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Underwhelmed

Hi, My Name Is Sandy, and . . .

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 4/18/2001

An old friend recently informed me that she'd quit drinking and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. She told me she was getting a lot of support from her sponsor--another woman in her 30s--and was planning to stick with the program despite her deep dislike of the "higher power" rhetoric and the somewhat male-dominated ambiance of the meetings. I was caught off-guard by her news; she and I haven't lived in the same city in more than 10 years, and although I know there's a history of alcoholism in her family, I had no idea she was having a problem herself.

It was fascinating to hear about her decision to go sober. She hadn't become a falling-down drunk or anything close to it. The only alcohol she drank was wine, and she never binged like certain of her siblings. She'd never done anything the least bit embarrassing in public, or even in front of her husband. But she'd noticed that, every night for the past year, she'd either drink several glasses of wine and go to bed a bit soused, or else deny herself the wine and then find herself fuming about her own decision. This weird, secret self-resentment would continue, lingering at the edge of her consciousness all night and the next day. Finally, 24 hours after abstaining for one night, she'd have to let herself indulge again. Her addiction, then, wasn't really about behavior as much as thought--certainly there are plenty of people who drink wine with dinner regularly but can skip a day here or there without obsessing or feeling angry and anxious.

I'm proud of my friend, and frankly impressed that she was able to recognize in herself such a subtle problem. I suppose it helps that she's a psychologist and a very self-aware person in general. But still, I know plenty of people with the same sort of analytical skills who are great at blinding themselves to their own darker motivations and pockets of irrationality. I suspect I'm one of them.

I was still a teenager when I first heard the notion that some people are predisposed to addiction and others are not. I always considered myself to be among the latter and felt vaguely superior because of it. Unlike some of my nicotine-slave buddies, I could smoke my Camel Lights, a pack a day for weeks on end, and then nonchalantly drop the habit for a month prior to some major singing performance. In college I drank gin and beer in Prohibition-era quantities, but except for one particularly dour Sunday morning when I woke up and really yearned for a cold bottle of Bud Light with my onion bagel, I never experienced anything approaching a genuine sense of dependency. Without feeling particularly deprived, I could live entirely booze-free for winter and summer breaks back at my parents' house. Like the typical corporate drone, I spent my early working years drinking tankards of Kenyan AA at my desk each morning, but when I noticed that it was screwing up my sleeping patterns I switched easily to decaf. I can have the real stuff several days or weeks in a row--say, if I'm on vacation in some decaf-free European country--and then return to my java-jolt-less lifestyle without getting a headache.

So I've been walking around for years believing myself blessed with an immunity to substance dependency. In light of my friend's recent revelation, however, I've had to do some rethinking.

What I'm about to say is going to sound flip, and I don't mean it to. By making the analogy I'm about to make, I don't want to trivialize the problem of alcohol abuse. But it has occurred to me that my friend's weird, resentful, guilt-filled relationship with wine is almost a perfect mirror of my own strange dance with a benign yet equally enthralling substance: chocolate.

It's a terrible cliché, I know: a giggly-girly "problem" that's hardly even dignified enough to be featured on Oprah. And yet I can't not take it seriously, because I realize now that it explodes my whole "addiction-proof" self-image.

I suppose I'm supremely lucky that I've latched onto a substance that really doesn't do much harm, beyond helping keep me about seven pounds heavier than I'd like to be. But hardly a day goes by during which I don't eat chocolate. If I do miss a day by choice or by circumstance, I'm always uneasily aware of it and anxious to know when the next piece of chocolate-covered, -flavored, or -filled something-or-other will come my way. If I'm upset, it's the first thing I think about eating; likewise if I'm joyous, angry, triumphant, confused, horny, or fearful. When I wake up in the morning, I think about the chocolate-mint-flavored protein bar that I'll eat for breakfast. When on the way to a wedding, I find myself fervently hoping the couple is considerate enough to order a chocolate-raspberry cake underneath the bland white icing. On the way to my neighborhood video store, I think about the canister of Tootsie Rolls they keep at the counter. It is simply always on my mind.

More to the point, the mere thought of quitting chocolate fills me with an acute fear--fear of being cut off from something that my life's happiness, in all seriousness, requires. What more proof do I need that this is, for all its giggly-girliness and triviality, an addiction akin to any other?

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