Dry January may have revealed you have a bigger problem with alcohol than you realize

Staying sober is hard in a society where alcohol is everywhere – especially if you have an addiction

Dry January is over, so maybe you’re having a beer as you read this, or perhaps you’ve realized you have a bigger problem with alcohol than you’d like to admit. I gave up drinking for over 100 days last year and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I did it because I had too many nights of blacking out where I pissed friends off and didn’t remember how I got home. My drinking even caused my last roommate to ask me to move out.

I abstained from alcohol again this January for a couple of weeks before I went to Jamaica, where I controlled my drinking by having only a few light beers a day and the occasional margarita or rum punch. I swore off alcohol again after I had a disastrous New Year’s Eve where my aggressive drunken behaviour led to my boyfriend and me having to leave early.

Up until that point, I was successful at moderating my drinking. I had a little help from a drug called Naltrexone, which blocks opioid receptors that get pleasure from the effects of opiates such as heroin, cocaine and alcohol.

Staying sober is hard in a society where alcohol is everywhere, from weddings and funerals to celebrating a job well done or just because it’s Thursday and the office is going out for drinks. That one slip goes to show how battling addiction, whether it’s alcohol or drugs, is a challenge I face one day at a time.

Addiction is a lifetime, not a stint in rehab

As someone who has been sober for 10 years, Glen Adams, a manager at Renascent rehab centre in Toronto, understands the battle against addiction.

“The biggest misconception is that people don’t realize that addiction is a disease,” he says.

As with any disease, there’s a defect with a particular organ. Adams explains that neuroscientific research on the brain over the past decades shows that in addicts, the defect is in the reward and motivational pathway. An addict’s brain is rewarded when they use drugs or alcohol, and thus they crave more of the substance they’re using.

The symptoms of addiction often manifest behaviourally, said Adams, which makes it difficult for people around the addict to empathize because negative behaviour is often directed at them when the addict is using.

For Michael Martis, aka “Turbo” to his cycling group, going to rehab for his cocaine addiction and coming back to the real world was like going to university for a psychology degree and ending back up at the coffee shop where he was working before he went to school. He understands his addiction and knows strategies on how to cope, but he can’t apply it to his current situation and continues to use.

Last year, Martis spent 114 days in rehab at a government-funded facility in Vaughan called Vitanova.

“I learned all these things but I’m back at the same place,” he says. “How do I apply this to a new way of life? How does this benefit you if you’re in the same place?”

For those who suffer from addiction, the reality is that it’s not as simple as going to rehab for a short period of time. Addiction a lifelong battle, like any other disease. Until society understands that it can’t be fixed with one stint in rehab, people will never see why an addict can’t just have one drink or one bump of blow.

Additionally, Martis, who lives with his alcoholic mother, says his coke habit has caused relationships with friends and family to deteriorate. His addiction has also impacted his job in construction.

“Good thing I’ve got a good work ethic – I’ve never been fired because of that,” he says. “I’ve been late for work too many times because I couldn’t get up, but I’d make up some bullshit excuse.”

These days, Martis says he unwinds on Fridays by having a half gram of coke – the way others would down a six pack of beer – and is in bed by 10 pm. It’s not exactly the party animal lifestyle, but more of a way of life.

Why addicts can’t stop at one

A global study published in the Lancet in 2018 said that no amount of alcohol is safe to drink despite Canadian guidelines recommending nine drinks a week for women and 14 for men. Obviously no amount of cocaine is safe and unlike alcohol, which is sold in government-run stores, you never know what you’re getting with unregulated substances.

The thing that scares most addicts is the idea of never drinking or using drugs again. But if you want to live a normal life, that’s the only way. Eventually I know I will have to face this fact, but I’m not ready yet. If you completed Dry January and found yourself craving alcohol during that time, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your relationship with the bottle before you get too far down the path of addiction.

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