Day 22: The Allergy

I’m not allergic to much. But what I am allergic to can kill me.

And I’m not talking about my Paba allergy that I discovered one summer when I broke out in hives on a routine trip to the beach. I’m also not describing a peanut allergy. I wouldn’t know how to use an Epipen if my life depended on it. I’m allergic to alcohol, and as this post discovers, much more. The allergy, as alcoholism is often understood, was made famous by Dr. Silkworth’s influential relationship with Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It’s an allergy of the body, loosely defined as, “once I start, I can’t stop.” It provides an easy out for the sober alcoholic at parties:

“Want a drink?”

“No, thanks. I’m allergic.”

“To beer?”

“Yeah, I break out in handcuffs.”

Real hardy har har, laugh-to-keep-from-crying-cuz-it’s-true stuff. The break-out-in-handcuffs bit is almost part of the Creative Commons of recovery at this point, along with “One Day at a Time” and “Let go, Let God” and “Don’t Quit Before the Miracle Happens” and the rest. (The Slogan Series describes some from experience.)

The Allergy has been on my mind lately because my dog’s allergies have been killing her.

Poor Riley. If I had known what I know now when I got her, I would have named her Murphy because everything that could have gone wrong with her has. She’s a mess.

The problem for her is, even with some allergy medication, she still scratches. She scratches long after the itch goes away. It appears, oh if that dog could speak, that she scratches simply because she’s developed the habit of scratching. She doesn’t stop when she starts. She’d sooner draw blood from her ear than stop scratching.

We all have an itch to scratch. Some of us just can’t stop scratching once we start, or so my dog taught me last month.

We all can relate to that mosquito bite. The small one that will heal in a day if we let it. But we don’t let it, do we? We give it the four-finger nail-file treatment. We scratch the bite like it’s a winning lottery scratch off. While it’s not what will take the itch away, we scratch in spite of sound advice. We scratch beyond all reason.

It feels good—for the moment. And that’s enough.

The momentary, sometimes, is enough to kick us into an ill-advised, short-term course of self-destructive action. But, it’s just a mosquito bite, after all.

Itches need scratching. And some scratch harder and for a longer duration than others. I always did when it came to drugs and alcohol. I know what a perpetual itch felt like. I feel the compulsion to scratch long after the itch subsides. The itch goes away, the desire to scratch does not.

The first time I smoked pot was out of a bat, a one-hitter.

Just a couple hits that didn’t hit me for a while. I walked with my friend into town to grab a slice of pizza. That’s when it happened. The molten cheese, the rivers of marinara, the pastry crust. It was just a slice of nasty pizza from our crap pizza joint—why did it taste like an artisan slice from New York’s Little Italy? And the fountain coke? The fountain of youth more like it. The bubbles danced their way down my throat.

The first use of pot created an itch I had to scratch going forward. (Here are all “First” posts) And when marijuana stopped working for me, when it stopped creating that masterful explosion of the senses and started making me anxious and paranoid—I still felt the itch. I couldn’t turn it off. Eventually, like our dog, I was scratching in spite of blood and pain. I just scratched because the habit felt good and right.

Some people get that way over drinking and drugging. Alcohol is the friend who can find that sweet spot on our itchy back. It is the missing piece of our baffling life’s puzzle. It is the one thing we can rely on when we can no longer rely on ourselves. But why?

Getting sober has helped me understand my allergy from a different angle. People have shown me that scratching the itch won’t take the itch away. I’ve got to stop scratching altogether. And once I do—like the newcomer who eats chocolate at every meal—new itches surface. It seems my allergy to alcohol never was about the alcohol at all. I am allergic to anything that gives me control over how I feel.

I’ve been writing lately a lot about how uncomfortable I felt in life before I started drinking. I believe it’s the urge to fix how I feel that has always triggered my allergic reaction to drugs and alcohol.

Somewhere in the recovery process, I learned about satisfaction. Feeling good and feeling satisfied are emotions on two different planets. Like, I feel really good eating McDonalds in the moment, but I’d be more satisfied that night if I had eaten raw vegetables for lunch. Satisfaction, I’ve found, comes from a hard day’s work. Satisfaction is the lasting self-esteem we feel from service work. It restores self-trust.

I’m going to get hooked on something. I’m constantly tinkering with how I feel like a mad scientist who can’t quite reanimate a corpse. So, I do my best to focus on what brings me long-term satisfaction. Teaching is a prime example. I don’t have a rush of dopamine when I see my paycheck every two weeks. In fact, it’s best if I don’t focus on my finances for too long. But, at the end of each day teaching, I am exhausted. I am satisfied because I did everything I could to convince those agnostic teenage minds that there is more to life than they originally thought.

Part of the process is understanding that, while the long-term satisfaction thing sounds good, the urge to scratch, the short-term good stuff, never goes away. It surfaces daily, even without the drink and the drug. For me, it’s a three-headed dog: anger, lust, pity.

That dog has six ears, and each one is always itchy.

Post Submitted By: Mark Goodson, writer of “The Miracle of the Mundane“ blog.

4 thoughts on “Day 22: The Allergy

  1. Mujer Viejita

    Good versus satisfying – what a revelation! Thank you, Mark Goodson for laying that out so clearly, and thank you Kary May and Horse Lover giving such great examples. I have felt this feeling, but I never put it into words or thought it through beyond recognizing that there was a difference in my feelings. That is to say, at the end of a satisfying day sober, I felt, well, satisfied, but I didn’t name it, and while I noticed it was a different feeling from the “good” from drinking, and I didn’t dive deeply into the matter. Thank you all for making it clear to me.

  2. Raul

    I hear you about always wanting more. Weird how a switch flipped since day one of Dryuary. I don’t even think about it anymore.

  3. Kary May Hickey Post author

    “Feeling good and feeling satisfied are emotions on two different planets.” So true. I never really thought about it, but I never reached a point of satisfaction with drinking. Oh, sometimes I managed to say, “No more for me.” but that didn’t mean I didn’t want more. I always wanted more.
    These days, I like the tired-in-my-bones feeling after working in the yard or even that mental exhaustion of doing something over and over until I get it right. I like that I keep working at it until I’m satisfied instead of letting it be “good enough.” That sense of pride I never found when drinking because even if it was my best, I always had to ask myself, “Could I have done better if I hadn’t been drinking or hungover?”

    1. Horse Lover

      I completely agree, Kary. The satisfaction of a day spent w/o the after effects of alcohol is filling in a way that alcohol can never be. Even an evening in front of the fire reading a good book is satisfying. Going to bed knowing I will get a good night of sleep is satisfying. Relearning the satisfaction and fulfillment of all the day-to-day little life moments has been life affirming.

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