky icky.

An attending of mine liked to relate a case study he’d published, where a heroin addicted patient described the hit as “like a mother’s love.” I think about that, and what we know about the mu receptors in the opioid agonist neuro-hormonal axis. Methadone is a full mu receptor agonist, and has a much higher abuse potential than suboxone, which is a partial mu agonist. There’s relief of physical pain, and there’s relief of pain caused by lack of a mother’s love.

Mate said that you abuse drugs in proportion to what your need is. Type 1 addicts self medicate, and if you give them a regular provision of what they need, they won’t need more, and they’ll refrain from engaging in self destructive behaviors. This is the principle behind methadone maintenance. Type 2 addicts are suffering from dislocation, and will abuse at higher and higher levels until they reach an endpoint, jail, death, or some breakthrough.

The breakthrough idea is fundamental to AA. Bill Wilson, the founder, got this from Jung. He went to visit C.G. Jung, who told him that the only way an addict could become whole was by having a transformative religious experience. This became one of the principles of the 12 step programs.

I’m going to wrap up here, though I have more to say, I’ll do it in future posts. To tie the first half in with the second, I was vulnerable to abuse and addiction because I wasn’t supervised as a child, and I was hurt and traumatized by other kids when I was left alone. I didn’t become an addict for a whole host of reasons, but my risk factors were definitely increased.

I write that last sentence with the caveat that I haven’t decided if my problems with drinking make me an alcohol addict. I have had problems due to drinking, and I have trouble regulating my drinking once I start. That said, I’ve stopped for the past four months. I have alcohol in my basement, but I’m not touching it.

One podcast about recovery formulates this ambiguity well: deciding whether or not you’re an alcoholic isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is recognizing that you’ve had problems because of drinking, and deciding to stop having those kind of problems.

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