Emotional acceptance is what my dead addict friends never found. Nearly every one of them, except a few very young addicts, accepted their disease intellectually. They weren’t stupid. They understood they had no control over themselves once they drank or used. Most went to multiple rehabs, took AA seriously and tried as hard as they could. But something was missing. One rehab mate lamented that for all of her many stints at treatment centers across the country, she couldn’t “get” whatever “it” was to stay sober. “It,” I’ve come to believe is emotional acceptance.
What is emotional acceptance?
It means acknowledging in the deepest recesses of your being that drinking or using is not an option, no matter what happens. As the moderator at my rehab’s Alumni meetings used to put it, it means “not taking a drink or a drug even if your ass falls off.”
It means feeling drugs aren’t an option, not just thinking it, internalizing the shift from believing alcohol and drugs are the solution to believing they’re the ultimate threat. It entails changing one’s instinct for drink: from fear of sobriety to fear of drinking or using. And it means accessing these distinctions when cravings hit, when emotional pain seems overwhelming, when your mind drifts toward fatal words for addicts: “Fuck it.” It means grasping that no matter how intense the pain and how much worse it may get, you can find your way through without giving in to the self-destructive allure of drugs. It means coming to believe the AA slogan, “There’s no problem that can’t be made worse by picking up a drink.”
I didn’t really begin to understand emotional acceptance until I took Antabuse, a drug that would make me violently ill — emergency-room ill — even if I took a single sip of alcohol. And quickly. The threat was so dire and so immediate, my emotional brain finally agreed with my rational one that drinking was the definition of insanity.
Before I took Antabuse, I accepted intellectually that if I took the first drink I was finished. But I hedged my bets. In the back of my mind, giving in to booze if things got too intolerable remained an option and I’d fret the consequences later. I didn’t know how dangerous this attitude was for it carved out an exception to the no-drinking-no-matter-what prime directive. However, when I started to take Antabuse, drinking was finally foreclosed in my mind. Living under Antabuse’s immediate threat short-circuited the part of my addict brain that wouldn’t let go of drinking as an option.
The most important and lasting lesson I learned taking Antabuse was that I could get through emotional shit — the terrible lows and scary highs of everyday struggles — without drinking. At first, this was astonishing, a way to see strength I didn’t know I had. When you do this the first time it seems like a miracle. But it’s really a skill. The more you face cravings and don’t act on them, the more you believe you can. That, in turn, dulls some of the panic that’s so deadly. Over time, you learn that you can withstand cravings and the emotional stresses that trigger them. You learn to accept that no matter how bad things seem that the panic, no matter how overwhelming, won’t kill you and if you wait it out it’ll eventually pass.
AA counsels that you can rely on a Higher Power to help you through any emotional challenge. They say prayer and meditation can put you in conscious contact with that power and you can access an inner strength you didn’t know you had to beat back any threat to your sobriety. But I hadn’t found a Higher Power or the strength that emanates from one. So I took Antabuse because I didn’t think I had the option of relying on a Higher Power. Antabuse compensated for a spiritual awakening I hadn’t had. It gave me the time and experience to develop true emotional acceptance of my addiction. And it repeatedly saved my ass.
In the end, gaining emotional acceptance expressed itself in a dream.
It was the latest in a series of Antabuse dreams. The subject was always the same: how to get around Antabuse. In contrast to the real world, my dreaming self was strangely secure you could get away with drinking on Antabuse as long as you didn’t pass a certain threshold. The problem was determining how much was too much. In my dreams I set out to find out. When the dreams started, I barely allowed the booze to touch my lips. I didn’t get sick. Then the dreams mutated and I tried a bit more. Again, nothing terrible happened. Next, I took a sip, the size a refined lady would have from a small sherry she sampled to be sociable. Still, no ambulances. I worked myself up to a whole drink — in the fantasy of dreams I poured normal-size drinks, not the solid triples of reality.
These dreams went on for months. The places, people, and circumstances varied from night to night, but I always snuck a drink, looking for how much was too much. They were so realistic, I sometimes woke up momentarily wondering whether I’d relapsed.
Then I had a dream unlike the previous ones. I was alone, with one drink in me, about to test whether more might be OK, when it dawned on me Antabuse was a crock — all placebo and no punch. It didn’t matter I’d taken it every morning for months. It was a giant con and I’d fallen for it. They said, “Here, take this magic pill and you won’t drink anymore,” and like an idiot I believed them. What a credulous fucking cretin I’d been!
“There’s nothing in the world to stop me,” I thought, elated. I could drink, therefore I would. Then, in a split-second, a shift occurred. Nothing in the world to stop became nothing in the world could stop me. Then, I couldn’t stop.
This terrified me. My dreaming self blurted out, “How the fuck am I going to stop?” Having to ask was answer enough. I woke up in a panic. If I started, I couldn’t stop. This seemed a subconscious turning point, an internalization that alcohol could never be associated with relief again, that it was the ultimate danger, deadly poison for someone like me.
In numerous subsequent dreams I realized I was screwed if I drank, not from Antabuse but alcoholism. I’d become a believer, even in dreams. That’s what emotional acceptance looked like in my case.